Archive for July, 2013

Album Review – Grits and Glamour (Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan) – ‘Dos Divas’

July 31, 2013

Grits and Glamour (Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan)

DosDivas

Dos Divas

* * * 1/2 

It’s always interesting when a favorite artist issues a new recording. Your gut instinct is excitement, but you also wonder if the new material will measure up to the iconic music from that singer’s catalog. That sentiment certainly rings true about Dos Divas, the much anticipated duets project by Grits and Glamour, the duo comprised of Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan.

Tillis and Morgan are certainly an inspired pairing. They’re second-generation country singers who’ve grown up in the business and have been close friends since they landed major label record deals some twenty-five years ago. The pair even co-headlined (along with third-generation country singer Carlene Carter) a tour together in 1996. They’ve been touring under their current moniker going on some three years now and it was the fans that demanded this new release.

You have to be careful what you wish for. Dos Divas is a smorgasbord of duets and solo efforts that aims high, but never quite reaches its full potential. The main problem is Morgan, who’s still pushing her I’m-fifty-going-on-twenty persona that’s been her calling card for over a decade now. Her voice has also caught up with her look, and while she has moments where she makes it work, the control she once possessed so beautifully just isn’t there anymore. Tillis, meanwhile, is the same powerhouse dynamo that brought us to our knees on “Maybe It Was Memphis” twenty-two years ago.

Among the six duets on Dos Divas, there are some standout moments. I quite like “Bless Their Hearts,” a mid-tempo number Tillis co-wrote with Jimmy Richie and Joanna Smith that wouldn’t be out of place on a Miranda Lambert album. Morgan’s vocal is nasally, but the lyric and understated melody shine. Also good is Mary Sue England and Thom Shepherd’s “I Am A Woman,” a beautiful 90s-inspired piano ballad that shows off how well the pair harmonize together.

They turn up the energy on “I Know What You Did Last Night,” the fun and campy lead single. It’s the next morning recap of last night’s shenanigans and easily   the best party song of 2013. Tillis and Morgan are excellent when they play off each other with a nicely structured lyric. “I’m Tired,” a wisp of a honky-tonker complete with brilliantly placed fiddle, works just as well.

Initially I was frustrated by the inclusion of solo numbers as this is billed as a duets project. But the pair calls Dos Divas three albums in one, and the solo numbers are a chance to see how they fit into contemporary country. Interestingly enough, they balance it out with some excellent and some horrid numbers.

Morgan shines on the plaintive ballad “Another Chance To,” written by Joe West, Tom Shapiro, and Tammi Kidd. Framed by fiddle, mandolin, and piano, Morgan sings of second chances – spurred by a traffic jam caused by a med-flight helicopter landing just up ahead on the highway. The resulting euphony (every day’s a gift) is predictable, but Morgan infuses the song with the right amounts of sincerity and believability. “Last Night’s Makeup,” co-written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally (with Jessie Jo Dillon) is almost as good, but I found the word “makeup” just a little too jarring. The sentiment is good, though, and Morgan brings her real-life romantic experiences to her vocal.

I’ve had issue with songs that mention mobile phones and Facebook because they seem out of place to me for some reason. So I was inclined to hate “That’s So Cool,” but the melody is just so darn appealing that it cancels out the lyrical inanity in Morgan’s co-write with Eddy Raven and Frank J. Myers. I also have issue with Morgan’s inability to act her age on the track, but it fits well within her persona.

Tillis doesn’t have any solo numbers that reach the heights of “Another Chance To,” but torch ballad “Even The Stars” comes close. Tillis sings the hell out of the lyric, and I love how the arrangement so brilliantly frames her voice. She also gives a vocal master class on “I Envy The Sun,” although I couldn’t totally engage with the lyric. The melody of “Ain’t Enough Roses” can become grating, but once again, she sings the track well.

More often than not I do really, really like Dos Divas. But when the songs veer off course, they are embarrassingly bad. “Old Enough To Be Your Lover,” a number Tillis handles solo, is unintelligent and while she gets the “fun” just right, Lisa Carver’s lyric forces Tillis to wear a character that just doesn’t fit right. She’s better than this. The pair team up for one track they co-wrote together, and “What Was I Thinkin’” was supposed to be a comical tour-de-force about the their past romantic conquests. In execution it’s sloppy dreck that fails to be funny or clever.

Dos Divas is one of those weird projects that is nothing like anyone thought it would sound, giving the pedigree these two share, and Tillis’ near flawless track record for turning out expertly crafted albums. I love almost every track here, but wouldn’t deem any essential listening. I’m glad the record exists, for shear listening pleasure, but both ladies have already proven they’re better than this artistically.

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Album Review – Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – ‘Bakersfield’

July 27, 2013

Vince Gill & Paul Franklin

Vince Gill And Paul Franklin - Bakersfield_Cvr_5x5_300cmyk

Bakersfield

* * * * *

With Bakersfield, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have created the first perfect country album of 2013. The ten-track collection, a tribute to Buck Owens and Merle Haggard with five songs apiece by each artist, is a masterwork thanks to the flawless combination of song selection, astute musicianship, and vocal prowess. 

Initially, I was furious at the prospect of another covers project as they’ve suffocated the genre of late and left little room for talented artists to help push pure country ideals into the twenty-first century. Lee Ann Womack gets it – instead of covering songs, why can’t these artists evoke the signature style on newly written material? The experience would be far richer than another dip in the lukewarm waters of the country music songbook.

Knowing that song selection is key, Gill and Franklin thankfully leave the most iconic Owens and Haggard hits on the table, making room for some lesser known songs, and three choice album tracks that were never singles. By dipping deeper into the pool they display a keen sense of imagination and effort towards the project that’s both honest and refreshing. 

Of big hits they do have a few. “Branded Man,” A #1 Haggard single from 1967, is nicely updated with a memorable guitar lick from Franklin, that Gill doubled in time during the recording process. They honor the original by still making it a classic Gill record. Also excellent is their rendition of “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” a lyric that remains timeless, even after forty-three years. Gill had a deep emotional connection to the song in the studio that comes out in his straightforward vocal. I also love how they tweaked the opening to make it their own, adding Franklin’s bright steel behind Gill’s always-masterful guitar licks. 

As if I couldn’t love Emmylou Harris any more, her presence in country music helped inspire two of the album’s most sublime moments. In her glory days, she recorded Owens’ “Together Again” and Haggard’s “The Bottle Let Me Down,” and Gill does the same here, making good on his promise to her that he would honor this important music. Gill and Franklin turn “Together Again” into a honky-tonk wonder, anchored by Gill’s otherwordly vocal (that channels Owens in all the best ways), and Franklin’s stunning backdrop of pedal steel. Their lively take on “The Bottle Let Me Down” is pure genius, and a wonderful compliment to “Together Again.”

In honoring the Bakersfield sound this record inspires, Gill and Franklin cover the gateway Owens tracks that helped Gill appreciate how the West Coast was influencing country music back in the early 1960s. You can also hear Owens in Gill’s vocal on “Foolin’ Around,” so much so you may wonder who that guy is singing. It opens the record in stunning fashion, showcasing Gill’s fine interpretation skills on guitar – Owens record was centered around steel, so it gave Gill room to create. “Nobody’s Fool” is just as wonderful a country shuffle, nicely complementing “Foolin’ Around.” Gill says he drew from George Jones for his beautiful electric guitar work here, and that cross genre influence helps the song stand out on its own. 

What’s great about Bakersfield is the lesser known tracks, moments that allow Gill and Franklin to show off their stunning prowess without fear of tampering with an iconic standard. “He Don’t Deserve You Anymore” is a perfect weeper, with damn near brilliant guitar and steel work to offset Gill’s awe-inducing vocal. Owens co-wrote the track with Arty Lange and it’s a shame it wasn’t picked up by anyone before now, as songs in this style, no matter how old, need to be heard by younger ears. Tommy Collins’ “But I Do,” an unreleased song of Owens’ from 1963, has a spectacular twin-fiddle opening courtesy of The Time Jumpers’ Tommy Franklin and Joe Spivey before morphing into a moment of pure honky-tonk bliss.   

A go-to song for Gill in his club days, “Holding Things Together” is the lone unreleased Haggard track and a stunning ballad about a family on the brink of collapse. The ending gives way to a gorgeous jam session with Gill bringing out his Stratocaster, which is a nod to Reggie Young who introduced the guitar to Haggard and helped define his sound in the 1970s.

As if it’s even possible, the CD has one major highlight – a spot shining so bright, it overtakes the other tracks, flawless as they are. I was first introduced to Haggard’s 1970 #3, on LeAnn Rimes’ Gill co-produced Lady & Gentleman and since then I’ve been obsessed with “I Can’t Be Myself.” Gill’s been playing the song since he heard it on a Steve Young album as a late teen, and gives the track an “El Paso” type feel to honor iconic country music sessions guitarist Grady Martin, who played on Marty Robbins’ hit as well as Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Sammi Smith’s hit recording of “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” among others. Those facts don’t change, but only enhance the fact that, Gill has turned in an iconic recording here that’s as important and significant as any of his biggest hit records.

I love this album so much, I just jumped online and bought the project on vinyl. I can’t help but long to hear Gill’s exceptional guitar work and Franklin’s flourishes of steel and guitar coming through those speakers courtesy of a needle. Call me old fashioned at 25, but I don’t care – Bakersfield is a project that begs for such treatment. I’ve come to hold Gill in the highest regard among living country singers since he stopped courting the masses and made projects that help build his legacy, and he only succeeds in adding to my admiration with each of these ten songs.  

I don’t praise a project lightly, and have found my ability to be impressed harder and harder to fully satisfy with each passing year. But I mean it when I throw around phrases like “stunning,” “brilliant,” and “flawless.” Gill (and now Franklin, whom I’ve never paid close attention to) is a national treasure. Between his solo work, affiliation with The Time Jumpers, and time in the studio with newer artists like Ashley Monroe, he’s elevated himself into a national treasure as important to country music The Carter Family and Hank Williams, Sr.    

I cannot wait to hear what projects he has cookin’ (I believe a bluegrass album is up next) as he looks to be giving his fans little musical treats that show he’s just getting better and better with each passing year. I applaud you MCA Nashville for not letting him get away.

Go pick up Bakersfield. It is impossible to feel even the slightest bit disappointed. Maybe it is, but only if you don’t have a pulse.   

Concert Review – Dwight Yoakam at Indian Ranch in Webster, MA

July 11, 2013
Dwight at Indian Ranch - June 23, 2013

Dwight at Indian Ranch – June 23, 2013

Ever since the release of 3 Pears last fall and his double sell-out at the Ryman this spring, there’s been a buzz surrounding Dwight Yoakam. Like his seven-year stretch between studio albums of original material, he doesn’t tour with great frequency, so I jumped at the chance to see him live when my godparents scored tickets to a show in our area.

It was a typical day in late June. The mercury was creeping towards 90 degrees with threats of afternoon hail as we made our way to The Country Music Capital of New England (Indian Ranch) in Webster, MA – an hour and a half long drive from our home south of Boston.

Although I’d never been to the venue before, I wasn’t a stranger to the cheap ticket prices (they’ve gone up with the times), non-descript location, and traditional mid-afternoon starting time (all shows are Sundays at 2 p.m.). The venue, essentially a hillbilly campground, was a pleasant surprise – boarded by a picturesque lake – and the bleacher style seating not as uncomfortable as one would assume.

The atmosphere – a crowd of people (many my age or younger) who were all kinds of kinds – was the perfect backdrop for the two and a half hour show. Yoakam, dressed in a Canadian Tuxedo and his signature brown cowboy hat, looked like something from a bygone era while his band mates, dressed in shimmering suit jackets recalled a retro Vegas lounge act primed to croon do-wop anthems. Yoakam has always been an individualist, so this display of eccentricity wasn’t too startling.

He opened with the rousing “Take Hold of My Hand” before going back to 1987 with “Please, Please Baby.” I fully expected the fourteen cuts on 3 Pears to dominate the proceedings, but Yoakam did a wonderful job of mixing new and old giving the enthusiastic crowed a satisfying overview of his career. Fully in keeping with his mantra, Yoakam didn’t play it safe throughout his set and I was stunned at how many of the left of center songs I actually knew.

If you were only familiar with Yoakam’s radio hits, then there were plenty of moments throughout the show that would’ve gone over your head. I was surprised when he dug out three songs, all title tracks of his records, that weren’t singles – 1990’s “If There Was A Way,” 1993’s “This Time,” and 2005’s “Blame The Vein.” He also brought out a single few know, but one I played a lot on my radio show in college, “Close Up The Honky Tonks” from his Dwight Sings Buck album.

Yoakam kept the Buck Owens theme alive throughout his set, even pausing “Turn It Up, Turn It On, Turn Me Loose” just after the line ‘While We’re Dancing to an Old Buck Owens Song’ to bring out a full rendition of “Act Naturally,” before finishing his 1990 hit. Their “Streets of Bakersfield” was done by Yoakam solo, a nice touch, as you can’t replace Owens on the iconic single.

He didn’t converse with the audience too much during his set as he let the music do the talking. Yoakam rolled through most of his trademark songs – from debut single “Honky Tonk Man” and early hits “Guitars Cadillacs” and “Little Sister” to 90s hits “It Only Hurts When I Cry” and “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere.” He tweaked “Ain’t That Lonely Yet” into a slightly slower honky-tonk ballad, and I enjoyed this arrangement a little more than the hit recording. Easily the most fun (and my favorite) moment of the show was “Little Ways” because Yoakam had the crowed in the palm of his hand with each “You. Got. Your. Little Ways” at the start of every chorus. He closed with “Fast As You,” which was just as fun as when it came out twenty years ago.

There actually weren’t that many new songs in his set – Yoakam only sang four of the tracks from 3 Pears. The esoteric Roger Miller-like “Waterfalls” was my favorite of these moments and a definite crowd pleaser (the couple in front of us even had a toy giraffe in honor of the song). I’m always at a loss for what’s popular, and I miss judged that one.

Sadly, his cover of “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” proved an unofficial theme of the show. As much as I enjoyed the concert (and Yoakam is a great entertainer) the band was too loud and created a melding of sound that equaled noise more than music. Yoakam’s voice is still in fine shape, but it sounded like it was in a vacuum when he’d step up to the microphone. I chalked it up to another chance to utilize the reverb that somewhat overshadowed 3 Pears but it could’ve been the acoustics at the venue.

It didn’t ruin the show, but did damper my enjoyment a bit. Luckily, though, the noise factor didn’t affect “Always Late (With Your Kisses)” as I could still make out the band crooning “always late” throughout the song. The noise factor did make “Ring of Fire” unbearable, but his rockish treatment of the Johnny Cash classic always seemed a bit much anyways. Being a big Yoakam fan I also would’ve liked to hear him stretch his set even further – I was dying to hear him play “Nothing,” “Pocket of a Clown,” and “Thinking About Leaving” – but that’s just me being selfish.

Thankfully Yoakam’s charm shone throughout his set and had me glued to the stage despite the abundance of people watching, an always enjoyable hobby. He may be pushing into his late 50s, but Yoakam still has the swagger of men half his age. His trademark footwork hasn’t succumbed to time nor does he look ridiculous bringing out the same moves that had fans swooning more than thirty years ago. If you ever get a chance to hear Yoakam live I’d highly recommend it, his show is a thoroughly enjoyable experience from one of the best artists to come around in the modern era and a moment you’ll never forget.