Album Review: I’m With Her – ‘See You Around’

March 6, 2018

I’m With Her

See You Around

* * * * 1/2

I’m With Her is a folk supergroup. Sara Watkins, a founding member of Nickel Creek, has been reaping the rewards of solo success since releasing her eponymous album in 2009. Sarah Jarosz began releasing albums that year as well. The final member is Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of the Bluegrass band Crooked Still and the daughter of Brian O’Donovan, host of A Celtic Sojourn on WGBH Radio here in Boston.

The trio came together for an impromptu performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2014 and released their two-song EP, Crossing Muddy Waters/Be My Husband in 2015. They gathered in Los Angeles and Vermont once their solo careers had slowed down a bit to record See You Around, which was produced by Ethan Johns in a tiny village near Bath, England at a recording studio owned by Peter Gabriel. The trio co-wrote the album together.

The album is rich with their tightly-woven harmonies and ear for crafting songs completely unique to themselves, that come together to create a wonderfully fully-formed record. The album begins strong, with the mid-tempo title track. “See You Around” crafts a tale of pain, with vivid imagery:

A constant ringing bell

Or the ocean in a shell I held up to my ear

While everything else

 

Is breaking like the waves down on the coastline

Breaking like the wine-stained glass that held my drink

Breaking like the heart that’s stuck inside my skin

Will it ever beat again

 

Or just go on bleeding ’til it’s empty

‘Til I fill it up again

I feel you baby

These aren’t fighting words, just a declaration

I feel you

So I guess I’ll be going now

I know you’re looking out for new eyes in the crowd

I’ll see you around

The gorgeous “Game To Lose” is a perfectly accentuated ballad anchored by Jarosz’s mandolin and Watkins’ warm and familiar fiddle. Watkins’ rich vocal tone is the centerpiece of “Ain’t That Fine,” while her falsetto leads the way on “Wild One.” The former is the sparse look at a budding relationship, while the latter is a cautionary tale and possibly my favorite song on the album. I also love “Waitsfield,” a jaunty and engaging instrumental.

Another standout moment is “Overland,” a striking lament on the promise of a new life far away from your current circumstances:

Goodbye brother, hello railroad

So long, Chicago

All these years, thought I was where I ought to be

But times are changing

This country’s growing

And I’m bound for San Francisco

Where a new life waits for me

“I-89,” which is an interstate that runs through both New Hampshire and Vermont, is actually an ode to finding an alternate escape route:

Waitin’ for the sight of headlights flashin’

Fussing with the dial on the radio

Burning through the pages of the Rand McNally

Fire in my belly gonna keep you warm

If there was another way out I’d take it

If there was another way down I’d go

If there was another way other than the highway

Show me on a map, point out the road

Two fiddle-laced ballads grace the back half of See You Around. “Crescent City” rides along at mid-tempo and relays the timeless message to make each moment of your life truly count. “Close It Down” is a tale of regret, with the protagonist falling for the charmer who has cast their spell on many a resident of the town where they reside.

“Ryland (Under The Apple Tree)” stands with “Ain’t That Fine,” in its depictions of the idyllic beginnings of a new relationship, but it strikes an ominous tone with the constant refrain: “under the apple tree, I planted for my love and me.” The final track is Gillian Welch’s “Hundred Miles,” which they perform with minimal accompaniment and partly a cappella.

It took me a bit to warm up to See You Around, but the nuances the trio brings to these songs are unique and captivating. This is clearly a record all their own, a great one indeed and well worth checking out.

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All about the song: Brandy Clark and Angaleena Presley at City Winery in Boston

March 2, 2018

Brandy Clark (with L-R, Miles Aubrey and Vanessa McGowan) performs at City Winery in Boston on January 28, 2018

I had my inaugural City Winery experience on a cool, but surprisingly dry, Sunday evening in late January. The chain venue, which has successful outposts in New York, Chicago, and Nashville and just opened here in Boston in early December, mixes an urban winery with a full-service restaurant and tantalizing live music.

All 310 seats at their One Canal St location, just steps from the Government Center Garage with sweeping views of the Lenny Zakim Bridge, were adorned with the crisp cloth napkins and sparkling silverware of an establishment still in its infancy. The service, from the management to the wait staff, had the execution of a well-oiled machine fully prepared to report for duty.

In a venue of this size, with grouped seating that decreases in price the further away you sit from the stage, you’re all but guaranteed an exceptional viewing and listening experience. The owners pride themselves on the first-rate acoustics and strict policy that you remain quiet and respectful during the show.

I had no idea when selecting seats at a front row table, I would be so close to the stage you could rest your elbow on the edge. Such proximity to the action does lead to “concert neck,” a term coined by country music journalist Juli Thanki to describe the sourness from extended time with your head in an unnatural position. Thanki likes to say pain is totally worth it, and I have to agree, especially when the live entertainment is Brandy Clark and Angaleena Presley.

I always knew that City Winery had the potential to bring blockbuster shows to Boston, but I didn’t know they would strike gold this quickly. This was Clark’s first headlining show in the city, after multiple supporting gigs with Jennifer Nettles, and the first time I’d ever heard of Presley playing around these parts in any solo capacity.

Clark flawlessly executed a tightly focused set segmented thematically by her clever and blunt perspectives on substance abuse and revenge. Her richly drawn character sketches came alive with minimalist accompaniment that accentuated her wit and candor while highlighting her silky twang.

She began unassumingly with the one-two-punch of “Hold My Hand” and “Love Will Go To Hell” before undertaking the risky move of gifting the audience a new song, “Favorite Lie,” which I thoroughly enjoyed. Clark unveiled the origins of “The Day She Got Divorced,” which came to fruition during a phone call between Clark and Shane McAnally concerning a writing session with Mark D. Sanders and, of all people, Ms. Presley herself. The session ended by mid-afternoon when Sanders asked Presley how she planned to spend the remainder of her day. She quipped, “well, I got divorced this morning.”

The tight segments from which Clark split her set began with substance abuse, which lasted a healthy portion of the evening. She began with “Get High” and turned in excellent readings of “Drinkin,’ Smokin,’ Cheatin,’” “Take A Little Pill” and to my surprise, “Hungover.” She sprinkled in “When I Get to Drinkin’” and “You’re Drunk” to round it out.

The revenge portion of the evening was more slight but no more impactful. She followed “Daughter” with “Stripes” and promptly put every no-good man in his place. Clark gave a shoutout to our local wonder kid, Lori McKenna, and played their single-mom anthem “Three Kids No Husband.” “Big Day In A Small Town” and “Girl Next Door” were highlights earlier in the evening.

Clark purposefully surprised with the encore, beginning with a request by a group of female super fans who had followed her to attend each of the four Northeast stops she played in four days (Clark went from Connecticut to New York back to Connecticut and finally, Boston). They wanted to hear her sing a particular song by her idol, Patty Loveless she had obsessively tried learning on a newly-purchased electric guitar while it was climbing the charts. Her efforts in learning “Blame It On Your Heart” were as unsuccessful as her mastery in singing it were successful. Clark finished with another new song, that I instantly loved, entitled “Apologies” and concluded with “Pray to Jesus.”

Angaleena Presley performs at City Winery in Boston on January 28, 2018

Clark’s set was everything one would expect it to be and the accompaniment — Miles Aubrey on Guitar and Vanessa McGowan on Upright Bass — allowed the songs to shine without sacrificing flavor. I found Clark’s song selection, while perfectly executed, to be lacking in diversity, begging for a third course of “what else I can do” songs such as “You Can Come Over,” What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and the one I kept waiting for all night — “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven.” Her ballads are a killer illustration of her artistry and I wish she had expanded her set to show them off.

Presley’s brisk opening set was a whirlwind tour of her four albums. Her candor, never mind her throwback hairstyle and leopard-print top, stole the evening while her southern charm had everyone in the palm of her hand. Her songs, though, spoke for themselves, with the audience in respective stitches with each turn-of-phrase.

She opened with “American Middle Class” and “Dreams Don’t Come True,” a shining example in a long list of songs about the dream of making it in music city. She also admitted to inviting the already-committed Lori McKenna to the show, in advance of playing “Bless Your Heart,” which she called the enthuses of a song McKenna would write.

Presley dedicated “Knocked Up” to her first husband, who she admitted did nothing more than make her a mother, and joked about her upbringing in Beauty, Kentucky. She intertwined her work with Pistol Annies so easily with her solo stuff, I all but forgot “Unhappily Married” and “Lemon Drop” weren’t on her solo releases.

Album Review: Tim McGraw & Faith Hill – ‘The Rest of Our Life’

January 16, 2018

Tim McGraw & Faith Hill

The Rest of Our Life

* *

It’s no secret that two of the most influential artists that have shaped my understanding and love of country music is Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Their love story was the first celebrity love story I bought into as a kid and the one that has lasted the longest. Hill, especially, remains one of my favorite artists.

Count me among those who found it puzzling that McGraw would exit Big Machine to be a little fish in a big pond at Sony Nashville. His artistic credibility had reached new heights in 2016 and he was back in the Male Vocalist of the Year race at the CMA Awards. You do have to commend him for giving that up to help re-launch Hill into the mainstream. His heart was definitely in the right place.

But the first taste of new music from the pair, the Adult Contemporary “Speak To A Girl” was not. The ballad may have shot to #19, but it exposed Hill’s newly-acquired rasp in her lower register. Her inability to hold onto notes in her lower register was painful to hear and distracted by the message of the song, which wasn’t all that thought out anyways.

The title track, and second single, wasn’t much better. It throws the pair further into pop territory, with a lyric (co-written by Ed Sheeran) that attempts to trace a romantic relationship. The lyric is terrible, especially in the Hill-led second verse:

I’ve been making plans for children

Since I’ve been looking in your eyes

I even have names picked out for them

Daughter’d be Rose

Son it’d be Ryan

The pair debuted two of the tracks on their tour last summer. “Break First,” is a mid-paced ballad of temptation (dominated by an electronic drum loop) in which a couple is eying each other from across the room. “Telluride,” is a funky up-tempo change of pace, and while it shares a name with a track from Set This Circus Down, it is most definitely a different song.

The majority of the album is dominated by songs that just aren’t that great or worth adding to your collection. “Devil Callin’ Me Back” strips them of their individually and highlights everything that’s wrong with modern commercially-focused music. “Roll The Dice” is an electronic mess while “Love Me To Lie,” in which Hill sings lead throughout, is at least okay.

“Sleeping In The Stars” lets the pair’s harmonies shine through. “Cowboy Lullaby” is a somewhat well-written song and a good vehicle for McGraw, but I can’t help but think it would’ve sounded a lot stronger with a far less watered down arrangement.

The final two tracks were co-written by Lori McKenna and I cannot help but hold them to a higher standard. She reunited with The Love Junkies on “The Bed We Made,” which actually has bones, but likely would’ve been more appropriate for someone younger and not a couple who has been married for twenty-one years.

“Damn Good At Holdin’ On,” which McKenna wrote with Barry Dean, is the album’s strongest track by a mile. I don’t like the chorus that much, but this is the closest Hill and McGraw come to rekindling the magic of their previous duets.

The lack of that magical spark found on “It’s Your Love” or “Let’s Make Love” is truly what sinks The Rest of Our Life. Hill and McGraw are far better than most of the material they pulled together for this album. They don’t need to craft an entire album of love songs – we all get it by now. If they had diversified, with another “Angry All The Time,” or at least put effort into finding even a couple artistic moments to sprinkle amongst the radio fodder than all might not have been lost. But as it stands, The Rest of Our Lives is beneath both of them. They’ve more than proven they can do a heck of a lot better than they do here.

Album Review: The Kelly Girls – ‘May You Always’

December 27, 2017

The Kelly Girls

May You Always

* * * * 1/2 

I first came to know Massachusetts based Celtic band The Kelly Girls when I had the opportunity to attend one of their delightful live performances in Spring 2016. I’ve been waiting for the group’s debut album ever since and I’m thrilled to say it’s finally arrived and surpasses the already high expectations I had for it.

May You Always was produced by band member Nancy Beaudette, an artist of which I’ve long been an admirer. The band, which is comprised of Beaudette along with Christine Hatch, Aisling Keating, and Melinda Kerwin, recorded the album, a beautiful mixture of newly-written and traditional tunes, in Central Massachusetts.

Beaudette had a hand in writing or co-writing six of the album’s songs, including four by herself. She tells of strangers in a bar connecting over a pint in the gorgeous “Reeds on the River” and gives fair warning not to mess with the Canadian riverboat captain at the center of the feisty “Molly Kool.” The title track is a wish of continued good fortune for us all and a timely message any time of year.

Her final solely written number, “Mariners of England,” was adapted from the 1880 Thomas Campbell poem “Ye Mariners of England”. The mid-paced waltz “Daffodils,” co-written with Keating, has its origins in the William Wadsworth poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” She teams with Kerwin for her final writing credit, the stunning lullaby “Another Goodnight.”

Kerwin and Keating teamed up for, “Miss Martha / Barney’s Shenanigans & Barney Get Home,” a medley of striking instrumentals. Hatch and Kate Chadbourne contribute “Last Rose of Summer,” a haunting ballad about the passage of time framed in a story about a woman’s relationship with her mother.

The jaunty, and excellent, “Walk In The Irish Rain,” comes from the pen of Americana singer-songwriter Steve Spurgin. The band also includes their beautiful version of iconic Canadian singer-songwriter Allister MacGillivray’s “Song for the Mira,” one of my favorite songs on the album.

Another favorite, “Wild Mountain Tyme and Sommervals,” was one of the traditional tunes they performed when I saw them live. I loved it then and I adore it equally now. “Jolly Rovin’ Tar,” which opens the album, is a wonderful Irish jig and a perfect way to set the mood for the album as a whole. “I Know My Love” is equally spirited and just as delightful.

May You Always is a fantastic introduction to The Kelly Girls and a stellar debut album. I fell in love with them and their sound when I caught their show and I’m pleased to see how brilliantly their distinct personalities translated to this record. I eagerly look forward to continue following them and cannot wait for whatever it is they choose to do next. I’m very fortunate to have them performing, living and recording essentially in my backyard.

NOTE: For more information on The Kelly Girls, please visit their website

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Good Old Days’

December 8, 2017

Tracy Lawrence

Good Ole Days

* * *

If popular culture is to be believed, it seems the 1990s is the hottest decade right now. Most of the ‘new’ television shows are reboots of classics from the era, including Full House and Will & Grace, with the originals casts reprising their roles. In popular music, if you were a major player 20-25 years ago, then its suddenly fashionable to return with new music and slews of concert dates.

In country music, this trend extends to the return of Faith Hill and Shania Twain with their first new music in more than a decade while Garth Brooks is wrapping up his massive three-year tour this month in Nashville. Even Dixie Chicks came home to the United States with their first tour in ten years. What’s old is new again or rather the music that defined my childhood is suddenly hip again.

It would be a stretch to place Tracy Lawrence at the same level since he was never a global superstar or wheeled much influence on an international stage. But he was one of the most consistent and traditional artists in his day, with a catalog that more than stands up to anything released by the artists who may have eclipsed him in status.

To celebrate this resurgence, Lawrence has released Good Ole Days, which recognizes what he refers to as a ‘hunger for the music from my era.’ The album pairs him with modern day country artists singing his hits. The whole concept does seem like a gimmick, a cash grab for the gullible fan unaware they are likely only lining the pockets of the executive who dreamt up this project. But really it’s a chance to finally hear country’s current class sing real well-written songs for the first time in their careers. I jumped at the chance to review this album simply so I could hear how these artists sound when forced to interrupt the actual country music. I’ve always had a theory that there is talent there if these artists had the proper vehicle to show it off.

This is the proper vehicle because instead of the artists making these songs their own, with their typical non-country producers and such, they have to stick within the confines of the original arrangements, including the steel, fiddle, and twang. Without the ability to hide, every weakness would be on the table.

Luke Bryan tackles Lawrence’s 1991 debut “Sticks and Stones” and handles it well. I wasn’t impressed with Jason Aldean’s take on “Just Can’t Break It to My Heart,” his voice was a bit too dirty, but the energy was good.

I remember reading in Quotable Country, on the dearly-departed Country California, Justin Moore says if he had a say he would make an album in the vein of I See It Now. He goes back a bit further here with “Alibis” and knocks it out of the park. Moore is a great country singer and it’s a shame he has to reside in this current climate.

Dustin Lynch sounds exactly like a young Lawrence on “Texas Tornado,” which is kind of scary. His performance isn’t excellent, but it’s damn close. I was surprised Miranda Lambert, who has been known to belt this out in concert, wasn’t singing it but that could’ve been label politics.

Probably the newest artist featured here is Luke Combs, who just hit number one with “When It Rains It Pours.” There’s no mistaking he’s a country singer and he easily pulls this off. The same is true for Chris Young, but he sounds like he’s just going through the paces on “If The Good Die Young.” If he had just let go the results could’ve been incredible.

The legend of Tim McGraw is he moved to Nashville on May 9, 1989, and has always said he’s more of a storyteller while Keith Whitley is a singer. I agree wholeheartedly, but his performance of “Time Marches On” is bland. In contrast, Easton Corbin shines on “Paint Me A Birmingham.”

Kellie Pickler’s talent is wasted on “Stars Over Texas,” which finds her regulated to singing the chorus. As the sole female voice on the whole album, you would’ve thought she’d be allowed more of a presence. I didn’t care for her vocal either, which makes her sound like a little girl.

There are two new songs in the mix. Brad Arnold, the lead singer of Alternative Rock band Three Doors Down (think ‘Here Without You’) joins Lawrence on the title track, which is being billed as his “country music debut.” The song, which also features Big & Rich, is a faux-rock disaster. The military-themed fiddle drenched ballad “Finally Home,” which features Craig Morgan, is better but not really for my tastes.

Good Ole Days is a great concept with lousy execution. These tracks are collaborations between the singer and Tracy Lawrence which doesn’t work on any level. Get rid of Lawrence entirely and turn this into the proper tribute album it’s screaming to be. His nasally twang is insufferable and pointlessly distracting. The lack of female artists in the mix is also troubling, as you don’t need just men to sing these songs.

Top Ten Singles of 2017

December 6, 2017

While it does become harder and harder to assemble this list each year, it always amazes me that quality country music does exist, even if the upper echelon of the airplay chart screams otherwise.  Sit back and enjoy what I consider the ten best singles released this year:



10. Tanya Tucker – Forever Loving You

Go online and you’ll find countless videos of Tucker where she details the volatility of her relationship with Glen Campbell. She freely admits to the drug and physical abuse that defined their union, which became a cornerstone of her early 20s. Even after they split, and she went onto some of her greatest success, she clearly never truly got over him.

More than a tribute to Campbell, “Forever Loving You” is an exquisite love song. Tucker is in fine voice, which makes the longing for new music all the more aching. Why does this have to be a standalone one-off and not the lead track to a new album?

9. Alan Jackson – The Older I Get

Easily Jackson’s greatest achievement since “So You Don’t Have To Love Me Anymore.” He’s in a contemplative mood, looking back in the year he received induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. If this is any indication, I look forward to whatever he chooses to do next.

8. Jon Pardi – She Ain’t In It

The best mainstream single of 2017 comes from the newly crowned CMA New Artist of the Year. The lyric isn’t earth-shattering, but the drenching of fiddle and steel more than makes up the difference. With his solid foundation in traditional country and his willingness to stay true to himself no matter the cost, Pardi’s future is bright. As of now, he’s one of the good guys.

7. Lee Ann Womack – Hollywood

A housewife is begging her husband to engage with her. He won’t bite except to dismiss her feelings or downright ignore their partnership. She’s exhausted from their loveless marriage, and the part he’s playing in it, so much so she wonders, “either I’m a fool for asking or you belong in Hollywood.” The first of two songs in this vein comes with that killer hook and Womack’s equally effective performance.

6. Alison Krauss – Losing You

Krauss revives a somewhat obscure Brenda Lee hit from 1965 and knocks it out of the park. The covers album that followed is just as rich and deeply satisfying.

5. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit – If We Were Vampires

If life didn’t come with an expiration date, would we love as hard? Isbell asks that central question on the stunning centerpiece from That Nashville Sound. He proves mortality is actually a good thing, not something to be feared. For my ears, “If We Were Vampires” is the love song of the year.

 4. Chris Stapleton – Either Way

In my more than twenty years of seriously consuming country music, no song has stuck with me as long or had as great an impact on my psyche as “Either Way.” Lee Ann Womack brought it to life eight years ago in what still remains the song’s definitive version. Stapleton sings the fire out of it, too, but his greatest achievement is being the man who wrote it. He’s easily among the upper tier of the greatest country songwriters of his generation.

3. Brandy Clark – Three Kids No Husband

Clark teamed with Lori McKenna on an anthem for the women who assume all titles without a man to even the score. Both have recorded it, but it’s Clark who found the subtly within the lyric and ultimately drove it home.

2. Sunny Sweeney – Bottle By My Bed

Many songs have been written about the struggle for a woman to conceive, but none are as achingly beautiful as Sweeney’s tale of heartbreak in the wake of a miscarriage. A powerful and universal tale for anyone who has suffered the same fate.

1. Erin Enderlin – Ain’t It Just Like A Cowboy

I didn’t have a clear favorite single this year until I played these ten songs back-to-back when considering the rankings. Enderlin blows away the competition with her story of a wife realizing how foolish she is for staying with the cheating bastard who probably never loved her in the first place. A true country ballad for the ages.

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis – ‘Come See Me and Come Lonely’

November 30, 2017

Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis

Come See Me and Come Lonely

* * * 1/2

Come See Me and Come Lonely, Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis’ second collaborative album, is strictly a covers record with their version of twelve classic country songs ranging from the familiar to the slightly obscure. I didn’t even have an inkling this record was in the works, so count me among the pleased, and surprised when news broke about the impending release this past summer.

The album was produced by Richard Landis, who has handled the majority of Morgan’s production duties for more than 25 years. While he maintains the essence of each song, he updates the arraignments just enough to give the album a contemporary flair that allows the album to feel modern and not note-for-note recreations of the classic recordings from which these compositions are most known.

His choices result in a very good album that unfortunately begins with K.T. Oslin’s romantic ballad “Do Ya” sung as a duel-lead duet. The results are ridiculous but Tillis does bring vigor to an otherwise lifeless song. I had no idea what to expect from another seemingly random choice, Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs.” They handled the song with ease, as though it was born from a Nashville honky-tonk.

Skeeter Davis’ version of “The End of the World” has always been too schmaltzy and slightly comedic for my twenty-first-century ears. Morgan and Tillis’ interpretation is gorgeous and brings the underlying heartbreak in the lyrics to the forefront. “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” is similarly excellent and a brilliant nod to Tillis’ sound and style from the early 1990s.

The title track is brilliant and actually improves upon the version Dottie West released in 1978. I like their rendition of “Walk Right Back” and love how the emulate the Everly Brothers with their close-knit harmonies.

Morgan all but knocks Sammi Smith’s “Saunders Ferry Lane” out of the park, but I’ll always wonder how it would’ve sounded without so much age on her voice. “Rose In Paradise” is a southern gothic beauty, anchored masterfully by Tillis. My favorite track on the album is “Summer Wine,” presented as a duet with Darryl Worley and an almost unrecognizable Joe Diffie.

Tackling anything written and sung by Roy Orbison is a feat and Morgan and Tillis fall short on “It’s Over,” which just isn’t to my tastes at all. An acoustic take on “Blanket On The Ground” would’ve allowed Morgan and Tillis’ harmonies to shine, whereas the version they gave us drowns them out with obtrusive clutter.

Come See Me and Come Lonely isn’t a perfect album but there are some stunning performances throughout. Morgan and Tillis are on top of their artistic game even if the arrangements are too loud on occasion. I highly recommend checking this one out.

Album Review: Katie Dobbins – ‘She is Free’

October 2, 2017

Katie Dobbins

She Is Free

* * * * *

Boston based contemporary folk and new country singer Katie Dobbins released her debut album, She is Free back in May. The album emerged from an epiphany that the life she was living, complete with a salaried job, wasn’t satisfying her soul. It was just the last couple of years that she was able to fully embrace her musical muse and embark on the journey cumulating with this album.

She is Free opens with her debut single, the autobiographical “Something To Be Found.” Dobbins chronicles her journey, from the college student with two degrees to the twenty-five-year-old re-engaging with her inner child:

Will this road take me where I want to go
Where that is I have to say I really don’t know
I’m driving now, hoping somewhere there’s something to be found
Everything in me says I gotta get out

Get out and get back to her, to that little girl
She’s stares at me in photographs
Shining eyes, delirious
Begging me to come back home

“Post-It Notes” is a beautifully romantic mid-tempo ballad, about a guy declaring his love with a declaration tacked to the fridge. “More Love” is a battle-cry calling for compassion, whether it’s the man whose bike was hit by an elderly gentleman, parents dropping their kids off at school or soldiers on the battlefield:

This world needs more love
And it starts with you and it starts with me
There’s no telling what this world would be
If every single hand was outstretched wide
What do we miss just being passerby’s
We need more love

The jazzy “Bring On The Fire” is an anthem for anyone who needs to push out of their comfort zone and stand in their own sun, gets burned and get on with living life. “Beautiful” is a steel-laced ballad about love, with Dobbins singing about the guy who encourages her to follow her passions with simple words and gestures that define their intimate relationship. The heartbreaking “Marry You” tells a different story, one in which Dobbins envisions how incredible it would be to marry the guy if life didn’t intervene:

You and I are writing different stories
You’re the hero, baby I’m some girl with a dream
I can’t be the one to take your glory
You can’t be the one to write this chapter for me

Closing track “Puzzles” is a perfectly written empowerment anthem saying we as humans are whole and not puzzle pieces that need to be put together. Dobbins is saying we’re perfectly imperfect and that’s more than okay.

“Daddy’s Song” is one of the more personal lyrics on the album. It finds Dobbins sharing her story of encouragement as she ventured to Nashville to follow her dreams. Piano ballad “Cards on a Tuesday (Nana’s Song)” follows suit and offers a gorgeous tribute to her grandmother, her inspiration, the woman Dobbins hopes to be as she ventures through this world.

Dobbins says She is Free “is a collection of songs I created over time, and its release signifies my own personal freedom from any insecurities or fears I have held about myself or my music up to this point. The songs on the album pay tribute to certain people in my life who have empowered me along the way, and also tell stories of various real and imagined characters pursuing love and freedom.”

The time and attention Dobbins put forth when making this album shows in the nine songs, which give insight into her life and her journey back to music. I thoroughly enjoyed taking this voyage with her, whether it was empowering, heartwarming or even heartbreaking.

I highly recommend checking out this album. For further information on Katie Dobbins, you can visit her website or find her on Bandcamp.

“Every Little Thing” and Carly Pearce’s fabricated fairy tale

September 5, 2017

The deeper I lean into the marketing of mainstream country music, The more I’m seeing the blatant manipulation. It’s no secret that Keith Hill’s comment that women are the tomatoes on the salad was offensive and misogynistic, but it was also, unfortunately, spot on. Women, unless they are members of a group, duo or collaboration also featuring men, have been shut out of even marginal airplay. Miranda Lambert is justifiably pissed at her diminishing returns, even as her music veers more and more towards Americana.

Media outlets that cover mainstream country have been celebrating the success of Carly Pearce’s “Every Little Thing” with Rolling Stone Country saying she “defied the odds with risky song” in a recent headline. I’ll admit, it’s against the norm, in this current climate, to release a ballad and have it succeed. The slower a song is the less likely it will fall under what is deemed “radio friendly.” That logic is nothing new.

But what’s baffling is the suppression of the truth. Carly Pearce is succeeding on her own merit about as much as Thomas Rhett. This grand success story? It’s all courtesy of iHeart Media and their “On The Verge” program. “On The Verge” exists to help struggling artists succeed and pretty much guarantees them a #1 hit. It’s the only reason former American Idol runner-up Lauren Alaina scored a chart topper with “The Road Less Traveled” seven years after her debut album bombed into oblivion. There’s absolutely no fairy tale here, no reason to cheer or even get excited. These feats are political manipulations swept under the rug disguised as major success stories.

We’re at a crisis point right now with female artists. Not only are none getting airplay, there really aren’t any in the mainstream sector for radio to embrace. Brandy Clark and Sunny Sweeney would never get airplay for the latest music, in any era, since they’re 40 years or older. Ashton Shepherd didn’t connect, with her heavy twang, so MCA dropped her. Ashely Monroe was told, on her last radio tour, that “On To Something Good,” was dead on arrival. Kacey Musgraves has done next to nothing to endear herself to the mainstream audience beyond wearing crazy outfits and adorning her sets with neon cacti. She will join Harry Styles on tour next year. Will Maren Morris connect? Possibly, as she’s already building a following. But I would think she’d have to prove herself as more than the “80s Mercedes” singer. “I Could Use A Love Song” has done that for me, but it’s only a step in the right direction for her to take as she contemplates her follow-up to Hero.

About the only person, we can count on is Carrie Underwood, who is currently in between albums. Time will tell if her newly minted deal with Capitol Nashville, the label that refused to sign her as a pre-teen back in 1996, will yield further success. I can’t imagine her being blackballed but I never thought Dixie Chicks would fall from grace like that either. In this market, anything is possible.

Is there a solution or silver lining in all of this? I honestly have no idea. I never imagined mainstream country music would ever be in this bad a shape in my life. It took until I got to college to see why Luke Bryan has been able to succeed like he has. He’s tapped into an audience previously ignored by country music, those who love to socialize and party and be high on life. He’s like the male Taylor Swift in that sense. He’s found his audience and he’s running with it all the way to the bank.

This era is the building block for whatever comes next. Has anyone else noticed the glaring oddity of Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Backroad?” The song has succeeded without a music video, parent album or physical release of any kind. I can’t remember any other massive song that lacked even one of those three elements. These are uncharted waters and they’re reaping big rewards.

Maybe you know where we’re going from here. I know I probably shouldn’t care, and I have spent the majority of this year focused on independent releases, but I do. I can’t help it. It’s in my nature as female artists have always been my favorite, the ones I listen to most frequently. I guess Angaleena Presley and her fellow Pistol Annies said it best:

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I hate to put a damper

On the fairy tale you pictured

I shoulda known all along that

Glass slippers give you blisters

Album Review: Natalie Hemby – ‘Puxico’

August 29, 2017

Natalie Hemby

Puxico

* * * 1/2

Natalie Hemby, Dean Dillon to Miranda Lambert’s George Strait, released her debut album back in January. The album, seven years in the making, is the musical accompaniment to a documentary she produced about her hometown of Puxico, Missouri. Hemby solely composed each of the project’s nine songs.

Hemby opens the album wonderfully, with the folksy tones of “Time-Honored Tradition,” a jaunty uptempo number about her longing for “kindred town filled with good company.” Said town ultimately goes through a “Grand Restoration,” in which the past and present beautifully collide to bring a sense of history into the modern day. She gets the sentiment right on “Worn,” a characteristic she gives to “the finer things worth keeping,” but I could’ve done with a more interesting execution. Similarly rudimentary is lead single “Return,” which details the idea that you need to get away in order to fully appreciate your life back home.

“Lovers On Display” is one of many relationship-centric tunes on Puxico. The simplistic ballad is an appealing dissertation on love, using carnival imagery to evoke innocent romance. The ambiguous steel drenched “This Town Still Talks About You” is a brilliantly heartbreaking reminder that a person’s presence can be alive and well even if they aren’t physically present. Our minds aren’t so lucky, as Hemby points out in “I’ll Remember How You Loved Me,” which says memories fade but we never forget love.

The love, or really praise, for “Cairo, IL” is a big reason why I decided to finally listen to Puxico. The gorgeous ballad, a tribute to a long abandoned ghost town, is considered one of the best country songs released this year:

All the fields are flooded up to Highway 51

Illinois is coming ’cross the bridge where the Old Ohio was

Don’t look away, it will be gone

 

Kentucky and Missouri, a trinity of states

Nothing’s in a hurry ’cept the water in between the rising banks

Oh nothing moves but nothing stays

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

 

She used to be a beauty back in 1891

After Fort Defiance, now she’s weathered by the river and the sun

She’s still around but she is gone

 

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

The lyric is simple, and the song itself is very quiet, but the hook does pack a nice punch. I probably enjoy “Ferris Wheel,” a track Faith Hill recently featured in her Instagram Stories when Hemby was scheduled to open up for her and Tim McGraw on a recent Soul2Soul tour stop, even more. The steel-drenched ballad, which has a lovely and inviting melody, is far and away my favorite track on the album.

On the whole, Puxico is a very strong album and a wonderful introduction to Hemby and her personal style. I just found it to be a bit too sing-song-y in places and some of the songs could’ve been more complex. I kept comparing her, in my head, to Kacey Musgraves, which I’m having a hard time shaking.

But, that being said, this is an album well-worth checking out.

Album Review: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – ‘Not Dark Yet’

August 17, 2017

Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer

Not Dark Yet

* * * *

In the summer of 2016, under the direction of Richard Thompson’s son Teddy, Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer entered a studio in Los Angeles and made good on a promise to one day record a collaborative album. The result, Not Dark Yet, is a ten-track collection of eccentric covers and one original tune.

The songs span genres, from classic country to rock and even grunge. The album, though, has a unifying sound, with Thompson using flourishes of piano and guitar to bring the tracks together. These aren’t by-the-numbers faithful interpretations, but rather the sisters’ take on these songs.

They open Not Dark Yet with “My List,” solely penned by Brandon Flowers and featured on The Killers second album Sam’s Town in 2006. Their version begins sparse, led by Moorer’s naked vulnerability, before unexpectedly kicking into gear halfway.

The title track was written and released by Bob Dylan in 1998, from Time Out Of Mind. Moorer is a revelation once again, with the perfect smoky alto to convey the despair lying at the center of Dylan’s lyric.

As one might expect, the album explores the feelings surrounding the horrific death of the sisters’ mother, at the hands of their father, who then turned the gun on himself. They were teenagers at the time, a period in one’s life where you arguably need your parents the most. They acknowledge their heartbreak with a trifecta of songs, culminating with the album’s sole original tune, which they composed themselves.

They begin with Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms,” the lead single from his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call. The song, which proves the benefit of turning to rock for expert lyricism, is about a man’s devotion to his woman and the push to bring them together. Lynne and Moorer continue with Kurt Cobain’s “Lithium,” from Nirvana’s 1992 masterpiece Nevermind. The dark ballad, which they make approachable, details the story of a man turning to God amidst thoughts of suicide.

The most personal, “Is It Too Much” was started by Lynne and finished by Moorer. The track details the bond they share as sisters, knowing each other’s pain, and wondering – is it too much to carry in your heart? It’s also one of the album’s slowest ballads, heavy on bass. I’m not typically drawn to these types of songs but they manage to bring it alive.

The remaining five tracks have ties to country music and thus fall more within my expertise. “Every Time You Leave” was written by Charlie and Ira Louvin and released in 1963. The backstory is a tragic one – Ira wrote this for his wife, saying that although they would eventually get back together, their separation was inventible. The wife he was married to at the time, his third, would also shoot him five times after a violent argument. It’s no wonder the pair feel a connection to the song, which they brilliantly deliver as a bass and piano-led ballad.

“I’m Looking for Blue Eyes,” written and recorded by Jessi Colter, was a track from Wanted! The Outlaws in 1976. Lynne and Moorer’s version is stunning, even if the pedal steel is just an accent and not a major player throughout.

Two of the album’s songs first appeared in 1969. “Lungs,” written by Townes Van Zandt, was featured on his eponymous album. The pair interpret the song nicely, which has a gently rolling melody. The album’s most famous song, at least to country fans, is Merle Haggard’s classic “Silver Wings,” which first appeared on Okie From Muskogee. Their version is slightly experimental but also lovely.

The final song is arguably the most contemporary. “The Color of a Cloudy Day” was written by Jason Isbell and is a duet between him and his wife Amanda Shires. The song first appeared at the close of the British documentary The Fear of 13 and was given a proper release as part of Amazon’s “Amazon Acoustics” playlist in 2016. Moorer and Lynne give the song a bit more pep, which isn’t hard given the acoustic leanings of Isbell and Shires’ duet.

I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but Not Dark Yet is considered one of the most anticipated roots releases of the year. It’s a beautiful album, and while it won’t be within everyone’s wheelhouse, it’s difficult not to appreciate just how brilliant Lynne and Moorer are as a pair. They are two of our finest voices and have an exceptional ear for song selection. I don’t usually have trouble grading albums, but Not Dark Yet is hard record for which to assign a grade. It might not be completely my cup of tea, but I can’t ignore how expertly it was crafted.

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary – ‘American Grandstand’

July 6, 2017

Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary

American Grandstand

* * * * *

“Traditional country music is a whole different genre,” Vincent said. “A lot of people will say that there is not a market for traditional country music, but I know that is not true as it has its own niche. I did that traditional country album with Gene Watson not long ago, and I found out that there is a tremendous audience out there for traditional country music. Daryle and I have been doing shows together, and he is so much fun. When everybody hears this new album, they will know how special it is.” – Rhonda Vincent discussing American Grandstand. h/t That Nashville Sound


It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since Your Money and My Good Looks, which helped redefine Vincent’s pedigree beyond bluegrass. American Grandstand is a companion album of sorts to the project with Watson, a chance to recreate the magic all over again. Her friendship with Daryle Singletary goes back 23 years when they were labelmates on Giant Records. One of their earliest collaborations, a cover of Keith Whitley’s “Would These Arms Be In Your Way,” appeared on his self-titled debut album. They’ve collaborated frequently through the years, most recently on “We Must’ve Been Out of Our Minds,” from Vincent’s Only Me in 2014.

To say American Grandstand has been a long time coming is an understatement. With the timing finally right, they went into the studio to craft an album that mixes old and new, covers of classic duets interwoven amongst tracks newly-composed. A few of the duets may be oft-covered, but in the care of Vincent and Singletary, are as expertly executed as they’ve ever been. They tackle the mournful nature of “After The Fire Is Gone” with ease and extract the effervesce from “Golden Ring” without issue. “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” is a revelation, one of the strongest collaborative recordings I’ve heard in years.

They also surprise, with a stunning rendition of Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens’ lesser-known “Slowly and Surely.” Also not as famous is George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “One,” which the pair released in 1996. Vincent and Singletary’s serviceable take is the album’s lead single. Other surprises include Harlan Howard’s “Above and Beyond,” which they deliver flawlessly. A third Jones cover, “A Picture of Me (Without You)” is also very good. “Up This Hill and Down,” which originated with The Osborne Brothers, is excellent.

The remainder of the album consists of the new songs, which include a reprise of “We Must Be Out of Our Minds.” These tracks are all ballads, which varying degrees of tempo. “As We Kiss Our World Goodbye,” about the end of a relationship, feels like the kind of track Singletary would’ve recorded back in the mid-1990s. In any other era, “Can’t Live Life” would be cemented as a standard.

If you can believe it, the rest of the album only slightly pails in comparison to the title track, which showcases Vincent as a songwriter (she wrote it solo). The spellbinding ballad is a grand finale of sorts, detailing the tale of duet partners preparing for their final show and the emotions attached to such an ending. I love how Vincent presents the well-worn themes in a new and exciting light.

American Grandstand is everything you would expect from a Vincent and Singletary collaboration, yet it’s even more deeply satisfying than you could even imagine. In a rare move, they actually sang together in the studio, at the instance of Singetary, who knew immediately that recording separately wasn’t going to work. The pair were born to sing together, even if Vincent’s power overtakes Singletary’s understated charm on occasion. He sounds to me like a modern day incarnation of Whitley, with a voice that has deepened over the years. It proves that Whitley’s influence continues to this day, which only makes this record even more special and essential.

I cannot recommend American Grandstand enough.

Album Review: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – ‘The Nashville Sound’

June 23, 2017

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

That Nashville Sound

* * * * *


At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m always amazed at the frequency by which Jason Isbell releases new music, every two years, a pace largely unheard of for an artist of his ilk and prestige who isn’t bound by the regimental restrictions of mainstream country music. For most singer/songwriters, pouring their soul into an album feels like an exhaustive process, yet for Isbell, easily the most masterful artist in the Americana vein, it feels like a piece of cake. And yet, he only gets more nuanced and complex with each passing record.

The Nashville Sound, produced by Dave Cobb in RCA Studio A, has an urgent aggression that puts sound to the deep political divide that has risen in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President. Isbell began writing and recording this past January, which allowed him to tackles this unrest from different angles while exploring varying perspectives.

Isbell’s observations often veer personal, as on “White Man’s World,” a bluesy rocker in which he uses his wife and daughter as a catalyst for conveying his fears about the future under the male dominant Trump administration. The track brilliantly traverses these feelings both externally and internally, jumping from disappointment (“I thought this world could be hers one day, but her momma knew better”) and anger (“I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation, I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation”) to optimism (“I still have faith, but I don’t know why maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes”).

“Hope The High Road” generalizes the anger with words of encouragement, providing an anthemic message to anyone who feels they fell on the losing side of 2016. His message, that he hopes “the high road leads you home again, to a world you want to live in,” is heightened by his smart admission – he’s singing as much to himself as he is to them.

No matter how positively he spins the message, “Hope The High Road” bleeds with the same blistering anger that drives the majority of The Nashville Sound. It suggests hope as a process, not an absolute or a right. Isbell also knows the hope can seem distant, especially when a person’s reality is limited by circumstance. “The Cumberland Gap,” one of Isbell’s trademark character sketches, lays bare the struggles of a man suffocated by the extensive promise and bleak reality of mountaintop coal mining. Isbell’s brilliance is how masterfully he’s able to paint dire circumstances around men with smart moral compasses. Andy was undoubtedly the friend we all wish was in our lives. This man, who remains nameless throughout, is a son for the ages. He’s desperate for greener pastures but thinks how his mom would react. He’s the only family member left to care for her.

Another such illustration, “Tupelo,” examines the hopes we hold onto to get us through life, as told through the story of a drunk who imagines a better life with a woman in the titular Mississippi town. Isbell never allows us insight into whether or not the woman is real or a made-up construct in the man’s mind, allowing us to feel this guy’s struggle alongside him.

Isbell brings his internal struggle to the surface on “Last of My Kind,” which examines his first person perspective on trying to find his place in this world. This thought process continues on “Anxiety,” a brutally honest look at how fear can paralyze our psyche and contribute to feeling restless and lost.

As much as The Nashville Sound confronts our desire for a sense of place, it also seeks to examine personal relationships. A friendship with Ryan Adams led to “Chaos and Clothes,” a song about his 2016 divorce from singer and This Is Us actress Mandy Moore.

“Something To Love,” which Isbell wrote for his two-year-old daughter Mercy, is a rare moment of levity, anchored by the sunny fiddle played by his wife, fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Shires. That Nashville Sound isn’t necessarily a strict country album, but “Something To Love” is no doubt a country song.

As if it’s even possible, there is one song on The Nashville Sound that ranks above the rest and belongs in the upper echelon of Isbell’s legacy. That track is “If We Were Vampires,” a stunning love song about a couple’s appreciation for one another knowing that time will ultimately tear them apart:

If we were vampires and death was a joke

We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke

And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

 

Maybe time running out is a gift

I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

 

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we’ll get forty years together

But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone

“If We Were Vampires” is Isbell at his best, giving the world a song that stands up to “Elephant,” which I’ll always consider his crowning achievement as an artist. His best songs, ten of which appear here, are like punches to the gut in all the best ways. The Nashville Sound is a brilliant album from beginning to end.

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

May 11, 2017

Angaleena Presley

Wrangled

* * * 1/2

 

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

Album Review: ‘Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band’

April 27, 2017

 

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band

* * * *

The tagline for Bruce Robison’s first solo in eight years reads, “recorded on analog tape with no digital shenanigans.” He goes on to say, “I will tell you one thing about this project…I wanted to leave in just enough mistakes so it sound live and, well, mission accomplished.”

Bruce Robison & The Back Porch Band came about as a result of the time he spent working on The Last Waltz, a multi-media website that acts as a “virtual social house” of music, videos, and interviews with the cream of the crop of today’s songwriters and musicians. As a result, Robison was inspired to form his own band to record a nine-track album featuring his own interpretation of originals, co-writes and covers.

Our first taste of the project, Joe Dickens’ “Rock and Roll Honky Tonk Ramblin’ Man,” about a guy refusing to cave into society’s pressures for him to suppress his rebel spirit, is an excellent infectious mid-tempo number drenched in fiddle.

Another preview track, which Robison wrote solo, is the brilliant ballad “Sweet Dreams.” The song centers around the age old tale of a small-town boy who never got out into the world, despite watching all the girls he dated take off and fly. The theme may be well worn but it never sounded sweeter than in Robison’s hands, accented with lovely heapings of mandolin and steel guitar. He also solely composed the slow-burning “Long Shore,” which rests on the nakedness of his gravely vocal.  “Long Time Comin,’” a Robison co-write with Micky Braun, is a gorgeous folk-leaning ballad with an ear-catching lyric.

Braun co-wrote “Paid My Dues,” an ironic up-tempo about the dark side of making it in the music business, with the always fantastic Jason Eady. The song, which Robison presents as a duet with Jack Ingram, has a wit and infectious melody that drew me right in. If this truly is the dark side, then they’re having way too much binging on cocaine in a cheap motel room.

My favorite track on the album is Robison’s take on Christy Hays’ “Lake of Fire,” a stunning traditionally accented ballad. “The Years,” by Damon Bramblett, is a sweet and endearing waltz concerning the trajectory of love, beautifully framed with gentle percussion mixed with fiddle and steel. Michael Heeney and John Moffat’s “Still Doing Time (In a Honky Tonk Prison)” is a classic country weeper and a brilliant one at that.

The centerpiece of the album is its most famous song, Pete Townshend’s “Squeezebox,” which Robison considers “a great country song by some English dudes.” Robison’s version is great, if cluttered, and has a nice assist from his wife Kelly Willis.

As a whole, Bruce Robison and the Back Porch Band is a welcomed surprise and a nice follow-up to the two excellent duets records he did with Willis in the past few years. I wasn’t expecting so much slower material, but there truly isn’t a sour track in the bunch. Robison’s pen is as sharp as his keen sense of song. His liner notes may begin, “You’re not going to listen to this! It’s a goddamn record!” but to heed his premonition is to miss out on one of the year’s most uniquely satisfying offerings.

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

March 21, 2017

Sunny Sweeney

Trophy

* * * * *

After falling in love with Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, Sunny Sweeney tapped Dave Brainard to produce Trophy, which grapples with misery and longing, tackling the well-worn themes with exciting twists and turns. Brainard works to nicely compliment Sweeney’s firecracker personality, giving us a sound far meatier than Clark’s, but in no way less sublime.

Our first taste, which Occasional Hope lovingly reviewed, is the astonishing “Bottle By My Bed,” a heartbreaking tale about Sweeney’s struggles with infertility co-written with Lori McKenna. I, too, have a very personal connection to the track, which details the anguish felt when “you never never wanted something so bad that it hurts.”

Sweeney begs the bartender to reserve judgment and just “Pass The Pain” on the album’s brilliant steel-drenched opener, a decade-old neotraditional ballad she felt was potentially too country for a modern audience. She recorded the song, which features an assist from Trisha Yearwood, at the insistence of her rock-leaning father.

She bookends with the stunning “Unsaid,” a heavily orchestrated ballad written with Caitlyn Smith following the suicide of a friend who was a father of two young children. While the track doesn’t chronicle his story, it lays bare her feelings towards the circumstances:

There’s so much left unsaid

Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone

Wish I could get it off my chest

Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time

Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Sweeney has said Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is her favorite country song ever. The track, a fiddle-drenched waltz popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, boasts an engaging melody and killer hook:

And I play classical music when it rains,

I play country when I am in pain

But I won’t play Beethoven, the mood’s just not right

Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight

I also love “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” another of the four tracks she and McKenna co-wrote for Trophy. The song, an ode to Sweeney’s home state, is an effortless fiddle and steel adorned mid-tempo ballad.

The pair also wrote two distinctly different numbers about Sweeney’s marriage to her second husband Jeff Hellmer, a police sergeant in Austin, Texas. “Grow Old With Me” is a breathtaking love song, in which Sweeney promises, “grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.”

The other song is the feisty title track, written in response to Hellmer’s ex calling Sweeney a ‘trophy wife.’ She proves her worth in the situation with a clever, albeit cunning, retort:

I know what you called me

That word fits me to a T

You just think I’m pretty

And you’re just full of jealousy

I don’t make him play the fool

Put him on a pedestal

Something you would never do

Yah, he’s got a trophy now

For putting up with you

Like “Trophy,” the rest of the album trends uptempo, with in-your-face barn burning honky-tonkers. “Better Bad Idea” is a moment of levity, which finds Sweeney on the prowl to be naughty, hoping her man can top the mischief she’s thinking up on her own.

“Why People Change” is an excellent take on failed relationships, with Sweeney questioning why couples can drift apart. The lyric is well-written, and the engaging melody is nothing short of glorious.

I haven’t been this richly satisfied with an album probably since Twelve Stories. With Trophy, Sweeney has crafted a whip-smart and mature record nodding to tradition while correctly pushing the genre forward. Trophy is what happens when everyone steps aside and puts the focus deservedly on the music, where it belongs.

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Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘The Breaker’

February 27, 2017

Little Big Town

the-breaker

The Breaker

* * * 1/2

I sit here in amazement that five years have come and gone since Little Big Town scrapped Wayne Kirkpatrick for Jay Joyce and ensured they wouldn’t face the commercial disappointment that greeted 2010’s The Reasons Why ever again. They’ve since proven themselves to be a shameless mainstream act out for success at the expense of creative credibility.

You cannot deny they’ve achieved their greatest success in these years, winning every Vocal Group of the Year award for which they’ve been nominated. “Girl Crush” was another triumph, but disastrously overblown. I do like the song, but I’m more than glad to see its reign has come to an end at long last.

I last reviewed Pain Killer, which was easily among the worst mainstream country albums this decade. Their pop detour last spring, Wanderlust, was even worse. But I’ve been a fan of theirs for eleven years since I first heard “Boondocks” in 2005. I don’t know what keeps me coming back, especially in this era of their career, but here I am again.

Little Big Town has reunited with Joyce for The Breaker, their bid to regain their country momentum, which has proven successful thus far. Lead single “Better Man” is their fastest rising, zipping up the airplay chart at a breakneck speed unusual for them. It doesn’t hurt that the ballad, penned by Taylor Swift, is the best they’ve ever recorded. “Better Man” doesn’t break any new ground for Swift, she’s actually retreading much of what she’s already written, but I’m thrilled to see her finally return to form, if even for a one off. “Better Man” has the substance missing from her pop catalog.

The Breaker finds Little Big Town in the post-”Girl Crush” era, one in which they double down on Lori McKenna, in hopes of lightening striking twice. The album features no less than five of her writing credits. In anticipation of the album, they previewed “Happy People,” which she wrote with Hailey Waters. The track, mid-tempo pop, generalizes the characteristics of happy people, with a laundry list of signifiers:

Happy people don’t cheat

Happy people don’t lie

They don’t judge or hold a grudge, don’t criticize

Happy people don’t hate

Happy people don’t steal

Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel

 

Happy people don’t fail

Happy people just learn

Don’t think that we’re above the push and shove

We just wait their turn

They always got a hand

Or a dollar to spare

Know the golden rule what you’re goin’ through

Even if it never been there

“We Went to the Beach” was the album’s second preview, is a refreshing change of pace with Philip Sweet on lead vocals. The track may seem like it has much in common with “Pontoon,” “Day Drinking” and “Pain Killer,” but it’s nowhere near as vapid. The ballad has a wonderfully engaging melody that perfectly frames Sweet’s buttery voice.

The third and final preview, “When Someone Stops Loving You,” is another of McKenna’s co-written offerings. The tastefully produced ethereal ballad is a showcase for Jimi Westbrook, who elevates the 1970s soft rock undertones with his smooth yet pleasing vocal turn.

McKenna is one of four writers on “Free,” a sonically adventurous ballad celebrating the not-so-novel idea that the best aspects of life don’t cost anything. “Lost In California,” is the only contribution solely by the Love Junkies, who co-wrote “Girl Crush.” The song, which should definitely be a single, is an excellent sultry ballad and one of the album’s strongest tracks outside of “Better Man.”

Karen and Kimberly join the Love Junkies on “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old,” is a pleasant ballad with interesting finger snaps and their gorgeous harmonies. They continue to slow the pace on “Beat Up Bible,” an acoustic guitar-led ballad showcasing Schlapman singing lead. The track is very good albeit a bit bland. The title track, another one with Sweet singing lead, has a nice lyric but could’ve used a bit more life in the production.

The main difference between The Breaker and previous Little Big Town albums is the suppression of uptempo material, which is surprising given the current climate of mainstream country. The album isn’t devoid of such songs and numbers like “Night On Our Side,” aren’t not only terrible, they’re out of place. “Driving Around” isn’t much better and harkens back to a Little Big Town this album works so hard to leave behind. “Rollin,’” in which Westbrook sings lead, doesn’t even sound like them.

The Breaker is the beginning of a new chapter for Little Big Town, one that finds the band slowing the pace to highlight the substance they’ve brought back to their music. The Breaker is far from a perfect album, but it is a step in the right direction, even if that step has more in common with 1970s soft rock than country music.

EP Review: Jenny Gill – ‘The House Sessions’

February 7, 2017

Jenny Gill

the-house-sessions

The House Sessions

  * * * * 

The House Sessions, Jenny Gill’s debut EP, finds her drawing on personal experience as she strives to establish her own voice separate from her esteemed pedigree. Her father, who most everyone knows is Vince Gill, produced the album at the home studio for which the six-song set finds its name.

The material that comprises The House Sessions finds Gill transported to the past while specific memories tied to the lyrics. The gorgeous “Whisky Words,” a ballad concerning an ex who’s all talk, was birthed from her time working at a publishing company tasked with pitching songs to others. It comes across as a record that would’ve been popular in the early-2000s when it likely would’ve done quite well.

“Lean On Love” finds Gill exercising her bluesy side in homage to Bonnie Raitt whom she cites as a primary influence. The tune is excellent, tastefully produced and subtly evocative. “Lonely Lost Me,” the lead single, which features harmonies by Sheryl Crow, is a jazzy ballad that settles into an intoxicating and memorable groove.

Gill’s husband, Sony/ATV executive Josh Van Valkenberg, inspired the title of “Look Where Loving You Landed Me” when he sang the line on their honeymoon. The track is a terrific ballad melding her blues and jazz influences with the personal touches (references to the beach) that keep the song from feeling generic.

The most adventurous track on The House Sessions is Motown classic “The Letter,” which was originally recorded by The Box Tops fifty years ago. I do find it strange that Gill would choose to add a cover song to an EP when she could’ve added another original instead, but she handles the track with ease while showcasing additional aspects of her voice.

Gill freely admits that the gospel-tinged “Your Shadow” is the album’s most personal number. The song tackles the heavy emotions surrounding her good fortune at being Vince’s daughter. The track also contains the most memorable line on the whole project:

And someone will say, I’ll never compare

And I’ll pour my heart out and no one will care

And I’ve got to find a dream that will shine on its own

In the light of your shadow

While it is easy to compare an offspring to their famous parents, Gill doesn’t have that problem on The House Sessions. She makes the album her own with an authentic sound true to her voice and influences. She recorded the album in a week; utilizing studio time her father gave her as a Christmas present. I’m glad he was involved in shaping the sound of the record because the final mixing is clear and clean, devoid of excess. He let each song breathe and find itself musically, which rewards the listener with a rich experience that puts the song, and not ego, front and center.

The House Sessions, which has been available digitally since September, is getting another push this month with renewed publicity and a video for “Lonely Lost Me.” I wouldn’t categorize the project as country per se, as it melds those sensibilities with jazz and blues to find its own place within the musical space. Ultimately genre classification doesn’t matter since The House Sessions wonderfully succeeds in showcasing Gill as a fully formed artist and writer. I look forward any new music she chooses to release in the years to come.

Album Review: Tift Merritt – ‘Stitch of the World’

January 26, 2017

Tift Merritt

stitch-of-the-world

Stitch Of The World

* * * 1/2

Stitch of the World, Tift Merritt’s third release for Yep Roc Records, emerged at the end of her marriage to her longtime drummer Zeke Hutchins, a life change that prompted her to return home to North Carolina. The album came together in just four brisk days during the third trimester of her first pregnancy.

Merritt gained reassurance from Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, the sounding board who signed off on the material, co-produced the album and became the project’s loudest voice. His wail can be heard on first single “Dusty Old Man,” a rollicking carefree bluesy barnburner that opens the ten-song set.

He also joins Merritt for three collaborations. “Something Came Over Me” is a stunning steel-drenched ballad while “Eastern Light” is acoustic driven and gorgeously stark. “Wait for Me” is a sonic blend of the two and equally as striking.

She garnered inspiration for “Love Soldiers On” while witnessing the monotonous work of ranch hands. She concluded that love lies in our ability to keep on going, a worthy sentiment from a pitch-perfect lyric. “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb” is an exquisite ballad of difficult introspection. The title track was born in California when she witnessed landscapes and skies that didn’t seem real. The song is wonderful although the sonic elements can seem a bit heavy at times.

My favorite track on the album is “My Boat,” which features a nice driving beat and a wonderful lyric adapted from Raymond Carver’s poem “Water Comes Together With Other Water.” I couldn’t really get into either “Icarus” or “Proclamation Bones,” but they are both worthy tracks nonetheless.

Sonically speaking, Stitch of the World isn’t my style of music within the country realm. But Merritt’s adult female perspective is intoxicatingly beautiful and a reminder of why she shouldn’t go so long between solo sets. I highly recommend checking this album out.

 

EP Review: J.P. Harris (with Nikki Lane, Kristina Murray, Kelsey Waldon and Leigh Nash) – ‘Why Don’t We Duet In The Road’

January 5, 2017

J.P. Harris

jpharris_duet_largeweb_1024x1024

Why Don’t We Duet In The Road

* * * *

J.P. Harris, whose sound is described as ‘booming hippie-friendly honky-tonk,’ found the inspiration for Why Don’t We Duet In The Road in the collaborative spirit of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The EP finds Harris covering iconic duets with some of Nashville’s most innovate female singer/songwriters, in an effort to bottle his experiences in Music City with a record aimed at prosperity over commercial viability.

Harris hunkered down in Ronnie Milsap’s former studio to record the four-track album, which he self-produced in a single six-hour session. What resulted is rough around the edges, fueled by twangy guitars and a gorgeous interpretation of outlaw country.

No one better exemplifies the modern outlaw spirit than Nikki Lane, who burst onto the scene in 2011 blending rockabilly and honky-tonk. She teams with Harris on “You’re The Reason Our Kids are Ugly,” which finds the pair embodying the spirit of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s 1978 original. Harris’ choice of Lane to accompany him is a smart one. You can hear her ballsy grit as she uses her smoky alto to channel Lynn’s feisty spirit without sacrificing her distinct personality.

The least familiar of Harris’ collaborators is likely Americana darling Kristina Murray, who joins him for an excellent reading of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring.” The pair is brilliant together, with Murray emerging as a revelation with her effortless mix of ease and approachability. I quite enjoyed the arrangement, too, which has the perfectly imperfect feel of a band completely in sync with one another.

Harris is the star on “If I Was A Carpenter,” which finds him with the criminally underrated Kelsey Waldon. Her quiet assertiveness, which could’ve used a touch more bravado, is, unfortunately, no match for his buttery vocal. Waldon’s contributions are by no means slight; he’s just magnetic.

The final selection, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s “Better Move It On Home,” finds Harris with the most recognizable vocalist of the bunch, Leigh Nash. She’s best known as the lead singer of Sixpence None The Richer, the band that hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the iconic “Kiss Me” in 1998. She’s since gone on to a solo career, which includes a country album released in September 2015. She taps into that grit here, and erases any notion of her pop sensibilities, but proves she doesn’t quite measure up to Parton on the 1971 original. The pair had an uphill battle ahead of them from the onset and they didn’t quite deliver.

That being said Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is a fantastic extended play highlighting five uniquely talented vocalists. If country artists continue to churn out releases of this high a quality than 2017 is going to be a very good year, indeed.

Grade: A 

NOTE: Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is offered as a random colored double 7” limited to 500 copies, which as of press time are about halfway to sold out. Rolling Stone Country also has the tracks accessible for streaming, which I highly recommend. The EP is also available on iTunes as of January 6.