Archive for April, 2011

Album Review: The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings Volume 1

April 17, 2011

Various Artists

The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings 

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In the liner notes for the album, and in form of a letter to her late husband, Jessi Colter writes: “I think you’d say, “you done good hoss!” and to the artists “It’s supposed to be this way.” And rightfully so because Jennings would be more than proud with the execution of volume one in this three part celebration of his music and legacy, coming nine years after his death. It gathers the best of the new (Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Sunny Sweeney, James Otto) and old (Kris Kristofferson, Alabama, John Hiatt, Patty Griffin) to pay tribute to one of country music’s original outlaws.

It’s fitting that the record would begin with a cut by Johnson – the best voyeur into Jennings’s legacy in modern country. On That Lonesome Song he paid tribute by cutting “Dreaming My Dreams” and “The Door Is Always Open” and perfectly captured Jennings’s energy and charm on the album’s title song. Here, he wraps his distinctive baritone around “This Time,” Jennings’s first number one hit from 1974. While it lacks the punch of his other tributes to the outlaw, it’s well sung and smartly executed. There is little doubt that Johnson has found his lane, if anyone was meant to sing classic country music it’s him.

As much as Johnson is celebrated for his associations with Jennings’s music, The Music Inside gained attention for another track – “Are You Sure Hank Done It That Way” which preceded the project as the first single. The track reunites the members of Alabama and marks the first time they’ve recorded together in nine years. Radio largely ignored the tune, which is a shame because it’s message, that Hank Williams Sr wouldn’t make country music the way it’s made in modern times, is as relevant today as it was when the song first charted in 1975. While they do a competent job with the song, it lacks the punch of their esteemed recordings. It’s softer and doesn’t hit as hard as their classic songs from the 80s and 90s, which could be do to their advancing age. Randy, Teddy, and Jeff are looking very worn these days. But in any event, it’s great to hear them again, if only on one song on a tribute album.

But the whole album isn’t artists that could’ve punched harder. When women come to play, they add the spunk needed to elevate the mostly even tempo set. Proving she’s quickly becoming one of my favorite female singers on the charts today, Sweeney adds a fire to her duet of “Good Hearted Woman” with Colter. I had reservations about two women taking on the Willie and Waylon classic, but they pulled it off brilliantly. If you’re going to purchase the album for only one track let it be this one – it’s well worth it. With her solo hits “From a Table Away” and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” and this duet, Sweeney is establishing herself as a force in modern country to be reckoned with. She’s more than a fine vocalist who’s pioneering a new neo traditionalist meets modernism sound.

Griffin is the other welcomed female singer on this album. She has the catch-22 of being paired with Kristofferson, country’s legendarily poor vocalist. She shines next to him, which isn’t exactly hard, but also has to hold up the song on her own since he fails to do so himself. But she’s also the record’s biggest surprise. I know her more for her songwriting contributions to Dixie Chicks’ Fly and Home albums and have never listened to her sing before. Griffin is a fine vocalist in her own right and more than commands the spotlight.

Another artist with the vocal ability to bridge the gap between tradition and modernism is Houser. His stripped down country/blues rendering of “I’m A Ramblin’ Man” is far and away the best vocal on the whole album. I’m wondering if Houser knows the excellence he implements here. His is a voice suited for these kinds of songs and not the southern rock he often releases to country radio. When he gets the vocal and production right, it can be so powerful that it takes me aback. He may be the finest male vocalist in the genre today and this is another step in his acceleration to greatness.

Overall The Music Inside is a fine surprise. I wasn’t expecting it to be nearly good as I found it to be. Every cut is a stellar tribute to one of the most influential men in country music history. Colter has done a great job at honoring her late husband’s legacy while giving fans a worthwhile and enjoyable listen filled with a few gems. Volumes 2 and 3 are coming later in the year, and if they hold up to this initial offering, than this could be an essential listen and a look inside a man worth remembering, and celebrating for decades to come.

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Album Review: Sara Evans – Stronger

April 16, 2011

Sara Evans

 Stronger

* * 1/2 

In the six years since Sara Evans released Real Fine Place, she’s appeared on Dancing With The Stars, powered through an ugly divorce, released a Greatest Hits album, a novel, remarried, and moved to Birmingham, Alabama. She enjoyed a top 15 hit with “As If” in 2007, and watched every other single she and her label released (“Some Things Never Change,” “Love You With All My Heart,” “Low,” and “Feels Just Like A Love Song”) tank. The latter was supposed to be the lead single from her My Place In Heaven album that got pushed back again and again. Her loosing streak turned around last fall when “A Little Bit Stronger” became her first significant hit in more than four years and her first top 10 since 2005’s “Cheatin'”. That long-awaited album was retitled Stronger and finally saw the light of day in early March.

“A Little Bit Stronger” was a welcomed return to form for Evans who seemed cast aside for boobalicous blondes half her age. Co-written by Lady A’s Hillary Scott, the song is a perfect mix of country charm and pop production suited for airplay. It’s appearance on the Country Strong soundtrack more than gave it a boost and the exposure it needed to make it big at radio. While wearing extremely thin after six months of repeated listenings, “A Little Bit Stronger” stated that Evans was back, in a big way.

But, unfortunately, she didn’t follow through with the rest of the album. For someone out of the game for four years, all we get is a ten track album consisting of eight new songs, a Rod Stewart cover, and a puzzling bluegrass version of “Born to Fly”? Stronger is an easy and very enjoyable listen but fails to stick with you because very few of the songs are remarkable let alone memorable. While it does retain more country arraignments than most mainstream releases, it’s safe and generic and does nothing to push the genre, let alone Evans’s career, forward.

The problem with the album is two-fold. In the past Evans has stunned with her ballads. Gone from Stronger are the sweeping story songs – “I Learned That From You,” “You’ll Always Be My Baby” that she executes so well. While they haven’t proven to fair well at radio (and “You” was never a single), such songs showcase the power of Evans’s vocal ability and add the grounding needed to root her music in substance. Also missing are those punchy songs that everyone loves so much. Where’s this album’s “Suds In The Bucket?” or “Born To Fly?” Nothing of that caliber exists here. While we do have an odd Bluegrass cover of “Born To Fly,” resurrecting your signature song in place of a new song of the same energy, doesn’t count.

But luckily for Evans, there are three distinct highlights – the infectious “Anywhere,” “What The Drink Cost Me,” and the Rod Stewart cover “My Heart Can’t Tell You No.” At least all three attempt to pull off something worthy of Evans’s talents. The cover of “No,” while not really country except for the prominent steel guitar, may be the best vocal of her while career. The overall selection of songs on this record may be far less than stellar, but it isn’t like she’s not working hard here. It’s just when the lyrical content of a song is awful, there’s nothing you can do to elevate it.

That logic is never more evident than on the opening couplet of “Life Without Losing:” “My nails are chipped and my hair’s in knots/And my jeans are ripped and I just can’t stop.” It’s by and far the worst line on the whole album. To hear Evans’s sing those words is cringeworthy. Why is one of the most underrated and under-appreciated female singers wasting their talents on drivel like that? The Nashville machine of dumbing down is clearly at play here, and to see Evans become its latest victim is down right sad. If she desires a CMA Female Vocalist trophy, she isn’t showing it with lyrics like that.

But there is some good news – Stronger finds Evans still in a very strong voice and Nathan Chapman, known for producing Taylor Swift, keeps the arraignments from fighting her vocals. They also air on the side of country, which is rare in 2011 Nashville. Evans doesn’t hide her twang as much as embrace it, and the end result is far more authentic to her roots. It’s enjoyable to hear a well placed fiddle and steel guitar on a mainstream country record. These are pop/country songs mind you, but it is nice. Stronger builds more on the foundation of “As If” than “Suds in the Bucket,” but there are worse places to construct from. Believe me.

While it isn’t the slam dunk we all hoped it would be, Stronger is more than an enjoyable listen. It just doesn’t hold up once you’ve turned it off. Most of the songs and hooks aren’t ear worms and none are likely to become legendary, but it’s great to have Evans back after all these years. Let’s hope she doesn’t wait as long to release her next album.

Album Review: Alison Krauss and Union Station: Paper Airplane

April 15, 2011

Alison Krauss and Union Station

Paper Airplane

* * * * *

Upon its release in 2004, AKUS’s previous full-length album Lonely Runs Both Ways was criticized for being too safe and not taking enough chances. While no one can argue with the instrument that is Alison’s voice, the mix of slow balladry with flushes of Jerry Douglas’s masterful dobro picking may have been riskless, but when music was that well crafted, being risk-free was a mood point.

When they did finally return with a sampling of new music, on 2007’s A Hundred Miles or More: A Collection, they stuck with familiar tone but took more chances with subject matter. At the same time, Krauss turned in two of the most stunning vocals of her career on “You’re Just a Country Boy” and “Jacob’s Dream.”

It also didn’t hurt that Alison spent the hiatus from Union Station teaming up with Robert Plant on Raising Sand, the best collaborative roots albums of the last decade. By reversing roles, producer T-Bone Burnett thrusted both out of their comfort zones and pushed them to new heights.

The furtherance continues on Paper Airplane. The first single, the album’s title track, marks the return of the mandolin to AKUS’s sound, an instrument missing from both New Favorite and Lonely. This addition gives the tune a fresh flare helping to mark the next phase in their Grammy Winning career. With Paper Airplane Krauss and company exude a quite confidence and show they’re masters at their simple fussless sound. At a point when most artists lead with an overblown ego, AKUS scaled back to create their most cohesive collection of songs ever.

But AKUS is an Americana band at heart, a fact lost on their recent albums, which tended too far into acoustic country. Thankfully, though, they smartly avoid Bluegrass cliches (odes to coal mining, inane product placement) and keep from overwhelming even the casual fan with fast picking and sharp twang. Their Bluegrass is softer, far more adult than their contemporary’s, classier, and more pleasant on the ear.

Even when Krauss relinquishes the lead vocal to bandmate Dan Tyminski on “Dust Bowl Children,” “Outside Looking In,” and “Bonita and Bill Butler,” and  the album veers closest to traditional Appalachia, it’s modern charm isn’t lost. Tyminski softens his vocals compared to his solo work, and fits right in. With “Children,” though, he provides the only seemingly misplaced track, both vocally and lyrically, on the whole album. For those buying the record for Krauss’s vocal contributions alone, it comes a bit strange when Tyminski launches into his Great Depression era tune. In reality, it isn’t parculier at all, his vocal talents have been present on AKUS’s records ever since his journey to fame with “Man of Constant Sorrow” ten years ago, and the song fits in nicely with the album’s overall themes of misery and loneliness.

Paper Airplane is everything a contemporary country/bluegrass/roots record should strive to be. A fully-formed album, it executes a winning yet tired formula in a new light. All the required themes of an AKUS music project are present – heartbreakingly sad songs presented as ballads and sung exquisitely – yet the album feels more like a rebirth than a recession. It never rests on its laurels and surprises the listener around every bend. But what’s truly remarkable is when most singers do whatever it takes to get noticed, Krauss doesn’t sell herself out for the price of fame. She doesn’t work her butt off at chasing her youth but instead records songs from an adult woman’s perspective. She smartly acts her age without appearing matronly. Without being anything she isn’t, she stays true to her roots and shifts the focus off her and onto the music, where it belongs in the first place.

For a mainstream country/bluegrass release, Paper Airplane is the best record thus far in 2011. It’s confident without being cocky and masterful without being showy. It’s the perfect continue of their unparalleled legacy and a worthy addition to any music collection.

New artist obsession: Emmylou Harris

April 9, 2011

Thanks, in no small part, to My Kind of Country, I’ve finally woken up to an artist I should’ve been loving years ago – Emmylou Harris. It’s weird, I’ve always known her musical catalog is incredible,  and I remember when all her classic records from the 70s were re-released in 2004. I even had the rare opportunity of scoring an old vinyl of Blue Kentucky Girl when my college radio station was having a record sale in 2009. But I never took the time to buy her music and give her a chance – until now. I didn’t have an epiphany when the My Kind of Country staff chose her as the latest addition to their spotlight artist series, but rather chose to right a wrong. I’ve always known she was critically acclaimed and I had to find out why, for myself.

As the story on that old Blue Kentucky Girl vinyl goes, I had my radio show (country music of course) the day before the sale and since I was alone in the station decided to look over the collection and take what I wanted before it would be gone. I didn’t even know they had any country records, and was shocked when I saw Emmylou sitting there. I had always hoped it was a real find, and not some record Emmylou made when she was past her prime. After conducting about a minute’s worth of research I saw it won her a Grammy for Best Country Female Vocal performance (back when albums were allowed to win in vocal races, a practice I’ll never understand) and was considered her most pure country release when it came out in 1979.  Better yet, it was a name your price sale and I only had to pay $1 for it. I’ll NEVER see that kind of deal again in my lifetime. I’m eagerly awaiting My Kind of Country’s review of that project.

Also, if I ever needed proof that Blue Kentucky Girl a gem, and my recent downloads of Pieces of the Sky, Elite Hotel, and Luxury Liner were worth their less then $10 price tag, it was something Kevin Coyne wrote on Country Universe yesterday morning – “She could’ve been Gram Parsons’ harmony singer for the rest of her career and been happy, but she ended up carrying on his legacy instead, becoming a Hall of Famer with the most consistently excellent catalog in country music history.” The proof is in the (really Kevin’s) writing.

In “discovering” her first two (at the time of this writing I haven’t listened to Luxury Liner) solo releases, I’ve found an artist with one of the most magnificent voices I’ve ever heard, marking her own distinctive path in the genre. In all my years listening to country music, I’ve never heard anyone quite like her. She has a voice like fine crystal and is a stunning balladeer. Harris can also pull off a honky tonk song better than most who came before her. But what I really respect and admire is her ability to create music that stands the test of time and doesn’t fall victim to trend. Listening to an Emmylou Harris album is like visiting a fine hotel – equal parts luxurious and sophisticated. Her’s is music for the ages and sounds even better in 2011 than it did more than forty years ago. By forging her own path she created a lasting identify that’s led her straight to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Before this week, my only association with Ms.Harris was through her single, “If I Could Only Win Your Love” and her duet with Rodney Crowell, “My Baby’s Gone” from the excellent Livin’ Lovin’ Losin’ tribute album to the Louvin Brothers. I did purchase her 2003 Stumble Into Grace album but never could get into it (I’m giving it another spin in this new light). My grandfather had a copy of White Shoes and I never bothered to ask him why he only owned that particular recording of her’s. And of course, there was the Blue Kentucky Girl vinyl. I also own Trio II, the follow-up record with Harris, Dolly Parton, and Linda Ronstadt but have yet to buy their 1987 original. But now I am so immersed in her catalog, I want to get my hands on everything Harris has ever sung. I admire those who refuse to give in to pressure and do their own thing. By being an original, she’s carved her own place in history.

Which is odd given that Harris has sung more cover tunes than most singers I can remember. It’s partly true that if you name a hit country single, Harris has likely sung her own version of it. Throughout her career she’s wrapped her voice around “Sleepless Nights,” “Coat of Many Colors,”  “Sweet Dreams,” “To Daddy,” “Poncho and Lefty,” “On The Radio,” “Together Again,” and countless others. On many occasions Harris had big hit singles with these songs. For instance her cover of “Sweet Dreams” was the only version of the song to top the charts.

Even more than that, she’s influenced most female singers who’ve come along in her wake. Chely Wright paid tribute to Emmylou twice – recording “Actin’ Single/Seeing Double” on her 1997 album Let Me In and “C’est La Vie” on 2005’s The Metropolitan Hotel. Martina McBride lent her voice to “Two More Bottles of Wine” on her 1995 album Wild Angles, Miranda Lambert closed her 2007 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend album with a version of “Easy From Now On,” and Trisha Yearwood recorded “Women Walk The Line,” on 1992’s Hearts In Armor. None of these covers were released as singles, but they’re worth checking out. Plus, it’s also worth nothing that Wright’s cover of  “C’est La Vie,” a #6 single for Harris in 1977, is a cover of a cover – Chuck Berry wrote the song and released the first version of it in 1964. Plus, you can hear her influence in singer-songwriters Tift Merrit, Patty Griffin, and others. And while not a cover, Joey + Rory, as well as Australian country singer Catherine Britt, recored a tribute to Harris with the song “Sweet Emmylou.” It was written by Rory Feek and Britt and featured on J+R’s debut album The Life of a Song in 2008.

As I’m learning more and more about Emmylou Harris, I’m seeing how indelible her stamp on not only country but modern music continues to be. While she isn’t having chart hits today, she continues to release album after album and even has a new collection of music Hard Bargain and a single, “The Road” out right now. It’s also worth noting her contribution to the classic O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack and her 2005 Grammy win for her song “The Connection.” While the consistency of her newer music is up for discussion, she hasn’t stopped wowing music critics and fans alike since her days with Gram Parsons.

Another memory of Harris comes courtesy of the free digital download Sarah McLachlan gave fans who signed up for the Lilith newsletter in anticipation of the 2010 revival of the tour – a live duet version of “Angel” with McLachlan and Harris. This version blows the studio track out of the water with gorgeousness and a powerful intensity that elevates the song to new and far greater heights. When those two sing together, it’s magic. I really wanted Harris to be on the Boston date of the tour but it wasn’t in the cards. The recording more than makes up for it, but it couldn’t ever compare to the live experience. No recording ever can.

As it turns out, I may have been loving Emmylou Harris indirectly all these years. But now that I’ve put a direct focus on it, I’m discovering what I’ve been missing out on. It’s criminal that I’ve never heard “Boulder to Birmingham” before this week. A song of that stature is so rare and a vocal like that so delicate it’s amazing I’ve never crossed paths with this recording before. And if you haven’t heard it the song, you should.  You might not know the history of the track, it’s a tribute to Gram Parsons, but it doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it any less. And as far as covers go, Parton recorded a version of “Birmingham” on her 1976 album All I Can Do.

And that’s what I’m finding with both Pieces of the Sky and Elite Hotel. It’s really cool to come at music from the perspective of a listener and a fan opposed to someone so focused on that particular album’s success. I have no history with her music, so I can enjoy every track with the same intensity. And unlike most singers, I’ve found every track as good and if not better than the last. Harris isn’t a filler artist, she knew how to make complete albums. I admire anyone who can look at a project as a whole, not as a couple of singles paired with forgettable fluff. Trust me when I say, there is nothing unmemorable about Emmylou Harris.

It’s funny, I’ve always been wondering which artists out there have done the near impossible – created complete discographies with their music. You know, where each album they make is as essential a listen as the one preceding it. Most artists have at least one dud among their many records. I’ve thought about the singers I love like Patty Loveless, Trisha Yearwood, Alison Krauss, and others who have made great albums throughout their careers. But I think Emmylou Harris comes closer than anyone else I’ve ever heard to doing so. When Kevin said that about Harris,  I knew my search was over.

The closest any artist has come to matching Harris’s unparalleled consistency is Miranda Lambert. With just three albums under her belt, she’s begun a career destined for the history books. While she has more of Loretta Lynn’s spunk, than Harris’s quiet intensity, Lambert has proven with every single she’s ever sent to radio, she knows a fantastic song when she hears it. And like Harris, she knows how to write them, too. Which is what I most admire about Lambert. she’s carrying on the same ideals artists like Lynn and Harris put into place forty to fifty years ago. You cannot ask for anything more in a modern country singer.

Which is what made Harris so important in the first place – she created the groundwork for every female country singer to come through the ranks after her. And most will never live up to her example not because they don’t want to, but they don’t have nearly what it takes. In thinking about what’s made her so special, I’ve come to understand why she’s such a revered legend. In my generation she’s known more for letting her hair go prematurely grey than she is for her music. Which is true for most of the artists who’ve built country music – they’re not known so much for their great music anymore.

And that’s why country music blogs are such an important piece of the overall listener experience. They help to bridge together the legends and the new folk so we don’t forget where we’ve come from or where we’re going. It’s that place in the middle country radio lost all those years ago. By bringing Emmylou Harris back to the forefront of American thinking, My Kind of Country has offered a sort of answer to why modern Nashville isn’t the great mecca it used to be. It isn’t because the artists of today will never match up to the greatness of those like Harris, but because the soul is missing in most of the hits of today. Emmylou Harris has that soul, and each of her records from the 70s proves that more and more.

Who’ll win an ACM Trophy this year?

April 2, 2011

SHOULD WIN

Entertainer: Keith Urban

Male: Blake Shelton

Female: Reba McEntire

Duo: Sugarland

Group: Little Big Town

Top New Artist: The Band Perry

Album: The Guitar Song or Up On The Ridge

Single Record: “The House That Built Me”

Song: “If I Die Young”

Video: “The House That Built Me”

Vocal Event: “As She’s Walkin’ Away”

_________________________________

WILL WIN

Entertainer: Jason Aldean

Male: Brad Paisley or Blake Shelton

Female: Miranda Lambert

Duo: Sugarland

Group: Lady Antebellum (even though Zac Brown Band really deserve it)

Top New Artist: The Band Perry

Album: Need You Now

Single Record: “As She’s Walking Away”

Song: “The House That Built Me”

Video: “The House That Built Me”

Vocal Event: “As She’s Walking Away”