Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

September 26, 2014

Tim McGraw

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Sundown Heaven Town

* * *

Tim McGraw got off to as bad a start as any could ever dream of when introducing his thirteenth album to the world this past winter. The first single, Mark Irwin, James T. Slater, and Chris Tompkins’ “Lookin’ For That Girl” was a smooth hip/hop meets R&B ballad with McGraw desperately pleading for relevance by pandering to trends in order to score airplay. Then came the album’s title,Sundown Heaven Town, which carries with it racial connotations so horrid, everyone in McGraw’s camp should’ve known better and avoided completely unnecessary controversy.

By the time “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” dropped this spring, McGraw needed the course correction the single ultimately gave him. The elegantly sparse ballad, co-written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, and Jeffery Steele, is McGraw’s finest single in seven years thanks to an assist from Faith Hill and a charming tale about home. McGraw and Hill are deservedly vying for both Single and Musical Event of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards.

Just this month Big Machine released the third single from the album, a Marv Green, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Verges penned tune entitled “Shotgun Rider.” The track, while it sounds good with a shuffle beat, is middle of the road at best and hardly memorable. The problem is keen McGraw fans will remember a different tune with the same name appearing on his Let It Go album in 2007. That “Shotgun Rider,” a duet with Hill, was far more country and less wordy than this tune.

McGraw treated fans to another of the album’s tracks, Canadian country singer/songwriter Deric Ruttan’s “City Lights” when he performed on The Voice this spring. The track is excellent, and while louder, recalls the best of his 90s/00s work. Also classic McGraw is “Overrated,” a sonically progressive muscular ballad penned by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Rivers Rutherford. The chorus is strong and memorable and he gives a nicely commanding performance reminiscent of “Unbroken” from 2001. Big Machine would be smart to release this as a single.

Newcomer Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin, joins him on “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” a pure country album highlight that has a bit too much electric guitar, but adds a nice helping of steel about halfway through. While she’s regulated to singing harmony, Dunn adds a nice texture to the track that helps balance McGraw’s gruffness. It’s just weird to me he isn’t singing with Hill, who also would’ve been perfect here.

I also like “Words are Medicine,” a good pop-country number that I might’ve loved had someone like Jennifer Nettles sang it. As it is McGraw does well with it, but his vocal lacks a subtly a better song interpreter would’ve brought to it. “Last Turn Home” is just too loud and McGraw gives an annoying vocal performance on it, which is unfortunate.

“Portland, Maine” finds McGraw with a smoothed processed vocal that does little to give him any credibility. The lyric, by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, is idiotic, with the laughable hook of “Portland, Maine I don’t know where that is.” The track is ripe for parody and completely beneath McGraw’s talents. “Still On The Line” isn’t any better, with an arrangement that leans far too pop for my tastes.

Also terrible is “Dust,” an embarrassing slice of bro-country dreck unsurprisingly co-written by two-thirds of the Peach Pickers. McGraw co-wrote “Keep On Truckin’” with The Warren Brothers and Bill Daly. Like most of the dreck in mainstream country music, it’s another laundry list number that spends a lot of time saying next to nothing. Andrew Dorff’s “Sick of Me” isn’t awful, but McGraw’s vocal is grating and the song’s structure is annoying.

A deluxe edition of Sundown Heaven Town gives the listener an additional five tracks. McGraw gives a tender vocal on the piano ballad turned overproduced social conscious track “Kids Today,” he turns the volume up to eleven on “I’m Feeling You,” mixes organic country with too much rock on “The View” and ventures into Lady Antebellum territory with “Black Jacket.” I wanted to love the Kid Rock assisted “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” but the lyric was embarrassingly juvenile and the production far too progressive for my tastes.

As a whole, Sundown Heaven Town is a mixed bag, with McGraw getting a few things right, but still taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. I was a rabid fan of his from 1996-2007, but as the trends in mainstream country have changed, and he along with them, I’ve lost interest. He’s nicely evened out with Sundown Heaven Town, though, with the McGraw of “Truck Yeah” thankfully not showing up here. While he does need a new, far less rockified sound, this is his best album since Let It Go, which is saying a lot these days.

Album Review: Lee Ann Womack: ‘The Way I’m Livin'”

September 23, 2014

Lee Ann Womack

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The Way I’m Livin’

* * * 1/2

In the seventeen years since her debut, Womack has made a career out of crafting individual albums with unique personalities distinguished by their sonic footprints and her exceptional sense of song. Produced by her husband Frank Liddell, The Way I’m Livin is easily the most ambitious album of her career.

Womack turned to ‘songwriter-artists’ this go around, opting to relinquish her own unique perspective in favor of interpreting that of others. The chosen material is incredible, proving that if an artist knows where to look, it isn’t difficult to find a treasure trove of great songs. Womack has always been drawn to portraying introspective heroines shockingly aware of their own self-destruction. More such moments abound on The Way I’m livin, and they’re exquisite.

“Nightwind” finds Womack interpreting Bruce Robison’s tale about a woman moving away, realizing the ‘only true love’ she’s ever known comes at a price, one she isn’t willing to pay. She hasn’t yet left in Chris Knight’s “Send It On Down,” but as a woman suffocated by the state of her life, she’s turning to Jesus for clarity in figuring out her next move.

Brennen Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil” is the album’s purest honky-tonk ballad, with Womack’s tender vocal soaked in steel and fiddle. “Don’t Listen To The Wind,” Julie Miller’s mournful ballad about obsession over a tattooed memory, and the pulsating title track are companion pieces, reflections on the stronghold of love and life. The haunting production beds only further hone the already present message.

She reverses the story twice, first on Hayes Carll’s brilliant “Chances Are” and then Neil Young’s “Out On The Weekend.” Carll’s number finds Womack gloriously regretful and framed in drenching steel while her cover of Young’s classic is aided by the addition of fiddle and her dedication to bring out the country elements within the story.

The album’s two best tracks are so good, it would’ve been a doggone shame had they never seen the light of day. Back solely by an acoustic guitar, album opener “Fly” finds Womack displaying her singular gifts as a vocalist to stunning effect. Adam Hood’s “Same Kind of Different,” meanwhile, is the album’s centerpiece, a warm and inviting number that builds in intensity from an a capella beginning to heights unimagined by the end.

With The Way I’m Livin’ filled with such long-deserved goodness perfectly inline with Womack’s trajectory as an artist, why is the album so ambitious? Well, there are a couple of missteps I’m finding it difficult to ignore.

I found the album a bit too dense, with too many similarly paced tracks that as a whole leave the album needing a change of pace at various points throughout. A well-executed cover of Robison’s “Not Forgotten You” accomplishes this objective, but I would’ve liked a couple more in the same vein earlier on the album.

The bigger slip-up is Liddell’s production. After a decade of producing Miranda Lambert and a few years with David Nail, he’s lost an ability to decipher when a track is just too damn loud. Having never heard it before, I sought out Roger Miller’s original version of “Tomorrow Night In Baltimore,” which was wonderful in all its 70s glory. So why on earth would Liddell crank up the volume on Womack’s version to the point where you can barely understand the lyric? There’s no benefit served to the song to have it drowned out in electric guitars, which only add excessive noise to a track that doesn’t need it.

But even worse is Liddell’s habit of distorting tracks, so that even if the execution by the singer and band (he does this with Lambert, too) is flawless, the end results aren’t clean. Womack’s cover of Mindy Smith’s “All His Saints” is borderline unlistenable thanks to this technique, which makes Womack sound as though she’s singing through a funnel. A similar issue mars her take on Mando Saenz’s “When I Come Around,” but the issues are with Liddell’s mixing of the band, and thankfully not Womack’s vocal.

That being said, The Way I’m Livin’ is worth the six-year wait. The majority of the tracks are excellent and Womack is true to form as always. With Sugar Hill Records firmly behind her now, I just hope we don’t have to wait as long for a follow-up.

Concert Review: Sara Evans and Kiley Evans at the South Shore Music Circus

September 10, 2014

IMG_3885Sara Evans is an incredible vocalist. That at least was evident when she took the stage August 29 at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. Evans turned in one brilliant performance after another, wrapping her comforting twang around a majority of her most recognizable singles.

She opened the show with “Born To Fly” before treating the audience to a brisk set of her career during the new millennium. This fantastic overview ranged from “Perfect” and “I Keep Looking” to “Real Fine Place To Start” and “As If” with ease. She loaded the set with uptempo tunes, bringing out lesser faire like “Coalmine” and enjoying the audience’s eruption during “Suds In The Bucket,” which followed a brief synopsis of her upbringing on the Missouri farm; a life with three older brothers and four younger sisters.

In the beginning Evans stuck with the music, pausing after a generous strand of songs before engaging the audience. While I normally enjoy banter, Evans has a way of coming off slightly disingenuous, like a performer fulfilling a job, and not a singer giving a whole-hearted performance. This is just Evans’ way; a fact that hasn’t changed in the three years since I last saw her live (and wrote a concert review of her show).

She was quick to mention that 2011 performance, a herculean feat where she arrived late to the venue (Cape Cod Melody Tent) via private jet, with her tardiness blamed on a combination of her kids and the Birmingham, Alabama airport she was flying out of. Her circumstances this time weren’t much better – sick kids she claimed she had to spank – but she was able to get to the venue on time, even if she fell asleep (or so she alleged) during hair and makeup.

An attempt to joke about the revolving circular stage (which the South Shore Music Circus and sister venue Cape Cod Melody Tent are known for) fell flat, but she was able to creep everyone out with a story about lice going around at her daughter’s school. Evans is a mother after all, with tweens and teens, so sharing stories of that world isn’t necessarily unwelcomed.

And for all her banter (she didn’t even know how to pronounce the town she was performing in, which was written out taped to the stage for her), she actually focused heavily on the music. Evans brought the audience back a few years and reflected on her marriage before launching into “A Little Bit Stronger,” mentioning how grateful she was to us fans for helping make it one of her biggest hits. She also graced us with her cover of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No,” which made me happy, as I never expected her to sing it. The same went for “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus,” which came early on. I would’ve figured Evans would’ve forgotten all about that song by now.

Those who saw my review of Slow Me Down this past March (and engaged in a healthy debate on Engine 145), would most likely be surprised I would even attend an Evans concert. Despite what I said, out of anger toward her musical direction, I do love her and have been a fan ever since seeing the “Three Chords and the Truth” video on CMT seventeen years ago. She graced us with three new cuts from her latest project; her Isaac Slade assisted duet “Can’t Stop Loving You” (a duet with her phenomenal backup singer/guitarist), the title track, and brand new single “Put My Heart Down.” I actually do like the new single, and it is one of the more memorable tracks on the new project. All were sung well during the show, too.

But the singular highlight of the evening was her brilliant reading of “I Could Not Ask For More,” which exuded a passion unlike anything she sung all night. Evans took the track to new heights, allowing her voice to effortlessly soar into the heavens. I always loved the studio version, but hearing her sing it live brought the song to whole other place. I’ll likely never hear the song the same way again. If you’ve yet to see Evans live, which is an experience awaiting any fan of her music, she’s even more incredible than on record.

The only truly puzzling part of the evening was her encore, in which she covered three mainstream hits from the past few years. I understand desiring to do cover songs, and Evans is known for them, but in place of signature hits like “No Place That Far,” (which she didn’t sing in 2011 either). At least they were very good, even if they weren’t a single bit country. She began with Bruno Mars’ “If I Was Your Man,” switched to “If You Were My Man,” followed with Pink and Nate Ruess’ “Just Give Me A Reason” and ended with “Everybody Talks” by Neon Trees. I wonder, though, why she didn’t include Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You,” the only pop cover song she’s actually recorded (it’s on Slow Me Down). Sara Evans will always be an artist that boggles the mind.

The other draw for me was opening act Kiley Evans (no relation) a local country/pop singer-songwriter from Marshfield, MA that I met through the radio station I work at. Evans, who moved to Nashville last October, is incredibly talented and put on a comforting yet short set that perfectly endeared her to the audience.

IMG_3879While she has a full-length CD, Evans focused exclusively on her new EP Mix ‘n’ Match, which includes five songs she’s worked on since moving to Music City. She opened with “Summer Stupid” and ran through “Running With Scissors.” She told the audience how her passion for music led her to quit college after a semester and a half, and how her first ever time performing in front of people came when she was a sophomore in high school. Evans chose to sing Sara Evans’ “Born to Fly” and had a great time, until she later found out her mic was off the entire time. She said it was a bit of redemption opening for Sara this evening.

My favorite moment came when she talked about leaving her steady boyfriend behind to move to Nashville. When she decided to end the relationship, he confronted her, saying she was only building sandcastles with him, or building up a relationship that was only going to fall. She took his out-of-character poeticism and turned it into “Sandcastles,” which I rather enjoyed. She also sang a self-penned tune written in the middle of the night dog-sitting and covered Katy Perry’s “E.T.”

I’ve seen Kiley perform a number of times, but none were as perfectly enjoyable as her thirty-minute showcase at the Music Circus. Seeing as we’re about the same age, she comes off very relatable, and is a natural at what she’s doing. I cannot remember a time when an opening act’s set flew by so fast. I’ve said it before, but this woman is destined to get bigger and bigger as her career flourishes, as she gets better and better as a writer and a singer.

Concert Review: Little Big Town at the South Shore Music Circus

August 22, 2014

IMG_3747They may be from the Boondocks, But Little Big Town have sailed their Pontoon into a rock and roll Tornado.

If their recent show at the South Shore Music Circus proves anything, it’s that the quartet known for simple backwoods arrangements complimenting their airtight harmonies have morphed into a band solely focused on succeeding in the current “country music” landscape.

They made their way to the rounded stage like rock stars filing into a stadium, Kimberly Schlapman’s head of tight blond curls visible a mile away. Karen Fairchild, modeling denim short-shorts, knee high leather boots, and a gold sparkle jacket launched into pulsating set opener “Leave The Light On,” a track from the band’s upcoming Pain Killer due Oct 21. The band and crowd embraced a little “Day Drinking” shortly thereafter, which worked in the environment despite missing the snare drums utilized in award show performances of the track.

The foursome focused most heavily on their work produced by Jay Joyce, a response to the lukewarm reception of their most recent Wayne Kirkpatrick-produced set, 2010’s The Reason Why. Apart from down playing their country credentials, their work with Joyce is far more guitar heavy, which afford them to gave the banjos and mandolins a break for most of the evening.

Pain Killer got a generous showcase, a risk seeing as no one, not even me, has heard the album yet. They played more than half the album and while most of the tracks ran together, I could hear something special in the title track and Schlapman’s vocal showcase on “Save Your Sin.”

Tornado made up the majority of what was left and tracks like “Pavement Ends,” “Front Porch Thing,” and “On Fire Tonight” fit in perfectly with the vibe of the evening. “Pontoon” had the whole crowd singing along and “Your Side of the Bed” was as effective live as on the album. “Sober,” which I expected to be treated more acoustically, was a slight disappointment, but the magic of the track shone through. Fairchild traded her sparkle coat for long leathery fringe to croon “Tornado,” a set highlight.

I did appreciate how they sprinkled in subtle nods to the past ten years, gifting the crowed with “Little White Church” and “A Little More You.” I had completely forgotten about “A Little More You” and was happy when they resurrected it. “Boondocks,” easily the band’s signature song, came towards the end of the evening with a drum heavy beginning that rendered the track almost unrecognizable at first.

At one point Fairchild commented on this being their second ever performance on a revolving stage (they played the Cape Cod Melody Tent the night before) and how they were nervous about letting down the audience with their lack of production.

After introducing their band, the group commented on their history as a band and how 2014 marks twenty-five years together. The women talked about how IMG_3751Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook went to college together and their first meeting with Phillip Sweet. Instead of logically launching into “I’m With The Band,” which they didn’t play, they gave us a couple of tracks that influenced them. First was a stripped down almost bluesy cover of the Oak Ridge Boys classic “Elvira” that got such an inventive take from the band, it took until the chorus before I knew what they were singing. The other track that influenced them was Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” a logical choice seeing as they’re always being compared. In fact, when I was playing Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance live album a while back, I thought it was Little Big Town on opener “The Chain.”

At the encore they turned the spotlight on Lori McKenna, who helped write tracks on their most recent albums. Hailing from Stoughton, MA, McKenna is ours as much as she is a nationally recognized singer/songwriter. She was brought on stage to sing a new song “Humble and Kind.”

Just because the show was steeped far more in rock and roll than what most would consider country music didn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable or a huge disappointment. Did I long for them to grace us with an acoustic set? Yes, I did. But they are still exceptionally talented and perfectly showcased it during their set. Little Big Town worked the stage brilliantly, a job mostly regulated to Sweet who threw many a guitar pick into the crowd and was, no pun intended, sweet to the audience the whole show. I was thrilled that I finally got to them, and it was an added bonus that it occurred at my favorite music venue, a place I would’ve deemed far too small for them at this point in their careers.

Singer/Songwriter Sara Haze opened the show with a thirty-minute set focused on originals and “Riot,” a song she had cut by Rascal Flatts on their latest album. Haze, who had a guy accompanying her on guitar, was very good although a little too indistinctive. Haze also joined Little Big Town on stage during the encore.

Concert Review: Jennifer Nettles & Brandy Clark at The South Shore Music Circus

August 15, 2014

IMG_3594The gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar and rolling percussion fill the tent. Most turn a deaf ear to the customary sounds of house music as a concert commences. The lights were low and the stage empty, instruments waiting to be played, microphones eager to be sung into. A baby-voiced vocal adds character to the instrumentation, a singer with a distinctive bite. It’s a forty-one year old classic recording, a composition we’ve all dug into time and again. When the two-and-a-half minute ballad draws to a close, the audience erupts. The band files in and begins.

More light procession fills the tent. The sounds are different this time, subtly so, modernized with handclaps. The singer, with her sandy blonde hair back in a ponytail adorning dark jeans and a white Keith Richards tank under a white vest is handed a guitar. She makes her way to the microphone for a seemingly endless parade of “ohohohohohs” before launching into, “a friend gave me your number…”

The delicate connection between the two songs is missed, if you weren’t aware Jennifer Nettles and Butch Walker wrote “That Girl” as an answer song to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which filled the air before the band took the stage. Little connections like that were the benchmark of the evening, as Nettles gifted the crowed a lengthy set that had the audience in the palm of her hand.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen Jennifer perform three times as part of Sugarland and she remains one of the greatest artists I’ve ever seen take a stage. Her ability to capture an audience has always been electrifying, but she was on fire at the South Shore Music Circus, a partly biased observation aided by my front-row set, a position allowing me to capture every nuance of her movement on the circular stage.

Nettles ran through the entirety of her That Girl album, weaving each track through the set like a river snaking towards an ocean. Keeping an audience engaged with songs that didn’t receive support from radio is an undertaking, but she did it by giving them context, allowing us to hear what she was hoping to achieve with each track.

This context allowed me to finally appreciate the album, which by itself can come off a bit cold. She explained the connection to 70s radio by first gifting us with a spirited take on Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” and one of Barry Manilow’s ballads before launching into “This One’s For You.”

The rest mostly got short explanations (i.e. “here’s one about…”) and all were excellent and true to form. The highlight was easily “This Angel,” a perfect excuse for Nettles to use the theatre atmosphere to allow her vocal to soar but also reduce to near whisper, silencing the audience. She paired the song about her son with “All I Wanna Do,” Sugarland’s #1 from six years ago, claiming the upbeat ode to spending time with your lover as the prequel.

Throughout the night Nettles ran through a majority of Sugarland’s hits, performing at least one song from each of their albums except, but not all that surprising, The Incredible Machine. “Baby Girl” was as infectious as always and “Stay” did its job of bringing down the house. She brought local girl Kristen Merlin, who finished fourth on The Voice this past spring, on stage for a great duet of “Something More,” which they mashed up with a snippet of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.”

IMG_3573I’ve always adored her foray into covering rock songs, and at the August 8 show, she didn’t disappoint. She launched into the song with no warning, and I wailed when I figured out she was doing “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. The track is perfect for her voice and aesthetic, a meaty ballad right up her alley. She closed by encoring with “Thank You,” a perfect slice of gratitude towards the audience, and “Like A Rock.”

I’ve always found it near impossible to accurately convey my admiration for Nettles as a performer – her love of music and being on stage are so intrinsic, it’s palpable. The little things made the night – how she posed at the piano so I could take a picture of her, how she sang directly to a friend who was sitting next to me. Jennifer makes eye contact with the crowd and makes you feel like you’re a part of the show. I’m never happier than when I leave a night in her presence.

Of course, I love her even more for bringing along Brandy Clark as her opener. Clark’s set was short, but she made a nice impression. Instead of merely running through tracks from 12 Stories, Clark focused on a couple of newly written tunes and the requisite songs she’s written for other performers. “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a sweeter number in her hands, and she told the story of how “Better Dig Two” was written as a love song, not a murder ballad. She closed with “Stripes,” but my favorite moment of her set was “Hold My Hand,” a standout 12 Stories cut that showcased her voice and while I don’t love “Get High,” it worked well at the show. Clark’s only misstep was joining Nettles on “His Hands” during Nettles’ set as her microphone wasn’t working right and you couldn’t hear her too well.

Although I’m struggling to find the right words, this was easily (along with the Kathy Mattea show from 2013), the best concert of my life; a moment in time I hope never to forget. Nettles changes your life with her transcendent being and positivity. Everything, even something as kooky as giving away a guitar via Twitter during the show, just works. Nettles may’ve lost herself during The Incredible Machine era, but she’s firmly back on track now and enjoying every minute of the ride.

EP Review: Shooter Jennings – ‘Don’t Wait Up (For George)’

August 8, 2014

Shooter Jennings

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Don’t Wait Up (For George)

* * 1/2

Not even a month after Sammy Kershaw released a full-length George Jones tribute comes an EP from Shooter Jennings celebrating The Possum. At just under twenty minutes long it’s a brisk collection and a thoroughly modern one at that.

Don’t Wait Up (For George) finds Jennings completely reimagining four of Jones’ classic hits in his own style, instead of just reciting them as they were written. The results are progressive modern rock, which isn’t surprising given Jennings’ catalog to date, but does little to honor Jones and his traditionalist leaning ways.

The project kicks off with the only original number, a song Jennings had written for Jones, who was going to include it on the forthcoming album he never got to record. “Don’t Wait Up (I’m Playing Possum)” is a wonderful lyric with a biting intensity that would’ve given Jones the space to turn in a killer vocal. The production here is crowded, but nicely restrained.

Jennings’ take on “She Thinks I Still Care” follows the pattern of the title cut, and pares progression with a tender country vocal. There’s a haunting vibe to the proceedings, too, accentuated by the steel guitar heard just underneath Jennings’ vocal. He’s purer on “If Drinkin’ Don’t Kill Me” and acoustic on “Living In A Minor Key,” the best moments on the EP. When Jennings forgoes the overtly rock overtones, he allows the songs to shine.

The only obvious misstep comes with “The Door.” While Jones brought his usual pure country tendencies to the mournful ballad, Jennings lathers it in grotesque rock production that drowns the pain conveyed in the lyric. He could’ve done much better if he’d let the lyric shine through a bit more and kept the clutter to a minimum.

While not what I would expect from a tribute to Jones, Jennings does a good job of making these songs (minus “The Door”) his own without doing disservice to The Possum and his memory.

Michael Burns & Stu Fink bring Boston Country Oldies to 1330-AM WRCA Boston

July 23, 2014

WRCAlogo5

Fans of Sunday Morning Country Oldies, here’s the good news we’ve been waiting for – Michael Burns and Stu Fink are back on the air! No, not on Country 102.5 WKLB, but 1330-AM WRCA Boston. Here are the details:

Hello friends:

We are pleased to let you know that Michael and Stu will return with their latest show, Boston Country Oldies, which will air Friday night at 9pm and again on Saturday night at 11pm on 1330-AM WRCA in Boston. For those of you out of the Boston area, you can stream the show online at www.1330wrca.com and clicking on “listen live.”  Or you can go to http://1330wrca.com/streamer/.

As there are no other country stations in the Boston area that will play oldies, we had to take what we could find quickly.  This is the best we could do on short notice, since it was our goal to get back on the air in short order.  We think you’ll like our new show, which will feature all of your favorites, as well as the featured artist of the week.  For our first show, that will be Johnny Cash.

We are also looking for other stations around the state that would be interested in picking up the show.  If you know of any in your area, please let us know, and we will investigate.

If you’d like to request a song, go to our website, www.bostoncountryoldies.com, and send in your request via our contact page.  For the moment, that is the best way to reach us.

Also check the webpage often for links to great country songs.  We will also be updating any new stations that we add, so make our website your second home on the net.

Michael and I thank you all for your overwhelming support these last few weeks.  We are pleased to be back, and look forward to getting your feedback as well. So, as always, do stay in touch.

That’s all for now.  We hope you are as excited as we are.

All the best,

Stu Fink (and Michael Burns too!)

Congratulations to 1330-AM WCRA Boston for realizing the vital importance of keeping this music alive on the airwaves for the good of future generations who need to be exposed to the sounds of authentic country music, especially at a time when the legacy looks like it’s about to be lost forever. And kudos to Burns and Fink for finding work so quickly. As a radio guy myself, I know how challenging that is in the current marketplace. Good luck and lets keep this going for another 20 years!

Album Review: Robby Hecht: “Robbie Hecht”

July 17, 2014

Robbie Hecht

robbyhecht_album_cover

Robbie Hecht

* * * 1/2 

For his first collection since 2011’s Last of the Long Days, singer/songwriter Robbie Hecht turned to producer Lex Price to help him achieve the lush sound he desired. The resulting eponymous album is a quiet collection of songs that pack a significant punch.

Hecht, who hails from Knoxville, TN, knew music was his calling around age 18 and he spent the next decade of his life turning it into his career through travels in Europe and a stint in San Francisco before making his way back to Music City.

After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder, Hecht was truly able to find himself and gain the confidence he needed to begin a solo career in earnest, with his new album marking the latest step in his journey.

Robbie Hecht isn’t an album to be taken lightly, treated as background music while you enjoy a shindig or drive in your car. The quiet simplicity draws you in, commanding your attention in the way only the most finely crafted albums can.

Excellent lead single “New York City” is one of those songs, tracing the psychedelic hold the Big Apple has on those who’ve walked it’s streets and ridden it’s subways. Through various pleas, Hecht begs the city to give him the hope he can only find within himself. Similarly themed “I Don’t Believe It” finds a man going through a series of repeating lines in an effort to keep from facing the bitter truth and continue a life in denial.

Nashville writer Amy Speace co-wrote “The Sea & The Shore” with Hecht and the results are a quietly haunting tune about impossible love. The sparse production – just soft acoustic guitar with ribbons of light piano – works wonderfully to compliment Hecht’s delicate yet commanding vocal. “Cars and Bars” traverses nearly identical ground sonically, while also featuring a nicely engaging story about an encounter with a girl that wasn’t destined to be anything more than a one-time meeting. Hecht’s tender vocal conveys a hint of sadness among his recollection of that day.

“Feeling It Now” is slightly faster in tempo with jazzy elements incorporated into the production track. It’s an excellent number about contentment that perfectly conveys one of the hardest emotions to convey properly in a song. “The Light Is Gone” falls on the opposite end of the spectrum and concerns the end of a relationship as indicated through his lovers’ eyes, which painfully illustrate the lack of love she currently feels for him.

One of the album’s standout tracks is “Papa’s Down The Road Dead,” a rockilin’ reflection on the passage of time – someone close to you may’ve died, but life goes on without exception. My other favorite track on Robbie Hecht is “Soon I Was Sleeping,” the only number on the record to contain steel guitar in the backing track. It’s a pure country number about a woman who’s moved on from her ex, with the gorgeously painful flourishes of steel wonderfully extenuating Hecht’s ache.

I freely admit that when I first heard Robbie Hecht I was overcome by the lushness of it, leaving the arrangements feeling somewhat too sleepy for my tastes. But the quietness actually works in his favor, allowing his delicate voice to shine in a way that big production values would’ve squashed. Hecht is an incredibly emotional singer, albeit in a quiet way, and this album is the perfect showcase for his abilities. He may be outside what is traditionally considered country music (and not in a 2014 Nashville sense), but his album works nonetheless. He isn’t the noisiest guy around, but as a singer/songwriter he shouldn’t be ignored.

Country 102.5 WKLB rebrands canceling Sunday Morning Country Oldies

July 3, 2014

wklb_logoWant yet another example of the corporate machine striking again? Well, here you go – Country 102.5 WKLB, Boston’s twenty-one year old country music station has cancelled their ‘Sunday Morning Country Oldies’ program after a twenty year and five month run, replacing it with the same mix of bro-country and progressive sounds that litter their airwaves every other hour of the week.

The move comes in response to the decision by 101.7-FM to switch from an EDM format to country, giving Boston two country music radio stations for the first time. This new station, run by Clear Channel and billing itself as ‘The Bull’ in a shameless effort to covet the younger country music audience, is the ultimate soul sucker. They’re running an uninterrupted commercial free summer to draw in listeners and have slotted the Nashville produced (i.e. syndicated) Bobby Bones Show during the coveted Morning Drive hours.

According to the Boston Globe article announcing the format switch at 101.7, Dylan Sprague, vice president of programming for Clear Channel Media and Entertainment Boston, says the format switch is in accordance to the changing tastes of listeners, most of whom wouldn’t have considered themselves country 1017_the_bull_commercial_free__0_1402657108music fans even ten years ago.

To achieve this goal, 101.7 has launched a “comprehensive search” for DJ talent, as Sprague puts it, to be put on air after Labor Day. The Boston Globe article doesn’t divulge how they plan to find this talent, or even how hard they plan to “search” but at least they have plans to bring a personal touch to the station, who’s call letters are WBLW, and aren’t planning on a syndicated format around the clock.

So, where does Country 102.5 WKLB, Boston’s Country Music Association award winning country music powerhouse, play into the equation? Well, in response to the new station they’ve rolled out what they hoped would be a subtle rebranding campaign as “Boston’s New Hit Country,” which in turn left no room for the venerable oldies program on Sunday mornings.

Sunday Morning Country Oldies began in January 1994, running 8am-noon with the hits from bygone eras no longer heard on mainstream radio. Hosted by Michael Burns and Stu Fink, the program most recently heavily featured 70s, 80s, and 90s country with a nod back to the 60s with a ‘classic oldie of the hour’ like Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” or Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”

Up until 101.7 switched formats, the Oldies program was going strong with no signs of imminent cancelation. This spring they even dedicated shows to featuring tracks from and giving away copies of Johnny Cash’s Out Among The Stars and Ronnie Milsap’s Summer Number Seventeen in coordination with the artists promotional teams in Nashville. On Mother’s Day, they played Jimmy Dean’s tearjerker ‘I.O.U.’ once every hour.

Now the program is gone, cancelled without warning to the listeners or the hosts themselves. Burns and Fink were told on June 16 that their final show had aired the day before. Burns will continue his relationship with Greater Media, who owns WKLB and a host of other stations, while Fink has been let go entirely. The fans of the program, who where wondering what was going on when they tuned in this past Sunday, flooded WKLB’s Facebook page with messages lamenting their anger.

Listeners reminisced about tuning into the program with their 97 year old parents or listening with their spouses who originally hailed from Texas and couldn’t find this music anywhere else beyond CDs and such. Others downright disowned the station and planned to never listen again.

As one of those disgruntled listeners, I’m deeply saddened by the show’s cancelation, but I’m not surprised or shocked at this move by Country 102.5 WKLB. We live in a world, especially with regards to media, where corporate greed wins out every time no matter how it might effect a entity’s image or well being within the community.

I’ve had by soul shattered by the continuing devolution of country music for years now, and I’d be a fool to think it could possibly recover even to a fraction of what it once was and should’ve always remained. The country music genre and establishment, no matter how much money it makes on a daily basis, is corrupt and morally bankrupt.

If I didn’t understand that fact before, the cancelation of Sunday Morning Country Oldies makes it loud and clear. This move puts Country 102.5 WKLB on par with 101.7 instead of establishing themselves as an exception to the rule. Sunday Morning Country Oldies is what helped them stand out from the pack and retain the older country music audience in and around Boston starving for authenticity out of the music they love. Without it they’ve lost, my 26-year-old self included, whatever fraction of that audience they had left.

I’d have to be an even bigger fool if I thought this move would significantly impact Country 102.5 WKLB’s bottom line. Will they suffer as a result of cancelling Sunday Morning Country Oldies? Of course they won’t. WKLB makes their money off of the latest and greatest in country music and their pivotal role of turning Boston into a must visit city for all major country music tours. With the growth of country music, they’ve become the number one most listened to station in Boston with ratings going through the roof. Country 102.5 WKLB hasn’t been this popular at any other point in its 21-year history.

With those statistics, it’s hard to believe they’d be so insecure about loosing their audience to 101.7 that they’d quickly rebrand and yank their Sunday morning oldies show. I find it mind boggling that a weekly four-hour block of classic country on a Sunday morning would deter listeners to another station. They seriously believe that fans are so impatient they can’t wait until noon for the likes of Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan, or Jason Aldean? The thinking here, suggested by the cancelation of Sunday Morning Country Oldies, is flat-out ridiculous.

Michael Burns (Left) and Stu Fink - hosts of Sunday Morning Country Oldies

Michael Burns (Left) and Stu Fink – hosts of Sunday Morning Country Oldies

Without so much as a press release or statement from Country 102.5 WKLB explaining this move in their own PR spun words, is there any hope going forward for the fans of the program? With the damage already done, they’re shouldn’t be. By making the move in the first place Country 102.5 WKLB have shown their true colors as a station just like all the rest, a follower of demographics and industry trends. Keeping the show alive would’ve been the bold move, a stance against the devolution of corporate radio at a time when a protest was needed most.

There’s been speculation about Burns and Fink trying to revive the program online or through another medium but any formal announcement, beyond a ‘Save Sunday Morning Country Oldies’ Facebook page has yet to come down the pipeline. I sincerely hope they get the last word in all of this as they are the true victims here, lovers of classic country who had their voice diminished without as much as a chance to officially thank their listeners for twenty great years.

As for Country 102.5 WKLB, they can be yet another voice diminishing real country music on the airwaves, catering to the mainstream audience that’s done more to murder music row than any artist in Larry Cordle’s song.

WKLB, go and cram Luke Bryan’s August coming out party at Gillette Stadium down our throats. Its okay, now that we’ve seen who you really are once and for all.

Further Reading: 

Boston Radio: New Sheriff In Town Country Is #1

Clear Channel converts 101.7 to country music format

WKLB DROPS “SUNDAY MORNING COUNTRY OLDIES”

 

Album Review: Jim Lauderdale: “I’m A Song”

July 2, 2014

Jim Lauderdale

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I’m A Song

* * * *

Jim Lauderdale, recording once again for Sky Crunch Records, has gifted us with a self-produced double album to follow-up his acclaimed Buddy & Jim duets project from 2012. I’m A Song, his 26th album, spans twenty songs over a single disc of pure honky-tonk bliss with not a clinker in the bunch.

For this project Lauderdale wrote or co-wrote every song, opting to self-pen eight of the album’s tracks. For these numbers he mainly focuses on different aspects of relationships, from the hopeful beginnings of “Lets Have A Good Thing Together” to a woman’s uniqueness in “You’ve Got A Way With Yours.” “There’s No Shadows In The Shade” confronts what we tend to hide from one another in relationships, while the title track cleverly compares a romance to different aspects of a song. All are excellent, with gorgeous twangy guitar, drum, and pedal steel based arrangements that nicely complement Lauderdale’s southern drawl.

Much like “There’s No Shadow In The Shade,” “Hope and Find” has a very modern, and somewhat heavy, accompaniment the builds along with the sinister lyric. “The Day The Devil Changed” is the exact opposite – sunny and bright, despite a lyric about a man’s desire to course correct his troubled past. “We Will Rock Again” closes the album by echoing the honky-tonk beat of opener “Lets Have A Good Thing Together,” but presenting it as straight up rock. The lyric, about endings that aren’t goodbye, is in its chosen spot given its appropriateness as an album ending song.

Lauderdale teamed up with Jimmy Richie and Mark Irwin for “Past It,” in which the guy is eternally hopeful that he and his woman may be over the ‘rough patch that we’re on.’ The jaunty beat nicely aids in his optimism, while his cynical vocal suggests otherwise. Newly minted Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Bare shares co-writing credits on “This Feeling’s Hanging On,” a glorious straight-up traditional number bursting with steel and fiddle. “End of the World Rag” is one of the louder numbers, a doomsday lament that’s rock in every way.

Odie Blackmon, probably best known for writing Lee Ann Womack’s “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” collaborated with Lauderdale on three cuts. “Neon Hearts” is a lonely man’s ode to drinking in bars, “Makin’ Honey” is a jarringly happy love song that seems somewhat out of character for the album, and “The World Is Waiting Below” concerns a very happy couple who are so in love they haven’t come down to earth yet. Of these three, which are all good, “Neon Hearts” is a cut above the rest, a wonderful bar song that gets to the heart of why we sometimes just need a stiff drink to wash away our troubles. Matt Warren and Gary Allan (along with Lauderdale) co-wrote “I Wish You Loved Me,” a fabulous honky-tonk number about unreciprocated love.

Womack provides harmony vocals on two of the four duet tracks on I’m A Song. Co-written with Robert Hunter, “A Day With No Tomorrow” is an excellent mid-tempo traditional country ballad about a recently heartbroken man. Even better is “Doin’ Time In Bakersfield” a Frank Dycus co-write about a man behind bars in the aforementioned California city. I wish Womack could’ve done more than harmonize here, making it a true duet, but her contributions only add to the outstanding quality of the track.

A collaboration with Patty Loveless on the self-penned “Today I’ve Got The Yesterdays” is given the same harmonizing treatment as the Womack numbers, and while it’s a great song with a flawless production, I would’ve liked to have seen Lauderdale give her some lines to sing solo. Their voices sound sharp together, too, as the both have distinct twangy vocals that keep them from harmonizing perfectly, like he was able to do with the sweeter voiced Womack. The Buddy Miller partnership on his Elvis Costello co-written “I Lost You” works the best given the format, as they are essentially a duo anyways.

“The King of Broken Hearts,” which George Strait brought prominence with the Pure Country soundtrack and Womack cut on Call Me Crazy gets recorded here by its writer twenty-three years after his original release since that project is long out of print. A staple of his shows and easily his most popular song, its revival here is a welcomed treat.

Most times when an artist opts to gift their fans twenty songs on a single disc, the results are uneven at best, and often wrought with wide sweeps of varying styles meant to please each and every sector of the audience. Lauderdale smartly forgoes that in favor of crafting a pure honky-tonk project as cohesive as any album could aspire to be. While not a fault of his own the track do tend to run together a bit, but the standout numbers (“Doin’ Time in Bakersfield,” “Neon Lights,” and “The Day The Devil Changed”) stand out loud and clear.

Concert Review: Willie Nelson & Family and Alison Krauss and Union Station along with Kacey Musgraves at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, Boston, MA

June 24, 2014

“That is the most random pairing of acts I’ve ever seen in one show together in my life”

300x_062014If not my exact words, that’s at least what I was thinking when I logged into Engine 145 Feb 10 to Ken Morton Jr’s headline – “Willie Nelson, AKUS announce co-headlining tour.” Why in the world would two seemingly completely different acts share a stage unless for a one off benefit show somewhere in Texas or Nashville? Well I didn’t get my answer June 17 at The Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on the Boston Waterfront, but I was treated to four hours worth of music across the span of three acts.

I was most excited about tour opener Kacey Musgraves, the only act on the bill I hadn’t previously seen live. Her thirty-minute set was short, and we came in while she was performing a perfect rendition of her live-your-life mid-tempo ballad “Silver Lining.”

She plucked away on the banjo during “Merry Go ‘Round” and tried to get the crowd going during the chorus of “Follow Your Arrow,” which worked surprisingly well. Both were good, but Musgraves stunned with “It Is What It Is,” wrapping her voice around the lyric brilliantly. She gave her underrated steel player a gorgeous solo – and an “I love Pedal Steel” shout out – that easily trumps the recorded version.

The main concern people have with Musgraves is her burgeoning friendship with Katy Perry, a move that could transition her away from country. But the set showcased her country bonafides wonderfully, from her naturally twangy voice to her love of western themes (trademark neon cacti). As proof, Musgraves and her band closed their set with a glorious a Capella rendition of the Roy Rogers classic “Happy Trails To You” featuring the refrain “Till We Meet Again.” I know I’ll be meeting her again, hopefully as a headliner, real soon.

Alison Krauss and Union Station were next, bringing their comforting bluegrass picking to the hungry audience. From the first notes of opener “Let Me Touch You For A While,” I was home. Their 90-minute set was spectacular, with Krauss wrapping her otherworldly voice around their signature songs – “The Lucky One,” “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,” to “You Will Be My Ain True Love,” “Sawing On The Strings,” “Ghost In This House,” and “Paper Airplane.”

While their set was familiar, it was heavy on uptempo material, which I found surprising, given Krauss is known for her ballads. It worked though, as a whole night of ballads would’ve been too much. Even more startling was Dan Tyminski’s heavier-than-usual role acting like a second lead singer more than just a band member. He ripped through many of songs he fronts including “Dust Bowl Children” and got a charge out of some venue workers with “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn.” Krauss showcased her trademark wit when talking about “Hey Brother,” his collaboration with EDM mastermind Avicii and the mainstream exposure it’s afford him, including a prime spot over the speakers at Kohl’s stores. Tyminski played that, too, along with his classic rendition of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” He’s a great singer but his prominence was likely do to Krauss’ vocal troubles over the past year.

Her master Dobro player Jerry Douglas also got a solo, plucking away on covers including one by Paul Simon. He’s incredible and the obvious master of his craft. They closed their set with an encore highlight, gathering around in a semi-circle to gift the audience short snippets of “When You Say Nothing At All,” “Down At The River To Prey,” the chorus of “Whiskey Lullaby” and a fabulous take on “The Long Journey,” which Krauss recorded with Robert Plant. The inventive encore was the highlight, a surprise moment of magic. At this point, especially since they haven’t released new music in three years, Krauss and Union Station is a well-oiled machine, albeit an exquisite one.

It’s hard to believe Willie Nelson is a man of 81, when he sings and has the energy of men thirty years his junior. After the show a friend asked me if he still had the goods and with a resounding yes, he does. But really, does he sing well? No, he doesn’t. But much like Kris Kristofferson, that’s to be expected, as Willie will always be Willie.

Like most every other show he’s played, Nelson began his set just as expected, with “Whiskey River.” He has to be the oddest entertainer I’ve ever seen as he doesn’t take breaks between songs, instead he lets song after song bleed into one another so you don’t know where one ends or the next begins. It works for him as he bled “Crazy” into “Night Life” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” into “Always On My Mind.”

He also turned in fantastic renditions of “On The Road Again” and “Good Hearted Woman,” which he dedicated to Waylon Jennings. When he launched into “Beer For My Horses,” I didn’t recognize the song at first given how he’d changed it up, but the lyric caught up to me when he got to the “Pappy told my pappy” line in the second verse. I always love hearing him sing “Me and Paul,” and especially liked the all-too-appropriate line about him singing on a package show with Charley Pride.

Nelson had his family band with him, which included his two sons and sister Bobbie, who gave a nice piano showcase. His guitarist was introduced as simply as Johnny, and revealed late last week to be the actor Johnny Depp, who’s in town playing Mobster Whitey Bulger in the biopic Black Mass.

His son Lukas had a showcase of his own, ripping through the blues on “Texas Flood,” a nine minute set highlight showcasing his masterful guitar playing and powerfully aching booming voice. He later went more restrained and joined his dad for their recent duet “Just Breathe.”

As much as for his own material, Nelson’s set was a showcase for country music. He gifted us with three Hank Williams covers – “Jambalaya,” “Hey Good Lookin,” and “I Saw The Light,” all of which were outstanding. He turned “Mama’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” into a chant, converting the word ‘mama’ into a deep-throated wail, which worked for a sing-along but became grating.

Nelson, who transported the crowd to a 1970s Texas honky-tonk with his unique outlaw sound, closed the show (and evening) with a sing-along that brought out Krauss, Union Station, Musgraves, and her band. With everyone on stage they went through the gospel favorite “I’ll Fly Away” and country standard “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” among others. It was fabulous he included everyone in this and it was a hoot to see Musgraves’ band in their flashy suits that light up like a Christmas tree.

All and all it was a fantastic evening of live music that left this Musgraves, Krauss, and Nelson fan extremely satisfied. Given that Rounder Records began in Massachusetts, it’s wonderful that Krauss gave a shot out to the people who signed her in 1985 – who also happened to be in attendance.

Now, could Nelson have sung “Poncho and Lefty” or “City of New Orleans?” Of course. Should Musgraves have been allowed to play longer? Hell, yeah. Did I want to hear Krauss sing a bit more? Without a doubt. But that’s just nitpicking a near perfect evening of exceptional music from three of the brightest talents country music has to offer. Just a terrific show, and wonderful evening, all around.

Album Review: Miranda Lambert: “Platinum”

June 12, 2014

Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertPlatinum

Platinum

* * * * 1/2

Midway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came Fromnine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, butPlatinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Album Review: Lucy Hale: “Road Between”

June 11, 2014

Lucy Hale

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Road Between

* * *

As predicted by Bob McDill twenty years ago, it’s not that uncommon anymore for artists to go country, especially those known for other career aspirations. It’s particularly true for television actresses, with Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale adding her name to the growing list that includes Jana Kramer and Julianne Hough.

Hale is no different than her contemporaries, having to fight to earn her country credentials just like Kramer and Hough before her. With ample fiddle and a cool yet catchy drumbeat, she sets off on the right foot with “You Sound Good To Me,” a sunny uptempo number written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird, and Hillary Lindsey. Hale brings a natural effervescence to the track that works well.

Hale brings a sinister vibe to “Goodbye Gone,” a dusty banjo-infused rocker written by J.T. Harding, Melissa Peirce and Andy Dodd. She may be caught up in the all-to-familiar tale of a woman ending things with her man, but Hale brings ferocity to the proceedings that help sell the track beautifully.

While the electric guitars may come on a little thick on “Lie A Little Better,” Hale’s confident vocal cuts through the noise just enough that isn’t as intrusive as it could be. “Kiss Me” is a lot softer and allows Hale the room to breathe and give a tender vocal that’s quite endearing. With neither of the songs overwhelm lyrically, Hale saves the day by injecting the right amounts of personality into her vocal performances. “Love Tonight” is another similar song in nature, but the handclaps in the melody are a bit addicting and make up for any weaknesses in the lyric.

“From the Backseat” is a nice mid-tempo number sonically reminiscent of Sara Evans’ Restless album written by Mike Daly, Jimmy Robbins, and Nicolle Clawson. The track had me until it went flavorless on the chorus, which employs the wall-of-sound production technique so much that it intrudes on the uniqueness of the song and Hale’s vocal.

The truest test for any singer on a debut album is the moments where the production is left sparse, where any vocal limitations will stand out like a sore thumb. Hale’s moment comes on Tom Douglas, James Slater, and Lindsey’s “Nervous Girls” and she passes with flying colors. The production may still lean country-pop, but she proves quite nicely that she can hold her own against any of her contemporaries.

Joe Nichols, back in traditional country mode vocally, joins Hale for “Red Dress,” a somewhat awkward moment that finds the two playing out the male and female aspects of a relationship. Kacey Musgraves co-wrote “That’s What I Call Crazy” and proves she’s adept at writing both artistic and commercially viable numbers. Hale’s only co-write comes in album closer “Just Another Song” and it’s one of the strongest numbers on the album thanks to a co-writing credit by Catt Gravitt, who helped write some of the best numbers on Kramer’s debut two years ago.

Listening to “Just Another Song” makes one wish Gravitt had contributed more here, as she thrives in this type of setting, writing songs for young female artists who may be looking for a voice. While there’s little revelatory aboutRoad Between, it does showcase a budding talent that has the goods to extend her television career into one involving music. Hopefully she’ll be allowed to record a bit more substantive material going forward (really, how many numbers about kissing does one need on an eleven song album?) and further develop the strong potential she showcases onRoad Between.

Album Review: Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis: ‘Our Year’

May 27, 2014

Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

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Our Year

* * * * 1/2

Over the Christmas holiday last year, a friend asked how Texas country was different from Nashville country. I had to stop for a moment and finally came up with an answer – to me Texas country often has more of a back to basics sound, more roots based than the commercial sheen coming out of Music City.

So it always surprises me when Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis record their collaborative projects there, not Austin, where they live, and spend most of their time. Like last year’s Cheater’s GameOur Year maintains the Texas sound they’ve come to hone, down to the minimalist production and close harmonies.

Instead of a direct sequel, Our Year plays like a companion piece to Cheater’s Game – far shorter in length and less commercial in scope. The absence of production drives the record, giving the ten tracks a demo-like feel that leaves them sounding somewhat unfinished, but no less enjoyable or musically appealing.

No more is this apparent than on their cover of Tom T. Hall’s classic “Harper Valley PTA,” oft-covered in their live shows and the track that spearheaded this album. It opens with a lone acoustic guitar and doesn’t get much more rocklin’, save some dobro riffs, as it goes along. Willis’ strong vocal drives the song and works well to tell the story.

Robison and Willis bring a bluegrass flair to The Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You,” and while they don’t add anything new to Vern Gosdin and Emmylou Harris’ “(Just Enough To Keep Me) Hanging On,” their version works just as well. A cover of T Bone Burnett’s “Shake Yourself Loose” is pure honky-tonk bliss and a stunning showcase for Willis vocally.

Like Cheater’s Game, Our Year isn’t all country covers. The pair keeps it in the family on “Departing Lousania,” a mandolin driven ballad written by Robison’s youngest sister Robyn Ludwick. Robison appropriately takes the lead, sticking in his wheelhouse of journey songs, and does a bang-up job of bringing the story to life.

The harmonica is out in full force on delightful rocker “Motor City Man,” penned by late Austin singer/songwriter Walter Hyatt. The track breathes some much-needed attitude into the album and gives Willis a chance to deliver a strong and confident vocal.

The title track, a Zombies song written by Chris White, is a staple of their annual Christmas show and features a lovely banjo-driven arrangement and the pair’s signature harmonies.

Robison contributed two of the strongest compositions found on Our Year. “Carousel,” is a glorious steel-front waltz co-written with Darden Smith that concerns the end of a relationship, where a couple has to “step off of the carousel and say goodbye.” “Anywhere But Here” is an ode to youthful innocence and a perfectly articulated number about the restlessness of growing up.

“Lonely For You” is a Willis original, co-written with Paul Kennerley. Willis may be one of the best honky-tonk balladeers recording music today, but she also shines on uptempo material like this, about a woman who’s still holding on to a relationship that’s already come to an end.

Often when an iconic collaborative pairing (the Trio, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss) tries to record a follow-up record the sessions are either marred with drama or the project takes years to see the light of day. It’s even harder, just ask Patty Loveless or Alan Jackson, to follow-up an iconic work with something even half as good as the original.

With Our Year, Robison and Willis have succeeded splendidly on both fronts with an album tighter and even more fully realized than Cheater’s Game. They could’ve done without the Statler Brothers or Gosdin/Harris covers and thrown in two more Robison originals, but there’s no other way this project could be more perfect. Our Year is easily yet another of 2014’s spectacular releases.

Album Review: Radney Foster: “Everything I Should’ve Said”

May 20, 2014

Radney Foster

RF.EISHS-11

Everything I Should’ve Said

* * * 1/2 

To record his first album of original material since 2009, Radney Foster traveled to Dockside Studios in Lafayette, Louisiana, a converted whorehouse lacking modern amenities. Working alongside musicians he’s collaborated with during his two plus decades making music, Foster has crafted some of the most personal work of his career.

As a result, Everything I Should’ve Said radiates with rejuvenated energy from an artist roaring with passion and contemplating sizable ache. The rough edginess producer Justin Tocket brings to the proceedings displays a palpable urgency, even if the slightly dusty dirt penetrating the tracks comes off a little heavy-handed at times.

Self-penned stunner “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse),” which opens the album, finds Foster tipsy and ravished at the mercy of creativity, and not the hands of a woman: “You saunter in at 2 am and whisper poetry.Sensuous, whiskey-soaked and breathless next to me.You’ll sneak out before the dawn, but what should I expect? ‘Cause you don’t really give a damn whose heart you wreck.” That thematic twist is a stroke of brilliance and turns what could’ve been just an average heartbreaker into something far deeper and more impactful.

“The Man You Want” and “Holding Back” are two more numbers Foster wrote solo and both are excellent love songs. “The Man You Want” is also a glorious moment of self-reflection, with Foster laying bare his character traits only to admit his greatest life accomplishment is being the man his woman wants him to be. His girl is his kryptonite on “Holding Back,” a beautiful sentiment about the depths of affection.

My favorite of his five solely written numbers is “California,” a delicate love song about two gypsies starting over in the Golden State. The two wayward souls aren’t a couple, just like-minded people, which make the story all the more alluring. Foster also nails the simple yet oh-so-true hook: “Can’t you hear California calling your name, a siren song that once you hear it you’ll never be the same.

Foster teams up with Jay Clementi on two numbers, the jaunty “Hard Light of Day” and pulsating “Lie About Loving Me.” Both incorporate the wall-of-sound production technique that mares too much of mainstream music and gives the tunes a rockish feel that engulfs any distinctive qualities within the melodies. Fortunately the lyrical content is top-notch on both songs with “Lie About Loving Me” acting as somewhat of an addictive earworm. Another in this vein is his solely written “Unh, Unh, Unh,” an insufferable piece of dreck I skip whenever listening to the album.

The rock flavored production actually adds a dimension of anger to “Not In My House,” a generational number inspired by his a conversation with his fifth grade aged daughter about the meaning of the word ‘slut.’ Foster and co-writer Allen Shamblin broadened the song to incorporate themes of world injustice and put forth their mid-50s southern man prospective on hate and bigotry. The song is effective without being offensive and a strong lyric that needed to be said.

Two additional standout tracks find Foster co-writing with Gordie Sampson and Jim McCormick. “Noise,” may also employ the wall-of-sound recording technique but I don’t mind it as much thanks to Foster’s vocal, which cuts through nicely. “Keep Myself From Falling” is also in the same vein musically, but has a fabulous lyric that wouldn’t have been out of place on mainstream country radio (by the likes of Dierks Bentley) just five years ago and should be mainstream enough now if Bro-Country hadn’t taken over. The same goes for the title track, co-written with Darrell Brown, which has Foster laying bare his regrets in a relationship.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is “Mine Until The Morning,” a duet with Patty Griffin co-written with Darden Smith. A delicate piano-laced ballad, “Mine Until The Morning” is a gorgeous love song with Griffin’s guest vocal adding a beautiful richness to the track.

By most respects, Foster has turned in another wonderfully strong album both vocally and lyrically with Everything I Should’ve Said. Highlights abound left and right and “Whose Heart You Wreck (Ode To The Muse)” and “Not In My House” are two of the most powerful songs you’ll hear all year. The only misstep comes from Justin Tocket’s far too loud rockish production, which doesn’t render most tracks unlistenable, it’s just intrusive where it doesn’t need to be. Other than that, Everything I Should’ve Said is a solid album belonging in the company of Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash’s recent releases.

Album Review: Rodney Crowell: ‘Tarpaper Sky’

April 15, 2014

Rodney Crowell

TarpaperSky

Tarpaper Sky

* * * *

After a decade spent making legacy albums, churning out two long anticipated collaborative projects, and writing his memoir, Rodney Crowell has reunited with his late 80s / early 90s brethren (Stuart Smith, Michael Rhodes, John Hobbs, and Eddy Bayers) for his new album.Tarpaper Sky is stunning as a result, consisting solely of original compositions that return Crowell to the straightforward sound that gained him fame in his heyday.

At 63 Crowell’s vocal tone has weathered with age, creating richness that ads reverence to everything he sings. He uses it to his full advantage, along with his genius as a wordsmith, to reflect on life through universal truths.  

“The simple life tastes sweeter now, we have no need to roam,” he sings on “Long Journey Home,” the strum-centric album opener. He’s lamenting on the quieter life he seeks now after a life of living out the self-proclaimed freedom he sought in his younger days. The excellent track is as much an inward expression as a mission statement, drawing the listener into Crowell’s mindset for the whole of the record.

He echoes the virtues of that simpler life on “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” his beautiful commentary on true love. Through vivid imagery, and his brilliance as a storyteller, Crowell brings the couple to life – warts and all – linking their story with the mutual affection that bonds their lives together. The melody, lush with acoustic guitar and organ, has a fabulous bootleg quality to it that takes the song to new heights, making you feel like you’ve stumbled upon something special.

Its clear Crowell is in the midst of a creative resurgence, which, for a man who’s been steadily crafting genre-defining work for more than forty years, is remarkable. “Oh, What A Beautiful World,” a Dylan-era inspired folk tune laced with harmonica, is a biting take on the circle of life that could only come from someone with a lot of life in their years. Crowell certainly fits the bill as he sings, “It’s the truth and the lie, is to live and to die.

Nowhere is Crowell’s wide-eyed soul on fuller display than his magical “The Flyboy and the Kid,” a brilliant hymn about one man’s adoration for his best friend. Crowell lays out his wishes (days filled with honest work, easy answers to all life’s questions, etc) with gorgeous sincerity resonated by the mid-tempo mandolin and upright bass filled melody, which ranks as my favorite on Tarpaper Sky.

The standout number on Tarpaper Sky, and the instance where the album title was born, is “God I’m Missing You,” the Mary Karr Kin co-write done on that project by Lucinda Williams. The wordy ballad, stylistically reminiscent of “Open Season On My Heart,” is a tender masterpiece about the impressions people leave on us in this life, and how they never really go away in death. The mournful ache Crowell brings to the number is pitch-perfect, exceeded only by the lyric, which never falters in fully developing the emotional undertones. “There’s a sanded down moon, in a tarpaper sky” may be my favorite line on the whole album.

Crowell may be in a contemplative mood for much of Tarpaper Sky, but he detours into other territories, too. Lead single “Frankie Please” is a rapid-fire pistol-whip about a man’s blink-and-you-missed-it courtship and subsequent marriage “that happened so fast, they said it wouldn’t last” to a woman named Frankie. Crowell, along with Smith and Dan Knobler, give the tune a 50s shuffle feel complete with Memphis inspired electric guitars. It’s a great song with Crowell deserving credit for keeping up with the vibrant energy of the track.

“Fever On The Bayou,” a co-write with frequent collaborator Will Jennings, has been twenty-years in the making, finally finished when the last verse was born out of an airport run in with songwriter Byron House. The tune is excellent, painting a picture of the Bayou life and the women who live there.

Tarpaper Sky only missteps occasionally, either by general pedestrian-ess or melodies that just weren’t to my taste. “Famous Last Words of a Fool In Love” and “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” are fine songs, but the ballads seem too generic for an album with this much thematic heaviness. “Somebody’s Shadow” (a co-write with Quinten Collier) and the self-penned “Jesus Talked To Mama” are too heavy with electric guitars for me to fully enjoy them. But they’re not bad songs at all, just weak spots on an otherwise masterful album.

When I read that Crowell began recording Tarpaper Sky in 2010, I was taken aback since this album feels born as much from the recent resurgence in Americana as his creative rebirth in the wake of Kin and Old Yellow Moon. Crowell’s insistence on going back to basics works in his favor, too, although Tarpaper Sky is a fully modern album and not a retread of Diamonds & Dirt. He’s still a songwriter at the peak of his abilities and after more than forty years, that’s wonderful to see. At it’s best Tarpaper Sky is brilliant in its songcraft and one of the strongest songwriting projects to emerge in quite a long time.

Album Review: Nickel Creek “A Dotted Line”

April 10, 2014

Nickel Creek

A_Dotted_Line_(Album_Cover)

A Dotted Line

* * * *

One of the most welcomed surprises late last year was the news that Nickel Creek, easily my favorite acoustic band, were reuniting to record their first album of all-new material in nine years. Produced by Eric Valentine, the mastermind behind Why Should The Fire Die, the project marks their twenty-fifth anniversary as a band.

Whenever an act disbands, especially in the prime of their abilities, there’s always a sadness marked by countless ‘what could’ve been’ thoughts had they stayed together. But more now than ever, it’s easy to see that the members of Nickel Creek (Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins) were more than just members of a group, but rather vibrant solo artists who needed to explore life apart from the musical force that had guided their lives since they were teenagers. Their personal growth away from Nickel Creek has been extraordinary; with solo projects and other unique ventures serving to further hone their creative geniuses and better inform them as a band now that they’ve reunited.

Our first taste of their reinvigoration came from “Destination,” the fiery Sara Watkins-led first single. The track is an outstanding addition to their legacy and perfectly matches Thile’s rip-roaring mandolin with Watkins’ smoky yet biting vocal. Two more songs were released in advance of the album – “Love Of Mine,” a gorgeous ballad led by Thile’s mandolin and Watkins’ fiddle and “21 of May,” a crisp traditional bluegrass number showcasing Sean’s glorious talents with acoustic guitar. The latter is my favorite of three, and one of their greatest performances as a band. Rarely have they ever sounded this tightly engaged.

As far as Nickel Creek albums go, A Dotted Line is a fairly conventional set, with relatively few stylistic surprises. That’s a good thing, though, as the music is allowed to stand for itself without too much experimentation getting the best of them. As far as progressive bluegrass bands go, they show why they’re the best of the bunch on “Rest of My Life,” a soaring ballad showcasing the high lonesome side of Thile’s voice in marriage with his signature crashing mandolin picking. He takes the lead again on the excellent rapid-fire “You Don’t Know What’s Going On,” a stunningly aggressive number with a punkish attitude and enduring angry rock sensibility. If only all such songs would sound like this.

“Where Is Love Now,” a Sam Phillips cover, finds Sara singing lead once again, with a delicate ballad that gives her room to breathe. As a vocalist, Watkins is a curious case in that her voice is often obstructed by production (especially on Sun Midnight Sun) that drowns her out. She has the ability to keep up with muscular production, “Destination” is a good example of this, but on lush ballads Thile’s mandolin and Sean’s acoustic guitar is the right amount of production to let her shine. What I love the most here is how the song rolls along conventionally until the chorus, when the three-part harmony kicks in beautifully, allowing the track to soar to new heights.

“Christmas Eve” is the rare moment Sean sings lead, and he more than holds his own with the story of a guy pleading with his girl not end their relationship. The track distinguishes itself in lyric alone, as it’s the most story-centric number on A Dotted Line. There’s a tinge of sadness in Watkins’ vocal that mares his conviction, but it works in allowing him to lay open his broken heart. “Christmas Eve” is skillfully subtle in all the right ways.

In contrast to the rest of the album, the band gives us one track brazenly unafraid to reimagine the definition of what a Nickel Creek song can sound like. “Hayloft” is a duet between Sara and Thile where they assume the rolls of a couple being chased by her disapproving father (“My daddy’s got a gun,” wails Watkins in the refrain). The track, originally done by Mother Mother, an indie rock band from British Columbia, is wacky, nonsensical, and the album’s standout number simply for daring to be different. I wanted to hate it, but Watkins infuses it with the personality she brought to her solo albums and its so endearing that the proceedings are nothing less than charming. If Watkins hadn’t made those two solo albums, I doubt “Hayloft” would even exist – her growth and newfound confidence as a musical being is astounding.

As if eight lyrical numbers weren’t enough, we’re also gifted two instrumentals that are as excellent as anything on A Dotted Line. “Elsie” is a strong mandolin and fiddle ballad that rolls along quite nicely while “Elephant In The Corn” picks up the tempo a bit and features a wonderful acoustic guitar breakdown from Sean. I’m not usually one to go crazy for instrumentals, preferring songs with lyrics, but these are excellent.

So, after nine years, was A Dotted Line worth the wait? More than anyone involved in its creation will ever know. With the rise in popularity of Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers, I’m come to appreciate Nickel Creek (and Thile’s other band The Punch Brothers) even more because they approach their music from a bluegrass and not rock perspective.

With purely acoustic instruments and lush not aggressive vocals, they make this acoustic progressive bluegrass the way it’s supposed to sound. That they do it with exceptional lyrical compositions is just an added bonus. Their asaterical lyrics have always been their downfall, but they’ve grown by leaps and bounds as writers on A Dotted Lineas well as singers and musicians. Lets hope it’s not another nine years before we’re gifted with their next set of new music.

Album Review: Sara Evans “Slow Me Down”

March 28, 2014

Sara Evans

SaraEvansSlowDownAlbum

Slow Me Down

* *

When Sara Evans appeared on Opry Backstage with Bill Anderson in the late 90s, she commented on her voice, saying no matter what she sings it’ll always come out country. That logic may’ve been true at the time, but with producer Mark Bright at the helm and a 2014 mentality to uphold, Evans is as far from her country roots as one can be and still associate with country music.

If you’ve studied the careers of the 80s and 90s country women as closely as I have over the years, you know they show their true colors when their commercial prospects begin to fade. Do they go the Reba or Faith Hill route and squeeze out every last hit, with little regard for quality? Or do they take the Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless route and seamlessly transition into a legacy career marked by adventurous and risk taking records that display the innate artistry that made them too smart for country radio in the first place?

With Slow Me Down Evans fits squarely into the former category with an album that exposes a hidden truth of her career – that she was never that artistic at all, just a trend follower who happened to come of age at a time when good quality songs were still the mainstay of mainstream Nashville. With that era firmly in the rearview mirror, we’re left with a singer resorting to whatever she can to find a platform, and the results are more than a little desperate.

When the title track was released late September, the press behind it made “Slow Me Down” out to be the best thing Evans had ever recorded, a record akin to the 80s crossover hits that came between the Urban Cowboy era and the new traditionalist movement. In reality it’s a terrible song, shoddily written by Merv Green, Heather Morgan, and Jimmy Robbins. The verses are stunted and repetitive and the chorus, while strong, becomes too breathy when Evans morphs into a pop diva by the end.

The rest of the album follows suit, with Evans turning out one generic ‘bright pop’ moment after another with little regard to singing anything that actually has something to say. Bright’s use of drums and electric guitars is far too generic for Evans, and any uniqueness in her voice is suppressed in favor of exploiting the lowest common denominator. Even her trademark covers of mainstream hits have taken a beating, with her take on Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” maintaining far too much of his original, down to inviting him in for a guest vocal.

When I reviewed Stronger three years ago, I said one of that project’s shortcomings was the lack of Evans’ trademark sweeping story songs (‘I Learned That From You’ and ‘You’ll Always Be My Baby’) and her distinctive honky-tonkers (‘Born To Fly’ and ‘Suds In The Bucket’). Those problems exist here, too, but after three years of such songs going the way of VCRs and Landline telephones, it’s hardly a surprise. Evans does try and maintain the last ounce of her country credibility with “Better Off,” a fiddle-heavy tune featuring Vince Gill, but the production is still far too loud, with drums and noise marring the purer elements.

If it’s any consolation, there’s a lyrical consistency on Slow Me Down that elevates the album above Stronger, which had too may juvenile lyrical couplets. But that’s hardly a cause for celebration, as the music here is far too weak, generic, and bland for a singer of Evans’ caliber. I’m not overly disappointed, though, as I kind of expected this, and in the context of mainstream country, this is one of the less irritating releases to come so far this year.

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

March 11, 2014

Don Williams

4096_donwilliamsreflections

Reflections

* * * * 1/2

On his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interrupter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Album Review – Eric Church – “The Outsiders”

March 6, 2014

Eric Church

eric-church-the-outsiders

The Outsiders

* * *

When it comes to reviewing new releases, my philosophy is to tackle albums by artists for which I’m a fan opposed to critiquing records by artists that aren’t my taste. That way the review isn’t a one-sided analysis based solely on an already established dislike for the artist or the music. I don’t usually like to waste my time on releases that are more of the usual mainstream drivel and don’t have the slightest chance of being anything other than trend-following fodder designed for maximum airplay on the ever shrinking playlists of country radio.

That being said, I’ve been an Eric Church fan since “How ‘Bout You” in 2006. While that might not have been my favorite song, I loved “Two Pink Lines” and “Guys Like Me.” From then on, I’ve loved the majority of his singles and count Chief among the best mainstream releases this decade. Church has always been an original who follows the beat of his own drum and I wholeheartedly respect him for being his own man in a sea of interchangeable sameness.

But now it seems the biggest side effect of his success is overblown ego. Instead of using Chief as the platform from which build a follow-up record, he’s disregarded it completely and crafted what’ll likely be one of the most polarizing albums to come out of Nashville this year from a genre heavyweight. The Outsiders defies logic with a decidedly noncommercial sound that alienates the masses in favor of playing to whomever you would call the group that shares in his odd vision.

When listening to the album, which the majority of critics have referred to as “groundbreaking,” I kept searching for those more normal moments, songs like “Springsteen” or even “Love Your Love The Most” that I could easily enjoy (or see on country radio as potential singles). While they were hard to find, thankfully they are there in some form or another.

“Talladega,” co-written by Church and Luke Laird, is the most conventional and thus the album’s strongest moment overall. A story of friendship, the tune centers around five friends and their unforgettable times together at the famed racetrack. It’s a near perfect slice of rock-country and a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Tim McGraw’sSet This Circus Down.

Church teams up with his “Springsteen” co-writers Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tendell for “Roller Coaster Ride,” a more progressive experience sonically, but a darn catchy tune with a nice hook (“Since you had to go, I’ve been on a roller coaster ride”). Also appealing is drinking song “Cold One” in which a man is lamenting the sudden end of a relationship when his girl leaves him ‘one beer short of a twelve pack.’ The track would’ve been a home run had Church and producer Jay Joyce kept the ear-catching backwoods arraignment that opens the track. When it morphs into the progressive hip/hop meets EDM mess towards the second verse, I’m all but lost. But the writers (Church, Hyde, and Luke Hutton) have written a fantastic lyric, and that about saves the whole thing.

As a general rule, Church is often better lyrically than sonically. Often, his best songs (think “Creepin’”) are as loud and obnoxious as they are lyrically inventive and original. That’s why I was kind of upset when the title track dropped last fall and left me cold. “The Outsiders” has since grown on me lyrically, but I still hate the heavy metal breakdown towards the end. Thankfully I do love second single “Give Me Back My Hometown” warts and all. It’s a far cry better than almost everything currently on country radio and one of the most exciting songs released so far this year even though it doesn’t have much to do with country music beyond Church’s audible twang.

The only other song on the project I can confess to liking even a little is “Broke Record,” since it is catchy although it wears thin on repeated listenings. The rest of the project, unfortunately, is a mess. Church mumbles his way through “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” and thus renders the lyric impossible to understand. “Like A Wrecking Ball” features Church’s voice marred in an annoying echo effect, “That’s Damn Rock and Roll” is the dictionary definition of dreck, “Dark Side” is too moody, “Devil, Devil” is just awful, and “The Joint” is too hip/hop inspired (if that’s even what you call it) for my taste.

Given my admiration for Church has an artist, I wanted to love this album. But too many of the songs left me wishing for the formula he perfected with Chief and rightfully won the CMA Album of the Year trophy for. The Outsiders is an uneven album at best, heavy on experimentation and light on good quality music. But thankfully Church manages to keep his head out of the gutter for at least some of the tracks, and if his label is smart, those are the ones that’ll be sent to radio for a shot at heavy rotation airplay.


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