Sunday, November 27, 2005

TV Review: Kenny & Faith let their hair down

Barbara Mandrell once sang, "I was country, when country wasn't cool." ABC and NBC thought something was "cool." Both aired specials by country or "country" superstars Wednesday night and both specials suprised us, but for different reasons.

Take Faith Hill, the star of NBC's Fireflies. We've seen more than enough of "Cover Girl" Faith (and "Cover Girl" Queen). We've never been too impressed with her soundtrack work which is always overproduced. Fireflies will be the embarrassment, we told ourselves. We assumed that Kenny Chesney's Somewhere in the Sun would be the high point.

Well we can be wrong. And boy, were we.

Somewhere in the Sun no doubt pleased arm pit fetishists throughout the land. If Chesney flashing his pits does it for you, ABC provided you with enough multiple orgasms to last a lifetime.

Other than on the arm of Renee Zellweger, this was our first time seeing Chesney. And we quickly realized that something more was going on than Chesney's desire to demonstrate, repeatedly, that, yes, he had hit puberty and sprouted body hair.

What if, we wondered, Liza Minnelli woke up one morning with two left feet? She would still have the song in her. She would still need to express herself through movement.

If that day should ever come, Minnelli will owe a huge debt to Kenny Chesney who is bravely pioneering The Dance of the Arms while others without dancing feet simply accept their lot in life. "Jazz hands"? That's so last millennium. This is arm choreography at it's most energetic. Chezney with a Z!

Little Miss Show Biz strode around the stage. Sometimes he did the wave all by himself. Sometimes he pointed at the audience in a sudden burst of arm movement! Sometimes he did an extended pointing session, sweeping the arm back and forth. Sometimes he threw both arms suddenly into the air in an All . . . That . . . Jazz kind of maneuver. The arms need to be bare. They are his legs.

Kenny sleeveless is like a dancer in short-shorts.

Watching him blowing kisses and move around gesturing wildly, our question wasn't, "Why did Renee leave him?"; our question was, "Did she ever see him onstage before she married him?"

She must have felt like Marjorie Main standing next to Judy about to wow 'em with "Get Happy." Chezney's very dramatic. Some might say overly dramatic. We'll just say we've never seen anything in country music quite like it. (Rip Taylor's never done a country album, right?)

When we got over our shock that so much could be done with arms, all of it embarrassing, and over our giggles at his pop eyes, dramatic head turns and those facial expressions made for Match Game PM, we were left with . . . the music.

Kenny smiles a lot in the sad songs. He winks a lot while singing the lines, he blows kisses. We're not really sure if it's that he doesn't understand the lyrics he's singing or if he's just so bound and determined to sparkle.

Apparently, honky tonk angels not withstanding, it's hard to sparkle doing country music. So Chezney does a version of rock-lite that we're all supposed to assume is country just because he wears a cowboy hat and sings with an exaggerated, contrived twang. The lyrics aren't the usual country shout outs and topics. But Chezney is an unusual boy.

He proves it when performing John Mellencamp's "Hurt So Good" (someone thought it was a country song?) with Gretchen Wilson. It was pure Judy meets Tony Bennett (though Tony's more attractive than Wilson and doesn't have her puffy face). What did he do physically during this song? A more extreme version of "Got your nose!" (All his movements are extreme.) Repeatedly, he good naturedly elbowed her and slapped her some skin. He just never related to her as a woman despite singing "Come on baby make it hurt so good" over and over. Even when he was supposedly sliding down her body, his eyes were elsewhere and he quickly moved away. It was a very curious exchange.

Intercut with his non-country songs (here's another hint for those who can't grasp it -- electric guitar solos by someone in the band usually mean you're at a rock concert), we got to see how the "good old boy" lives.

On his "boat" in the tropics. Look out Nashville! St. John is breathing down your red-neck!

We couldn't believe that this has been swallowed as country music. It's Sugar Ray with a twang, kids. It's not country. (Compare the musical motifs in his "When the Sun Goes Down" and Sugar Ray's "Every Morning" if we're breaking news to you.)

And he's not following in the foot steps of Willie & the boys. If Johnny Cash was The Man In Black, Chezney is The Lad In Technicolor! by Deluxe! He's no singer, he's no songwriter. No, he's a self-proclaimed "entertainer." And he feels it's very important to share that he could burn out and "wouldn't be the entertainer I am" without his down time in the islands. Well, it's certainly healthier than Garland's pill habit.

But honestly, if, as the special ended, an announcer had stated, "Kenny Chesney's Somewhere in the Sun brought to you by the new designer jeans, Sugar Britches!" we wouldn't have batted an eye.

Since, super nova that he is, he worries about burning out, we hope he immediately set sail for the islands after taping the special because just watching tired us out.

Were we really up to Faith Hill?

We weren't sure. It took just a few minutes of Fireflies to restore our sense of balance. This was a stripped down Faith Hill. No frills, no glitz, just Faith honoring songs and songwriters. Now those still "jazzed" over Chezney's tour of the tropics might have been let down but it was exactly the down home feeling that gave the special its heart.

Sometimes Hill was on stage performing with songwriters and sometimes she sat around with the songwriters while they'd play the songs in their most natural form. Hill's singing is too good be trapped under the overkill production so many soundtracks have weighed her down with.

Her theme was not "Celebrate ME!"; it was celebrate the songs. It felt like a special. Not a glitzy Vegas Revue by way of a side street, after hours, supper club. It felt like something you'd see Johnny Cash doing, gathering some songwriters around him and just finding the joy in a well written song. (In fact Cash did do that. With Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and others.)

There's no denying that Hill's voice sounds gorgeous. We've just never found it all that moving in the crossover hits that ping back and forth between country and adult contemporary radio stations. On her special, she found her way into every song, adding warmth and personality. We weren't too crazy about her take on the blues classic "(Take Another Little) Piece of My Heart." But we understood what she was getting at. We wouldn't have emphasized "that" in lines to that song. But it worked. And that was the only performance we felt mildly about.

While Kenny Chesney took it for granted that you were watching to adore him, Faith Hill was honoring the song. Her special was down to earth and far more fitting with the holiday week. She gave thanks to the gift of great songs. Chezney waited for thanks for the amazing gift he was so damn sure he was giving you.

We guessed wrong ahead of time, but one artist really provided viewers with something special, while one "entertainer" brought to mind every musical performance that killed the variety series. Both will be released on DVD. If you're planning a camp theme party, rent Somewhere in the Sun (is that "somewhere" over the rainbow?); if you're wanting to watch a truly special music special, rent Fireflies.


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