It wasn’t just the belly button and the rocker husband that ruffled feathers when Shania Twain invaded country radio in 1995. In a genre notoriously conservative about gender roles, her brassy, ballsy brand of feminism was the real shocker. Country’s history includes plenty of independent women, but when Twain boldly directed her stay-at-home hubby to “Get off the phone / Give the dog a bone,” country found a new blueprint for female assertiveness that a bevy of singers have followed since.
Take newcomer Danielle Peck’s self-titled debut. There are moments you might swear you’re listening to Twain, albeit with live beats rather than Twain’s trademark drum machine. The recordboasts not only a similar glossy-pop sound, but also the same confident sass and take-no-crap attitude. And like Twain, Peck’s purred vocals are often backed by a chorus of comrades, which adds to the girl-power vibe, especially on the lead-off track and current single, “Findin’ a Good Man.” It’s a raucous sing-along that nails the frustrations of dating life: “Here’s to the superficial players / The ‘I love you’-too-soon-sayers / If you hear me girls, raise your hand,” Peck toasts.
On that tune and others, Peck, who co-wrote eight of 11 tracks, establishes her persona as a brash modern woman, assertive almost to the point of aggression. “Kiss You on the Mouth” is a saucy seduction that places the female narrator firmly in the role of sexual aggressor, something you don’t see much ’round these parts. In it, she dispenses with the typical trappings of romance in favor of a little more action: “I don’t wanna go out on the town…. / I don’t wanna ask where this is going / I just wanna kiss you on the mouth.” Her kiss-off to a lover is equally nervy on a later track, whose title and hook proclaim, “Sucks to Be You.”
But you’d hardly find such rough language slipping from the lips of the women who inhabit Julie Roberts’ latest album, Men and Mascara, though they have their share of troublesome exes to contend with. Instead, they—and Roberts by extension—embody the concept of steel magnolias, handling their hardships with grace and determination, but without loud, proud proclamations.
There may not be a lot of snark in Roberts’ world, but there are plenty of hook-ups. “That oscillating fan is moving left and right / Like it’s mockin’ me for coming here last night,” Roberts sings on “Chasin’ Whiskey,” which describes the same ex-sex arrangement that Lee Ann Womack detailed in “I May Hate Myself in the Morning.” So familiar is this scenario to Roberts’ narrator that she even knows to avoid a squeaky spot on the floor that might wake her lover as she’s sneaking out. On the title track, it’s the man who slips out unnoticed after a passionate night, leaving the woman to wonder, “Did I give my love too soon?” But ultimately, she concludes no, it’s just that “men and mascara always run.”
“Men and Mascara” offers a deeply cynical vision of male-female relationships, one you might expect from women beaten down by life and by men, and one that permeates the album, which is appropriately saturated with weeping guitars and fiddle. On “Too Damn Young,” Roberts bitterly addresses the youthful naïveté that led to more hard-won conclusions: “He kissed me like he meant forever / We were too damn young to know any better,” the speaker recalls.
Women in the Twain tradition tend to sing about being scorned with a smile still firmly in place—a means to convey the message that they’re invincible. But Men and Mascara follows an older model that’s more in line with hard-knock belles like Dolly, Loretta and Tammy. Their kind of feminism was more of the show-don’t-tell variety, expressed through their actions and reactions to relationships instead of much-repeated mantras like “That Don’t Impress Me Much.”
Roberts sometimes seems too attached to this old-guard ideology—Men and Mascara has so few lighthearted moments that by the end it’s a bit wearying, like hanging out with a brokenhearted friend who won’t ditch the tearjerker movies and get out of her PJs after months of moping. Roberts occasionally shows some pluck, as on “First to Never Know,” which she co-wrote, and “Girl Next Door,” a cover of a sweet hit by pop band Saving Jane. But even these tunes are barely mid-tempo, and although the spirit is there, as a whole the album still feels mired in melancholy.
Peck’s album occasionally suffers from repetition, too. Not only is the cheeky language in songs like “Sucks to Be You” sometimes off-putting, but one kick-butt confection after another makes the album feel lightweight at times. Oddly enough, “I Don’t,” the single that introduced her to country radio, is the album’s most dramatic moment, an anthem of independence that hints darkly at domestic violence. It’s a strong number that effectively displays both Peck’s impressive vocal power and depth as a songwriter, but it essentially stands alone.
It’s a testament to Roberts and Peck that they carry the torch of their respective traditions with such discipline. But while Peck’s cheerleader choruses make for a fun 40 minutes, adding a dash of the achy story-songs that dominate Roberts’ album could have anchored the breezy effervescence. Roberts’ Men and Mascara, on the other hand, could have been invigorated by a dose of the spunkiness Peck has in spades. If the twain met, who knows what could happen?