Archive for December, 2012

Album Review: Blake Shelton – “Cheers, It’s Christmas”

December 24, 2012

Blake Shelton

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Cheers, It’s Christmas

* * * 1/2

On Cheers, It’s Christmas, his foray into holiday music, Blake Shelton is offering up fourteen tracks that mix traditional fare with newly-penned tracks and collaborations with everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Reba McEntire. And like Red River Blue, Scott Hendricks produces the set along with Brett Rowan.

The traditional songs are pretty standard, and Shelton turns in gorgeous readings of “White Christmas,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” “The Christmas Song,” and “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” Each are framed in a lush string heavy melody that doesn’t bring anything new to the tracks, but keeps them simple and classy. Shelton supercharges his rendition of “Winter Wonderland” with a heavy electric guitar, and instead of working against the song, it helps to showcase the much-recorded song in a new light.

The heart of Cheers, It’s Christmas, though, are the duets. “Jingle Bell Rock,” complete with loud guitars and crashing horns, features Miranda Lambert on backing vocals and their voices blend together nicely. Unfortunately the cheesy “Blue Christmas,” which features Pistol Annies pointlessly doo-wooping throughout, is a mess. The production is too loud and all meaning feels stripped from the song.

Shelton keeps the proceedings nice and simple on “Silver Bells,” one of my favorite Christmas songs. He’s joined by Xenia, a contestant from his team on season 1 of The Voice. Surprisingly, their voices blend well despite having two completely different vocal styles. The same is true for the holiday re-working of “Home” which features the tune’s original singer (and season 3 Voice mentor) Michael Bublé, although it’s kind of odd to hear the tune with the new, slightly awkward lyrics.

Shelton turns surprisingly traditional on “Oklahoma Christmas,” a duet with fellow Okie McEntire. While very good the exaggerated twang and somewhat predictable lyrics (written by Rob Byus, Jenee Fleenor, and Trent Willmon) put a slight damper on the proceedings. He revives Keith Whitley’s “There’s A New Kid In Town,” easily the album’s strongest track lyrically, as a duet with Clarkson. A astonishingly understated and tasteful rendition, their voices gel together wonderfully.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I heard Shelton co-wrote a duet with his mom Dorothy Shackleford, but it turned out really well despite her somewhat shaky vocal. “Time For Me To Come,” in which a mother calls up his son to come home for the holidays, has a lot of old-fashioned charm and works well coming from someone who’s so busy with both his music and television careers. Shelton also co-wrote “Santa’s Got A Choo Choo Train,” a somewhat bluegrass-y number that’s a bit cheesy, nicely understated, and sounds like something Brad Paisley would’ve done about eight years ago. Shelton’s third co-write “The Very Best Time of Year” is the album’s weakest track, spilling out a mess of yuletide clichés.

Cheers, It’s Christmas is an uneven effort at best, with Shelton’s classy and rowdy sides fighting for dominance. But it’s also his best album in years, showcasing a bonafide superstar who isn’t afraid to keep it country when it counts the most. Since he’s so big right now, I have a hard time feeling the intimacy he strives for on the majority of the tracks, but he’s never sounded better and exuded so much personal confidence.

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Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 10-1

December 6, 2012

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

Hello Cruel World

10. Gretchen Peters

Hello Cruel World

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

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9. Various Artists 

Kin: Songs by Rodney Crowell and Mary Karr

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

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8. Jamey Johnson and Friends

Livin’ For A Song – A Tribute to Hank Cochran

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

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7. The Time Jumpers

The Time Jumpers

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

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6. Kellie Pickler

100 Proof

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

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

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5. Jana Kramer

Jana Kramer 

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

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

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4. Marty Stuart

Tear The Woodpile Down: Nashville, Volume 1 

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

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3. Punch Brothers 

Ahoy! – EP

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

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

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2. Punch Brothers

Who’s Feeling Young Now?

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

Calling Me Home

1. Kathy Mattea

Calling Me Home

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

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

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

Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 19-11

December 5, 2012

Adventurism. Turing convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the 19 albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. Here’s 19-11, enjoy!

Wreck and Ruin

19. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Wreck and Ruin

Peculiarity only works when it doesn’t feel like a shot in the dark, but rather a driving force. Following Rattlin’ Bones proved no easy undertaking, but Chambers and Nicholson deliver another quirky set all their own – ripe with originality but most importantly, fun.

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18. The Little Willies

For The Good Times

Listening to this band, I’m always amazed at Norah Jones ability to finally let loose, breaking down the tight reins she holds on her solo work. Their second outing, another set of wonderfully executed cover tunes, is excellent – especially on the Jones fronted “Fist City,” a rousing three minutes of pure sassy exuberance.

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17. Carrie Underwood

Blown Away

The best compliment I can pay Carrie Underwood right now is to reward her efforts of ambition, now matter how bombastic they may be. Her “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs” were two of the year’s most daring singles – dark and twisted but also unnervingly smart. Of all her contemporaries, Underwood is trying hardest to be an excellent songstress and her results are paying off. Now if she’d only release “Do You Think About Me…”

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16. Don Williams

And So It Goes

It’s a fine legacy if you’re known for fostering exciting new talent, but also resurrecting the careers of genre legends? That’s what elevates Sugar Hill Records into one of the finest entities around.

That’s thanks in large part to And So It Goes, which may cast Williams in the same mellow light he created more than forty years ago, but in 2012, that makes for a simple delight.

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15. Jason Eady

A.M. Country Heaven

What’s a guy to do who’s fed up with the general adolescence of Nashville’s country scene? Well, go write and record the smartest and most articulate slice of genre commentary  since “Murder On Music Row.” Oh, and following it up with a duet featuring Patty Loveless? That doesn’t hurt either.

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14. Joey + Rory

His and Hers

Here’s a concept – build an album in two halves – he takes six songs, she takes six songs. But instead of seemingly mashing together two solo projects, make the result feel like a cohesive whole.

Joey + Rory’s appeal is their down home neighbors next door appeal and His and Hers furthers their homespun image wonderfully, but also elevates them to new and daring heights, proving that with the right song, they are outmatched. The title track is a fine ode to the trajectory of a couple’s love but they are simply devastating when tackling death, whether from the battlefield (“Josephine”) or old age (“When I’m Gone”). Palpable emotion hardly ever feels this real.

Free The Music

13. Jerrod Niemann

Free The Music

Often, newer acts are easily panned for staying on message by following the trends of the day, thus never really making a musical imprint of their own. Leave Jerrod Niemann to be the exception to that and every other rule.

Free The Music bucks convention so abrasively it’s difficult to find common ground, but underneath the smorgasbord of horns and beats is a man trying to be an artistic country singer, a title he pretty much has locked up. Never has an individual sound been this fully formed, or sound so good.

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12. Little Big Town

Tornado

Coming out parties are never this exciting, are they? The latest in a long line of B acts elevating to A list status, LBT finally broke the mold and brought their expertly crafted harmonies and keen ear for song selection into the mainstream. It’s not a perfect album, but it blows almost all their competition out of the water.

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11. Lori McKenna

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole – EP

The title track may be the attention grabbing risk taker, but its how she changes up her sound – all while staying true to herself that makes this EP so exciting. Expertly crafted songs? That a bonus this time around.