Archive for May, 2013

Album Review – Pistol Annies – ‘Annie Up’

May 29, 2013

Pistol Annies

AnnieUp

Annie Up

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One of the most satisfying surprises of 2011 was Miranda Lambert’s come-from-nowhere trio Pistol Annies. Their airtight harmonies and brutally honest lyrics took a unique spin on mainstream country music. Hell On Heels was an incredible album – ten expertly crafted slices of the hillbilly lifestyle.

The time they’ve spent together over the past two years has made Lambert, Angaleena Presley, and Ashley Monroe more of a cohesive unit than three solo singers thrown together in collaboration. And the songs cover a wider array of topics than no good men, thus making Annie Up far more well rounded than its predecessor, a fact that couldn’t make me happier.

Like Hell On Heels they wrote the entire record themselves, and as three of the best singer-songwriters in the business, they deliver the goods. There’s no country shuffle of “Bad Example” or seething angst of “Takin’ Pills,” but they make up for it with a surprising amount of subtly and grace that elevates the band to the next dimension.

The quieter moments are the album’s strongest, and Monroe takes the lead on two that take equally compelling but albeit vastly different looks at relationships. “Dear Sobriety” (easily the best track here) is a stunning look at the limits of willpower in face of genetic addiction while “I Hope you’re the End of My Story” finds the band in perfect harmony, hoping a current love is meant to last for life. They continue in this mode, taking on the beauty industry with pitch-perfect candor on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” while “Blues, You’re A Buzz Kill” finds Monroe doing all she can (with no avail) to ward off emotional pain.

“Damn Thing,” their somewhat modernized approach to Ricky Skaggs’ classic 80s country/bluegrass fusion is the opposite of “Blues,” finding the Annies brushing off the things they can’t worry about. They’re also effective on “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina,” a mid-tempo honky-tonker about a woman who needs to let go of an ex once and for all. I also liked “Loved, By A Workin’ Man,” a Presley solo composition where she spills her guts about her kind of guy, and the slower burner “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” is the perfect showcase for how well they play off each other.

This is where my praise hits the proverbial brick wall. Pure and simple – Annie Up showcases everything that’s hazardous about mainstream country music. The more I listen the more pissed off I get at the producers (Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainley, Glen Wolf) and their dim-witted production values.

I totally understand the need to appeal to a younger audience (i.e. where the money is) that is eating up the amped up rock of Jason Aldean and company, but to BLATANTLY erase any hint of fiddle and steel guitar is simply unforgiveable. How the hell do you not drench a number like “Dear Sobriety” in mournful steel? Those idiotic chimes don’t cut it at all. “Loved, By A Workin’ Man” practically begs for some fiddle in place of that annoying electric guitar heard throughout. And I quite enjoyed “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” until that wall of sound comes in at the end engulfing the track in nothing more than noise.

When a band is going to this great a length to actually be country (you can hear it in the vocal performances and in the only use of audible steel on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”) than they should be rewarded with the hallmark instruments of country music backing them up. I know the times have changed but this is inexcusable. Have we actually “evolved” to the point where the elements that differentiate country from other genres of music doesn’t matter let alone need to be present to call a record country? (I know, I know – this has been happening forever. But Annie Up is a real country record or at least as close to one lacking in down home instrumentation can be).

All involved have royally screwed up. And sadly, each and every one knows better. The songs, vocals, and originality are here in spades. It’s a “damn shame” the production didn’t follow suit.

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Album Review – Patty Griffin – “American Kid”

May 17, 2013

Patty Griffin

American_Kid_cover

American Kid

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The loss of a parent is a monumental milestone and common denominator we all share as humans. As ‘The Greatest Generation’ whittles down, our living links to twentieth century history become non-existent. And if you’re like Patty Griffin, you weren’t prepared for this inevitable moment. The gaping hole caused by the death of her father, Lawrence Joseph Griffin, a veteran of WWII, became the geneses for her seventh studio project,American Kid, her first album of all-new material in six years.

Griffin covers the extremes of her feelings with sharp poignancy, opening the record with a jaunty ode to the hereafter (“Go Wherever You Wanna Go”) and a cynical tale about dying in the Sunshine State (“Please Don’t Let Me Die In Florida”). The acoustic guitars and mandolin, coupled with Griffin’s warm cheerful vocal, heighten the sanguinity in the former while that same mandolin strikes an aggressively angry tone on the latter that works with her biting yet somewhat esoteric lyric. She closes the album on a similar note; opting to speak to her father directly on the beautiful but slow “Gonna Miss You When Your Gone.”

Self-reflection is one of the great virtues of American Kid and Griffin spends a lot of time in her father’s shoes, panting exquisite portraits of his full-life and grappling with his inner psyche. This approach would’ve backfired in lesser hands, but Griffin clearly knows exactly what she’s doing. A simple acoustic guitar frames “Faithful Son” a haunting manifestation about being taken for granted, while those same feelings of inner pondering are brought to a new dimension on the revelatory “Not Another Man” as a conversation between man and God.

“Irish Boy” finds Griffin in a near-whisper as she recounts a failed romance her dad encountered after the war, while she penetrates jubilee on the sing-song-y “Get Ready Marie,” likely the origin story of her parent’s love affair. Both are excellent, although I wish she’d picked up the pace a little on “Irish Boy” – it’s just too slow. “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” is a cover of the Lefty Frizzell classic, but with Griffin’s delicate reading, you would’ve thought she wrote it herself.

First single “Ohio” is one of only a handful of places where Griffin isn’t in deep reflection about her dad and one of two to feature both lyrical and vocal assistance from her beau Robert Plant. It’s a masterpiece, and one of those rare records that only come around about once in a generation. The other is the deeply evocative “Highway Song,” proving these two need to make a collaborative record together before long.

Through the winning combination of her gorgeously articulate songwriting and deeply expressive voice (which boasts a remarkably similar tone to Lori McKenna’s), Griffin lays her pain on the floor and bares nothing at the expense of the listener. The record sags in the middle, where one too many slow jams beg for some change in tempo, but the production never obstructs the quality of Griffin’s pen, which always shines through.

American Kid is the first fully realized artistic statement of 2013 and one of the more personal albums of the decade so far. Even though I couldn’t say it on my first go around, I’m in love with the beauty and deep penetrating ache of this record and beg anyone looking for the essence of artistry to seek out a copy.

Album Review – Nick Dittmeier – “Extra Better”

May 13, 2013

Nick Dittmeier

extra better alt

Extra Better

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In the increasingly marginalized landscape of the music industry, it’s always refreshing when artists come along that make you stop and listen. Jeffersonville, IN native Nick Dittmeier is one of those people. Formally of the band Slithering Beast, he’s now honing his own brand of Alternative Country that mixes singer-songwriter sensibilities with raw honesty. Dittmeier showcases his talents perfectly on his new release Extra Better, out Friday (May 17).

With just four tracks, Dittmeier wastes no time getting right to the goods. The set opens with an engaging guitar/drum/percussion beat that gives a nice bouncy energy to “What Sets You Apart,” a fantastic laid-back jam. I’m really digging the sunny vibe of the track, and I love how Dittmeier uses his confident yet conversational vocal to tie the whole track together.

Also excellent is 70s folk throwback “I Can Sing.” Songs like this aren’t made anymore, which is a shame, because it boasts a fantastic lyric that drew me in instantly to the story of a guy leaving his band to strike out on his own:

There’s a record store up over the hill

The guys who work there were in a band last year

But they cut off their hair and cut up some slacks

Sold the guitars and made their money back

But not me, not me, me, I got a million songs to sing

While listening to “I Can Sing,” which is my favorite song on the EP, I was trying to figure out why I loved it so much, beyond my obvious affection for a great lyric. Then it hit me – Dittmeier infuses the track with the same delightful energy that made Zac Brown Band’s The Foundation such a great record five years ago. It also doesn’t hurt that “I Can Sing” lacks major label polish and therefore is allowed to be the perfectly imperfect number you hear on Extra Better.

Dittmeier slows down the proceedings with “Lay Your Trouble Down With Me,” a naked confession between a guy and the girl he’s done wrong. He’s rightly admitting his faults, even begging her to take transfer her hurt onto him:

Lay your trouble down with me

Won’t you lay your trouble down with me

Lay your trouble down with me, and get some sleep

It’s a decidedly simple chorus lyrically, but it doesn’t matter because in the emotional moments of life, it’s often hard to find the right words. Sometimes simple is best, and the minimal lyric is smart because it allows Dittmeier to build his deeply expressive vocal, which ascends to full on wail by the end of the second verse.

“You Don’t Have To Leave A Light On For Me” closes the set with a sweet tale about the pressures life imposes on a musician who is also raising a family. So many singers make a conscious effort to steer clear of songs about the profession, as they fear their fans won’t be able to relate. But when they’re done with such clarity as Dittmeier does here, they become a window into the singer’s world that can’t be gleamed any other way. I didn’t love the production as much on this one, but he hits another home run lyrically and vocally.

To be honest, when Dittmeier sent me Extra Better for review, I didn’t know what I was going to find when I began listening. To say I was pleasantly surprised would be an understatement. It takes a lot for music to grab me and command my attention these days. I’m always longing for something uncontrived and sincere, and I found that here. I cannot wait to see what he comes up with next.

For me information on Nick Dittmeier and his music check out his website.