What could have been

Yeah, at one point in my life I owned Whiskeytown’s Strangers Almanac. It was good, but not good enough to tear me away from the Old 97s’ Too Far to Care.

Despite the album’s excellent writing, there was always something aloof about the way head honcho Ryan Adams delivered his songs. It was as if he was trying to affect Murmur-era Michael Stipe just to sound deeper than the rest of us.

What does this have to do with former bandmate Caitlin Cary’s first full-length album? Well, for folks who really wanted to like Whiskeytown but couldn’t, here’s your chance.

While You Weren’t Looking keys into the same kind of furtive, hook-filled, country-influenced rock Whiskeytown mastered in the late 90s, but this time, it sounds more personal, more immediate.

Credit that to Cary’s rich, inviting voice. It’s apparent she has the power to belt, but never once does she abuse that ability. When she lets out a slight yodel on the second verse of “Please Don’t Hurry Your Heart”, it’s a masterful flourish, not useless flash.

That tact works well when the music draws inward. “Girl, he’s killing himself in a car when you’re not driving, in a bar when you’re not looking, food you’re not cooking” Cary sings on “What Will You Do”. It’s the emotional apex of the song, and she gives the chorus a spine-tingling reading.

Cary and co-writer Mike Daly, another Whiskeytown alumnus, do a tremendous job delivering a filler-free album. Not a single song on While You Weren’t Looking is a throw-away. (In contrast, Adams’ prolific output has been described as brilliant when it isn’t spotty and inconsistent.)

Right from the opening strains of “Shallow Heart, Shallow Water”, the album doesn’t relent in delivering one beautiful performance after another. It’s difficult to single out any one track — all of them are that strong.

Producer Chris Stamey provides just the right touches to each of the songs — a big, rousing band on “Thick Walls Down”; twangy reverb on “Pony”; soulful horns on “Too Many Keys”; spare guitars and violin on “Fireworks”.

While You Weren’t Looking is the Whiskeytown album that probably could have been. Thankfully, it’s all Cary’s, and it’s all good.