At just 23, Nashville’s Caitlin Rose made a huge impact with Own Side Now, with her emotional heart-on-sleeve lyrics, beguiling vocal and subtle variety – from paired down folk (Sinful Wishing Well) to something punkier (Shanghai Cigarettes) – confirming her as a major upcoming talent. Critics universally praised her debut album by placing it highly in various end of year lists.
Now, almost three years on, Rose returns with The Stand-In, an album she describes as her “first attempt at a high kick”. What she means by that is anyone’s guess: More self-confident? A more expansive sound? More emotional, perhaps? Or an attempt to break into the mainstream? In some ways, The Stand-In is a combination of all these.
Compared to Own Side Now’s gentle opener Learnin’ To Ride, The Stand-In’s No One to Call is strikingly different: a brash electric guitar intro, which carries throughout, coupled with undercurrents of piano, organ, horns and slide guitar. In essence, a much more collaborative effort, with Jeremy Fetzer’s intricate work on electric guitar particularly standing out, helping turn No One To Call into a rewarding balance between indie and Nashville rock.
Yet what is more noticeable is Rose’s vocal, which is now far more mature and self-assured, perhaps thanks to the backing her band provides: less focus on her, more on the band, in turn allowing her to be more confident. Either way, an emphatic opening.
Proceeding track I Was Cruel, originally by fellow Nashville rockers The Deep Vibration, is just as high-kicking, with Rose’s band shining through – Spencer Cullum’s slide guitar is particularly irresistible and has a dominant, driving presence throughout. Rose’s vocal, compared to the original, also brings added heartache to a song about relationships bringing out the worst in people.
This expansiveness in sound and personnel also comes through in Only a Clown and Silver Sings, written with Gary Louris of alt-country band The Jayhawks, with both easily capable of commercial success; Only a Clown is suited to warmer, sunnier days thanks to its shimmering organ and guitar-driven hooks, while Silver Sings’ alluring and seductive mid-tempo melodies and later Rilo Kiley sound makes it a likely crossover hit: there’s nothing particularly country-like about this track, instead ebbing more towards full-blown indie.
Indeed, amidst all these more self-confident songs, there was a danger that Rose could make an album too ‘high-kicking’, forgetting what originally captured everyone about her. Fortunately, tracks like Pink Champagne and Dallas are more akin to Rose’s debut, reminding you of what made her so initially successful.
Inspired by Joan Didion’s essay Marrying Absurd (PDF), Pink Champagne is more minimal yet languid and seductive, with beautiful violin strings and Rose’s voice achieving a sultry air as she attains a male persona and crowns a successful relationship (“Here’s to you, here’s to me, and may we always feel the same. Let’s drink ourselves another glass of pink champagne”), whereas Dallas – originally by New York’s The Felice Brothers – strikes the opposite tone, this time of loneliness and disappointment (“Just a late night host leaving Dallas… and I’ve never in my life felt so alone”).
Yet album closer Old Numbers fully signifies how far Rose has come since her debut: with its drum-roll intro and cabaret-style swagger thanks to its cornet trumpet and talk of old boyfriends’ numbers in her little black book, it’s full of verve and playfulness. In many ways, it’s just as emphatic and confident as the opener.
Those who were endeared by Rose’s debut may be surprised, hopefully pleasantly, by the change in tone and attitude shown on The Stand-In. Nevertheless, it is a delightful record – one that could well see her high-kicking herself into major success. It would be well deserved.