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Carlene Carter

Stronger – 2008 (Yep Roc)

Reviewed by Brian Baker

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CDs by Carlene Carter

When Carlene Carter recorded "Musical Shapes" in 1980, country music was woven into her DNA and pop/rock burned in her untamed heart. The daughter of June Carter and Carl Smith, Carter exuded the traditional conviction that was the hallmark of her lineage and the contemporary verve that was exemplified by her marriage to new wave icon Nick Lowe. Ten years later, Carter's brand of rock-scorched country was topping the charts, but in 1980, "Musical Shapes" barely made a dent. Although she eventually found a measure of success in the '90s, Carter's career stalled, and she fell victim to and then overcame the standard issue excesses.

In 2003, Carter's psyche and sobriety were dealt a quadruple blow with the deaths of her longtime boyfriend Howie Epstein, her mother, stepfather Johnny Cash and her little sister Rosey. Three years later, newly married to actor Joseph Breen, Carter began writing songs that had alternately been forged in the crucible of grief and inspired by the exquisite joy of love, and it's those new songs that make up dCarter's first new album in 13 years and quite possibly the best of her career.

Carter's melodies are both classically country ("To Change Your Heart") and bracingly poppy ("Why Be Blue"), and her songs bristle with the same boundless intensity that informed "Musical Shapes" an incredible 28 years ago; she reprises that album's footstomping "I'm So Cool." Even in the midst of an album that is clearly informed by loss and sorrow, Carter finds the silver lining of redemption and soars into the spiritual stratosphere with the patently gorgeous pop of "Bring Love" and the lilting country waltz of "It Takes One to Know Me."

Carter invests the music with the same impeccable country heartbeat and firebrand pop impulses that defined her earliest work while stirring in heartbreaking colors that can only come from maturity and reflection. While definitely among Carter's best work, it may well stand as one of the best albums of this year.