Barbara Jean’s album The Great Escape, produced by Bernie Larsen for Spinout Productions, does not have a great deal going for it. The project is a weak outing with largely uneventful songwriting and consistently shallow vocals.
None of which stopped it from getting ringing endorsements from National Public Radio’s program Mountain Stage and David Huckfelt from The Pines. To hear her publicity material tell it, Barbara Jean is the best thing to happen to bluegrass music since baked bread. “As stunning a recording debut as any Americana release in recent memory, The Great Escape is the fully-realized first album by captivating Grand Marais, Minnesota multi-instrumentalist Barbara Jean.” Hogwash. Anyone who finds this stunning is far too easily impressed. They likely, for instance, think walking and chewing gum at the same time is a remarkable accomplishment.
The lineup of musicians does fit the bill. The artist herself is on vocals, banjo, viola, and violin. Larsen, who has produced El Rayo X, former Jackson Browne sidekick David Lindley, and Lucinda Williams, plays drums, guitar, keys, percussion, bass, and, for good measure, pitches in on backing vocals. Andy Dee is on pedal steel guitar, ukulele and dobro. Also on guitar are Boyd Blomberg and, not much of a surprise, Huckfelt—who along with his partner Benson Ramsey, could stand to learn a thing or two about song structure.
Anyway, acoustic accompaniment puts the right notes and appropriate ambiance in the right places—but Barbara Jean has no heart, much less any soul. Those are essential qualities for a genre stark as bluegrass. The Great Escape leads off with “The River,” a lackadaisical waste of time that cosmetically echoes root country music without coming anywhere near traditional substance. Instead of feeling, the singer substitutes a let’s-all-get-around-the-campfire vocal thin as tissue paper.
“Joy” takes a half-hearted stab at consequence, a couple e-minor chords as backdrop and someone doing a decent solo on electric guitar. The overall arrangement works, but Barbara Jean is, at best, a lightweight, counting on the music to carry her voice through. The closest she comes to legitimacy is on “Flesh and Bones,” which does a good job of couching her. Larsen does here pretty much what Lindsey Buckingham did for Stevie Nicks in Fleetwood Mac’s heyday: show her in the best possible light. When you have a lemon, you make, as it’s said, lemonade. Accordingly, this cut takes her weightlessness and makes of it a tune that caters, setting the voice off in a tailored setting.
Skip Barbara Jean’s The Great Escape and go on to something else.