Donna Dean & the
Amazing Rhythm Aces,
(self-produced, 2002)

Money is the unique combination of talent and happenstance that resulted when Russell Smith of the Amazing Rhythm Aces, while on an Australian tour in 1999, became aware of Donna Dean, a New Zealand-based singer-songwriter, and encouraged her to take her music to a wider audience and also suggested that the Aces back her on an album. As a result, Dean relocated to London, began building a following in Europe and ultimately came to Nashville to record with the Aces as her backing band on this, her third album.

The Amazing Rhythm Aces, best known for their 1975 hit "Third Rate Romance," picked up several Grammy awards as they produced six wonderful albums between 1975 and 1980 that blended rock, pop, country, soul and blues. In 1981 they released a double live record and broke up. After a 14-year layoff, the Aces got back together in 1995 to record new versions of their best songs for CD release and the positive reaction spurred them to do some live work, followed by tours of Australia (where they had maintained a large following) and the United States. After recording an album of new material in 1996, the Aces made official their return to full time operations as a band in 1997.

Dean has a very pleasing voice, somewhere between Dusty Springfield and Anne Murray. From the very first snap cracklin' guitar lines of the first track, it's evident that the Aces' trademark sound is totally intact. Smith, the Aces' vocalist and primary songwriter and producer, sings with Dean on "He Deserves Somebody." The tempo may lag at times, but Smith sounds great singing with Dean and the song has some steel guitar work that gives it a nice traditional country feel.

The title track and "Lost in a Memory" are probably the best tracks on the record, with the combination of writing, vocals and instrumental arrangement all working to best advantage, especially on the latter. "Guitar Man" is the apparent attempt at a single, although the formulaic songwriting is unlikely to propel this track onto many playlists. The song appears twice on the disc and although it features some nice western-swing style fiddle, the two versions are identical except for 30 additional seconds of acoustic guitar solo on the "extended version." The only imaginable purpose for including both versions would be to take up space on this very short disc (total time 31:44).

This project's main weakness is the production. There is no producer credit here and perhaps the problem is that no one formally produced this recording, but a good producer could have and should have done three things that would have greatly improved the CD. First, the Amazing Rhythm Aces should have been put to better use; although the instrumental work is impeccable on every track, it often seems that they aren't given enough to do, leaving you feeling that there is much more that they could have played. On "Work It Out" for example, there's a nice guitar hook that defines the song, but then Dean goes on to sing the hook vocally as "doo, doo, doo-doo-doo-doo," seemingly more often than Barry "Byrd" Burton gets to play it on guitar.

Secondly, the producer should have should have given the vocals a more prominent position in the mix, and should have encouraged Dean to sing with more conviction. As it is, the vocal delivery on "Don't Go Messin'" makes it tough to believe that the singer really means any of the things that she's singing. Thirdly, the producer should have been more selective in the choice of material. It's safe to assume that Dean's songwriting skill that initially attracted Smith to the project is somewhat under-represented here. There are definitely some good songs in this set, but the rest are the sort of average-sounding songs that one might imagine get rejected every day on Music Row.

Although Money has much to recommend it, considering the abilities of the participants, I can't escape the conclusion that this disc falls way short of potential.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 15 March 2003

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