Archive for September, 2013

Album Review – Shanna Jackman – ‘Shanna Jackman EP’

September 26, 2013

Shanna Jackman

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Shanna Jackman EP

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The first thing that struck me when I was listening to Central Massachusetts native and 2010 Cat Country 98.1 WCTK Country Idol Shanna Jackman’s eponymous debut EP was her affection for Martina McBride, a point driven home as much by her vocal delivery as the sonic direction of her music. I was transported back to the Martina era, and the guitar work from “This One’s For The Girls.”

Jackman, formally of the band Not In Kansas and 2011 New England Country Music Organization Most Promising Vocalist and Entertainer of the Year (she also won the NECMO Horizon Award this year), is a country singer stepping into the spotlight for the first time. She funded this project through Kickstarter last March, and recorded the album in Nashville just three months ago. Although Jackman’s music has echoes of McBride, one of her favorite singers whom she opened for this past summer, she’s still able to form her own identity. Rowdy break-up anthem “In My Truck,” the 2013 1490-AM WMRC Local Single of the Year, preceded the album with a rockish mix of electric guitars and drums that allow Jackman to perfectly display the attitude in the lyrics. Normally I would call out the production for being too loud but Jackman’s forceful twang cuts through the noise with ease, proving her skills as a vocalist.

She continues in up-tempo mode on the introspective “Never Gave Up,” a tune about perseverance in which she sings, ‘Guess it was always my luck, never gave up.’ With ribbons of pedal steel and twangy electric guitar, the song exudes a delightful sunny effervescence that Jackman matches with her effortless yet affecting vocal.

“He Does” is the track that brought McBride to mind, and as I was listening, Jackman had me longing for the way country music used to sound as recently as ten years ago. The track, about a woman in the honeymoon stage with her boyfriend, is one of my favorite types of country songs – joyful, upbeat, and perfect to crank up on one of those sunny days when you don’t have a care in the world. Jackman’s unforced twang is the perfect compliment for the subtle electric guitar and drum heavy arrangement.

The album turns more serious on the remaining tracks, and reaches it’s emotional core on “We’ve Got Your Back,” a song written specifically to thank the military and their families for their service. It’s an excellent song and easily the highlight of the EP. Behind a mix of piano and drums Jackman beautifully conveys a timeless message of hope:

We’ve got your back

When you stand on the front lines for us

We’re the ones you can always depend on

We’re the ones you can always trust

We’ve got your back

And for the ones you’ve left here at home

We’re gonna give them our shoulders to lean on

We’re gonna love them like one of our own

We’ve got your back

Jackman is begging for her man’s help in ending their relationship on “Go Ahead,” the record’s most overtly popish moment. Like all of McBride’s most popular relationship ballads (think – “Whatever You Say,” “Where Would You Be,” How Far”), Jackman sings with thrust, transmitting the woman’s emotional pain as she watches the relationship crumble before her eyes. You feel what she’s going through fully, which is a testament to Jackman’s gifts as a singer.

“Road To You,” the project’s strictest ballad, is more then I was expecting. Instead of the typical guy and girl relationship song, Jackman is singing about her bond with her mom, and the journey they’ve shared since she was born. As someone who’s very close to both my parents, I can easily relate to what she’s signing about here. Jackman croons with a gorgeous simplicity here, knowing that she doesn’t have to reach for any high notes to get her point across. The ballad is stunning as a result, and the string section that frames her vocal is the perfect backdrop to bring the emotional lyrics to life.

There isn’t a bad song to be found on Jackman’s EP, although “In My Truck” is the most obvious example of radio fodder and probably the album’s weakest link, despite it succeeding wonderfully on its own merit. I didn’t know what I’d find when I popped the CD into the player, but it was her voice that won me over. Jackman sings the way I wish all females in country music (yes you, Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson) sang – without pretense or the need to show off. Power is always a good thing, but only when you know how to properly use it. Jackman has complete control over her instrument and the perfect set of songs to properly show it off. This is her time, and she deserves this chance to step out into the spotlight.

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For more information on Shanna Jackman check out her website, where you can purchase a physical copy of her CD.

You can ‘Like’ her on Facebook and Follow her on Twitter, too.

The album is also for sale on iTunes and cdbaby.

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A Separation of Church and State: How the Country Music Association mostly got their nominations right this year

September 20, 2013

as13-dateIn 2006, the Country Music Association sent Faith Hill a clear message when Carrie Underwood was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year, only two singles removed from winning American Idol. They were ushering in a changing of the guard that sent ripple effects through country’s core women, making way for new talent at the helm.

Underwood has received a similar message this year with Taylor Swift being nominated for Entertainer of the Year in her place. Swift may be a bigger celebrity with a broader reach, but Underwood’s no slouch – a sold out tour, four #1 singles, ambassadorship for country music, and she’s been hosting the ceremony going on five consecutive years. Heck she just took over Sunday Night Football theme song duties.

In recent history all the top solo female artists (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill) have been nominated and won (Hill lost to Dixie Chicks in 2000) while her contemporaries Swift has won twice and Miranda Lambert received her only nod to date in 2010. That Underwood is being snubbed yet again is one of the biggest injustices in the 47-year history of the award show. Underwood and Swift should be competing in the category together – they both have rightfully earned their place in the category.

Underwood aside, it’s nice to see the Country Music Association mostly get it right this year. The major theme of the nominations is artistic quality, as evidenced by Kacey Musgraves receiving six nominations, a move I didn’t see coming. She’s been building a lot of buzz this year but with little support from country radio, I hardly gave her a chance. Her nominations prove the CMA is still looking for quality contemporary music and actually care about maintaining at least one shred of dignity. They should’ve gone further and showered Ashley Monroe with praise, too, but her outsider-looking-in status likely left her a square peg in a round hole and she was deemed too Americana for this mostly mainstream affair.

There was once a time when you could count the number of females who’ve taken home Album of the Year on one hand. That list has grown in the past few years thanks to wins by Lee Ann Womack (2005), Taylor Swift (2008) and Miranda Lambert (2010). This year Blake Shelton stands alone as the only solo male artist in the category, proving that airplay on country radio isn’t the only factor in scoring a nomination.

I believe whole heartedly that you cannot deny an artist success once they’ve achieved it, no matter how much you may dislike the singer or their song. The world may cry foul over Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” but they clearly earned the Single of the Year, Musical Event of the Year, Duo Of The Year, and New Artist nods. The song is a behemoth and is clearly being rewarded as such. Swift’s showering of affection is more puzzling, since the success ofRed came in the pop market, but “Begin Again” and “Highway Don’t Care” did keep her relevant in her home genre this year.

Where the Country Music Association deserve the most credit is with the separation of church and state – if you notice, “Cruise” isn’t in the Song of the Year race nor is Here For The Good Times up for Album. In fact, none of the genre’s biggest names (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Shelton) have a Single or Song of the year nod, something I never thought I’d see. Absence by ‘bro-country’ powerhouses leaves the likes of “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to battle it out for the win.

It’s nice to see Nashville songwriters back in the Song of The Year race, too. Even more impressive is the CMA’s distinction in excellence, seeing that the best of commercial Nashville scored big, while the laundry list lovers are left to voyage down dirt roads with beer kegs, country girls, and pickup trucks. Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are two of the best writers around right now and combined with Musgraves, they’re killer. What other writing team can claim two nominations in the same year?

In sizing up the New Artist competition, I was about to show my denial of a mass extinction, until I looked at the Billboard Airplay Chart and noticed “Parking Lot Party” in the top 10, on it’s way to becoming Lee Brice’s fourth consecutive number one. Like fellow nominee Kip Moore, he’s becoming a force for the future, and with his single “I Drive Your Truck” up for Song of the Year (Brice doesn’t have a writing credit on it), he has a better chance of winning than I gave him credit for initially. This is a very strong category, although Musgraves is the only nominee with proven artistic potential, a necessary ingredient for longevity.

I’ll have my predictions closer to the November 9 telecast, with a breakdown per category, and thoughts on each individual race. But overall the Country Music Association deserves credit for getting more right than wrong this year, mostly opting for artistic integrity over commercial viability.

Check out all the nominations here.     

Album Review – Steve Wariner – ‘It Ain’t All Bad’

September 10, 2013

Steve Wariner

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It Ain’t All Bad

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In the modern age of country music, where genre blending is the new normal, it’s difficult to find artists exploring their love of different types of music for artistic and not commercial gain. Steve Wariner, who’s back with his first full-length country album in eight years, is an exception to the rule.

A bucket list record, as he calls it, It Ain’t All Bad gives Wariner the opportunity to explore his wide range of musical tastes without sacrificing the core sound he brought to such hits as (and some of my favorites) “Small Town Girl,” “Lonely Women Make Good Lovers,” “Kansas City Lights,” and “The Weekend.”

Wariner doesn’t succeed with every style choice, but the majority of tracks on It Ain’t All Bad are very good to excellent. He’s at his best on slower mid-tempo numbers where he’s able to show off the delicate nature of his voice. Steel and electric guitar backed “Arrows At Airplanes,” a co-write with Rocky Lynne and Mike Severs is a beautiful example about enjoying life, framed around the story of an old man “shooting arrows at airplanes, throwing pillows at freight trains” on the bank of a river. One of my favorite tracks on the album, it’s the type of tune Wariner excels at.

He’s equally in his artistic wheelhouse on “Spokes In A Wheel,” an environmentally conscious track about our place on ‘a little blue rock called mother earth.’ Co-written with Kent Blazy, “Spokes In A Wheel” works because it relays a timely message backed by gentle acoustic guitars without coming off as preachy. “’48 Ford,” a 70s singer/songwriter inspired folk song is a gorgeous reflection on the titular truck and the memories it holds throughout the life of a family. One of the album’s strongest tracks, it works summarily to “Spokes In A Wheel” by using simple imagery to frame the storytelling.

Western Swing ballad (and fan favorite) “Bluebonnet Memories” is the project’s most traditional track, blending steel guitar and fiddle with a bluesy guitar riff reminiscent of Vince Gill’s signature style. Wariner co-wrote the track with Rick Carnes as an ode to Texas, and while good, there are too much jazzy overtones for my taste.

“What More Do You Want” is a slicker more pop-leaning slow burner about a man wronged by his woman that recalls Wariner’s 80s sound, although he intended it to be Beatle-esque, in the style of George Harrison. He brought his son Ryan in on the slide guitar and it all works to create an ethereal feel. “Don’t Tell Her I’m Not,” possibly my favorite track on It Ain’t All Bad and the most current sounding song. Although it maintains the healthy dose of steel missing from country radio, I could see Blake Shelton scoring a big hit with this one.

Wariner is back in “I’m Already Taken” territory on “I Want To Be Like You,” a co-write with the always brilliant Bill Anderson and Tom Shapiro. It’s another relationship-between-a-family-song that starts off typical (a son emulating his dad) but twists into the dad emulating the son as their relationship evolves. The lyric is spectacular, but the string section makes the piano led production feel slow and heavy, giving the song more weight then it needs.

The up-tempo numbers are where It Ain’t All Bad looses its luster. The swampy “Voodoo” isn’t bad per se, just not to my personal taste and the chorus (“Must be the voodoo that you do, do”) sounds like it came from a rhyming generator. “It’s Called A Brand New Day” is too rock, with electric guitars that aren’t too loud, but not to my liking. The title track has grown on me, but the opening riffs are a little too progressive coming from Wariner.

I could also see Shelton scoring big with “Whenever I See You,” a modern day poppish number Wariner co-wrote with Carnes. The synth bass Wariner plays gives the track a neat groove that accomplishes the intention to help the song stand out. “A Thousand Winds” is Wariner’s response to how he wishes to be remembered in death, and an excellent lyric. I just wish the track wasn’t so slow and prodding, but at least it’s a good song.

I’ll admit that this was my first time listening to one of his recordings from beginning to end and it proved very satisfying. It Ain’t All Bad may drag a little as a listening experience, but it’s a solid above average album with some really wonderful tracks. It’s great to have Wariner back recording vocal tracks again, and the eight year gap was well worth the wait.