Posts Tagged ‘Brett James’

Album Review: Miranda Lambert: “Platinum”

June 12, 2014

Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertPlatinum

Platinum

* * * * 1/2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concert Review – CMA Songwriters Series at the Royale Boston (Featuring Carrie Underwood)

August 26, 2012

Luke Laird is one of the coolest dudes on earth.

At least that’s the perspective I gleaned from his participation in the CMA Songwriters Series, back for its sophomore outing in Boston, July 31. Laird lacked the I-aim-to-please convention of the other participants, and thus gave the deepest insight into the songs that came from his pen.

Laird peeled his material back to its original form, often exposing the forged purity of country radio. He restored “Hillbilly Bone” to its country-rap beginnings, turning in a far more interesting song than Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins took up the charts in 2009/2010. He also sang the real lyrics to “Pontoon – ” it’s “back this bitch up into the water” not “back this hitch up into the water.”

To an outsider those amendments can seem insignificant; even pointless. But they reveal an authenticity about his writing process; a glimpse into his psyche. Laird is a very provocative writer, an outlander in a world of convention. By night’s end I was longing for the opportunity to jet down to Nashville and spend an afternoon with him.

The whole night was indicative of that feeling, turning songwriters into  stars, and Carrie Underwood into their equal, not a celebrity amongst peons. The round robin style contributed to that, lessening any opportunity to upstage anyone else.

The remarkable fact of the evening, far more noteworthy than a sold-out crowd, was the crop of songs sung, some of the blandest in recent memory, ones often filling up “worst songs of the year” lists on country blogs. But for two hours on a Tuesday evening that hardly mattered, as personality far out shined quality.

The affable Bob DiPiero hosted the evening, keeping the proceedings moving along, scolding a group of talking fans, and giving a shout out to the countless others watching via live stream. As a still relevant member of the 90s guard (and one time husband of Pam Tillis), DiPiero should’ve been the avenue for a trip down memory lane, but instead he chose to focus on his more recent, post millennium compositions (“If You Ever Stop Loving Me,” “Gone”).

DiPiero did turn the clock back once, however, singing a song he wrote about the daughter of his friend who showed up at his house in a red convertible. I was thinking he was going to sing the 1997 Collin Raye smash “Little Red Rodeo,” but instead DiPiero took on “Daddy’s Money” his #1 hit for Ricochet from 1996. I was nervous it wouldn’t go down well (who would know that song?), but it was one of the night’s most well-recieved moments.

The showcase, more panel than fluid concert, went down the line, letting each songwriter take turns on something they wrote. The evening had a wonderfully intimate feel in part because everyone was sitting down and also because of the acoustic guitar backing. DiPiero sat on the far left followed by Laird, Underwood, Hillary Lindsey, and Brett James.

The focus on post-2000 material pandered to the largely newer-country-fan crowd, and it showed in their marked excitement for what was being sung. DiPiero revved the crowd with opener “Southern Voice” (his excuse to write a song with the line “Appalachia Cola”), while Laird had everyone singing along to “Take A Back Road,” the gravel-in-my-travel ode to the cultural differences in upbringings between him and his co-writer Rhett Akins.

After the requisite jokes regarding his longer-than-usual hair moved the spotlight off his music, James, a 90s recording star, got the crowd going with a fine version of his Ashley Monroe co-write “The Truth,”  Jason Aldean’s career highpoint, as well as fine versions of “Mr. Know It All” and the sing-a-long “When The Sun Goes Down.” James was easily the night’s most annoying participant, whither it was the deep gravel of his vocals (blamed on a cold) or his cocky attitude.

As much as the focus shifted to other well-known compositions, the night belonged to Underwood. This meeting of the CMA Songwriters was meant as a showcase for her material, as much as for everyone else’s.

Underwood opened with “So Small,” her first linkage with Laird, and his first #1 as a songwriter. Throughout the night she also rolled through past hits  “Undo It” and “Temporary Home,” all while dressed more causally in pants and a white top, accented with her little-past-shoulder length hair in tight blond curls. She appeared as relaxed as any on stage, an everywoman among her peers.

This ego-less attitude extended to Lindsey who used her spotlight to showcase her connections with Underwood. She spoke lovingly of hoping the recently signed Idol winner would even consider recording one of her songs before launching into “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” the inaugural collaboration between songwriter and singer.

The songs she wrote for, and with Underwood, stole the show. They teamed up twice on Blown Away album cuts – “Do You Think About Me” and “Two Black Cadillacs.” Both proved excellent, and succeeded as pitches to get them released as singles (and in that order). The performance of “Cadillacs,” was a spoiler though, as the stripped down atmosphere is a much better setting for the, as Underwood put it, “sinister” lyrics.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, James took his turn and apologized in advance for, a comical reading of “Cowboy Casanova” that came off like a drunk guy doing grating bar karaoke. It marked the night’s most annoying moment, almost frat like in nature. I’m just not as big a fan of that particular composition as I thought, and after only three years, its proving not to age well.

Of all, Lindsey appeared the most carefree, whimsically seducing the audience with her charisma. Her need to pee turned into a running gag she kept comical, an accentuation of her southern charm and ability to develop a rapport with the audience.

This palpable charm extended to her detours from her connections with Underwood, most notably “American Honey,” her co-write that became a hit for Lady Antebellum. Better than any, the song fits Lindsey’s overall persona like a glove, as she exudes the same innocence projected by the lyrics. Lindsey also sang a new song, one not yet recorded, entitled “Concrete Heart.” If country radio can put aside the frivolous material currently hawking spins, it should be a hit for someone. I look forward to seeing who records it (Underwood, perhaps?).

The night’s musical highlight came with the ridiculously fun “Pontoon,” as Underwood shared an e-mail she wrote to Laird congratulating him  on his next #1. Even better were Underwood’s attempts at helping Laird sing it, blanking on half the bridge before turning out the final “motorboatin’” solo, in her soft girly voice. (Excerpts of it can be heard in the viral video “Pontoon Party.”)

But what I greatly appreciated from the whole evening was the atmosphere. I came away wanting to be friends with all on stage, and I couldn’t believe songwriters (non, apart from James, have released albums) could be so entertaining. But more than that, the acoustic setting reeled in Underwood’s wild abandon, and she was able to sing without dancing around distractedly.

That’s a feat in and of itself and it put the focus back on the music, not Underwood the stage performer (which could use major polishing). Without the loud production everyone could be heard and thus the music could be appreciated. It makes such a difference in a concert when everyone on stage can be heard. And kind of surprisingly, the multiple acoustic guitars sounded so full, you didn’t miss the band. 

 I knew buying tickets, the night had the potential to be a very special gathering, a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness a performer at the peak of their abilities in a very rare setting. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, and I came away having my expectations exceeded.

If you ever have the chance to catch one of these gatherings, seize the opportunity with gusto. They happen country wide during the whole year and offer more satisfaction for country fans, than any major Kenny Chesney or Taylor Swift styled tour. At least they did for me anyway.

The CMA Songwriters Series is just another in a long list of genre only happenings, that make me proud to be a country music fan and reinforce my stance, that I’m musically right where I belong.

Album Review – Kelly Clarkson – “Stronger”

January 31, 2012

Kelly Clarkson

Stronger

* * * *

At first listen, Stronger seemed like an album in desperate need of a vacation in sound. But the richness of this project became more clear to me as I kept hitting the repeat button on the CD player.

Lead single “Mr. Know It All” is a sunny and upbeat pop number complete with an infectious beat and charming vocal from Clarkson. It’s one of those songs that effortlessly glides off the tongue so much so, you don’t know you’re singing along until it’s over. Co-written by country songwriter Brett James with Brian Seals, Ester Dean, and Dante Jones, I much prefer the original pop recording over the country one because it sounds more natural.

The dance pop “What Doesn’t Kill You (Stronger),” the second single, also delivers on the charm. The beat and melody are so contagious, you can’t help but want to sing and dance along. In addition, “Stronger” succeeds in taking the proverb that inspired it and presenting it in a way that sounds fresh opposed to trite. It could’ve so easily been caught up in what inspired it, but the writers (Jorgen Elofsson, Ali Tamposi, David Gamson, and Greg Kurstin) succeed in making it an anthem.

Luckily, the rest of the album follows suit in matching the quality of the singles. If you’re looking for Clarkson to build on the success of “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” her duet with Jason Aldean, than you’ve come to the wrong place.  She loves and appreciates country music, but she sings pop music because it’s the most natural fit.

(more…)


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