Laura Benitez And The Heartache. California Centuries. Copperhead Records

First thing to say about this album is that is a wonderful listen from start to end, full of glistening modern country rock, the band hitting all the touchstones – cosmic pedal steel, twangy guitars and keyboards full of soul. Add Benitez’s wonderful voice and her song writing skills to the mix and we have a disc which is bound to please. A fine example is the traditional sounding Are You Using Your Heart which sounds here like a jukebox staple from the glory days of Tammy and Loretta while also reminding the listener of fine tones of Laura Cantrell.

While it might be the most commercial song here, Are You Using Your Heart is just one of the winning melodies which Benitez has produced and on several of the songs she tackles weightier issues than simple heartbreak. The opening song, Bad Things, finds her in a baleful mood over a muscular country backing as she surveys the tidal wave of calamities which have occurred over the past couple of years, shocking some folk out of their “It can’t happen here” mindset. In a similar vein Gaslight focuses on the mass indifference to tragedies and scandals such as the epidemic of mass shootings, the #metoo movement and black lives matter, her point being that despite headlines, most folk just reckon it that only happens to other folk. Delivered in an almost folk style (although pleasantly beefed up with a sweet country arrangement), the song sounds like a Joan Baez for these days. The band are much punchier as they weigh in on Let The Dice Roll where the protagonist is indeed the recipient of bad news with Benitez singing, “Bad news hits you like a rig going 99.”

A couple of the songs are much more personal. A Love Like Yours is a joyful romp which pays tribute to her partner while All Songs was written as Benitez and her young daughter were ensconced in a trailer with the air outside polluted by smoke from wildfires. It’s a sing-along song of sorts which, like many of the others here is enlivened by swell solos on electric guitar and pedal steel, but on God Willing And The Creek Don’t Rise the band go full on bluegrass for an energetic take on climate change while Invisible is chock full of Appalachian airs.

Having referenced the pandemic at the beginning of the album, Benitez celebrates her return to live music on the closing song, I’m With The Band, a fine loose limbed country roadhouse number with some tremendous pedal steel playing from Ian Sutton.  I’m pretty sure that a host of jobbing musicians on the road will empathise with the lyrics. A cool end to a great album which is unashamedly country at heart.

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