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May 31, 2013

After several years of intense scrutiny for highly publicized personal matters, LeAnn Rimes opens up in impressive fashion on her revealing new album, Spitfire. Due in stores June 4, Spitfire is easily the 30-year-old singer/songwriter’s most personal project to date as she directly addresses the firestorm of emotions surrounding her affair, divorce from first husband Dean Sheremet and subsequent marriage to Eddie Cibrian.

Albums with the emotional punch of Spitfire don’t come around often, and it’s hard to understate the level of vulnerability on display through the project’s 13 songs. LeAnn co-wrote eight of these, and when paired with producer / arranger Darrell Brown’s (Radney Foster, Neil Young) unpolished and open production, the set not only touches raw nerves, but it grabs them and yanks down hard.

In retrospect, LeAnn’s 2011 cover album Lady & Gentlemen – her first after tabloids lit up in 2009 with news of her affair – now feels like a breather as she was collecting her thoughts. From the nasty acoustic lick that opens up the impassioned lead song, the title-track “Spitfire,” it’s clear LeAnn has something to say. In fact, the very first line of the record is, If I were to untie my tongue, I could use it like a whip. Though there’s anger here, Spitfire itself is not an angry record – it’s a soul searching one.

The sad, expansive, “What Have I Done,” featuring Alison Krauss and Union Station member Dan Tyminski, is pained with the knowledge of the hurt she’s caused. The yearning, “Borrowed,” and tempo-driven, “I Do Now,” are both taken from an adulterer’s point of view. In the latter, she’s drowning lonely sorrows with a new appreciation for Hank Sr. and Merle Haggard’s lovesick blues. I thought I found a new love at the bottom of a glass, she sings after her actions caused her husband to leave. And with a fluttering melody on “Just A Girl Like You,” LeAnn delivers one of the album’s most dynamic vocal performances with a message that she feels and experiences the same things as anyone else. It’s incredibly humanizing and makes songs like the traditional-leaning “A Waste Is A Terrible Thing To Mind” all the more powerful, stinging with real regret while ¾-time acoustic chords support a fragile voice.

The breezy “Bottle,” which is actually not about alcohol, and the snappy “You’ve Ruined Me,” featuring a nice little 8th-note bass line, are about as close as Spitfire comes to pop influenced country. More often, the project extends well into Americana territory where LeAnn’s bluesy inflections feel right at home. The Buddy Miller/Julie Miller-penned, “Gasoline and Matches,” featuring Rob Thomas of rock band Matchbox 20 and guitarist Jeff Beck, burns with passion through a retro-leaning backbeat. The wide open “God Takes Care Of Your Kind” (interestingly co-written with the object of so much of Spitfire, LeAnn’s ex-husband Dean Sheremet) combines roots rock and country harmonies with a flowing pedal steel solo.

For all the complex emotions that LeAnn sifts through on Spitfire, there’s a sense that understanding what it all means remains a work in progress. With a haunted voice on “Where I Stood,” she admits, I thought love was black and white / and it was wrong or it was right, but notes things might not be that simple. The silver lining, though, as heard in the poetic, “Who We Really Are,” is that the storm of emotions known as love can teach someone a lot about themselves. And on Spitfire, LeAnn delivers a fascinating look at her own hard lessons with one of the year’s most honest and revealing releases.

Key Tracks – “What Have I Done,” “Just A Girl Like You,” “Where I Stood,” “Gasoline and Matches”