The Way I Should
Warner Brothers 9 46188-2
review by Art Menius
Iris Dement, the singer-songwriter phenomenon of a couple years back, has smashed one out of the ballpark on her third time at bat. The Way I Should builds upon the strengths of her first two releases, while adding tremendous diversity of themes and musical styles. Working for the first time with Randy Scruggs rather than Jim Rooney as producer, Dement receives her fullest, most electric backing to date. She handles country, folk, blues, and even rock stylings with aplomb backed by a fabulous set of musicians. While mining childhood, and not necessarily her own, for powerful lyrics, she branches out into politics and even some genuinely fun stuff, along with her mature, detail rich love songs.
On songs composed over two and a half years, honesty becomes the hallmark of Dement’s writing. The verisimilitude makes songs about other’s lives and feelings seem even more gripping as those about her own, Those folks’ truths come through as if unfiltered. Only the liner notes and what we think we know about her reveal their outside sources. Take the most compelling and troubling selection on The Way I Should, “Letter to Mom.” The missive reveals to Mom that one of mother’ boyfriends had raped the daughter-narrator.
All my life I’ve felt ashamed
I thought I was the one to blame
And vowed to God that no one else would ever know
How he crushed my childish pride
And left me tears that never dried
And I’ve been walking round with secrets now, too long.
Yet Dement can close the album with “Trouble,” a rollicking blues duet with Delbert McClinton, the progressive country pioneer turned beach music icon. Players like guitarist Lonnie Mack, pianist Check Leavell, once of Sea Level, Mary Chapin Carperter associate John Jennings serve up a suitably boozy backing. Dement could always turn out love songs. One of the happiest and simplest here is a writing collaboration with Merle Haggard, “This Kind of Happy.”
It took such a long time
That I thought I’d never find
This kind of happy with you
And now Dement also takes a political stance. “There’s A Wall In Washington” observes the Vietnam memorial from the perspective of father, mother, and son. “Wasteland of the Free” offers her zinging and convincing critique of 1990’s American society.
We’ve got high school kids runnin’ ‘round in Calvin Klein and Guess
Who cannot pass a 6th grade reading test
But if you ask them, they can tell you
The name of every crotch on MTV
And it feels like I’m living in the wasteland of the free
Dement did not provide songs like that on Infamous Angel or My Life, the two delightful, highly personal CD’s that Rooney produced with mostly acoustic instrumentation. Dement visits alcoholism (“I’ll Take My Sorrow Straight”), the toxic tapes inside one’s mind on the title track, modern parenting (“Quality Time”), and more familiar themes of faith (“Keep Me God”) and father (Walkin’ Home).
The Way I Should marks more an evolution of Dement’s sound and songs than a revolutionary break. One can easily recognize her precise writing and the rural soul of her voice. Through three albums, Dement has established an exceptionally high personal standard as both composer and performer.