Posts Tagged ‘Rodney Crowell’

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

May 20, 2014

Radney Foster

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Everything I Should’ve Said

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review: Rodney Crowell: ‘Tarpaper Sky’

April 15, 2014

Rodney Crowell

TarpaperSky

Tarpaper Sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review – Rosanne Cash – ‘The River & The Thread’

January 15, 2014

Rosanne Cash

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The River & The Thread

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In the decade since Rosanne Cash returned to music following a two-and-a-half year silence caused by a vocal chord polyp, she’s gone inward, looking to her musical and personal legacy for creative inspiration. As a result, Cash has made works that display her spectacular grace and dignity in the face of crippling loss.

This inward exploration reaches a new zenith on The River & The Thread, her first self-penned record since 2006, and a love letter to the southern United States. When Arkansas State University contacted Cash about acquiring her father’s boyhood home in Dyess, she and her husband John Leventhal (who co-wrote, produced, and arranged the record) took many extended trips to the region, visiting historical landmarks, and overseeing the purchase and renovation of her dad’s childhood home.

To raise the funds needed to purchase the property, Cash held a series of concerts in which everyone from George Jones, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson performed. Marshall Grant, her father’s bass player in the Tennessee Two and her ‘surrogate dad’, was also scheduled to perform but died of a brain aneurysm following show rehearsals. His death led Cash to write the first song for the project, “Etta’s Tune.” Written for Grant’s widow Etta, the song brings Grant’s voice to life as he pays tribute to the wife he’s leaving behind – “When the phone rang in the dead of night you’d always throw my bail. No you never touched the whisky, you never took the pills. I traveled for a million miles while you were standing still.” The song is extraordinary because Cash is depicting the beautiful tale of true love though Grant’s own eyes, as a second-generation source, bringing his voice to life with stunning clarity.

Mandolin driven “The Sunken Lands” uses similar techniques to paint the difficult life of her grandmother Carrie, on the terrain where Johnny grew up. The detail Cash provides is heartbreaking – from the endless work in the cotton fields (“the mud and tears melt the cotton balls”), verbal abuse from her husband (“His words are cruel, they sting like fire”), to her crying children. More than a song “The Sunken Lands” plays like a novelette from a legendary American writer. Cash has been known for her prose in recent years, and Black Cadillac played like a musical memoir, so it’s not surprising she brings those sensibilities to The River & The Thread as well.

The album’s title comes from the opening track, “A Feather’s Not A Bird.” When Cash sings, “You have to learn to love the thread,” she referencing a remark by a dear friend who’s a master seamstress in Florence, Alabama. It’s the most austere of the album’s songs, with a chorus that relies so heavily on metaphor it comes off a tad kooky. A fascination with the famous Tallahatchie Bridge (yes, the one highlighted in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billie Joe”) inspired the album’s closing track “Money Road,” an eerie ballad about the nearby street where Emmett Till flirted with a white woman and was murdered. “Money Road” boasts a great lyric, but the production is too slow and prodding for me to make a full investment in the song.

“The Long Way Home” details Cash’s personal journey, but rests in the spiritual realm on the idea of taking the long way home to ourselves, not necessarily a particular place. At 58 Cash has the life experience for such a sentiment, which only adds to the track’s deeper meaning. Even better is “Tell Heaven,” a meditation on longing and loneliness that frames Cash’s delicate whisper with a gorgeously folksy acoustic guitar. I love the gentle ease Leventhal brings to the arrangement coupled with the overall message – everything in life will be okay if you surrender your burdens to your higher power.

Cash gives a vocal master class on “Night School,” a striking ballad brought to life with the perfect sprinkling of fiddle and acoustic guitar. “50,000 Watts” uses the reach of radio wires to dispense a common prayer of love and devotion set to an upright bass, acoustic guitar, and drum heavy arrangement. “Modern Blue” has the album’s most modern sound, with electric guitars and drums creating a loudish sound that wakes up the listener. The chorus feels a little underdeveloped, but the whole song comes together by the end.

The centerpiece of The River & The Thread started as a composition Leventhal and Rodney Crowell were writing for Emmylou Harris, who never ended up recording it. As the story goes, Cash’s song Jake was researching The Civil War for school when she reminded him he had ancestors on both sides of the conflict. Inspired, Cash asked Crowell if she could rework the song (she always loved it) as a Civil War ballad about her relative William Cash, who fought for the North. After much obsession, and loss of sleep, the re-worked “When The Master Calls The Roll” was born.

“When The Master Calls The Roll” is a sweeping epic about William Lee, the love who would wait for him, and his eventual death in battle. Cash, Leventhal, and Crowell infuse the tune with so much detail and phrase each section with such precision the song quickly elevates to the echelon of masterworks. This track is so good the rest of the album, which meets just as high a standard, pales greatly in comparison.

Cash has said if she never cuts another record she’ll be fine, now that she’s made The River & The Thread. It’s easy to see why, as this is an album of a different breed, sown from a rare cloth. It’s atypical, even from singer-songwriters, to see an album this full-formed, possessing so much of the artist who created it. As tired as I am of seeing Cash mine her legacy, she continues to bring new and exciting colors to her exploration of what it means to be Johnny’s daughter. And with those colors, she may have created her best album yet.

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson - The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell - Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin - American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies - Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison - Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell - Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe - Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin - Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark - 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1

December 5, 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. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

Album Review: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game”

February 21, 2013

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison 

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Cheater’s Game

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If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music. 

Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 10-1

December 6, 2012

Adventurism. Turing convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the 19 albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. Here’s 10-1, enjoy!

Hello Cruel World

10. Gretchen Peters

Hello Cruel World

Thinking people’s music from a lyrical master, it’s easy to overlook the beauty of Hello Cruel World and cast it off as slow, depressing, and moody. But to do that is to completely miss the point of an emotional woman bearing her soul for all who will listen.

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9. Various Artists 

Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

A patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments with simple yet evocative lyrics brought to life by a stellar cast, Kin is a concept project done right. But the marriage of the poet and song master is its greatest achievement, two people from different fields of work, aiming at the same goal – affecting emotion. Look no further than “My Father’s Advice” or even “Mama’s On A Roll” to know they’ve succeeded in spades.

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8. Jamey Johnson and Friends

Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

 One of country’s greatest songwriters gets a tribute from one of its fieriest advocates for tradition. Johnson could’ve done the work solo and still come through with a masterwork, but instead he’s paired with some of the finest vocalists of our generation, elevating simple lyrics into works of art.

the-time-jumpers

7. The Time Jumpers

The Time Jumpers

Time and again I’ve said it but I really miss the days when Vince Gill brought his class and sophistication to mainstream country. Now its a prime example of you don’t know what you had until it was gone. Like last year’s stellar Guitar Slinger, he’s back working his magic, this time with his stellar string band. A not to be missed delight The Time Jumpers is the convergence of expertly talented musicians and singers coming together to spread their considerable awesomeness onto the world.

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6. Kellie Pickler

100 Proof

Often regulated to singing kiss off songs about men that have done her wrong (“Things That Never Cross A Man’s Mind,” “Best Days of Your Life,” “Red High Heels”) and empowerment anthems (“Don’t You Know you’re Beautiful”), Kellie Pickler became a singer who never quite rose above mediocrity.

Enter 100 Proof, a wham bam thank you maimtake no prisoners unapologetic classic country tore de force that finally matches the music to the talent and for the first time since America first met Pickler on American Idol, makes a statement. A giant leap forward.

Jana-Kramer-Album

5. Jana Kramer

Jana Kramer 

Haven’t we seen this before? An actress from a television show detours through Nashville to have their fifteen minutes of fame as a country singer. They claim their allegiances to the music, try to sing and look the part, but end up only as a parody of the real thing, a jokester trying in vein to pull of a charade so fake you wonder how on earth this could’ve transpired in the first place.

Luckily they’re not all built from the same tattered cloth. Jana Kramer is the exception, turning the most satisfying and promising debut album in years. I found myself continually mesmerized by her voice and spellbound by her ability to fish through the dreck and find quality music. So this isn’t Storms of Life Part II. But she’s obviously trying and cares to sound country. And not generically pop-country, either. She might not be a revaluation, but she’s the most promising step in the right direction a commercially viable mainstream country singer has gone in years. And I couldn’t be happier about it.

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4. Marty Stuart

Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

Stuart’s latest foray into traditional country refines the formula set by Ghost Train by penning originals with well-chosen covers. He fearlessly wears his love for country music on his sleeve and proves he’s the best teacher any contemporary country singer can learn from, if only they would take his class. A cover of Luke The Drifter’s “Pictures From Life’s Other Side,” a duet with his grandson Hank III, is easily among the best album cuts 2012 had to offer.

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3. Punch Brothers 

Ahoy! – EP

A creative risk like none you’ll hear all year, Punch Brothers fill their Who’s Feeling Young Now companion with brazen eccentricity, wild abandon, and more than enough musical gambles to make anyone dizzy.

They stand out because they’re fierce and bold, charting a course all their own. No one else looks or sounds like them and their underground following is a testament to their originality. Where they’ll venture from here is anyone’s guess.

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2. Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

Now this is acoustic music I can fully endorse. Where acts like Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers blend too much rock into their sound for my liking, The Punch Brothers take their cues directly from the foundations of bluegrass and build their sound from there. But like their rock counterparts, this isn’t strictly acoustic – odes to pop (“This Girl”) and funk (“Patchwork Girlfriend”) mix in effortlessly and are guided by Chris Thile’s measured vocals and brilliant mandolin playing. For lovers of an adventurous out of the box take on the traditional album format, look no further than Who’s Feeling Young Now, one of the finest albums of 2012.

Calling Me Home

1. Kathy Mattea

Calling Me Home

In the increasingly marginalized landscape of current popular music, realism is as rare a virtue as honesty, with singers churning out products aimed at returning maximum profit at radio and retail without effort towards impact or intention. Music as a means to influence emotion and affect thought is nearly non-existent. Not everyone sees it that way, thankfully, as Calling Me Home is the infrequent exception to the current model, a masterwork forcing us human Beings to venture inward and examine our complacency towards place and the havoc our irreversible actions have had on mankind.

Although the chronicled subjects rise from the Appalachian Mountains, and the day-to-day realities revolve around the “scoundrel and saint” that is coal, the overarching messages in these songs are universal to anyone with a conscious. But even more important is the conveyor, and Mattea brings each track to life with the power of her voice, a ribbon weaving through the complexities of each lyric, driving home every declaration.

At 53, Mattea is singing from the sharpened eye of experience, pondering the meaning of life and death with the vibrancy and vigor of wisdom that surfaces through a life lived with spiritual connectedness to ones own body and mind. And for that reason, Calling Me Home is one of the most important records to come along in a long, long time, a masterpiece of the soul and the earth from which all of us are born.

Album Review: Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell: “Kin – Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell”

June 8, 2012

Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell

Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell 

* * * * 1/2

The relationship between Mary Karr, a New York Times bestselling author, and Rodney Crowell began in 2003 when Crowell mentioned the author in “Earthbound” a track from Fate’s Right Hand. He’d just finished her book The Liar’s Club and had suspicions, based on her background in poetry, she could write songs.

Flash forward nine years and they’ve acted on that premonition with Kin: Songs by Mary Karr and Rodney Crowell, an album for wordsmiths and musical connoisseurs alike. With an all-star cast of heavyweights (Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack, Rosanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson) and fringe artists (Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams) lending their talents, the appreciation is only deepened by results worthy of their talents.

Kin shows its brilliance by presenting each artist in a new light, by giving the listener an unexpected treat with each composition. Producer Joe Henry pushes everyone out of their musical comfort zones with delightful arrangements that deepen their artistic integrity while allowing for substantial growth. Without the need to tread in the stagnant waters of mainstream Nashville, the artists have a chance to explore each song without fear of displeasing younger listeners, a constituency who wouldn’t be drawn to Kin in the first place.

Sonically, Kin is a slice of ear candy, an observation enhanced by the mix of steel, fiddle, upright bass, and acoustic guitar that drench each song. Womack exemplifies this perfectly, turning in her best song in over half a decade with “Mama’s On A Roll.” Soaked in dobro and acoustic guitar, she infuses the song with the slow-burn felt after downing a sift drink at a bar. Equally appealing is Jones, who infuses her trademark smoky warmth into the ear-catching “If The Law Don’t Want You.” By interjecting her performance with her Little Willies playfulness, she proves how compelling she is at singing country music and seduces the listener into hoping she’ll dabble in it with more frequency.

Another standout is the impressive Gill, who turns up the twang with “Just Pleasing You,” a steel and fiddle led number proving him correct in thinking his best days musically lie ahead. “Sister oh Sister,” sung by Cash, is like a visit from an old friend and fits her like a glove. While I would’ve liked to hear Cash sing something a little more energetic, you can’t fault her expressive tone on the somber tune about the relationship between close siblings.

Along the same lines is the sleepy “Long Time Girl Gone By” which finds a wispy Harris running the gamut from soft to strikingly compelling. More folk than country, it needed just a slight pick me up to hold my attention, but there isn’t any denying her artistry. Same goes for Williams who infuses “God I’m Missing You” with her usual tipsy delivery.

Crowell, not to be out done by the guest vocalists, turns in four songs of his own, his first since 2008’s Sex and Gasoline. The Dylan-like “Anything But Tame” rolls along with an acoustic guitar led arrangement, “I’m A Mess” recalls a Steve Earle-like sensibility, and “Hungry For Home” is straight-up folk. But the most appealing is “My Father’s Advice,” a duel role duet with Crowell as the son and Kristofferson as the advice-lending dad. The most country of Crowell’s vocal contributions to Kin, it offers flourishes of fiddle and harmonica that helps move the story along at a nice even pace.

As a whole, Kin is a patchwork quilt infusing distinct individual moments, led by Karr and Crowell’s simple yet evocative lyrics and brought to life by the stellar cast who gathered to record them. It’s a not-to-be-missed collaboration and one of the most original country albums of 2012.

Album Review – Pistol Annies – ‘Hell On Heels’

August 31, 2011

Pistol Annies

Hell On Heels

* * * * *

Much has been made lately about the lack of solo female artists charting top 30 singles. An alarm was sounded bringing attention to just how few genuine female superstars are working in the genre today. But instead of focusing on the lack of female artists charting big singles, we should be talking about and putting the spotlight on those female artists (solo or not) who are making music that matters whether they receive airplay or are left in the dust.

One of those artists commanding attention is Miranda Lambert’s new trio The Pistol Annies. Their debut album Hell on Heels is without a doubt one of the best country albums of 2011 because the attention to detail in the lyrical content rivals anything being released on a major label in Nashville today. Throughout the ten-song project, intricate phrases abound elevating simple stories into pieces of art. Hell On Heels is a listening experience like none other you’ll have all year.

They debuted with the title track earlier this year, an introduction as good as any. I have a little trouble with its three artist structure, but the verse sung solo by Ashley Monroe always brings fourth a smile. She’s just delightful and one of the best-kept secrets in Nashville today. But the rest of the album is as good but much better than that song.

Not since Mary Chapin Carpenter released “House of Cards” as the third single from Stones in the Road in 1995, has anyone spoken so honestly and introspectively about life behind closed doors. They’ve stood up and given voice to the women who can’t take it anymore from the men who haven’t got a clue.

No song exemplifies this better than “Housewives Prayer,” which employs a simple yet dark lyric to convey the pain of quiet desperation. One of the best songs of the year, it’s a cautionary tale from a woman fed up with the status of her life – she’s been thinking about going off the deep end because she’s “burning up with all the words she ain’t been saying,” and at her boiling point, she washes pills down with beer and contemplates setting her house on fire.

Inspired by “Holler Annie” Angaleena Presley’s divorce, “Prayer” proves the point that you don’t need much to pack a wallop. Presley’s lead vocal acts as a portal for the audience to feel her pain and the moody musical accompaniment, complete with haunting steel guitar front and center, adds another dimension to her sadness.

“Lemon Drop,” another down on your life song, uses a clever metaphor to sell its central message – you have to endure the bad to get to the good. Using examples of curtains purchased on credit and owning a TV that will take ten years to pay off, it serves as a reminder to anyone going through tough times to remember “they’ll be better days ahead.”

The light mix of acoustic guitars and gentle procession coupled with the blending of their voices, gives the song a rather sweet quality, which contrasts with the placement of a lemon in the title, but suggests the optimism the protagonist is holding onto. You come away feeling her situation isn’t a reflection on her because no matter how dire the circumstances may be, she isn’t letting them define her.

When listening to the song, I had to actually stop and think what “life is like a lemon drop” meant. When was the last time that happened? It’s so rewarding not to be able to take lyrics at face value, where you already know what the song’s about because the lyrics are so predictable. This is one of those times I actually like having to work at fully understanding my country music.

“Beige,” another track that made me think, is by and large my favorite song on the whole album. The movie-like nature of the story won me over first, but it was the presentation of that story that blew me away. The song finds a woman on her wedding day, with child, “marrying some boy” in a wrinkled shirt. She’s praying no one will notice her weight gain since a “bride shouldn’t be
4 months and 3 weeks.” She’s wearing beige because “everyone in this place knows I didn’t wait.” The situation is unfortunate and the song contains some of my favorite lines on the whole album, from her being daddy’s pride and joy to no one “having a ball at the reception hall.”

“Hippie Annie” Monroe takes the lead and displays how much she’s grown as a vocalist since Satisfied, her solo debut from 2006. But the song suffers only slightly from a lack of polish. There is a few times where Monroe could’ve enunciated more clearly. But other than that, the track dabbles with perfection. The drumbeat and steel guitar add a layer to the song conveying the sadness felt by everyone on what should’ve been a happy occasion.

But with all the heaviness of the ballads, the Annies add a few lighter moments to lesson the load. “Bad Example” is a pure country shuffle that recalls something from the 1920s, “Takin’ Pills” recalls the depression-era production T-Bone Burnett used on his Robert Plant and Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand, and “Family Feud” is pure Americana bliss. But being lighter doesn’t cancel out their substantive qualities. “Feud” is takes on a serious topic that often tears families apart, while “Pills” uses drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes as coping mechanisms. But for all their seriousness, they are the best examples of dark humor I’ve heard in country songs since I can remember.

Another light moment, “The Hunter’s Wife,” reminds me a lot of Rodney Crowell’s “She’s Crazy For Leavin’” in terms of production. I love the wordiness of the chorus and the fact that this man doesn’t even realize he’s chosen hunting (and fishing) over his wife. The way she complains about the meals she’s sick of eating in the second verse is so instantly relatable. It’s hard to find a woman who isn’t tired of the redundant behaviors of their husband or boyfriend. If this were a Brad Paisley song, she’d know exactly what to do – give him an ultimatum and if she doesn’t care for his answer, get the heck out. Overall, it’s one of the coolest songs on the whole album and another highlight among highlights.

“Lone Star Annie” Lambert takes the lead on both “Trailer for Rent” and “Boys From The South.” Both represent classic Lambert, on “Rent” she’s selling the trailer she shared with her now ex and it bares the marks of where she grew tired of his abusive behavior. I only wish “Rent” hadn’t gone into expletive territory. It didn’t need a swear word to emphasize anything, but it is indicative of how most people talk and adds an authenticity to the song in that respect. I also like the easygoing nature of the production track.

“Boys From The South” on the other hand, is the lone oddball out on the project. It’s so straightforward and has so much commercial potential; it would’ve been better on Lambert’s upcoming Four The Record or even Revolution. But if any song on this album has the ability to break through at radio and give Hell On Heels an extra push, it’s this one. These are the types of songs Lambert does exceptionally well and she excels on that here.

In the end, Hell on Heels is everything a country album should be: original in its angles on well-worn themes and a challenge to the listener to think and pay attention to what’s being said. This brand of country isn’t going to appeal to everyone, but there’s an audience out there starving for this kind of music. I know because I’m a vocal member of that crowd, retaliating against the usual fare coming out of mainstream Nashville. Thank goodness for artists like Pistol Annies who transcend trend and make music that will matter as much thirty years from now as it does today.


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