Archive for April, 2012

Album Review – Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives – “Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down”

April 24, 2012

Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives

Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down

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Of Nashville, Volume 1: Tear The Woodpile Down Marty Stuart says, “This record is the subtotal of a 40 year journey. It represents most everything I love about Country Music.” And that’s what Stuart has created, a historical document embodying the past while transporting it into the present.

Picking up where 2010’s Ghost Train – The Studio B Sessions left off, Tear The Woodpile Down follows in Stuart’s tradition of marrying newly written originals with well-chosen covers and instrumentals. He once again displays his acute skill of writing music that sounds and feels decades old while his band, His Fabulous Superlatives, have never played with such heightened intensity.

The Superlatives proficiency as a tight unit, due to recording the album with Stuart in the same room, is perfectly displayed on the title track, a honky-tonk number distinctive for its muscular guitar, strong harmonies, and banjo work by the legendry Buck Trent. “Tear The Woodpile Down” is easily the coolest sounding song on the album; a convergence of honky-tonk meets country rock that never looses traditional sensibilities yet feels modernistic in execution.

But the track’s selling point is the memorably comedic lyric. “Tear The Woodpile Down” details the trouble a man finds himself in while on the town with a gal – a night in jail and time before an unsympathetic judge. The sense that it doesn’t take itself too seriously only adds to the overall enjoyment of the story.

Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives also cut loose on “Hollywood Boogie” the sole instrumental among the ten tracks. Like “Tear The Woodpile Down,” “Hollywood Boogie” is brawny in nature but acts as a showcase for the band’s playing prowess, most notably Harry Stinston’s mesmerizing drum work. It’s rare in modern music to find this talented a band and “Hollywood Boogie” is a wonderful showcase for the breadth of their abilities.

In keeping with Stuart’s finest work, the heart and soul of Nashville, Volume 1 comes when he celebrates the past, something he does for most of this project. A favorite of his for years, Dwayne Warwick’s “Sundown In Nashville” first appeared on his 2003 album Country Music with far more distracting instrumentation. This mix is much more tasteful, allowing the cautionary tale painting Music City as the land of broken dreams (“A Country Boy’s Hollywood”), to breathe and sink in with the listener.

Stuart also resurrects two country classics – Jerry Chestnut’s “Holding On To Nothin’” which Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton brought to #7 in 1968 and “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” A Hank Williams, Sr classic written as a Luke The Drifter poem.

“Holding On To Nothin’” succeeds because Stuart, a fan of the song from The Porter Wagoner Show, remains faithful to Wagoner and Parton’s record down to bringing in Trent to reprise his banjo work. Stuart’s version, though, has one key difference – he makes the guitar more prominent and in turn modernizes the overall feel of the song.

In contrast, “Pictures From Life’s Other Side” has had so many versions over the years; it’s hard to pick a definitive one. Doesn’t matter, though, as the inclusion of Hank III makes this essential listening, with his pure and raw vocal drawing me in. It’s my favorite song from Tear The Woodpile Down and one of the top album tracks of 2012 thus far because of his stunning guest vocal.

Another standout is “A Song of Sadness,” written by Stuart for Lorrie Carter Bennett (Anita Carter’s daughter and Mother Maybelle Carter’s granddaughter) to sing with him. Another smart choice on his part, her vocal adds extra flavor and creates beautiful contrast to his deeper vocal tones. But the framing of their voices against the backdrop of pedal steel is the real selling point. The mix is so effortless it feels like he has sung with her all is life.

The final resurrection comes in the form of a trucker’s anthem, a seemingly lost ideal in modern country music. “Truck Drivers Blues,” which contains the records only mention of Connie Smith, celebrates the truck driving lifestyle with radiant authenticity. Another fantastic catchy sing-a-long, it comes complete with a mandolin heavy arrangement that helps it stand out for more than just extremely clever lyrics alone.

Tear The Woodpile Down also includes three Stuart originals (“Matter Of Time,” “Going, Going Gone,” and “The Lonely Kind”) that bear trademark Nashville Sound ideals. “A Matter of Time” glides along with a gorgeous guitar riff that repeats throughout, “Going, Going, Gone” mixes pedal steel and electric guitar with an effortless lyric that slithers off the tongue, and “The Lonely Kind” has a moody vibe to distinguish itself from the pack; almost reminiscent of Gary Allan’s “Smoke Rings In The Dark” or classic Roy Orbison.

Overall, I’ve rarely heard a ten-track album this perfectly constructed in my more than fifteen years of listening to country music. While additional songs and a guest vocal by  Smith would’ve enhanced the listening experience, it’s hard to improve upon what Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives have created here. To call Tear The Woodpile Down astonishing would be an understatement. It’s a record for the ages, essential listening for anyone with a love of country music.

 

Album Review – Bradley Gaskin – “Bradley Gaskin EP”

April 18, 2012

Bradley Gaskin

Bradley Gaskin EP

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In this age of digital downloading, the extended play (EP) album is making a comeback as a way for artists bubbling under to receive a showcase before the release of a full-length record. Columbia Nashville artist Bradley Gaskin is the latest to receive this treatment.

Gaskin first became prominent in 2011 when the neotraditional “Mr. Bartender” established him, and his Travis Tritt-like vocal ability, as a promising new voice to hold up the traditions of country music.

Even though “Mr. Bartender” is stone cold country down to the fiddle and steel guitar, it stopped short of adding a fresh perspective to the lore of drinking songs. The story of a man drowning his sorrows in the stiffest drink at a bar has been done countless times before. But that only slightly dampened it from sounding fresh and almost revelatory. “Mr. Bartender” reached a chart peak of #32, a small miracle for traditional country music.

Decidedly more upbeat and radio friendly, second single “Diamonds Make Babies” seems like a better fit to launch Gaskin as a radio star. The slick production, somewhat mundane lyrical content, and writing credits from Jim Beavers, Lee Thomas Miller, and Chris Stapleton nicely position it for heavy rotation status.

Problem is, the song centers around the idea that becoming a parent starts with an engagement ring, a pleasing idea to religious traditionalists that becomes trite and unimaginative when turned into a piece of music. No amount of country instrumentation or twangy vocals can elevate this; either by Gaskin or Dierks Bentley who has a version on his latest album Home.

In addition to the singles, Bradley Gaskin EP offers two other glimpses into the artist. “I’m All About It” is a George Strait-like vanilla flavored ditty that manages to say nothing at all and take three minutes saying it. It fails on the account that it tries too hard to be country by employing a laundry list of overwrought cliches (beer, trucks, mud, buddies, lakes/rivers) that erase any authenticity and sincerity from the intent behind what he’s singing.

In a shocking turnaround moment of actual good taste, the album closes on a high note, with a song that delivers as interesting a lyric as its title.  “Satan Knew My Grandma Well” was originally done by The Grascals, (as “Satan and Grandma” on 2010′a The Famous Lefty Flynn’s) and both versions are very similar. Gaskins’s vocal brings a decidedly country element to the song and the story of a woman’s relationship with the patron saint of Hell, a metaphor for temptation, conjures up some great images despite a thin lyric sheet.

Overall Bradley Gaskin EP finds an artist with an obvious affinity for tractional country music making needless concessions in an effort to fit in with the current marketplace. The arraignments for “Diamonds Make Babies” and “I’m All About It” scream country, but they cheapen the overall listening experience with their obvious pandering.

And for someone with an above average to nearly remarkable voice, he shouldn’t be trying this hard to prove himself. His immense talent puts him in a class above most major label artists and this EP should’ve reflected that.

In essence he’s better than the chosen material. “Mr. Bartender” introduced an artist acting as a clear alternative to the country/pop and country/rock of late; someone not afraid to return the steel guitar to its rightful prominence. But until he finds stronger and more impactful material, he’s a long way from a 21st century Randy Travis.

Country Haiku – my first attempt

April 17, 2012

Inspired by Country California‘s “Country Haiku” concept: 

Dancin’ Away With My Heart

Was so much better

As “And Still”

Rascal Flatts covers Shenandoah’s “Next To You, Next To Me”

April 5, 2012

Really? A song this good didn’t need to be resurrected nor did the premiere boy band of country music have to do it. They manage to keep the effortless breeze of the original intact, but overall bring nothing new to a song that should’ve been left as is. If anything they make it more pop, which it doesn’t need. And those harmonies at the beginning? Nothing short of cringe-worthy.

If this is their attempt to be country again, than count me out. Pandering to 90s nostalgia isn’t going to make me turn my head, jump for joy, and declare country music healthy again. The year of the apocalypse is taking country music with it.

If you need me, I’ll be listening to the correct way to sing this song:


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