The Worst Country Songs of 2013, Part II: 10-1

December 3, 2013

Last August, when Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” became the biggest country single of all-time by logging the most weeks at #1 by a song in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, Jody Rosen of Vulture defined the current strain of mainstream country trends as ‘bro-country’ or “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Bro-country is by and large one of the worst epidemics to ever strike mainstream country, far worse then the Urban Cowboy era, 90s Hat Acts, or The Nashville Sound. The roots of this ‘sub-genre’ are 80s arena rock and 90s hip-hop and are about as far away from the traditions of country music as Sidney, Australia is from New York City. This drivel is a surprising hit, and why not? It appeals to the adolescent and college set who buy songs and fill stadiums. It also, unequivocally, makes for the worst music in the history of the country genre.  Compiling this list was easy, with ten reasons why most people cannot even stomach mainstream country anymore:

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10. Parking Lot Party – Lee Brice

is there a chance Lee Brice may be the only male country singer to understand the concept of balance? I could knock him for recording this awful cliché-drenched ode to tailgating, but it comes on the heels of “I Drive Your Truck,” a surprisingly substantive moment in mainstream country this year. It’s just too bad he needs to offset a steel-heavy ballad with a desperate attempt at remaining a hero to the teen and college set.

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9. Days of Gold – Jake Owen

One of the benchmarks of a great country song is the ability to be drawn in by the story through production and vocals that help, not hinder, the listener’s ability to understand the lyrics. That simple logic has been thrown out the window here, which in part is smart given the vapid nature of this song. There’s nothing here but summertime cliché after summertime cliché sung in rapid-fire succession behind a wall of irritating sound. Owen wants more substance in his music, but if he keeps playing to radio, he’s not going to achieve that goal anytime soon.

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8. Southern Girl – Tim McGraw

Twenty years into his career, Tim McGraw proves he’s a master at curtailing his music to fit whatever trend will help him score huge radio hits. “Southern Girl” isn’t as nonsensical as “Truck Yeah” but with dumb rhyming schemes and irritating echoes, it’s just as annoying.

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7. Aw Naw – Chris Young

Like it or not, Chris Young’s traditional country career ended the second “Neon” stalled at radio. In the course of three singles songs like “The Man I Want To Be” and “Tomorrow” were out of fashion as the new wave of bro-country swept in like a tsunami. So what’s a twenty-something guy to do? Make like Dierks Bentley and suppress his artistic sensibilities in an effort to stay in the good graces of country radio. “Aw Naw” is the first, and certainly not the last, example of the theory working wonders for Young. Oh, how I miss the days when an artist could record quality songs and be rewarded with big hits.

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6. DONE. – The Band Perry

Imagine my immense disappointment when the group that gave us my favorite country song so far this decade (“If I Die Young”) churns out this mess as their new single. “Done” is an appeal-to-the-tweens breakup anthem that’s too loud and would’ve even been immature coming from Taylor Swift on her debut album seven years ago. This is just another example of a worthy talent being compromised by the commercial country machine in order to make their label (once again run by Borchetta) millions.

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5. 1994 – Jason Aldean

Like most of Jason Aldean’s singles of late, ‘1994’ has no narrative to speak of, no point to its existence, or any artistic credibility whatsoever. Aldean is singing about a man once nicknamed ‘Joe Ditty,’ in a song that makes “Pickup Man” and “John Deere Green” sound like the second coming of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” When tribute songs are of a far lesser quality than the music of artist they’re honoring, is there even a point?

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4. Boys ‘Round Here – Blake Shelton

As evidenced by the massive success of Duck Dynasty there’s a redneck craze sweeping America that songs like this buy right into. Shelton is pandering like never before making him the most successful he’s ever been in his ten+ years as a recording artist.

Shelton’s embrace of the culture isn’t the problem here, it’s that he’s doing at the expense of country music. He’ll clearly do anything to stay popular including rap and chant cliché after cliché. Worst of all, though? He’s recruited a cast of fellow singers (Miranda Lambert Ashley Monroe, Josh Turner, etc) to join him in saluting his forbearers with a big ‘ol middle finger while he laughs all the way to the bank. Just thinking about it makes me sick.

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3. Cruise – Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly

The newly minted CMA Single of the Year is the worst novelty hit in decades. The rap remix is nothing more then ‘Anti-Christ’ Scott Borchetta cementing his stronghold over commercial country, and his dominance as dictator of Music Row. He’s becoming more of a problem then his artists at this point.

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2. That’s My Kind of Night – Luke Bryan 

Zac Brown dubbed it ‘the worst song he’d ever heard’ and it’s hard to disagree. An obvious attempt at pandering to trends in order to stay relevant, “That’s My Kind of Night” is one of the laziest pieces of drivel ever recorded by a superstar in their supposed commercial prime. With the eyes of the world on him, Bryan should be using his platform to record good quality country music – not this faux-rap garbage.

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1. Redneck Crazy – Tyler Farr

Who would’ve thought we’d see the day when an up and coming country singer would score their first major (i.e. top 5) hit with a song about a guy who stalks his ex-girlfriend after she’s moved on with another man? He’s also about to get violent declaring, “I didn’t come here to start a fight, but I’m up for anything tonight, you know you broke the wrong heart baby, and drove me redneck crazy.”

Farr has defended the track, saying every woman wants a man who loves them that much while Martina McBride has squashed comparisons to “Independence Day” saying the domestic abuse in her 1994 hit is in no way comparable to the unhinged man at the center of Farr’s hit. In any event this tasteless muck (co-written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins of “Before He Cheats” fame) is another low for country music, in an era in which everyone seems to be trying to out do themselves for the lowest levels of douchedom. Count me out.

The Worst Country Songs of 2013, Part I: 20-11

December 2, 2013

Last August, when Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” became the biggest country single of all-time by logging the most weeks at #1 by a song in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, Jody Rosen ofVulture defined the current strain of mainstream country trends as ‘bro-country’ or “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Bro-country is by and large one of the worst epidemics to ever strike mainstream country, far worse then the Urban Cowboy era, 90s Hat Acts, or The Nashville Sound. The roots of this ‘sub-genre’ are 80s arena rock and 90s hip-hop and are about as far away from the traditions of country music as Sidney, Australia is from New York City. This drivel is a surprising hit, and why not? It appeals to the adolescent and college set who buy songs and fill stadiums. It also, unequivocally, makes for the worst music in the history of the country genre.  Not all of these constitute bro-country, but they do help get the list started:

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20. He Loves to Make Me Cry – Kristen Kelly

An attempt at torch singing. I give Kelly credit for trying, but she holds the notes too long. Better luck next time.

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19. Everything I Shouldn’t Be Thinking About – Thompson Square

I hear the generic mid-90s single they’re going for here, I do. But as it stands, this is a mess. The production, generic, loud, and way too rock erases any enjoyment I could have of this song.

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18. I Hold On – Dierks Bentley 

I’ve always wondered why Bentley has yet to score big at country award shows. It’s because of songs like this – dark and gravelly rambles that have little redeeming value. I’m holding on for the day he finally gets his act together and his head out of the gutter.

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17. Chillin’ It – Cole Swindell 

How bro can one be?

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16. Power of a Love Song – Tate Stevens

Want an obvious reason why X Factor ratings are in the toilet? It’s because of winners like Tate Stevens, who are cardboard cutouts instead of promising talents. Stevens fills the role of country singer just fine, if this were 1992. Even then it was dated. Worse? He’s given bland and forgettable songs like this to croon. Biggest waste of $5 million I’ve ever seen with my own two eyes.

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15. Radio – Darius Rucker

“Wagon Wheel” > “Radio” and is that really saying much?

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14. When I See This Bar – Kenny Chesney

This is Reason #1 as to why this whole beach thing reached its climax years ago. Chesney needs a new shtick, pronto.

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13. Drunk Last Night – Eli Young Band

More generic bro-country, yuck.

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12. Pirate Flag – Kenny Chesney

This is Reason #2 as to why this whole beach thing reached its climax years ago. Chesney needs a new shtick, pronto.

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11. Jump Right In – Zac Brown Band

An island wind sings again, a lonesome lullaby” has to be about the most grating refrains in music history. The line itself isn’t bad, but to hear Zac and the boys sing it, it’s downright annoying. So is everything about this song.

Album Review: Nancy Beaudette: “Fa La La”

November 23, 2013

Nancy Beaudette

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Fa La La

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Amidst the flurry of standards heard each December, it’s always a treat when an artist gifts us with a collection of original tunes celebrating the holidays.  Singer-Songwriter Nancy Beaudette, who hails from Cornwall, Ontario but also plays regularly in Massachusetts, has done just that with her self-penned Fa La La.

Beaudette brings her homespun charm to this nine-song collection weaving her folk, country, and singer-songwriter sensibilities around these tales, which are both personal and festive, and work beautifully with her smoky voice. It’s unlikely you’ll hear a more intimate set of holiday tunes released this year.

The album opens with the effervescent title track, where the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar pairs beautifully with vibrant ribbons of mandolin. “Fa La La” is an infectious sing-along accented with everyone’s favorite traditions – getting a tree, hanging stockings, baking cookies, wrapping gifts, wishing for snow, etc. “Most of All Baby (I Want You)” follows a similar theme both sonically and lyrically, with Beaudette singing a love song to her man, the only gift she wants this year.

“I Think I’ll buy A Christmas Tree” is a somewhat ambiguous tale of lost love, with Beaudette coping with loss (either of the relationship or the person) by maintaining the long held traditions she shared with this special someone. It’s an effecting tale either way, and thankfully a lot more substantive than it appears on first listen. Beaudette tackles those feelings again on “Merry Christmas To Me,” where she decides not to be sad and “offer a toast to your memory.”

The majority of Fa La La retains that substance and the record benefits greatly as a result. The holiday season brings with it a wide array of emotions and Beaudette captures them beautifully. “Silence Tonight” stunningly portrays war-torn families and the effect it has on mothers, always praying for their son’s protection. It’s a perspective I’ve found is often ignored in war themed material, so I’m glad to see Beaudette rectify that here with such wonderful results.

Even better are “In Our Home,” a reflection on family and “Silvertone Guitar,” which chronicles her musical journey with the guitar that started it all. “In Our Home” is wonderful, overflowing with personal details from the Christmases of Beaudette’s childhood framed with the hook, “the most perfect yuletide story that I know, was in our home.” She approaches the lovely “Silvertone Guitar” much the same way; only it’s her musical journey taking center stage. There’ve been myriads of guitar tribute songs over the years, but they’re rarely packed with this much insight into the singer’s life. They’re my two favorite songs on the album because of the amount of detail she brought to the lyrics.

Fa La La is a treasure to have this and every holiday season to come. Beaudette slyly starts the album on a lighter note, thinking your in for a much different collection then you get, a smart move, because it makes you appreciate the deeper moments that much more. While I love the production and lyrical content, I’m most enthralled with Beaudette’s voice, a treasure that sounds like it was born to sing Christmas music. If you’re a fan of holiday music (and lets face it, who isn’t?) then I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Fa La La. You won’t be disappointed.

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For more information on Nancy Beaudette, check out her website

You can purchase physical copies of Fa La La on her website and CD Baby or download the album on iTunes

Album Review: Heidi Feek – ‘The Only’

November 17, 2013

Heidi Feek

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The Only

* * * 1/2 

I became a fan of Heidi Feek after her profile during a season one episode of The Joey + Rory Show. During the segment, she introduced the world to her then fiancé and spoke about her love of listening to vinyl records. She’s since become a regular fixture on her parents’ television show, providing background vocals during performances and singing Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and Hank Williams’ “Kaw-Lija” during Crosley Radio Vinyl Rewind pieces.

Like her parents Feek is a throwback to a simpler era making it easy to forget she’s in her mid-twenties, around my age. She’s a great vocalist, with a distinctively bluesy twang not far removed from Cline or torch singer Mandy Barnett. I’ve been anticipating a full-length album since that initial appearance, and while I didn’t buy her 2010 EP Eden I was quick to acquire a copy of The Only when the release was announced in late August.

Needless to say, I’m not disappointed. Feek’s first full-length album is a wonderful showcase for her distinct stylings and a fine introduction to who she is as an artist. The album blasts off with the rockin’ “I Like The Way,” an excellent electric guitar drenched number reminiscent of Dwight Yoakam, and the first of four tracks she penned solely with her father Rory. Reverb heavy “I Didn’t Know About You” (co-written by Feek, her father, and James Slater) continues in a similar uptempo vein, transporting Feek back to the Sun Records era of the 1950s while also updating that sound to keep the track modern and fresh. Similarly to “I Like The Way,” “I Don’t Know About You” succeeds on its electric guitar centric sound, giving Feek some muscle behind her energetic vocal.

“57 Bel Air,” another father daughter co-write, is not only the best of the uptempo numbers, and the strongest track on the whole project and the one song I can’t wait to hear each time I listen to the album. It picks up on the electric guitar heavy sound that threads together the uptempo numbers, but adds a distinctive drum beat that elevates the track above the rest. “57 Bel Air,” in which Feek compares her current relationship to the classic car, does the best job of maintaining the rock sound Feek loves while also keeping the track firmly within the realms of her country roots.

As a fan of Feek I was excited to hear her trademark ballads, the side of her musical personality I was most familiar with going in. Feek’s style is best summed up when she’s inspired by Cline, as she shows on “One Night With You,” a co-write with her dad, Austin Manual, and Aaron Carnahan and “There Lives A Fool,” which her dad co-wrote with Sara Evans about sixteen years ago. Both numbers are ripe with bluesy elements that allow Feek to shine vocally, although a chaotic guitar solo suffocates the end of “One Night With You.” The gorgeously understated opening of “There Lives A Fool,” featuring Feek’s vocal backed solely by an upright bass, showcases her impressive range and is one of album’s standout moments.

I also really enjoy “Someday Somebody,” the album’s first single and a co-write between Feek and her dad. The song takes a modern approach to her bluesy side with distinctive electric guitar riffs infused with a steady drumbeat framing her straightforward vocal. Even more contemporary is the title track (which Feek penned solo), a 90s country inspired ballad about a woman telling her man he isn’t the end of the line in terms of relationships. I love how the drums and guitars work together to create a gentle ease that helps guide the song along. “Berlin,” co-written by Feek, her dad, and Slater, follows the same path although it’s far more addicting with the wonderful ‘we hold on/we let go/body and soul/still I love you’ refrain keeping it memorable.

By all accounts, The Only is a solid album, although it didn’t provide the listening experience I was hoping for despite some truly outstanding numbers. There aren’t any clunkers on the project (not even a very atypical cover of “Heartbreak Hotel” that shows off Feek’s interpretation skills) but the production is too heavy handed at times, giving the album a sense of sameness that grows tiring after hearing just a few tracks. But The Only isn’t a bad album by any means, and well worth checking out.

2013 CMA Awards – who will and should win

October 31, 2013

Here’s the link to my CMA Awards prediction post, over at My Kind of Country:

http://mykindofcountry.wordpress.com/2013/10/31/2013-cma-awards-predictions-who-should-and-will-win/

Album Review – Brandy Clark – ’12 Stories’

October 21, 2013

Brandy Clark

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12 Stories

* * * * 1/2

If you’ve been paying attention to country music in 2013 there’s likely one name on the tip of your tongue – Brandy Clark. The buzz about the songwriter behind such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two” has been at fever pitch, and it’s easy to understand why with just one listen to her debut record.

Clark has stolen the Linda Ronstadt rulebook that Trisha Yearwood and company made famous in the 1990s, rewritten it, and crafted an album that borrows yet improves upon the past, all the while introducing an artist who is completely and uniquely herself. With12 Stories Clark has redrafted the textbook on how to evolve, and not change, the country genre.

At its core 12 Stories is an exercise in immaculate songwriting. Clark has an innate ability to take hefty subjects and morph them into delicious slices of black comedy, skewing the stories to forgo the ache in an effort to focus on creating little vignettes that play like some of the best episodes of television.

My favorite of these is “Hungover,” a Sara Evans-like co-write with Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon about a woman’s realization that her drunken man isn’t going to change. Also stunning is “The Day She Got Divorced,” a wonderfully addicting day-in-the-life about a woman’s itinerary the day her marriage officially ends. Reba had it onAll The Women I Am and it was my favorite track on that project three years ago.

“Strips,” the album’s lead single, is the new standard-bearer for cheating songs, with the woman declaring there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion as she ponders killing her husband, stopping only because I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes. Clark (along with McAnally and Matt Jenkins) has co-written one hell of a clever song, and while the premise is laid on a little thick it works surprisingly well.

“Crazy Women” was an excellent yet low-charting single for LeAnn Rimes (from Lady & Gentlemen), and Clark’s version is good, but lacks the punch of personality Rimes brought to her recording. In addition, “Get High,” the only song Clark wrote solo (and the oldest composition on the album) suffers from a weak hook (‘sometimes the only way to get by is to get high’) that leaves the chorus feeling underdeveloped.

What elevates 12 Stories into echelon of masterworks is the emotional depth Clark brings to the project. She elegantly weaves a series of ballads between the vignettes that rank among the finest moments on a country album this decade.

Weeds-inspired “Pray To Jesus” is a timeless anthem for the working poor that doesn’t stereotype or judge. It acts an affirmation that we’re just trying to better ourselves from within, because the fix doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s the lone socially conscious track on 12 Stories and currently the best song of its kind from this somewhat forgotten sub-genre.

“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a reflection on the pull between right and wrong framed around two married individuals about to cheat on their spouses. Clark is able to get inside the woman’s psyche (I don’t know what scares me most, the ride up, or the ride down) in way that’s both ordinary and extraordinary; exercising both arguments while letting the listener make their own conclusions. The simple beauty recalls Matraca Berg’s “Lying To The Moon.”

Clark and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” co-writer Mark Stephen Jones teamed up again on “Hold My Hand,” the story of a couple running into his alluring ex-lover, only to have his current love plead for definition in their relationship. Meanwhile “In Some Corner” spins another side of the “Last Call”/”Keep It To Yourself” drunken dialing saga that amazingly hasn’t been played out yet. It’s Clark’s turn to show her moment of weakness and she’s praying he doesn’t call, as she can’t refuse his advances.

The strongest track on 12 Stories comes at the end, with an all too common narrative about a woman who marries the mirror image of her always-absent father. “Just Like Him,” (co-written with Dillon and McAnally) beautifully hits upon the unspoken truth that people marry at the level of their self-esteem, thinking they’re only worth the same-gender role models (or lack thereof) they grew up around. The conviction Clark brings to this song is remarkable, showcasing her incredible knack at crafting tales purely from observances – her dad is the antithesis of this character.

In truth Clark brings that conviction to the entire project. As a child of the 90s, I came of age in the era when music such as this was the rule and not the exception, when artists were allowed to have real problems that were bigger then which truck was going to transport some beer keg to lake whatever down some dirt road littered with bikini-clad country girls.

It makes me sick that every record label in Nashville (even two that confessed to loving it) past on releasing 12 Stories but I’m glad an independent label in Texas picked it up. This is music that needs to be heard. I urge you to pick up a copy, as it’s well worth the money, and time spent listening. Clark is the most important singer/songwriter to come around in a long, long time and 12 Stories is the best album of its kind I’ve heard in many, many years.

Album Review – Shanna Jackman – ‘Shanna Jackman EP’

September 26, 2013

Shanna Jackman

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Shanna Jackman EP

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The first thing that struck me when I was listening to Central Massachusetts native and 2010 Cat Country 98.1 WCTK Country Idol Shanna Jackman’s eponymous debut EP was her affection for Martina McBride, a point driven home as much by her vocal delivery as the sonic direction of her music. I was transported back to the Martina era, and the guitar work from “This One’s For The Girls.”

Jackman, formally of the band Not In Kansas and 2011 New England Country Music Organization Most Promising Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year (she also won the NECMO Horizon Award this year), is a country singer stepping into the spotlight for the first time. She funded this project through Kickstarter last March, and recorded the album in Nashville just three months ago. Although Jackman’s music has echoes of McBride, one of her favorite singers whom she opened for this past summer, she’s still able to form her own identity. Rowdy break-up anthem “In My Truck,” the 2013 1490-AM WMRC Local Single of the Year, preceded the album with a rockish mix of electric guitars and drums that allow Jackman to perfectly display the attitude in the lyrics. Normally I would call out the production for being too loud but Jackman’s forceful twang cuts through the noise with ease, proving her skills as a vocalist.

She continues in up-tempo mode on the introspective “Never Gave Up,” a tune about perseverance in which she sings, ‘Guess it was always my luck, never gave up.’ With ribbons of pedal steel and twangy electric guitar, the song exudes a delightful sunny effervescence that Jackman matches with her effortless yet affecting vocal.

“He Does” is the track that brought McBride to mind, and as I was listening, Jackman had me longing for the way country music used to sound as recently as ten years ago. The track, about a woman in the honeymoon stage with her boyfriend, is one of my favorite types of country songs – joyful, upbeat, and perfect to crank up on one of those sunny days when you don’t have a care in the world. Jackman’s unforced twang is the perfect compliment for the subtle electric guitar and drum heavy arrangement.

The album turns more serious on the remaining tracks, and reaches it’s emotional core on “We’ve Got Your Back,” a song written specifically to thank the military and their families for their service. It’s an excellent song and easily the highlight of the EP. Behind a mix of piano and drums Jackman beautifully conveys a timeless message of hope:

We’ve got your back

When you stand on the front lines for us

We’re the ones you can always depend on

We’re the ones you can always trust

We’ve got your back

And for the ones you’ve left here at home

We’re gonna give them our shoulders to lean on

We’re gonna love them like one of our own

We’ve got your back

Jackman is begging for her man’s help in ending their relationship on “Go Ahead,” the record’s most overtly popish moment. Like all of McBride’s most popular relationship ballads (think – “Whatever You Say,” “Where Would You Be,” How Far”), Jackman sings with thrust, transmitting the woman’s emotional pain as she watches the relationship crumble before her eyes. You feel what she’s going through fully, which is a testament to Jackman’s gifts as a singer.

“Road To You,” the project’s strictest ballad, is more then I was expecting. Instead of the typical guy and girl relationship song, Jackman is singing about her bond with her mom, and the journey they’ve shared since she was born. As someone who’s very close to both my parents, I can easily relate to what she’s signing about here. Jackman croons with a gorgeous simplicity here, knowing that she doesn’t have to reach for any high notes to get her point across. The ballad is stunning as a result, and the string section that frames her vocal is the perfect backdrop to bring the emotional lyrics to life.

There isn’t a bad song to be found on Jackman’s EP, although “In My Truck” is the most obvious example of radio fodder and probably the album’s weakest link, despite it succeeding wonderfully on its own merit. I didn’t know what I’d find when I popped the CD into the player, but it was her voice that won me over. Jackman sings the way I wish all females in country music (yes you, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson) sang – without pretense or the need to show off. Power is always a good thing, but only when you know how to properly use it. Jackman has complete control over her instrument and the perfect set of songs to properly show it off. This is her time, and she deserves this chance to step out into the spotlight.

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For more information on Shanna Jackman check out her website, where you can purchase a physical copy of her CD.

You can ‘Like’ her on Facebook and Follow her on Twitter, too.

The album is also for sale on iTunes and cdbaby.

A Separation of Church and State: How the Country Music Association mostly got their nominations right this year

September 20, 2013

as13-dateIn 2006, the Country Music Association sent Faith Hill a clear message when Carrie Underwood was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year, only two singles removed from winning American Idol. They were ushering in a changing of the guard that sent ripple effects through country’s core women, making way for new talent at the helm.

Underwood has received a similar message this year with Taylor Swift being nominated for Entertainer of the Year in her place. Swift may be a bigger celebrity with a broader reach, but Underwood’s no slouch – a sold out tour, four #1 singles, ambassadorship for country music, and she’s been hosting the ceremony going on five consecutive years. Heck she just took over Sunday Night Football theme song duties.

In recent history all the top solo female artists (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill) have been nominated and won (Hill lost to Dixie Chicks in 2000) while her contemporaries Swift has won twice and Miranda Lambert received her only nod to date in 2010. That Underwood is being snubbed yet again is one of the biggest injustices in the 47-year history of the award show. Underwood and Swift should be competing in the category together – they both have rightfully earned their place in the category.

Underwood aside, it’s nice to see the Country Music Association mostly get it right this year. The major theme of the nominations is artistic quality, as evidenced by Kacey Musgraves receiving six nominations, a move I didn’t see coming. She’s been building a lot of buzz this year but with little support from country radio, I hardly gave her a chance. Her nominations prove the CMA is still looking for quality contemporary music and actually care about maintaining at least one shred of dignity. They should’ve gone further and showered Ashley Monroe with praise, too, but her outsider-looking-in status likely left her a square peg in a round hole and she was deemed too Americana for this mostly mainstream affair.

There was once a time when you could count the number of females who’ve taken home Album of the Year on one hand. That list has grown in the past few years thanks to wins by Lee Ann Womack (2005), Taylor Swift (2008) and Miranda Lambert (2010). This year Blake Shelton stands alone as the only solo male artist in the category, proving that airplay on country radio isn’t the only factor in scoring a nomination.

I believe whole heartedly that you cannot deny an artist success once they’ve achieved it, no matter how much you may dislike the singer or their song. The world may cry foul over Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” but they clearly earned the Single of the Year, Musical Event of the Year, Duo Of The Year, and New Artist nods. The song is a behemoth and is clearly being rewarded as such. Swift’s showering of affection is more puzzling, since the success ofRed came in the pop market, but “Begin Again” and “Highway Don’t Care” did keep her relevant in her home genre this year.

Where the Country Music Association deserve the most credit is with the separation of church and state – if you notice, “Cruise” isn’t in the Song of the Year race nor is Here For The Good Times up for Album. In fact, none of the genre’s biggest names (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Shelton) have a Single or Song of the year nod, something I never thought I’d see. Absence by ‘bro-country’ powerhouses leaves the likes of “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to battle it out for the win.

It’s nice to see Nashville songwriters back in the Song of The Year race, too. Even more impressive is the CMA’s distinction in excellence, seeing that the best of commercial Nashville scored big, while the laundry list lovers are left to voyage down dirt roads with beer kegs, country girls, and pickup trucks. Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are two of the best writers around right now and combined with Musgraves, they’re killer. What other writing team can claim two nominations in the same year?

In sizing up the New Artist competition, I was about to show my denial of a mass extinction, until I looked at the Billboard Airplay Chart and noticed “Parking Lot Party” in the top 10, on it’s way to becoming Lee Brice’s fourth consecutive number one. Like fellow nominee Kip Moore, he’s becoming a force for the future, and with his single “I Drive Your Truck” up for Song of the Year (Brice doesn’t have a writing credit on it), he has a better chance of winning than I gave him credit for initially. This is a very strong category, although Musgraves is the only nominee with proven artistic potential, a necessary ingredient for longevity.

I’ll have my predictions closer to the November 9 telecast, with a breakdown per category, and thoughts on each individual race. But overall the Country Music Association deserves credit for getting more right than wrong this year, mostly opting for artistic integrity over commercial viability.

Check out all the nominations here.     

Album Review – Steve Wariner – ‘It Ain’t All Bad’

September 10, 2013

Steve Wariner

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It Ain’t All Bad

* * * 1/2

In the modern age of country music, where genre blending is the new normal, it’s difficult to find artists exploring their love of different types of music for artistic and not commercial gain. Steve Wariner, who’s back with his first full-length country album in eight years, is an exception to the rule.

A bucket list record, as he calls it, It Ain’t All Bad gives Wariner the opportunity to explore his wide range of musical tastes without sacrificing the core sound he brought to such hits as (and some of my favorites) “Small Town Girl,” “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” “Kansas City Lights,” and “The Weekend.”

Wariner doesn’t succeed with every style choice, but the majority of tracks on It Ain’t All Bad are very good to excellent. He’s at his best on slower mid-tempo numbers where he’s able to show off the delicate nature of his voice. Steel and electric guitar backed “Arrows At Airplanes,” a co-write with Rocky Lynne and Mike Severs is a beautiful example about enjoying life, framed around the story of an old man “shooting arrows at airplanes, throwing pillows at freight trains” on the bank of a river. One of my favorite tracks on the album, it’s the type of tune Wariner excels at.

He’s equally in his artistic wheelhouse on “Spokes In A Wheel,” an environmentally conscious track about our place on ‘a little blue rock called mother earth.’ Co-written with Kent Blazy, “Spokes In A Wheel” works because it relays a timely message backed by gentle acoustic guitars without coming off as preachy. “’48 Ford,” a 70s singer/songwriter inspired folk song is a gorgeous reflection on the titular truck and the memories it holds throughout the life of a family. One of the album’s strongest tracks, it works summarily to “Spokes In A Wheel” by using simple imagery to frame the storytelling.

Western Swing ballad (and fan favorite) “Bluebonnet Memories” is the project’s most traditional track, blending steel guitar and fiddle with a bluesy guitar riff reminiscent of Vince Gill’s signature style. Wariner co-wrote the track with Rick Carnes as an ode to Texas, and while good, there are too much jazzy overtones for my taste.

“What More Do You Want” is a slicker more pop-leaning slow burner about a man wronged by his woman that recalls Wariner’s 80s sound, although he intended it to be Beatle-esque, in the style of George Harrison. He brought his son Ryan in on the slide guitar and it all works to create an ethereal feel. “Don’t Tell Her I’m Not,” possibly my favorite track on It Ain’t All Bad and the most current sounding song. Although it maintains the healthy dose of steel missing from country radio, I could see Blake Shelton scoring a big hit with this one.

Wariner is back in “I’m Already Taken” territory on “I Want To Be Like You,” a co-write with the always brilliant Bill Anderson and Tom Shapiro. It’s another relationship-between-a-family-song that starts off typical (a son emulating his dad) but twists into the dad emulating the son as their relationship evolves. The lyric is spectacular, but the string section makes the piano led production feel slow and heavy, giving the song more weight then it needs.

The up-tempo numbers are where It Ain’t All Bad looses its luster. The swampy “Voodoo” isn’t bad per se, just not to my personal taste and the chorus (“Must be the voodoo that you do, do”) sounds like it came from a rhyming generator. “It’s Called A Brand New Day” is too rock, with electric guitars that aren’t too loud, but not to my liking. The title track has grown on me, but the opening riffs are a little too progressive coming from Wariner.

I could also see Shelton scoring big with “Whenever I See You,” a modern day poppish number Wariner co-wrote with Carnes. The synth bass Wariner plays gives the track a neat groove that accomplishes the intention to help the song stand out. “A Thousand Winds” is Wariner’s response to how he wishes to be remembered in death, and an excellent lyric. I just wish the track wasn’t so slow and prodding, but at least it’s a good song.

I’ll admit that this was my first time listening to one of his recordings from beginning to end and it proved very satisfying. It Ain’t All Bad may drag a little as a listening experience, but it’s a solid above average album with some really wonderful tracks. It’s great to have Wariner back recording vocal tracks again, and the eight year gap was well worth the wait.

Concert Review – ‘An Evening with Vince Gill’ – August 10, 2013

August 21, 2013

1373942682001-VG-PF-0487-GPub-300rgb-1307152246_4_3I was witness to a major bucket list moment for the second time in four years Aug 10 – an in the round performance by Vince Gill at one of my favorite venues, The 2,250 seat South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. With his full band in toe (including Paul Franklin and Dawn Sears, who sang, but held back on many songs, likely due to her ongoing cancer battle), he ran through a two and a half hour set that mixed his legendary recordings with the iconic numbers he and Franklin made their own onBakersfield.

I knew the night would be special when I bought the tickets last June, before I’d heard the album, or knew Franklin would join him. Gill is easily one of my favorite people in country music, a constant professional who can write, sing, play, and host with an ease that hasn’t been duplicated by any superstar that’s risen in his wake. He’s also the rare exception who’s only gotten better with age. Gill is as good (if not better) now at 57 then he was in his commercial prime more than twenty years ago.

He opened with the weary “One More Last Chance” before launching into “Take Your Memory With You.” Gill then preceded “High Lonesome Sound” with the joke that if you want to win a Grammy Alison Krauss should play on your song, a bit of irony seeing as he’s as much a Grammy magnet as Krauss. “Pocket Full of Gold” came in tribute to the cheaters as Gill wanted to know who he should look at while he sings.

His set, billed as an “Evening With Vince Gill,” was broken into two segments, bookending a 25-minute intermission to sell merchandise and beer. He spent a lot of time in the first act on his admiration for songwriter Max D. Barnes, complementing his talent on “Chiseled In Stone” and “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes.” A detour into sad songs led to a childhood memory of his dad singing “Old Shep” to him, before he told of the writing session behind “Look At Us,” a would be weeper that Barnes had Gill flip around to extenuate the positive. One of my favorite of his recordings, he sang it with beautiful precision while Franklin made the steel solo come alive. Another favorite was “Old Lucky Diamond Motel,” a Guitar Slinger album cut that I was glad he brought out.

What surprised me the most about the whole show was how little emphasis was placed on Bakersfield. They closed the first half with the requisite five songs an artist usually plays from their newest release, but they almost felt like an afterthought, when they should’ve been the main attraction. They opened this portion with Owens’ “Foolin’ Around” before gracing us with their timely cover of Haggard’s “The Fighting Side of Me,” which was a little loud, but excellent. His odes to Emmylou Harris – “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Together Again” were stellar, but I got the most joy from “I Can’t Be Myself,” which is as perfect a lyric as I’ve ever heard. “Together Again” had the right amount of steel, but “I Can’t Be Myself” was the winner of the Bakersfield songs.

Gill opened the second half with “What The Cowgirls Do,” another of my least favorites, but won redemption with “Don’t Let Our Love Start Slippin’ Away.” He was more musically focused and thus didn’t interact as much this time around, but with his catalog front and center, that didn’t matter. I was surprised when he went way back into that catalog and pulled out “Never Alone” and the breakneck “Oklahoma Borderline,” which he flubbed a little lyrically (it was funny to watch him reading the lyrics from a monitor). Both were good, but I wasn’t as familiar with the latter as I would’ve liked to have been.

The highlights were a mix of both expected and somewhat surprising. Gill brought out his usual greatness on “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” but it was an out of nowhere “What You Give Away” that threw me. I had forgotten about that single, a top 30 hit from 2006, and was pleased when an audience member had requested it. He was also great on “Pretty Little Adriana,” “Trying to Get Over You,” and show closer “Whenever You Come Around.”

As intricately specialized as Gill is, the show wasn’t without a couple of minor cracks. Frankly, I would’ve killed for a little more experimentation. Gill and the band was almost too tight a unit, too perfect. The show would’ve been even stronger had they reworked some of Gill’s classics in the Bakersfield Sound, like he did with “Go Rest High On That Mountain” in the wake of Kitty Wells’ passing last year. Franklin, meanwhile, was regulated as the onstage steel player, thus he didn’t talk at all – the album was as much his project as Gill’s, so it wouldn’t have hurt to hear him talk about the music from his perspective. I didn’t expect his presence to feel like just another member of the band, and it was jarring seeing as Bakersfield was a collaborative album.

But that doesn’t excuse the fact that Gill put on an incredible show from start to finish that’s a must see for any country music fan. In thinking about his place in music, I would put Gill up there with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney as an icon who may not be as transcendent as those rock pioneers, be he’s arguably just as important to the genre he’s helped shape for the better part of the last thirty-five years.

Album Review – Kiley Evans – ’2 Pieces of 3 Hearts’

August 18, 2013

Kiley Evans

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2 Pieces of 3 Hearts

* * * *

Marshfield, Massachusetts native Kiley Evans has come a long way from her days studying engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology. Since forgoing her college degree for the lure of a guitar, she’s participated in Bluebird Café in-the-round performances with Luke Laird and written with Stoughton, MA native Lori McKenna. Evans and McKenna recently shared a stage in Martha’s Vineyard, and she’s performed multiple dates with fellow rising country star and American Idol finalist Ayla Brown.

Evans recently released her debut album, three years in the making. 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts is a hybrid project comprised of her 2011 Kiley Evans EP and five newer songs (i.e. “2 Pieces”) she’s debuted at various concert dates. Evans had made waves here on the South Shore but also in Rhode Island – local country station Cat Country 98.1 WCTK plays her music on a regular basis, as does 95.9 WATD, where I intern. Evans has been a frequent guest of their Almost Famous local music show, where she’s graced their Tiny Stage and showed up on their playlists.

I’ve long been looking forward to this release since Almost Famous co-DJ John Shea brought her music to my attention a few years ago. I attended a show last fall, and caught her again this past spring. Evans has an every girl personality that endears her to fans and simple songs that offer a peak inside her world.

I’ve been most excited to get my hands on the CD for “Free Fallin,’” a solo composition that’s among my favorite songs she’s ever done. She sings about a phenomenon we’ve all experienced – that moment when we finally hear a song for the first time, fully understanding a lyric we’d known forever but never really listened to (the track in question here is, of course, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers classic):

I never really understood

I never really listened right

I’m singing ‘Free Fallin’ all the way home tonight

I never really heard the music

I never really saw the light

I’m singing ‘Free Fallin’ all the way home tonight

Also excellent is “One More Spin Around,” written about a woman who falls for a guy at a party who ends up giving her a ride home. She pretends she can’t find her keys in an effort to stall their inevitable goodbye, and they take multiple spins around the neighborhood. I love the sunny vibe and electric guitar riffs that frame Evans’ high-energy vocal. “Devil On Your Soldier” is sonically similar and just as good, although there’s more going on in the production.

She displays her vocal prowess again on 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts lead single “Easy,” which adds an element of blues into her country repertoire. The production track is a tad busy, but Evans pushes through with a stunningly confident vocal reminiscent of Christina Aguilera that adds another dimension to her artistic wheelhouse. She continues in this vein with “Tuck & Roll,” a perfectly composed tale about being played in a relationship.

Evans continues to stretch and grow on “We’d Be Lying,” a sexy love song that could’ve easily been a force attempt at creating a moment, but works surprisingly well. The gorgeous ribbons of piano nicely frame her delicate vocal, and Boston-based singer-guitarist Joe Merrick is a delight as Evans’ duet partner.

The most exciting aspect of the album is the melding of old and new, allowing the listener to fully grasp Evans’ maturity as an artist over the past few years. “Easy” and “We’d Be Lying” show just how far she’s come since the days of “Johnny Depp” and “Not Today,” which are both included here. Both of those now vintage songs hold up well against the newer material. The chorus of “Johnny Depp” is what hooked me in the beginning and its still one of Evans’ most memorable compositions. Mid-tempo ballad “Not Today” is even better, showcasing Evans’ ability to craft songs that are instantly relatable. Her ability to write relationship songs that appeal to everyone is one of her greatest assets.

Evans thankfully also understands that life is more than romance and adds depth to the project with “Papa’s Song,” a tribute to her grandfather that’s a bare bones moment of reflection and the record’s emotional centerpiece. If there’s any doubt as to Evans’ country credibility, “Papa’s Song” puts it all to rest. There’s brilliance in her emotional intimacy that’s breathtaking – she bares her soul in the way only the best singer/songwriters are able. It’s worth the price of the album to hear her share this moment with us.

Evans announced this week she’s moving to Nashville to make her dream a reality, which makes 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts even more special. She’s definitely going to be missed around the South Shore, but she leaves us with a wonderful collection of songs that stand as an argument for her bright future. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

_______________________

For more information on Kiley Evans, and to buy a physical copy of 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts, check out her website

The album is also available on iTunes.

Country Music’s Next Great Renaissance: The unthinkable success of Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Cruise’

August 2, 2013

Florida-Georgia-Line-Cruise-Remix-2013-1200x12002013 in country music:

  • Vince Gill and Paul Franklin release the sublime Bakersfield
  • Alan Jackson treats his fans to his long-awaited bluegrass record
  • Florida Georgia Line’s single “Cruise” surpasses Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On” to become the longest #1 in the history of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, breaking a 63 year record

Wait, what? You read that right, folks. 2013 will forever be known as the year mainstream country music officially went to the dogs. I don’t even know how to begin expressing my anger, hiding my palpable sadness, or getting over a turn of events that marks the most significant failure in the history of country music.

So, why is this so bad? A popular song, that the public is responding to with open arms (5 million + downloads), has reaped the ultimate reward for its mammoth success – tenure at the top so rock solid, not even Taylor Swift can dislodge it. But isn’t that what it’s all about, being rewarded for your success? I mean, aren’t records meant to be broken at some point anyways?

Yes, all that is true. But it isn’t about breaking the record; it’s how the record was broken. In this case it came last October when Billboard significantly changed the way song ranks were calculated on the Hot Country Songs Chart. Instead of only factoring in radio airplay from country stations, data from streaming services downloads of songs, and airplay for country singles on pop stations were now in the running to determine where a song would place on the chart. A separate Country Airplay chart was created to stand in addition to the old chart with new rules.

Factoring in streaming data and song downloads is fine. It is 2013 after all. Music doesn’t come solely from the radio anymore. But they went a step further – when a country single crosses over to ‘the pop world’ and charts, that data is factored in, too. And thanks to a pop/rap remix featuring rapper Nelly, you now have the phenomenon that’s going on with “Cruise.” In other words, a song can log multiple weeks at #1 on the Hot Country Song chart without any significant airplay within the format.

So, Hank Snow was dislodged from the top by a song featuring a guest rapper that took full advantage of a chart that recently changed its rules. That’s my first issue with this “accomplishment.” On Engine 145 the other day, I commented that this record (which wasn’t broken at the time) meant nothing simply because of the chart tweak. If it had happened this time last year, obviously under the old rules, then I would have no problem at all. At least then it would’ve been fair game.

Garth Brooks accomplished something similar six years ago when his “More Than A Memory” single became the first country song ever to debut on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at #1. Did I cry fowl? No, I didn’t. At the time, it didn’t feel like country music was selling out, even if, (allegedly) Clear Channel had a hand in getting the song played each hour for a week. It was just Brooks breaking yet another record on a chart that was equal opportunity for everyone.

This new Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart is so easy to manipulate it’s scary. Scott Borchetta, the mastermind at Big Machine Label Group, is currently the only one greedy enough to see this, the only label exec who’s conscience is suppressed deep enough to change the course of country music and not give a crap about how he is impacting the greater good of the genre. If we’ve learned anything from Hollywood celebrities and politicians, its money is the route of all evil, and people will stop at nothing to pocket big.

My other issue is the quality of the song. Is it really too much to ask for the song breaking the record to feature even a hint of artistic merit? J.R. Journey said it best last December:

“The only thing worse than this pair of deebags hitting a major breakthrough in their career with a piece of drivel like this will be the countless deebags-in-training that will be inspired to emulate Florida Georgia Line’s success. From the butchered grammar lyrics to the singers’ affected twang and dog tags around their necks, these guys are a legit training manual on how to be scuzzy deebag losers.”

I shudder to think about the doors being opened by the success of “Cruise.” Like “On The Other Hand” and “Any Man of Mine” before it, we’re likely in the middle of the next great renaissance in country music. But instead of eliciting excitement, I only feel dirty. “Cruise” marks the first time a cult song was met with such success and that’s most dangerous of all. Trailer Choir’s “Rockin’ The Beer Gut” was arguably just as big a fan hit, but country radio knew enough to spit it out before it got even half this big. Now there’s no telling what kinds of songs will be heard from radio speakers in the years to come.

Any historian with half a brain will look back at this and wonder – how do you go from “I’m Moving On” to “Cruise?” In those sixty-three years country music stopped evolving and outright changed. The closet pre-cursor to a track like “Cruise” is “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” but even the Charlie Daniels Band classic was loaded with equal parts sincerity and shredded fiddle. Country Universe’s Dan Milliken can believe, “love it, hate it, or tolerate it, the one thing “Cruise” undeniably had going for it was a mighty hook,” all he wants. But good or bad hooks aside; it doesn’t alter the fact that “Cruise” is the new benchmark for success in mainstream country. Lord help and save us all.

Album Review – Grits and Glamour (Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan) – ‘Dos Divas’

July 31, 2013

Grits and Glamour (Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan)

DosDivas

Dos Divas

* * * 1/2 

It’s always interesting when a favorite artist issues a new recording. Your gut instinct is excitement, but you also wonder if the new material will measure up to the iconic music from that singer’s catalog. That sentiment certainly rings true about Dos Divas, the much anticipated duets project by Grits and Glamour, the duo comprised of Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan.

Tillis and Morgan are certainly an inspired pairing. They’re second-generation country singers who’ve grown up in the business and have been close friends since they landed major label record deals some twenty-five years ago. The pair even co-headlined (along with third-generation country singer Carlene Carter) a tour together in 1996. They’ve been touring under their current moniker going on some three years now and it was the fans that demanded this new release.

You have to be careful what you wish for. Dos Divas is a smorgasbord of duets and solo efforts that aims high, but never quite reaches its full potential. The main problem is Morgan, who’s still pushing her I’m-fifty-going-on-twenty persona that’s been her calling card for over a decade now. Her voice has also caught up with her look, and while she has moments where she makes it work, the control she once possessed so beautifully just isn’t there anymore. Tillis, meanwhile, is the same powerhouse dynamo that brought us to our knees on “Maybe It Was Memphis” twenty-two years ago.

Among the six duets on Dos Divas, there are some standout moments. I quite like “Bless Their Hearts,” a mid-tempo number Tillis co-wrote with Jimmy Richie and Joanna Smith that wouldn’t be out of place on a Miranda Lambert album. Morgan’s vocal is nasally, but the lyric and understated melody shine. Also good is Mary Sue England and Thom Shepherd’s “I Am A Woman,” a beautiful 90s-inspired piano ballad that shows off how well the pair harmonize together.

They turn up the energy on “I Know What You Did Last Night,” the fun and campy lead single. It’s the next morning recap of last night’s shenanigans and easily   the best party song of 2013. Tillis and Morgan are excellent when they play off each other with a nicely structured lyric. “I’m Tired,” a wisp of a honky-tonker complete with brilliantly placed fiddle, works just as well.

Initially I was frustrated by the inclusion of solo numbers as this is billed as a duets project. But the pair calls Dos Divas three albums in one, and the solo numbers are a chance to see how they fit into contemporary country. Interestingly enough, they balance it out with some excellent and some horrid numbers.

Morgan shines on the plaintive ballad “Another Chance To,” written by Joe West, Tom Shapiro, and Tammi Kidd. Framed by fiddle, mandolin, and piano, Morgan sings of second chances – spurred by a traffic jam caused by a med-flight helicopter landing just up ahead on the highway. The resulting euphony (every day’s a gift) is predictable, but Morgan infuses the song with the right amounts of sincerity and believability. “Last Night’s Makeup,” co-written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally (with Jessie Jo Dillon) is almost as good, but I found the word “makeup” just a little too jarring. The sentiment is good, though, and Morgan brings her real-life romantic experiences to her vocal.

I’ve had issue with songs that mention mobile phones and Facebook because they seem out of place to me for some reason. So I was inclined to hate “That’s So Cool,” but the melody is just so darn appealing that it cancels out the lyrical inanity in Morgan’s co-write with Eddy Raven and Frank J. Myers. I also have issue with Morgan’s inability to act her age on the track, but it fits well within her persona.

Tillis doesn’t have any solo numbers that reach the heights of “Another Chance To,” but torch ballad “Even The Stars” comes close. Tillis sings the hell out of the lyric, and I love how the arrangement so brilliantly frames her voice. She also gives a vocal master class on “I Envy The Sun,” although I couldn’t totally engage with the lyric. The melody of “Ain’t Enough Roses” can become grating, but once again, she sings the track well.

More often than not I do really, really like Dos Divas. But when the songs veer off course, they are embarrassingly bad. “Old Enough To Be Your Lover,” a number Tillis handles solo, is unintelligent and while she gets the “fun” just right, Lisa Carver’s lyric forces Tillis to wear a character that just doesn’t fit right. She’s better than this. The pair team up for one track they co-wrote together, and “What Was I Thinkin’” was supposed to be a comical tour-de-force about the their past romantic conquests. In execution it’s sloppy dreck that fails to be funny or clever.

Dos Divas is one of those weird projects that is nothing like anyone thought it would sound, giving the pedigree these two share, and Tillis’ near flawless track record for turning out expertly crafted albums. I love almost every track here, but wouldn’t deem any essential listening. I’m glad the record exists, for shear listening pleasure, but both ladies have already proven they’re better than this artistically.

Album Review – Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – ‘Bakersfield’

July 27, 2013

Vince Gill & Paul Franklin

Vince Gill And Paul Franklin - Bakersfield_Cvr_5x5_300cmyk

Bakersfield

* * * * *

With Bakersfield, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have created the first perfect country album of 2013. The ten-track collection, a tribute to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard with five songs apiece by each artist, is a masterwork thanks to the flawless combination of song selection, astute musicianship, and vocal prowess. 

Initially, I was furious at the prospect of another covers project as they’ve suffocated the genre of late and left little room for talented artists to help push pure country ideals into the twenty-first century. Lee Ann Womack gets it – instead of covering songs, why can’t these artists evoke the signature style on newly written material? The experience would be far richer than another dip in the lukewarm waters of the country music songbook.

Knowing that song selection is key, Gill and Franklin thankfully leave the most iconic Owens and Haggard hits on the table, making room for some lesser known songs, and three choice album tracks that were never singles. By dipping deeper into the pool they display a keen sense of imagination and effort towards the project that’s both honest and refreshing. 

Of big hits they do have a few. “Branded Man,” A #1 Haggard single from 1967, is nicely updated with a memorable guitar lick from Franklin, that Gill doubled in time during the recording process. They honor the original by still making it a classic Gill record. Also excellent is their rendition of “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” a lyric that remains timeless, even after forty-three years. Gill had a deep emotional connection to the song in the studio that comes out in his straightforward vocal. I also love how they tweaked the opening to make it their own, adding Franklin’s bright steel behind Gill’s always-masterful guitar licks. 

As if I couldn’t love Emmylou Harris any more, her presence in country music helped inspire two of the album’s most sublime moments. In her glory days, she recorded Owens’ “Together Again” and Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and Gill does the same here, making good on his promise to her that he would honor this important music. Gill and Franklin turn “Together Again” into a honky-tonk wonder, anchored by Gill’s otherwordly vocal (that channels Owens in all the best ways), and Franklin’s stunning backdrop of pedal steel. Their lively take on “The Bottle Let Me Down” is pure genius, and a wonderful compliment to “Together Again.”

In honoring the Bakersfield sound this record inspires, Gill and Franklin cover the gateway Owens tracks that helped Gill appreciate how the West Coast was influencing country music back in the early 1960s. You can also hear Owens in Gill’s vocal on “Foolin’ Around,” so much so you may wonder who that guy is singing. It opens the record in stunning fashion, showcasing Gill’s fine interpretation skills on guitar – Owens record was centered around steel, so it gave Gill room to create. “Nobody’s Fool” is just as wonderful a country shuffle, nicely complementing “Foolin’ Around.” Gill says he drew from George Jones for his beautiful electric guitar work here, and that cross genre influence helps the song stand out on its own. 

What’s great about Bakersfield is the lesser known tracks, moments that allow Gill and Franklin to show off their stunning prowess without fear of tampering with an iconic standard. “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore” is a perfect weeper, with damn near brilliant guitar and steel work to offset Gill’s awe-inducing vocal. Owens co-wrote the track with Arty Lange and it’s a shame it wasn’t picked up by anyone before now, as songs in this style, no matter how old, need to be heard by younger ears. Tommy Collins’ “But I Do,” an unreleased song of Owens’ from 1963, has a spectacular twin-fiddle opening courtesy of The Time Jumpers’ Tommy Franklin and Joe Spivey before morphing into a moment of pure honky-tonk bliss.   

A go-to song for Gill in his club days, “Holding Things Together” is the lone unreleased Haggard track and a stunning ballad about a family on the brink of collapse. The ending gives way to a gorgeous jam session with Gill bringing out his Stratocaster, which is a nod to Reggie Young who introduced the guitar to Haggard and helped define his sound in the 1970s.

As if it’s even possible, the CD has one major highlight – a spot shining so bright, it overtakes the other tracks, flawless as they are. I was first introduced to Haggard’s 1970 #3, on LeAnn Rimes’ Gill co-produced Lady & Gentleman and since then I’ve been obsessed with “I Can’t Be Myself.” Gill’s been playing the song since he heard it on a Steve Young album as a late teen, and gives the track an “El Paso” type feel to honor iconic country music sessions guitarist Grady Martin, who played on Marty Robbins’ hit as well as Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Sammi Smith’s hit recording of “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” among others. Those facts don’t change, but only enhance the fact that, Gill has turned in an iconic recording here that’s as important and significant as any of his biggest hit records.

I love this album so much, I just jumped online and bought the project on vinyl. I can’t help but long to hear Gill’s exceptional guitar work and Franklin’s flourishes of steel and guitar coming through those speakers courtesy of a needle. Call me old fashioned at 25, but I don’t care – Bakersfield is a project that begs for such treatment. I’ve come to hold Gill in the highest regard among living country singers since he stopped courting the masses and made projects that help build his legacy, and he only succeeds in adding to my admiration with each of these ten songs.  

I don’t praise a project lightly, and have found my ability to be impressed harder and harder to fully satisfy with each passing year. But I mean it when I throw around phrases like “stunning,” “brilliant,” and “flawless.” Gill (and now Franklin, whom I’ve never paid close attention to) is a national treasure. Between his solo work, affiliation with The Time Jumpers, and time in the studio with newer artists like Ashley Monroe, he’s elevated himself into a national treasure as important to country music The Carter Family and Hank Williams, Sr.    

I cannot wait to hear what projects he has cookin’ (I believe a bluegrass album is up next) as he looks to be giving his fans little musical treats that show he’s just getting better and better with each passing year. I applaud you MCA Nashville for not letting him get away.

Go pick up Bakersfield. It is impossible to feel even the slightest bit disappointed. Maybe it is, but only if you don’t have a pulse.   

Concert Review – Dwight Yoakam at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA

July 11, 2013
Dwight at Indian Ranch - June 23, 2013

Dwight at Indian Ranch – June 23, 2013

Ever since the release of 3 Pears last fall and his double sell-out at the Ryman this spring, there’s been a buzz surrounding Dwight Yoakam. Like his seven-year stretch between studio albums of original material, he doesn’t tour with great frequency, so I jumped at the chance to see him live when my godparents scored tickets to a show in our area.

It was a typical day in late June. The mercury was creeping towards 90 degrees with threats of afternoon hail as we made our way to The Country Music Capital of New England (Indian Ranch) in Webster, MA – an hour and a half long drive from our home south of Boston.

Although I’d never been to the venue before, I wasn’t a stranger to the cheap ticket prices (they’ve gone up with the times), non-descript location, and traditional mid-afternoon starting time (all shows are Sundays at 2 p.m.). The venue, essentially a hillbilly campground, was a pleasant surprise – boarded by a picturesque lake – and the bleacher style seating not as uncomfortable as one would assume.

The atmosphere – a crowd of people (many my age or younger) who were all kinds of kinds – was the perfect backdrop for the two and a half hour show. Yoakam, dressed in a Canadian Tuxedo and his signature brown cowboy hat, looked like something from a bygone era while his band mates, dressed in shimmering suit jackets recalled a retro Vegas lounge act primed to croon do-wop anthems. Yoakam has always been an individualist, so this display of eccentricity wasn’t too startling.

He opened with the rousing “Take Hold of My Hand” before going back to 1987 with “Please, Please Baby.” I fully expected the fourteen cuts on 3 Pears to dominate the proceedings, but Yoakam did a wonderful job of mixing new and old giving the enthusiastic crowed a satisfying overview of his career. Fully in keeping with his mantra, Yoakam didn’t play it safe throughout his set and I was stunned at how many of the left of center songs I actually knew.

If you were only familiar with Yoakam’s radio hits, then there were plenty of moments throughout the show that would’ve gone over your head. I was surprised when he dug out three songs, all title tracks of his records, that weren’t singles – 1990’s “If There Was A Way,” 1993’s “This Time,” and 2005’s “Blame The Vein.” He also brought out a single few know, but one I played a lot on my radio show in college, “Close Up The Honky Tonks” from his Dwight Sings Buck album.

Yoakam kept the Buck Owens theme alive throughout his set, even pausing “Turn It Up, Turn It On, Turn Me Loose” just after the line ‘While We’re Dancing to an Old Buck Owens Song’ to bring out a full rendition of “Act Naturally,” before finishing his 1990 hit. Their “Streets of Bakersfield” was done by Yoakam solo, a nice touch, as you can’t replace Owens on the iconic single.

He didn’t converse with the audience too much during his set as he let the music do the talking. Yoakam rolled through most of his trademark songs – from debut single “Honky Tonk Man” and early hits “Guitars Cadillacs” and “Little Sister” to 90s hits “It Only Hurts When I Cry” and “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” He tweaked “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” into a slightly slower honky-tonk ballad, and I enjoyed this arrangement a little more than the hit recording. Easily the most fun (and my favorite) moment of the show was “Little Ways” because Yoakam had the crowed in the palm of his hand with each “You. Got. Your. Little Ways” at the start of every chorus. He closed with “Fast As You,” which was just as fun as when it came out twenty years ago.

There actually weren’t that many new songs in his set – Yoakam only sang four of the tracks from 3 Pears. The esoteric Roger Miller-like “Waterfalls” was my favorite of these moments and a definite crowd pleaser (the couple in front of us even had a toy giraffe in honor of the song). I’m always at a loss for what’s popular, and I miss judged that one.

Sadly, his cover of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” proved an unofficial theme of the show. As much as I enjoyed the concert (and Yoakam is a great entertainer) the band was too loud and created a melding of sound that equaled noise more than music. Yoakam’s voice is still in fine shape, but it sounded like it was in a vacuum when he’d step up to the microphone. I chalked it up to another chance to utilize the reverb that somewhat overshadowed 3 Pears but it could’ve been the acoustics at the venue.

It didn’t ruin the show, but did damper my enjoyment a bit. Luckily, though, the noise factor didn’t affect “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” as I could still make out the band crooning “always late” throughout the song. The noise factor did make “Ring of Fire” unbearable, but his rockish treatment of the Johnny Cash classic always seemed a bit much anyways. Being a big Yoakam fan I also would’ve liked to hear him stretch his set even further – I was dying to hear him play “Nothing,” “Pocket of a Clown,” and “Thinking About Leaving” – but that’s just me being selfish.

Thankfully Yoakam’s charm shone throughout his set and had me glued to the stage despite the abundance of people watching, an always enjoyable hobby. He may be pushing into his late 50s, but Yoakam still has the swagger of men half his age. His trademark footwork hasn’t succumbed to time nor does he look ridiculous bringing out the same moves that had fans swooning more than thirty years ago. If you ever get a chance to hear Yoakam live I’d highly recommend it, his show is a thoroughly enjoyable experience from one of the best artists to come around in the modern era and a moment you’ll never forget.

Album Review – Pistol Annies – ‘Annie Up’

May 29, 2013

Pistol Annies

AnnieUp

Annie Up

* * * 

One of the most satisfying surprises of 2011 was Miranda Lambert’s come-from-nowhere trio Pistol Annies. Their airtight harmonies and brutally honest lyrics took a unique spin on mainstream country music. Hell On Heels was an incredible album – ten expertly crafted slices of the hillbilly lifestyle.

The time they’ve spent together over the past two years has made Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe more of a cohesive unit than three solo singers thrown together in collaboration. And the songs cover a wider array of topics than no good men, thus making Annie Up far more well rounded than its predecessor, a fact that couldn’t make me happier.

Like Hell On Heels they wrote the entire record themselves, and as three of the best singer-songwriters in the business, they deliver the goods. There’s no country shuffle of “Bad Example” or seething angst of “Takin’ Pills,” but they make up for it with a surprising amount of subtly and grace that elevates the band to the next dimension.

The quieter moments are the album’s strongest, and Monroe takes the lead on two that take equally compelling but albeit vastly different looks at relationships. “Dear Sobriety” (easily the best track here) is a stunning look at the limits of willpower in face of genetic addiction while “I Hope you’re the End of My Story” finds the band in perfect harmony, hoping a current love is meant to last for life. They continue in this mode, taking on the beauty industry with pitch-perfect candor on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” while “Blues, You’re A Buzz Kill” finds Monroe doing all she can (with no avail) to ward off emotional pain.

“Damn Thing,” their somewhat modernized approach to Ricky Skaggs’ classic 80s country/bluegrass fusion is the opposite of “Blues,” finding the Annies brushing off the things they can’t worry about. They’re also effective on “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina,” a mid-tempo honky-tonker about a woman who needs to let go of an ex once and for all. I also liked “Loved, By A Workin’ Man,” a Presley solo composition where she spills her guts about her kind of guy, and the slower burner “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” is the perfect showcase for how well they play off each other.

This is where my praise hits the proverbial brick wall. Pure and simple – Annie Up showcases everything that’s hazardous about mainstream country music. The more I listen the more pissed off I get at the producers (Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainley, Glen Wolf) and their dim-witted production values.

I totally understand the need to appeal to a younger audience (i.e. where the money is) that is eating up the amped up rock of Jason Aldean and company, but to BLATANTLY erase any hint of fiddle and steel guitar is simply unforgiveable. How the hell do you not drench a number like “Dear Sobriety” in mournful steel? Those idiotic chimes don’t cut it at all. “Loved, By A Workin’ Man” practically begs for some fiddle in place of that annoying electric guitar heard throughout. And I quite enjoyed “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” until that wall of sound comes in at the end engulfing the track in nothing more than noise.

When a band is going to this great a length to actually be country (you can hear it in the vocal performances and in the only use of audible steel on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”) than they should be rewarded with the hallmark instruments of country music backing them up. I know the times have changed but this is inexcusable. Have we actually “evolved” to the point where the elements that differentiate country from other genres of music doesn’t matter let alone need to be present to call a record country? (I know, I know – this has been happening forever. But Annie Up is a real country record or at least as close to one lacking in down home instrumentation can be).

All involved have royally screwed up. And sadly, each and every one knows better. The songs, vocals, and originality are here in spades. It’s a “damn shame” the production didn’t follow suit.

Album Review – Patty Griffin – “American Kid”

May 17, 2013

Patty Griffin

American_Kid_cover

American Kid

* * * * 

The loss of a parent is a monumental milestone and common denominator we all share as humans. As ‘The Greatest Generation’ whittles down, our living links to twentieth century history become non-existent. And if you’re like Patty Griffin, you weren’t prepared for this inevitable moment. The gaping hole caused by the death of her father, Lawrence Joseph Griffin, a veteran of WWII, became the geneses for her seventh studio project,American Kid, her first album of all-new material in six years.

Griffin covers the extremes of her feelings with sharp poignancy, opening the record with a jaunty ode to the hereafter (“Go Wherever You Wanna Go”) and a cynical tale about dying in the Sunshine State (“Please Don’t Let Me Die In Florida”). The acoustic guitars and mandolin, coupled with Griffin’s warm cheerful vocal, heighten the sanguinity in the former while that same mandolin strikes an aggressively angry tone on the latter that works with her biting yet somewhat esoteric lyric. She closes the album on a similar note; opting to speak to her father directly on the beautiful but slow “Gonna Miss You When Your Gone.”

Self-reflection is one of the great virtues of American Kid and Griffin spends a lot of time in her father’s shoes, panting exquisite portraits of his full-life and grappling with his inner psyche. This approach would’ve backfired in lesser hands, but Griffin clearly knows exactly what she’s doing. A simple acoustic guitar frames “Faithful Son” a haunting manifestation about being taken for granted, while those same feelings of inner pondering are brought to a new dimension on the revelatory “Not Another Man” as a conversation between man and God.

“Irish Boy” finds Griffin in a near-whisper as she recounts a failed romance her dad encountered after the war, while she penetrates jubilee on the sing-song-y “Get Ready Marie,” likely the origin story of her parent’s love affair. Both are excellent, although I wish she’d picked up the pace a little on “Irish Boy” – it’s just too slow. “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” is a cover of the Lefty Frizzell classic, but with Griffin’s delicate reading, you would’ve thought she wrote it herself.

First single “Ohio” is one of only a handful of places where Griffin isn’t in deep reflection about her dad and one of two to feature both lyrical and vocal assistance from her beau Robert Plant. It’s a masterpiece, and one of those rare records that only come around about once in a generation. The other is the deeply evocative “Highway Song,” proving these two need to make a collaborative record together before long.

Through the winning combination of her gorgeously articulate songwriting and deeply expressive voice (which boasts a remarkably similar tone to Lori McKenna’s), Griffin lays her pain on the floor and bares nothing at the expense of the listener. The record sags in the middle, where one too many slow jams beg for some change in tempo, but the production never obstructs the quality of Griffin’s pen, which always shines through.

American Kid is the first fully realized artistic statement of 2013 and one of the more personal albums of the decade so far. Even though I couldn’t say it on my first go around, I’m in love with the beauty and deep penetrating ache of this record and beg anyone looking for the essence of artistry to seek out a copy.

Album Review – Nick Dittmeier – “Extra Better”

May 13, 2013

Nick Dittmeier

extra better alt

Extra Better

* * * *

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of the music industry, it’s always refreshing when artists come along that make you stop and listen. Jeffersonville, IN native Nick Dittmeier is one of those people. Formally of the band Slithering Beast, he’s now honing his own brand of Alternative Country that mixes singer-songwriter sensibilities with raw honesty. Dittmeier showcases his talents perfectly on his new release Extra Better, out Friday (May 17).

With just four tracks, Dittmeier wastes no time getting right to the goods. The set opens with an engaging guitar/drum/percussion beat that gives a nice bouncy energy to “What Sets You Apart,” a fantastic laid-back jam. I’m really digging the sunny vibe of the track, and I love how Dittmeier uses his confident yet conversational vocal to tie the whole track together.

Also excellent is 70s folk throwback “I Can Sing.” Songs like this aren’t made anymore, which is a shame, because it boasts a fantastic lyric that drew me in instantly to the story of a guy leaving his band to strike out on his own:

There’s a record store up over the hill

The guys who work there were in a band last year

But they cut off their hair and cut up some slacks

Sold the guitars and made their money back

But not me, not me, me, I got a million songs to sing

While listening to “I Can Sing,” which is my favorite song on the EP, I was trying to figure out why I loved it so much, beyond my obvious affection for a great lyric. Then it hit me – Dittmeier infuses the track with the same delightful energy that made Zac Brown Band’s The Foundation such a great record five years ago. It also doesn’t hurt that “I Can Sing” lacks major label polish and therefore is allowed to be the perfectly imperfect number you hear on Extra Better.

Dittmeier slows down the proceedings with “Lay Your Trouble Down With Me,” a naked confession between a guy and the girl he’s done wrong. He’s rightly admitting his faults, even begging her to take transfer her hurt onto him:

Lay your trouble down with me

Won’t you lay your trouble down with me

Lay your trouble down with me, and get some sleep

It’s a decidedly simple chorus lyrically, but it doesn’t matter because in the emotional moments of life, it’s often hard to find the right words. Sometimes simple is best, and the minimal lyric is smart because it allows Dittmeier to build his deeply expressive vocal, which ascends to full on wail by the end of the second verse.

“You Don’t Have To Leave A Light On For Me” closes the set with a sweet tale about the pressures life imposes on a musician who is also raising a family. So many singers make a conscious effort to steer clear of songs about the profession, as they fear their fans won’t be able to relate. But when they’re done with such clarity as Dittmeier does here, they become a window into the singer’s world that can’t be gleamed any other way. I didn’t love the production as much on this one, but he hits another home run lyrically and vocally.

To be honest, when Dittmeier sent me Extra Better for review, I didn’t know what I was going to find when I began listening. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. It takes a lot for music to grab me and command my attention these days. I’m always longing for something uncontrived and sincere, and I found that here. I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

For me information on Nick Dittmeier and his music check out his website.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – “Same Trailer, Different Park”

April 30, 2013

Kacey Musgraves

images1

Same Trailer, Different Park

* * * * 1/2

A major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old formerNashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk.Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

That’s a far cry from “Keep It To Yourself.” Musgraves does a brilliant job of playing the strong woman here, and like Lee Ann Womack’s (a major influence) “Last Call” she doesn’t buy into an ex’s advances once he’s under far too strong an influence:

Keep it to yourself
If you think that you still love me
Put it on a shelf
If you’re looking for someone
Make it someone else
When you’re drunk
And it’s late
And you’re missing me like hell
Keep it to yourself

Possibly the strongest aspect of Same Trailer is the emotional range Musgraves covers in the songs. Everyone knows that life has its share of euphoric highs and crushing lows, even if most modern music hardly reflects that at all. She manages to pack desperation into the majority of the album albeit her own (“Back On The Map”) or society’s (“Merry Go ‘Round”) but also touches on the idea of finding one’s place in the world, no matter how scary. “Follow Your Arrow” is as much about love as life and “Silver Lining” takes it to the next level, saying “If you wanna fill your bottle up with lightning/You’re gonna have to stand in the rain.” The sunny steel guitar-laced atmosphere suggests she thinks going through life’s fire is a joyous undertaking, and while the outcome might be so, getting there more often than not, isn’t.

Probably the frankest moment of desperation comes from “It Is What It Is,” a McAnally, Brandy Clark co-write that finds Musgraves dealing with the after effects of a relationship in which the pair is ‘so much alike’ they’re doomed to failure, but can’t get enough of each other. I love the simple steel-fronted arrangement and how Musgraves so beautifully brings out the pain on the final chorus by starting it a cappella:

But I aint got no one sleepin’ with me,
And you aint got no where that you need to be,
Maybe I love you,
Maybe I’m just kind of bored,
It is what it is
Till it aint,
Anymore

“My House” comes on the flipside to the heaviness of the other tracks, providing a welcomed respite and chance for Musgraves to show off a playful side (she is young, after all) without resorting to fluff territory. I love the Dylan-esque 60s folk arrangement here a lot, especially the harmonica and upright bass. The humorous and memorable line, ‘Water and electric and a place to drain the septic’ doesn’t hurt either.

The main criticism Musgraves has gotten for the project is the demo-like delivery of the tracks, almost too under produced. I don’t hear it at all because in my opinion this is how music is supposed to sound – uncomplicated and straightforward. One of my favorite people, Luke Laird, produced the album and he did an incredible job of bringing the tracks to life. The album does verge on being a bit too pop in places and I still can’t figure out the metaphor she was reaching for on “Dandelion,” but this is as close to perfect (and country) as a mainstream album is likely to get in 2013. Loretta Lynn, who’s longed for songs that actually say something, should be very proud.

Album Review: The Band Perry – “Pioneer”

April 30, 2013

“Daddy rocked us to sleep with the Rolling Stones; Mama woke us up with Loretta Lynn. So we get it honest” – Kimberly Perry

The Band Perry

Pioneer

***1/2

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It’s no secret that “If I Die Young” is one of my favorite singles of this decade, no matter how much airplay it receives. Nathan Chapman’s simple production combined with Kimberly’s sweet vocal is an irresistible combination, difficult for me to resist.

So about a year ago now, I was thrilled when The Band Perry announced they’d be working with Rick Rubin on their sophomore album. The veteran producer who famously resurrected Johnny Cash’s career in the final two decades of life, he also produced the final Dixie Chick record Taking The Long Way, possibly my favorite album from them. In addition, they expressed their intent to work with songwriting genius (and Semisonic front man) Dan Wilson based on his involvement with “Someone Like You” and “Don’t You Remember” from Adele’s 21 (He also had a lot to do with the genius of the Chicks’ album). The Perry siblings even spoke openly of their love for those two songs, which made me very excited, as I love them, too.

So, what the heck went so horribly wrong? Well, it seems like the their label had other ideas. Kimberly has explained that Rubin “in his current incarnation” is a minimalist, but “we also knew that to accommodate all of the goals that we had, the best producer was Dann Huff.” One can assume, reading between the PR fog, that Republic Nashville didn’t approve of Rubin’s artistry, and wanted the band to go with a producer that would keep them firmly within the good graces of country radio. In other words, an intelligently articulate record wouldn’t be supported in today’s Nashville in the same ways an overproduced Huff-led record would.

And is Pioneer ever overproduced. Huff works his usual magic, suffocating the songs until they are one click away from needing life support. The rock production has even affected Kimberly’s voice, the band’s crowning instrument, which is now sadly showing the wear of extreme overuse. I wasn’t expecting to hear such breathy vocals from her, and like Carrie Underwood’s newly acquired rasp, it’s kind of sad. What ever happened to simply singing?

Pioneer is what happens when country music becomes too commercial. Every aspect of the product is grossly overdone in an attempt to appeal to the arena and stadium crowd, and while the songs may work well live; they fail as a listening experience on an album. Luckily, though, this isn’t the atrocious mess it could’ve been and they did find (and write) some decent songs, even if nothing here lives up to the singles from their debut.

I quite like “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” despite the somewhat muffled production and “I Saw The Light” is possibly my favorite song on the whole project. The title track is as folksy as they seem to get, and “Back To Me Without You” is nicely restrained although it gets a bit power ballad-y by the end. I don’t have a huge issue with thick production at all when it’s done correctly (here’s looking at you, Eric Church). Huff’s style actually works well on “Forever Mine Nevermind,” which has noticeable country elements in the choral melody.

I’m also enjoying the tender “Mother Like Mine,” which the trio wrote as a declaration of what the world would look like if everyone had been raised by their mom:

So the wars would all be over

‘Cause she’d raise us all as friends

And no one would ever wonder if somebody wanted them

We’d walk on grass that’s greener

And our cares would all be freer

If the world had a mother like mine

The no wars line is a bit predictable, and Kimberly’s vocal shows the wear of shouting too much on stage, but overall it’s a very touching song that would work well as a single. Their southern gothic tribute “End of Time” isn’t as revelatory as I would’ve liked, but it’s probably closest to the sound on their debut. “Night Gone Wasted” is a mess in this form, but I can hear the honky-tonk elements beneath all the noise, especially on the chorus. If any song ever called for an acoustic makeover, this would be it.

The rest is just plain dreck. I do get why some would praise “Chainsaw” for being a country romp, but it sounds to me like something Huff would’ve done with Rascal Flatts circa 2004. There’s just nothing new in the production to peak my interest. The lyric is typical Band Perry but the melody sounds very dated. Even the Target exclusive tracks are marred by unintelligent choices in both vocals and production, and can hardly be appreciated for the quality songs they probably are.

To call me disappointed in Pioneer would be an understatement. I’m thankful this isn’t an obvious clichéd attempt at commercialism, but this record could’ve been and deserved to be so much more. The songs are there but you wouldn’t know it based on all the distracting elements hindering overall enjoyment. Pioneer will rightfully get The Band Perry to that next level they so deserve to ascend to, but it comes at far too big a price for the fans that loved the simplicity of their debut. Hopefully, they’ll be able to find a happy medium next time.


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