Steel Magnolia's self-titled debut album came out just a little over a year ago now, but I still wanted to get a review done due to the fact that it emerged as probably my most pleasant musical surprise of 2011. The country-pop duo, made up vocalist/guitarist Joshua Scott Jones and vocalist Meghan Linsey, gained a relatively minor level of fame in a fairly dubious manner - they were the winners of the second season of CMT's Can You Duet, a cheesy music talent television reality show. Not exactly prestigious, but it did score them a recording deal. Combine that with their bland band name and it was two strikes against Steel Magnolia before I'd even heard a note. Normally, that's enough for me to move on to someone else in the crowded field of candidates in my never-ending search for a musical act that'll make my ears perk up. Still, the album review I read had piqued my interest enough to take a flyer on the duo and check out some songs. I'm glad I did.Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆
Steel Magnolia turns out to be an impressively self-assured debut that immediately engages the listener with its pop melodies embellished by country music trimmings, such as banjo, fiddle, mandolin, and pedal steel guitar. Jones and Linsey's voices mesh well together and the sexual chemistry is hard to miss; not coincidentally, the pair are a couple and engaged (maybe...more on that later). Three songs from their 2010 EP appear on the album: "Keep On Lovin' You", "Edge Of Goodbye", and "Ooh La La". The latter track, along with the sexed up "Last Night Again", best demonstrate one of Steel Magnolia's greatest strengths, which is the swaggering, frequently flirtatious interplay between Jones and Linsey. Whether they're playfully scoping each other out in those songs' lyrics, or just straight up professing their deep feelings for one another in tracks like "Keep On Lovin' You", "Without You", "Rainbow" (which cleverly finds calypso-style steel drums sidling up with honky tonk banjoes), and an excellent cover of "Homespun Love" (a song from Keith Urban's early career), it all points to a comfort level between the couple that translates through their music. Most of the songs feature a back and forth vocal dynamic between Jones and Linsey, with a consistent level of harmonizing vocals also delivered by one of the singers when the other takes the main vocal lines. Two tracks deviate slightly from this method: "Bulletproof", a Linsey-led ode to resilience and the album's standout moment, and "Glass Houses", where Jones assumes the bulk of the vocal duties for the melancholy, waltzing album closer. It's the most blatantly country song on Steel Magnolia, taking its old school cues from the genre's '60s and '70s period. The album's only missteps are "Eggs Over Easy", a lightweight throwaway, and "Just By Being You (Halo And Wings)", which is actually solid musically, but undermined by the woeful sappiness of the lyrics (example: "I'll take off my halo/Yeah and I'll take off my wings/You don't have to be invincible 'cause I sure ain't no saint/You'll always be my angel no matter what you do/'Cause you take me to heaven just by being you"). Yuck.
Jones and Linsey demonstrate highly competent songwriting skills, as evidenced by the fact they wrote or co-wrote seven of the album's twelve tracks. Nashville mega-producer Dann Huff does a reliably first-class job in delivering a sonically and creatively pleasing effort that effectively incorporates pop and country, in the same vein of acts like Lady Antebellum and Sugarland, but with its own unique style. Many will dismiss Steel Magnolia as overly slick (I'd prefer to say "highly polished"), but this kind of music has its place.
Unfortunately, it looks like Steel Magnolia may be a one-off, as the duo's future appears to be in some doubt following the struggles of Jones, who entered rehab last September to treat a substance abuse problem. Curiously, Linsey continued to perform some scheduled Steel Magnolia concerts alone, before being joined for some dates by singer James Otto. Now comes word last week that the act has apparently left their record label and are no longer together in a professional (or, one would assume, personal) capacity.