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Lucy Hale - Road Between - CD Cover
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(28 December 2014) Longtime Musical Discoveries UK correspondent Jamie Field has contributed a review of one of his favorite albums: There are two albums that have dominated the car stereo this year. One was Wishbone Ash's classic 1972 record Argus’ and the other was Lucy Hale's 2014 debut album Road Between (DMG Nashville (USA) D001794392, 2014).

At first sight the latter is an album I really shouldn't give the time of day to, Lucy Hale being a TV actress on the popular teen series Pretty Little Liars’ --based on the books by Sara Shepard -- which as I write is currently into its fifth season with more commissioned. So I admit I approached this album with some trepidation, assuming it was a quickly recorded, cash-in album based on her TV fame and aimed at the pop / teen market where Pretty Little Liars has its audience, much as the music in Lucy's film The Cinderella Story 3: Once Upon A Song had been. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The record was two years in the making and is, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, a reflection of Lucy’s own favourite music: country. She told Rolling Stone, "I’m from Tennessee. I grew up in the south. Growing up in Memphis, it was just kind of inevitable that I would have this love of country music. It was on the radio; it was the music videos I watched on TV. It was what my mom listened to. I developed a love of it at a very young age. [So] it was kind of a no-brainer when I got the opportunity to make an album that I wanted to go the country route."

The fact it was so long in the making has been beneficial. In an interview with Time Lucy says, "I used it to my advantage because we had the luxury of not having a deadline. There wasn't much stress around it. It was a really fun, enjoyable experience."

The singing, playing and arrangements are pretty much exemplary throughout, with Lucy's performances nailing each track: strong when she needs to be, vulnerable when it's appropriate. Lucy has been singing most of her life, so she hasn't come late to the party. In my experience, a lot of actresses can really sing, it's part of their training. She also has quite a distinctive voice which is great to hear and something that makes her stand out from the vocal uniformity that has somewhat bedevilled the overcrowded female country/pop genre in recent years.

Although Lucy takes some writing credits, the album is also a tribute to the song-writing skills that are nurtured in Nashville. It's a master-class of story-telling in three and half minutes. And it has choruses to die for. This one album alone has more hooks than a Russian fishing fleet. If there was an annual award category for "Best Album To Sing Along To At The Top Of Your Voice In The Car When You Think No-one Is Watching Or Listening" then Road Between would win it hands down.

It's really quite hard to pick out highlights as the whole thing is so damn fine. Lucy herself mentions one of the more reflective songs on the album, "Nervous Girls," as being significant to her. She told Time, "The first time I heard it I immediately knew it had to be my song. I didn't write this one, but I immediately connected with it, and I knew that I had to be the person who sang this song." Certainly Ms Hale has the ability to pick a song: for example the infectious "That’s What I Call Crazy" was penned by Kacey Musgraves, herself one of country music's fastest-rising female stars.

Lucy told Billboard, "The reason I love country music is the stories and how nostalgic a song can feel. 'From the Back Seat' is a perfect example. When you hear that song, you see the music video played out -- it's so visual," adding that the song had a certain personal significance. "There's a few details that are off. My parents were divorced when I was really young, but when I heard this song, it was kind of like my mom's upbringing." That song also has a fine, if too brief electric guitar solo, courtesy of Jerry McPherson.

On "Red Dress" she also shows she can duet with the best of them as she's joined, to great effect, by Joe Nichols. "Goodbye Gone" is a superb track, considerably heavier than most country fare, and has Lucy really stretching her vocal chords.Oddly, for me the weakest song is the opening track, "You Sound Good To Me." It's also the most pop-sounding which unsurprisingly made it the lead single. It's still a fine piece, it just doesn’t quite match up to what follows. But with that behind us, we're onto the superb, aforementioned "From The Backseat" and from that point on the album never falters.

It's well worth picking up the deluxe version of the album as it contains five bonus songs not available on the 11-track standard version. The three additional studio tracks "My Little Black Wedding Dress’," "Feels Like Home" and "Loved" are every bit as good as the songs on the standard version, and I have no idea why they weren't included on that edition. "Loved" is quite beautiful. Parts of "Feels Like Home" actually bear a strong musical resemblance to a song by The Hollies called "What A Life I've Led" which was the opening track on their 1971 album Distant Light. The last two bonus tracks are live acoustic versions of two of the standard album songs, "Kiss Me" and "Road Between" showing that Lucy is just as capable and competent on stage as she is in the studio.

All in all, this is an extraordinarily mature and accomplished debut album, with fine vocals and first rate song-writing and playing. The whole thing is also infused with the feeling of joy, which is a not insignificant factor in it being one of my favourite albums of the year. I cannot listen to this album without a big smile spreading across my face.

Music is not an intellectual exercise, it all about emotional response, and more than any other album I've heard in a long time, this album seems to me filled with joy. I don’t know if it's just the sheer pleasure of making music, of the fact that, as Lucy says, "it was a really fun, enjoyable experience," or of it was because it was a realization of a dream she's had since she was a little girl, but this disc just radiates good vibes, which is of itself a cause for celebration.

Lucy takes two full pages out of the booklet to say her thank-yous and this I think reflects that she truly appreciates just what an opportunity she’s been given and the fact that she's so clearly grabbed that opportunity with both hands is very much to her credit. Wonderful!--Jamie Field in Kington, England

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