Archive for May, 2011

Album Review – Matraca Berg – The Dreaming Fields

May 22, 2011

Matraca Berg

The Dreaming Fields

* * * * *

Known for writing such classic 90s country as “Strawberry Wine,” “You Can Feel Bad,” and “Wrong Side of Memphis,” Matraca Berg is one of the most prolific songwriters of the last twenty years. And the artists who’ve recorded her music (Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Patty Loveless) have gone on to redefine the essence of what it means to be a country singer.

Also a recording artist, Berg has released five studio albums and just returned with her sixth, The Dreaming Fields, her first album in 14 years. Inspired by the sparse 70s singer/songwriter fare she grew up with, Fields mixes impeccable songwriting with pitch-perfect vocals to create one of the best country releases of 2011.

The attention to detail rivals anything being released on major labels, and the quiet production help to elevate this album above your standard indie-country release. What could’ve been lifeless and boring is instantly brought to life by Berg’s confidence in what she’s singing. Instead of merely going through the motions, she puts her heart and soul into each of the 11 songs. Berg grabs you with her emotional delivery and never lets go.

Without even listening to the album, fans should already be familiar with at least two of the album’s songs. Trisha Yearwood brought the title track to new heights on her Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love album and “You and Tequila” is Kenny Chesney’s latest single, a duet with rock singer Grace Potter. And the 9513 reviewed the album’s first single, “Oh Cumberland” in advance of the album.

I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical of hearing Berg’s version of “Fields.” After Yearwood tackles a song, it’s hard to imagine anyone else matching, let alone exceeding, her power and delivery. But, of course, Berg proves she’s more than up to the task. The way she wraps her voice around the tale of a family losing their farm will bring even an emotional ice cube to tears. You know she feels what she’s singing.

And on that note, when listening to the album I could actually hear Yearwood singing some of these songs. It wouldn’t have been a stretch for Yearwood to have put “Silver and Glass” on her Hearts and Armor album.  The story of a girl trying to find her place in the world is one of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record.

Another standout track, “Clouds,” makes such a simple statement – “I only like clouds when it’s raining/they do no good just hanging around” – and conveys so much with so little. It only emphasizes the the importance of a strong hook. When a song is properly executed lyrically, it becomes a poetic declaration. Plus, the lush production and use of harmonica in the intro, break-up the sameness of the preceding tracks and offer a refreshing change of pace in the listening experience.

The uniformity of the production is really the only area worthy of negative criticism. The album rolls along so gently, at times it can feel sleep-inducing. Berg does have up-tempo songs she could’ve recorded, including her excellent “They Call It Falling For A Reason” which Yearwood made a low-charting single in 2008, but to include such a song would’ve tinkered with the pace of the album just enough to throw off the vibe she was after.

Berg mirrored the album after Emmylou Harris’s solo debut Pieces of the Sky, Neil Young’s Harvest and Joni Mitchell’s iconic Blue – three albums from her childhood. She lives up to Harris’s legacy the most; Fields is more than worthy of her influence. Berg sings with the clarity Harris had on her 70s classics, and has a similar knack for choosing songs aren’t the typical country fare that’ll be dated in the decades to come.

It’s just a shame that country radio has all but passed on intelligent music like this – to hear Berg on the radio would be a refreshing change of pace from the muscular country getting crammed down our throats. We do have Chesney to thank for getting “You and Tequila” on the airwaves and, possibly, calling slight attention to this fine recording. You know if Chesney recorded it, it’ll more than likely burn up the charts and becomes a major success.

But it doesn’t matter if country radio passes on the album or not, the music has reached the public and will live on as long as Berg continues to shape her legacy. And as cliché as it sounds, with a voice this stunning, and music this brilliant, let’s hope she doesn’t wait another 14 years to record a follow-up.

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In the spotlight – regional country singer Kiley Evans

May 17, 2011

One of the benefits of interning at 95.9 WATD is their association with local bands and artists on the south shore of Massachusetts. Whether or not their music is heard on the airwaves or just in local clubs, the DJs and hosts are very tuned into the local scene. This allows music fans like me, access to the best the region has to offer, including local country singer Kiley Evans. A 23 year-old Boston native, Evans describes herself as a “Boston girl with a Nashville soul.” She’s been gaining exposure thanks to multiple appearances on Cat Country 98.1, Rhode Island’s country radio station, and the many YouTube videos she’s posted of not just her own music, but covers of current country songs. She also just released two singles, “Johnny Depp,” and “Not Toady.”

Evans hit a home run with the title of “Depp.” It’ll surly intrigue listeners before they’ve ever heard it. And while song titles of famous people have proven to be hit or miss (“Johnny Cash” by Jason Aldean, anyone?) they have launched superstars including Taylor Swift (“Tim McGraw”). This addition to that linage may be a regional single, but it perfectly showcases Evans’s charm and appeal. Unlike a lot of country singers these days, she sings from the perspective of someone her age, which is a welcomed change. She also demonstrates a maturity that a lot of young talent spend most of their careers trying to find. Overall Evans has made a wonderful first impression which is often difficult to come by in this era of selling yourself out at the expense of fame and exposure. It’s the perfect single for her to gain local notoriety.

The single follows the well-worn path of relationship songs, but keeps it fresh by an infectious melody and catchy chorus that can’t help but get stuck in your head. I’ve only heard “Johnny Depp” a number of times and I can’t stop singing it. She  sells the song by her vocal delivery and invested interest in what she’s singing. It’s the perfect companion for those long summer drives with the windows rolled down and the radio cranked up. What really drew me into the song was her comparisons of the guy in question to both John Travolta and Johnny Depp – which might come off a bit corny at first, but is the attention grabber that made me take notice.

Unlike many country songs that misrepresent country music legends with disrespectful name drops, Evans employs two of Hollywood’s leading men as benchmarks in her quest to find true love. I can’t say it’s been done before, especially not recently, and it turns the name dropping trend on its head by finding a fresh perspective. Plus, it perked me up and got me to listen – the goal of anyone trying to achieve notoriety.

Evans’s other single is the tune “Not Today,” which allows her lets loose with her voice. A  pop/country power ballad, “Today” captures her slower side and unique tone to her voice. As a sucker for songs in this vein, I really like this one as well. While not as instantly catchy as “Johnny Depp,” it works because of what she puts into it. Evans injects enough personality to give this song life. While I wish the arraignment had been a little more sparse, she more than overcomes that minor shortcoming by telling a relatable story of being in love but not wanting to rush into anything. She wants to spend time with her man, but he wants to hold off for some rainy day, leaving her to wonder, “What if those rain clouds don’t come our way?” It isn’t that uncommon for women to beg for the attention of their men and that’s just what she’s doing here – trying to seize the opportunity at hand. And honestly, if this song is any indication, he’s be a fool to put it off any longer.

A complex story, Evans succeeds here by not retelling the same boring relationship story we’ve heard so many times before in a thousand different ways. Just like with “Johnny Deep,” she’s found a unique and fresh angle to themes relatable to everyone regardless if you’re a man or woman. Plus, it’s hooky enough to stick with you long after you finish listening to it. I’m always drawn to ballads for some reason anyway – I guess I’m just in the mood a lot for slower songs and “Not Today” really does fit the bill. And it’s alive enough that it isn’t sleepy. It’s often difficult to make a ballad that isn’t too slow and maudlin, a sleeper usually unfit for radio, but she smartly avoids all those pitfalls and has a really good song here.

It’s hard for me to decide if forced to choose, which of her two singles really is the better song since both perfectly show off the two sides of her personality and the type of artist Evans envisions herself to be. I honestly cannot choose – I like both songs equally as much.

Another great aspect of our ever growing technological world is the phenomenon of YouTube – the premiere outlet for sharing video content around the world. Evans has displayed not only her original songs on the site but also covers of some of country’s most popular hits of late including Thomson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me or Not,” Lady Antebellum’s “Just A Kiss,” Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene,” and Swift’s “Mean.” All three bring another depth to Evans’s ever-growing catalog of music. Seeing how a new artist interprets current hits allows fans to see who influences that artist when they’re creating their own sound through they’re own songs.

I really enjoyed Evans’s cover of “Mean” – she took the song from an uptempo country rocker and turned it into a stripped down ballad. While I always find it a little weird to hear someone other than Swift singing this song, Evans has one of the better cover versions I’ve heard. What’s interesting to me is, Evans seems just as comfortable in front of a camera just playing her guitar as she does singing her own songs with the band/studio musicians. There’s no doubt how hard it is to be that naked and post it for the whole world to see, and she really pulls it off.

Evans’s cover of Lady Antebellum’s “Just A Kiss” underscores a problem I’ve had with Lady A for a while – Hillary Scott isn’t a very dynamic singer. Scott can come off a bit flat at times, and lack a necessary intensity. This only boasts well for Evans who brings much more to this song than Lady A ever could. She has the power to her vocals needed to pull off this song.

As far as “Kerosene” goes, Evans is treading on dangerous waters. I haven’t been shy regarding my love of Lambert, and was leery of someone else tackling one of her hits. She gives the track, courtesy of a brand new guitar, a fire and intensity that made the original so great and she gives the song her all. There really isn’t anything negative I can or would want to say about it. Overall, it’s a very good cover.

The other recent hit she’s covered is easily one of 2011’s biggest in the country world – Thompson Square’s “Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not.” While this song moved up the charts at a glacier pace, it exploded in January and was very difficult to escape. It only took a mere nine months before topping the charts. That being said, what would Evans bring to the song to make it her own? As is the case with almost all her covers, she does stick very close to the original version. And her take on “Kiss Me” isn’t any different. She showcases her humor at the beginning, talking about not wanting to kiss the camera, and goes into the song. It’s a very good cover of a very catchy song.

What’s just occurring to me, is the clarity of Evans’s voice. When she’s doing these covers, with just her guitar, she has a clearness to her vocals that rivals many singers today. To be able to understand vocalists is often overlooked but it’s key. It’s how listeners remain invested in the music. With that being said, it seems like Evans has a bright future ahead of her. While she won’t be burning up the national charts in the coming months, she’s working extremely hard to build her profile. If you’re in the south shore Massachusetts area, she’s worth checking out.

For more information check out http://www.kileyevans.com where you’ll find her blog and a list of upcoming appearances. Also, be sure to check out her many videos on YouTube and request her music on Cat Country 98.1, 95.9 WATD, and any other radio station who will give her a shot. Also be sure to buy her two singles on iTunes. Below are her two singles, “Johnny Depp,” and “Not Today” plus her cover of Lady Antebellum’s new single “Just A Kiss.”

Want to dig a little deeper?

May 8, 2011

Just a note to all my readers…

If scroll down the right hand column I’ve added a new section of links entitled “Further Reading.” These are links to other top notch country music websites, magazines, and blogs that I frequent quite regularly. If you have a site you’d like me to add, please leave a comment and let me know.

Happy reading!

An Appreciation: The 9513

May 3, 2011

The news that premier country music blog The 9513 is shutting down hit me in the gut. Online country music journalism lost a big voice and I lost the porthole that led me down the road I’m on today. I didn’t think the news would effect me this much, but it really has.

I’ve always held The 9513 in reverence because their writers revolutionized my thinking and understanding of country music. I have them to thank for opening my eyes to disintegrated state of mainstream country and for showing me why certain songs are fantastic while others are just overwrought cliches of the Nashville machine. The article that changed my perspective is Karlie Justus’s single review of Justin Moore’s “Small Town USA.” I don’t think I’ve disagreed more with a single review than that one. I couldn’t understand why anyone could rate that song a “thumbs down” because I happened to love everything about it, and still do. I got caught up in Moore’s delivery so much that I couldn’t see the song’s faults. But that review laid the groundwork for me to look at country music with fresh and new eyes.

Beyond their expertly crafted commentary on mainstream country music, the 9513, and a few other country music blogs, always knew that Nashville didn’t dictate the whole story of country music. The genre is much wider than what’s heard on the radio. By never losing sight of that they were able to paint a much clearer picture of the genre. They also never let the past remain as history. Whenever a new class of hall of fame inductees were announced you could always count on the site to begin the conversation of whether the acts were deserving, who was snubbed, and so fourth. The discussions about the genre were always first rate and displayed an intelligence rarely seen anywhere else.

My favorite discussions were those that weren’t recapping an event but predicating it. Like posts on what the nominees for the CMA or ACM awards should be before the nominations are announced. And my favorite, Paul W. Dennis’s post on who should be in the Hall of Fame. It was just such a post by Mr. Dennis that contained a comment I’ve never forgotten – that song for song, Tanya Tucker had a better musical catalog than Reba McEntire. (his full comment was “Tanya’s best songs blow the best songs of Reba or Barbara out of the water.”)

While both had the gift for choosing expertly crafted material, I’d never pitted their music up against each other in that way or even thought about comparing artists in that light. I’ve never given thought to the accuracy of that opinion, since I hold both artists in such high esteem. But it’s a very interesting thought-provoking comment I hadn’t read anywhere else.

In looking over the comments to their farewell post (linked in my opening paragraph), someone mentioned how much they’ve always loved the monthly mailbag features. I never really cared for them, only because the whole thing was made up, but they were a monthly dose of comic relief on the stupidity of country music. As random as they seemed, they were unique to the site. But the feature I would look forward to was the news updates. Everyday around noon I would excitedly log onto the site to get my daily round-up of the best in recent posts in the country music blogosphere as well as free downloads of some great music. They pulled it all together and had it in a neat little package for everyone on a daily basis.

The 9513 was also the place I engaged in my first real debate on country music. In the comment thread of Juli Thanki’s single review for Easton Corbin’s “Roll with It,” I made the comment ” In a way I wish Rory Feek would’ve kept the song (“A Little More Country Than That”) for himself…when you give away all your sure-fire radio smashes, you don’t stand a chance of having success yourself. That’s been the biggest mistake Joey + Rory have made.”

This lead to a back-and-fourth between me and Roughstock‘s Matt Bjorke where he got the final word:

Matt B: “Jonathan, There are some very strong songs on Joey+Rory’s Album #2.”

Me: “Thank you Matt. I look forward to checking it out. I just wish they wouldn’t give their songs away for others to record. Who knows where they would be today if they had kept “Some Beach” for themselves…”

Matt B: “Rory’s songwriting career has literally bought them a farm and more. They can afford things like a tourbus as well because of things like that. Giving away a few songs that wouldn’t work for them is just fine.”

It’s funny to look back because the “debate” as I call it was rather lame by my standard today. I didn’t hold up my end that well. Now I’m much more comfortable having a long back and forth with commenters. But it’s how I got my feet wet engaging others on the merit of country music. I don’t have these “debates” all that often, but I feel like I kind of know I’m talking about when I do. I think I defended my opinions well when Libby called me out about Tim McGraw and Gweynth Paltrow’s duet “Me and Tennessee” a few months ago (over at Country Universe).

And that’s the remarkable quality about The 9513 – it took me a second to figure out commenters weren’t just commenters or random country music fans, but actually connected to the country music industry in some fashion (i.e. fellow bloggers, radio DJs, etc). Of course there were others like me who are merely fans of this great music but a majority were heavy hitters. The community established within the comments sections of posts wasn’t duplicated anyplace else on the web, at least that I can find. I read many country music blogs on a regular basis and none were as community oriented or connected as The 9513.

But the rare and astonishing thing I found was The 9513 was slowly beginning the process of breaking down the barrier between artists and fans. Everyone, no matter if it were a big name in Nashville or a country music fan with a computer, would comment side by side. I remember just a few months ago, Sunny Sweeney commented on the single review of her song “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving.” And songwriter Robert Lee Castleman had  a comment to make in the single review of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s version of his song “Paper Airplane.” What this was doing for the future of country music was revolutionary. If we can get to a place where singers, songwriters, and fans can debate, interact, and coexist as one unit than we’ve changed open communication within the country music industry forever. With the rise of Facebook and Twitter has come another breaking down of the wall, and this was another step. Lets hope this wall can be further broken down in other places in the future.

I remember reading an article in Country Weekly, before I stopped reading it do to it’s demise in quality, that country music blogs had been taking over the job they were supposed to have by interviewing artists. I remember a time, in 2009, when The 9513 would conduct and transcribe what seemed like hundreds of interviews with some of country music’s biggest stars. And they always ended the interview with the same question – what is country music to you? It’s nice to see that Ben Foster has carried on this interesting tradition, because their answers were always fun to read. At the end of that year, The 9513 even compiled a list of the answers to that question from interviews over that given year – read it here. In looking back over that post, the answers are extremely thought-provoking. To hear these artists, from the likes of George Jones and Charlie Daniels, to Whitney Duncan and David Nail talk about the music in their blood is riveting. I haven’t really looked at this post in over a year and a half, but in looking at it with fresh eyes tonight, the George Jones comment that leads the responses really stands out to me. Not only did they get George Jones to talk to them but he really gave a substitutive response to the question.

Another reason The 9513 is held up to a high standard is their attack of all country music. They didn’t just comment on the singles, but took note of those extra special album cuts that should be catching our attention. In their year end best of lists, singles and album cuts stood side-by-side with album cuts winning out the majority of the time. They named “The House That Built Me” their song of the year a full year before the CMA and ACM did the same thing. They led the charge in championing Joey and Rory and their Life of a Song album and recognized the caliber of Sugarland’s “Very Last Country Song” even when no one else did. They dared to be different by standing out. I’ll always admire them for that.

The 9513 has met many things to many people. In reading the 1-to-10 Country Music Review tonight, it led Ben Foster to create the blog that’s given rise to his fine commentary on country music. It gave the fans a voice. And while it didn’t inspire me to write it did, like I said above, forever alter my thinking about the merits of country music. It also led me to Country Universe, my favorite of all the country music blogs because of the caliber of the writers and attention Kevin, Leeann, Dan, and Tara put into the details of making the site work. I will forever be indebted to The 9513 for that.

In looking back as I write this, I cannot believe how long I’d been reading The 9513 on a regular basis. It’s a testament to the excellence of all the writers whose work has been posted on the site over the years. They put in so much effort into making the site the shining example of what country music can and should be on the internet. The spirits of all the writers shown though and their passion for all things country music led the way. I want to personally give my gratitude to Brady and Brody Vercher for all their hard work in creating this exemplary community for fans of country music. I completely understand that when life gets in the way, passions that don’t dictate livelihoods must be put aside. And I also get the need to go out while everyone still holds you in such impossibly high esteem. I wish this wasn’t the end, and we would all go back tomorrow morning and watch another sideshow debate between Jon, Rick, Fizz, and Waynoe in the midst of insightful comments on another single or album review.

But as Alan Jackson sang “Too much of a good thing/is a good thing.” While this chapter may be closed, here’s to opening another one. The saga of country music blogs and the writers who made this site what it is, is far from over. And I’ll be there for every twist and turn ahead as we all move on to the next phase in this fabulous journey. Believe me, the best is yet to come.

Exuberant and Vegas-like: The US Debut of Kylie Minogue’s “Aphrodite” tour

May 1, 2011


Before Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and Christina Aguilera brought the outrageous stage show back to mainstream pop, there were the likes of Madonna, Bette Midler, and Cher paving the way. There was also an Australian pop singer making the waves in the late 80s when she shot to number one via a remake of the “The Loco-Motion.” Her name is Kylie Minogue. In the 20 years since, she’s gone to entertain audiences the world over, earn the praise of Simon Cowell, and survive a bout with breast cancer. Like Madonna, Cher, and Midler she gained attention for her myriad of costume changes and stage show. To see Minogue perform isn’t just to watch a concert but to watch a production big enough to sell out Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. She knows how to captivate and hold an audience under her spell.

She’s been touring overseas for the better part of 2011,  and brought her Aphrodite: Les Follies tour tour to America April 29 at the Agganis Arena in Boston. I was honored to be attending her US tour opening because I’d wanted to see Minogue in concert for years. I don’t know where I first came of this, but I’ve always known she puts on more of a show then a concert. And for all the anticipation built up in my head, she didn’t disappoint. The show was everything I expected and unlike anything I’d ever seen.  She didn’t captivate me like Sarah McLachlan, or mesmerize like Sarah Brightman, but it doesn’t mean I liked it any less.

You always know a concert is going to be special when the singer rises up from the stage sitting in a giant gold seashell in the opening number. I’d always heard of grand entrances for concerts but hadn’t ever seen them. She made her presence known, to the delight of her screaming fans. She opened the show with her song “Aphrodite,” which served as the vision for the tour, as well as being the title track to her latest album. I didn’t quite know what that word meant and after educating myself once I got home, the whole night began to make sense. While watching the show, I felt it had an Egyptian feel with the three staircases and giant columns but upon a quick Google search realized it was Greek.

Unlike a lot of acts that have to force themselves to perform, oppose to just sing, Minogue really knew how to use the stage. Each song was choreographed down to the letter and involved another costume change. The visuals were the best part of the whole experience. Each segment of the performance provided another reason for Minogue to make a grand entrance and showcase another outlandish outfit. If she wasn’t being carried on a buggy dragged by hunky men, she was being surrounded by female dancers and giant feathers. Each moment perfectly captured the feeling of the concert. In one segment she came out wearing a short dress and top hat while in another a sparkly dress that could be seen for miles.

My biggest gripe of the night was not knowing any but two of the songs. Through deductive reasoning I was able to figure out the opening number, but beyond that each song was new to me. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it means I don’t have any basis to comment on how the particular stage performance matched the lyrical content of the musical numbers. The two songs I knew were her most recognizable mainstream singles – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head” and “The Loco-Motion.”  In fact, it was the former that introduced me to her music. That song was so popular, American Idol used it as a group number a few seasons ago on the results show for a “songs from the year you were born” performance week. They all pulled it off. 

But what Minogue does so brilliantly, is make her concert less about the music and more about the theatrics. When the concert was over, I wasn’t thinking about the lyrics as much as how it was presented on stage. I would have to say the two most vivid visuals of the night was the human horse and buggy and during one segment a parade of naked men on the video screens. While I thought the naked men were to satisfy her male fans, it was really a comment on sexuality. In fact, the whole show was an exploration of sex, hence the tour’s title. In many ways, Minogue is akin to a sex kitten, purring her way though the night. While she has a powerful voice, when Minogue sings in her upper register, her voice tends to get squeaky and small; almost orgasmic. It added to the overall effect of the show to be sure.

But what really surprised me was the emphasis put on Minogue’s vocals. I was expecting her to lip-sync her way though the night to make room for dancing and other elements of the show. While I detest anyone who lip-syncs their way though a concert, she actually seemed to be singing live. It must be a generation thing, and more power to her. Most singers today wouldn’t know how to pull it all off “live.” And on that note, I really expected Minogue to do more on stage. More by the way of swinging from the rafters and hightailing it over the audience. The overall show was tamer than I expected it to be even though I loved it just the way it was.

I think I’m so used to the Lady Gaga types and P!nk’s Grammy performance where she was spinning around and spraying the audience. I wanted more along the lines of the latter, and not getting it proved under-whelming. But honestly, where can you go on a Friday night and witness this type of spectacular? Now, I don’t want to take anything away from her because she’s outstanding. You could tell how comfortable she is on stage, which is a testament to how long she’s been in this industry. If she was even the slightest bit nervous it didn’t show at all.

While the overall show was first-rate, the music wasn’t. While I can’t knock any song for being particularly bad, the even tempo grew grating after awhile. Now I know Minogue records dance/pop music, but does every song have to have the drum machine? She didn’t make time for many, if any, quiet moments and that left the songs blending together into a sea of sameness. It was hard, particularly so because I didn’t know them ahead of time, to distinguish between them and thus she didn’t create any musical “moments” on stage I could take away from the evening. Not one song stood out as memorable by itself. It’s okay though because she more than made up for it by the performance.

The real let down of the evening was the poorly advertised opening act. It was a non-discript DJ playing dance/pop for a half hour. Why would the Agganis Arena or even Kylie Minogue’s people let such a boring act open for them? It was so bad, I didn’t even know it was the opening act and thus kept blasting the show for starting a half hour late. It felt more like pre-show entertainment, if it can even be called that, than an opening act.

But looking back over the evening, I’m really glad I went. I got to fulfill a life-long “want” to see Minogue in concert, and for all the faults, which didn’t add up to much, had a great time. She knows how to entertain and captivate an audience and helped to widen my musical comfort zone. While I’m not dying to ever see her again, i would recommend her to anyone who wants to have an experience. Because in the end, Kylie Minogue is an experience unlike most of what’s out there.