By Bill Friskics-Warren
A number of pop and rock singers, from Shelby Lynne to Elvis Costello, have tried their hand at making soul or soul-inspired records. Sheryl Crow's "100 Miles From Memphis," the latest entry in this crossover sweepstakes, is a sincere but mixed effort that works as often as it doesn't.
Among the album's shortcomings is "I Want You Back," a set-closing cover of the epochal Jackson 5 hit worked up on the spot after Crow and company had finished a take of an obscure Marvin Gaye track that didn't make it onto the record.
The performance is spirited, with Crow's vocals often resembling those of a prepubescent Michael Jackson. But it's also utterly lacking in imagination, so derivative of the Motown original as to leave the listener wondering why, other than for sentimental reasons, it's on the album.
Much better are "Eye to Eye," a sinewy, reggae-inflected vamp featuring Keith Richards on guitar, and "Sign Your Name," a slinky, Stax-inspired cover of the Terence Trent D'Arby hit, with Memphian Justin Timberlake on backing vocals.
As the album's title suggests, the music of Memphis inspired the project (Crow grew up 100 miles away in Kennett, Mo.), with David Campbell's tensile string arrangements recalling those that producer Willie Mitchell wrote for the vintage hits of Ann Peebles, Al Green and others.
Nods to Sly Stone and '70s funk and gospel are here as well, but too much of the back half of the disc consists of distended pop-rock ballads, slackening its otherwise taut concept and groove.
Recommended tracks: "Eye to Eye," "Sign Your Name"