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Cam's Songwriting Abilities Shine With 3rd Album, 'The Otherside'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of Cam's new album called "The Otherside." It's quickly become one of the biggest country hits of the year. It's her first album in five years. Cam - her full name is Camaron Ochs - is a California-born singer who found her first success writing songs for other people, including Miley Cyrus and Sam Smith. She said that her influences include Ray Charles, Bonnie Raitt and Randy Newman, an eclectic list that Ken says is indicative of her songwriting range. Here's Ken's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLASSIC")

CAM: (Singing) Picking up some Lucky Strikes. Leaning on the wall outside. They don't make them like that anymore. I'm talking down at the corner store. They shut their lights and they close their doors because they don't make them like that anymore. But you and I are classic like a bench in the front seat...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Country music frequently reserves its greatest praise and most sober consideration for men who can summon up deep voices and deep thoughts. By contrast, one of the first descriptions I read of the singer and songwriter Cam was a profile early on in her career that described her as a, quote, "folk-pop Barbie." That's the kind of hack observation that only makes you want to focus on what counts, Cam's voice, both as a singer and as a songwriter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGETTING YOU")

CAM: (Singing) You rise up like smoke from the bed of this hotel. And I don't do so well forgetting you when I'm alone. Local TV, these walls take pity on me. Ice machine and your memory, all I hear down the hall. When it's quiet, I'm quietly saying your name. In the silence, you're silently hiding away. And I'm getting older, but you never change. In a crowd, I could swear I've moved on. But I'm still no good at forgetting you when I'm alone.

TUCKER: That's "Forgetting You," about a guy the singer can't forget. Cam carved out a distinctive space within the country music industry five years ago with "Burning House," which was more of a folk ballad than a country tune. Its lyric about a woman remembering a time when she was messing up her life pretty seriously hit home with a lot of listeners. They were moved to listen closely by Cam's unadorned, refreshingly straightforward vocal. "Burning House" didn't sound like anything else on radio at the time, and its surprise success cleared a path for her to pursue a different kind of pop music within the country genre.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURNING HOUSE")

CAM: (Singing) I had a dream about a burning house. You were stuck inside. I couldn't get you out. I laid beside you and pulled you close, and the two of us went up in smoke. Love isn't all that it seems. I did you wrong. I'll stay here with you until this dream is gone. I've been sleepwalking...

TUCKER: I would say that the high point of Cam's new album is "Diane," a song she wrote as an answer record to Dolly Parton's classic song "Jolene." In "Jolene," you'll recall, Dolly sang from the point of view of a wife beseeching Jolene, who's having an affair with her husband, to leave him alone. It's a plea from one woman to another to have some mutual respect. In 1973, this was one of the decisive examples of Parton's mastery at country storytelling.

Inspired by all this decades later, Cam comes at it from the opposite angle, taking up the role of Jolene. She fills in a three-dimensional portrait of a woman who's fallen in love with a man, not realizing he's married. Now aware, Jolene addresses a direct apology to the wife, whom Cam has named Diane.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIANE")

CAM: (Singing) Oh, I promise I didn't know he was your man. I would've noticed a gold wedding band. Diane, I'd rather you hate me than not understand. Oh, Diane. You picked the time and the place. Don't know how much this hurts. I gave him my heart to break. Now I know he broke yours first. Lying right there in my bed, while he was lying to you, believe the words that he said. How could we be such fools? And all those nights that he's given to me, I wish that I could give them back to you. Diane, I promise ...

TUCKER: "Diane" is a terrific piece of songwriting, its melody as strong and distinctive as its lyrics. Cam has learned technical lessons from Dolly Parton well. Beyond that, she's made a whole album that insists that women have more complicated stories to tell than country music usually allows.

GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Cam's new album called "The Otherside."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about how Trump was once scorned by Republican leaders, but he's made the party his own, inspiring fear among GOP leaders and candidates who dare to cross him. But what happens when Trump leaves the White House? Our guest will be New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Lemann. His latest article is titled "The Republican Identity Crisis After Trump." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TILL THERE'S NOTHING LEFT")

CAM: (Singing) I want to steal every breath of fire from every star in the Southern sky. I want to lay down in the dark, take a match right to your heart. I want to hide with you in the rain in the eye of a hurricane. I want to call it for what it is and give you everything I got to give. Till there's nothing left, till there's nothing left. Me and you in the backseat - driving me crazy, killing me, baby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.