Posts Tagged ‘Jennifer Nettles’

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

September 26, 2014

Tim McGraw

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Sundown Heaven Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 15, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Jennifer Nettles: ‘That Girl’

February 5, 2014

Jennifer Nettles

Jennifer-Nettles

That Girl

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In the four years since Sugarland graced us with The Incredible Machineit’s become abundantly clear that the project was the inaugural example of country music’s changing tide from a genre of integrity to one corrupted by an 80s rock mentality. As the first instance of the paradigm shift the results were shocking, but in context they make a little more sense.

There’s no secret fans have been clamoring for a redo from the duo, but the fallout from still-pending lawsuits relating to the collapse of their stage at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011, where seven people died, have prevented their collective return to music.

In the meantime, we have That Girl, the first solo offering from Jennifer Nettles; a project she says she’s been writing for the past three years. When the album was announced last summer I was excited, mostly because Rick Rubin was at the helm. Rubin, the man behind Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Dixie Chicks’ spellbinding Taking The Long Way, knows how to craft complete albums better than almost anyone. So to say my expectations were unbelievably high would be an understatement.

By all accounts, That Girl is a solidly above average album. Nettles’ songwriting skills are sharper than ever and she delivers one stunning vocal after another. But the ingredients just don’t add up, leaving the bulk of That Girl feeling lost and cold.

More than nine years ago I fell in love with Nettles’ voice when “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” was climbing the charts and became obsessed with “Want To” when it led their second album two years later. There was a beautiful intimacy to those tracks that coupled with decidedly country production (fiddles, dobros, and mandolins) created an indelible magic that only got stronger with each passing album.

That Girl retains the intimacy but is completely void of the country production elements from Sugarland’s best work. Seeing that this is a solo project, it’s unfair for Nettles to be expected to carry over the Sugarland sound. But Rubin has presided over an album that can hardly be called country at all, even by today’s standards. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but it aids in helping That Girl loose focus, and without a big standout track, the CD (as a whole) falls into a sea of sameness the renders the proceedings kind of boring.

But I do like and appreciate some of the tracks on their own merits. I love the sentiment of “Thank You,” her co-write with Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet. The acoustic guitar backdrop is sleepy, but the pair managed to craft a wonderful lyric about appreciation that’s both beautiful and endearing. “Good Time To Cry,” co-written with Mike Reid, is an outstanding R&B flavored number and one of Nettles’ best vocals ever committed to record. She also hits “Falling,” a number about loosing one’s virginity, out of the park. It’s also the closet vocally to the Nettles’ we’ve come to know and love.

The sea of sameness is broken up a few times by some uptempo tracks, although none are overwhelmingly exciting. There’s a Caribbean feel to Kevin Griffin co-write “Jealousy” and somewhat of a hook, but the song gets a tad annoying with repeated listenings. Richard Marx co-write “Know You Wanna Know” succeeds on wordplay, and “Moneyball” displays the most personality from Nettles. The problem with the upbeat material isn’t the lyrical content but rather Rubin’s decision to make them feel too serious. Nettles has shown in the past she does better when she can be more playful (think “Settlin’” or “Steve Earle”).

I really wanted to love That Girl a lot more than I do, as I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Nettles’ voice over the years and have seen Sugarland live three times. This solo effort would’ve been a stronger listening experience if it had been more varied in tempo, with a few more hook-laden songs and less sameness balladry. If these songs were sprinkled over the course of a few albums, I bet we would’ve been able to appreciate them more. That Girl is by no means a bad album, but it’s not the transcendent project it could and should’ve been.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013 Part I: 20-11

December 4, 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. Here’s part I, 20-11:

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20. That Girl – Jennifer Nettles

Back in “Stay” mode, Nettles is once again the other woman. Sequels often pale in comparison to the original, as “That Girl” does, but Nettles scores points for writing the first answer song to Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” and pulling it off with ease.

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19. Someone, Somewhere Tonight – Kellie Pickler

Treading hallowed ground, Kellie Pickler tackles one of Pam Tillis’ greatest vocal performances ever by covering one of the best songs she’s ever recorded. Finally stripped of her caricature image thanks to Dancing With The Stars, Picker plays it smart by making “Someone Somewhere Tonight” her own. While it pails in comparison to Tillis’ brilliant rendition, Pickler more than makes up for it with a mature performance that marks her growth as a singer and a person.

Your Side Of The Bed

18. Your Side of the Bed – Little Big Town 

So what if the third single from Tornado is a rip-off of a Gretchen Wilson album cut? Husband-and-wife Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook bring stunning conviction to this tale of a relationship breaking down from both sides of a king sized bed.

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17. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – The Band Perry

This must be a trend – when The Band Perry’s debut album came out, they placed one single apiece on both my best and worst lists. They’ve done the same again. Their best? This little ode to spreading your wings when you’re young. It’s a bit too loud towards the middle, but it works for me nonetheless.

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16. Enough – Joey + Rory

Originally written by Rory for a Kraft commercial, “Enough” is a sweet tale about family values and having “just enough to get by on.” There’s nothing revelatory about its sentiment (especially after “That’s Important To Me”) but it exudes charm nonetheless.

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15. Hush, Hush – Pistol Annies

How many of us have been there? You’re at the dreaded family reunion and just as you expected, no one is speaking to anyone. Brother is just out of rehab, daddy’s obsessed with the end of the world, and mom is sneaking vodka just to cope with it all. “Hush, Hush” is family dysfunction at it’s best with some vivid characters to boot.

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14. Travelin’ Alone – Jason Isbell

The best truckin’ song of the year is Isbell’s ode to loneliness on the road. He just wants someone to share it all with. Is that really too much to ask?

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13. Blowin’ Smoke – Kacey Musgraves

The shortsighted working poor come roaring back to life courtesy of Musgraves and her team of diner waitresses who are dreaming of a better life. Kelly may’ve gotten out, and hitched a ride to Vegas, but the others will forever be blowing smoke, and not just what comes from their cigarettes. It’s mystifying how fully formed Musgraves’ perspective on life is for a twenty-four year old.

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12. Mama’s Broken Heart – Miranda Lambert

Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves’ greatest success in 2013 came from writing this biting look at breakups from the standpoint of a generational gap between a mother and daughter. She’s cutting her bangs, screaming his name, and contemplating revenge while mom, who raised her better, wants her to “Cross [her] legs and dot [her] eyes and never let ‘em see [her] cry.” Lambert has never played this type of conflict so well.

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11. Like Jesus Does – Eric Church 

Another example of Church proving he’s an artist, not just a puppet of the country music industry. I will always reward those who show some effort and Church pulls out the effort in spades here. One of his finest singles.

Concert Review – Kelly Clarkson Stronger Tour – Wang Theatre – Jan 26, 2011

January 31, 2012

It seems like Kelly Clarkson is everywhere. She had an Unplugged special on VH1 last November, she sang on the AMA Awards and VH1 Divas Soul, was announced as a mentor on Blake Shelton’s team for The Voice, and she performed as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live. And not to be out done on the biggest night in sports, she’s singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.

I hardly remember a similar media blitz in her ten year career. Clarkson’s mangers and publicity people seem to be working overtime to make sure she has her fill of the spotlight. In between all these events, she’s also touring.

I never knew I wanted to see Clarkson in concert until I saw a notice about her Stronger tour from her Facebook page. I looked over the dates and found she was coming to the Boston Area at the end of Jan. I really wanted to go, but getting tickets proved challenging as they were already on sale and likely sold out. But being persistent paid off as good seats, too good to pass up, became available.

I don’t have a distinct recollection of ever attending a show at The Citi Performing Arts Wang Theater before, so I was really looking forward to the experience. I love the old classy theaters in Boston and have seen many a musical in town. This was my first “rock” concert at such a venue and it worked surprisingly well.

(more…)


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