Archive for September, 2014

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

September 26, 2014

Tim McGraw


Sundown Heaven Town

* * *

Tim McGraw got off to as bad a start as any could ever dream of when introducing his thirteenth album to the world this past winter. The first single, Mark Irwin, James T. Slater, and Chris Tompkins’ “Lookin’ For That Girl” was a smooth hip/hop meets R&B ballad with McGraw desperately pleading for relevance by pandering to trends in order to score airplay. Then came the album’s title,Sundown Heaven Town, which carries with it racial connotations so horrid, everyone in McGraw’s camp should’ve known better and avoided completely unnecessary controversy.

By the time “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” dropped this spring, McGraw needed the course correction the single ultimately gave him. The elegantly sparse ballad, co-written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, and Jeffery Steele, is McGraw’s finest single in seven years thanks to an assist from Faith Hill and a charming tale about home. McGraw and Hill are deservedly vying for both Single and Musical Event of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards.

Just this month Big Machine released the third single from the album, a Marv Green, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Verges penned tune entitled “Shotgun Rider.” The track, while it sounds good with a shuffle beat, is middle of the road at best and hardly memorable. The problem is keen McGraw fans will remember a different tune with the same name appearing on his Let It Go album in 2007. That “Shotgun Rider,” a duet with Hill, was far more country and less wordy than this tune.

McGraw treated fans to another of the album’s tracks, Canadian country singer/songwriter Deric Ruttan’s “City Lights” when he performed on The Voice this spring. The track is excellent, and while louder, recalls the best of his 90s/00s work. Also classic McGraw is “Overrated,” a sonically progressive muscular ballad penned by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Rivers Rutherford. The chorus is strong and memorable and he gives a nicely commanding performance reminiscent of “Unbroken” from 2001. Big Machine would be smart to release this as a single.

Newcomer Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin, joins him on “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” a pure country album highlight that has a bit too much electric guitar, but adds a nice helping of steel about halfway through. While she’s regulated to singing harmony, Dunn adds a nice texture to the track that helps balance McGraw’s gruffness. It’s just weird to me he isn’t singing with Hill, who also would’ve been perfect here.

I also like “Words are Medicine,” a good pop-country number that I might’ve loved had someone like Jennifer Nettles sang it. As it is McGraw does well with it, but his vocal lacks a subtly a better song interpreter would’ve brought to it. “Last Turn Home” is just too loud and McGraw gives an annoying vocal performance on it, which is unfortunate.

“Portland, Maine” finds McGraw with a smoothed processed vocal that does little to give him any credibility. The lyric, by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, is idiotic, with the laughable hook of “Portland, Maine I don’t know where that is.” The track is ripe for parody and completely beneath McGraw’s talents. “Still On The Line” isn’t any better, with an arrangement that leans far too pop for my tastes.

Also terrible is “Dust,” an embarrassing slice of bro-country dreck unsurprisingly co-written by two-thirds of the Peach Pickers. McGraw co-wrote “Keep On Truckin’” with The Warren Brothers and Bill Daly. Like most of the dreck in mainstream country music, it’s another laundry list number that spends a lot of time saying next to nothing. Andrew Dorff’s “Sick of Me” isn’t awful, but McGraw’s vocal is grating and the song’s structure is annoying.

A deluxe edition of Sundown Heaven Town gives the listener an additional five tracks. McGraw gives a tender vocal on the piano ballad turned overproduced social conscious track “Kids Today,” he turns the volume up to eleven on “I’m Feeling You,” mixes organic country with too much rock on “The View” and ventures into Lady Antebellum territory with “Black Jacket.” I wanted to love the Kid Rock assisted “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” but the lyric was embarrassingly juvenile and the production far too progressive for my tastes.

As a whole, Sundown Heaven Town is a mixed bag, with McGraw getting a few things right, but still taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. I was a rabid fan of his from 1996-2007, but as the trends in mainstream country have changed, and he along with them, I’ve lost interest. He’s nicely evened out with Sundown Heaven Town, though, with the McGraw of “Truck Yeah” thankfully not showing up here. While he does need a new, far less rockified sound, this is his best album since Let It Go, which is saying a lot these days.


Album Review: Lee Ann Womack: ‘The Way I’m Livin'”

September 23, 2014

Lee Ann Womack


The Way I’m Livin’

* * * 1/2

In the seventeen years since her debut, Womack has made a career out of crafting individual albums with unique personalities distinguished by their sonic footprints and her exceptional sense of song. Produced by her husband Frank Liddell, The Way I’m Livin is easily the most ambitious album of her career.

Womack turned to ‘songwriter-artists’ this go around, opting to relinquish her own unique perspective in favor of interpreting that of others. The chosen material is incredible, proving that if an artist knows where to look, it isn’t difficult to find a treasure trove of great songs. Womack has always been drawn to portraying introspective heroines shockingly aware of their own self-destruction. More such moments abound on The Way I’m livin, and they’re exquisite.

“Nightwind” finds Womack interpreting Bruce Robison’s tale about a woman moving away, realizing the ‘only true love’ she’s ever known comes at a price, one she isn’t willing to pay. She hasn’t yet left in Chris Knight’s “Send It On Down,” but as a woman suffocated by the state of her life, she’s turning to Jesus for clarity in figuring out her next move.

Brennen Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil” is the album’s purest honky-tonk ballad, with Womack’s tender vocal soaked in steel and fiddle. “Don’t Listen To The Wind,” Julie Miller’s mournful ballad about obsession over a tattooed memory, and the pulsating title track are companion pieces, reflections on the stronghold of love and life. The haunting production beds only further hone the already present message.

She reverses the story twice, first on Hayes Carll’s brilliant “Chances Are” and then Neil Young’s “Out On The Weekend.” Carll’s number finds Womack gloriously regretful and framed in drenching steel while her cover of Young’s classic is aided by the addition of fiddle and her dedication to bring out the country elements within the story.

The album’s two best tracks are so good, it would’ve been a doggone shame had they never seen the light of day. Back solely by an acoustic guitar, album opener “Fly” finds Womack displaying her singular gifts as a vocalist to stunning effect. Adam Hood’s “Same Kind of Different,” meanwhile, is the album’s centerpiece, a warm and inviting number that builds in intensity from an a capella beginning to heights unimagined by the end.

With The Way I’m Livin’ filled with such long-deserved goodness perfectly inline with Womack’s trajectory as an artist, why is the album so ambitious? Well, there are a couple of missteps I’m finding it difficult to ignore.

I found the album a bit too dense, with too many similarly paced tracks that as a whole leave the album needing a change of pace at various points throughout. A well-executed cover of Robison’s “Not Forgotten You” accomplishes this objective, but I would’ve liked a couple more in the same vein earlier on the album.

The bigger slip-up is Liddell’s production. After a decade of producing Miranda Lambert and a few years with David Nail, he’s lost an ability to decipher when a track is just too damn loud. Having never heard it before, I sought out Roger Miller’s original version of “Tomorrow Night In Baltimore,” which was wonderful in all its 70s glory. So why on earth would Liddell crank up the volume on Womack’s version to the point where you can barely understand the lyric? There’s no benefit served to the song to have it drowned out in electric guitars, which only add excessive noise to a track that doesn’t need it.

But even worse is Liddell’s habit of distorting tracks, so that even if the execution by the singer and band (he does this with Lambert, too) is flawless, the end results aren’t clean. Womack’s cover of Mindy Smith’s “All His Saints” is borderline unlistenable thanks to this technique, which makes Womack sound as though she’s singing through a funnel. A similar issue mars her take on Mando Saenz’s “When I Come Around,” but the issues are with Liddell’s mixing of the band, and thankfully not Womack’s vocal.

That being said, The Way I’m Livin’ is worth the six-year wait. The majority of the tracks are excellent and Womack is true to form as always. With Sugar Hill Records firmly behind her now, I just hope we don’t have to wait as long for a follow-up.

Concert Review: Sara Evans and Kiley Evans at the South Shore Music Circus

September 10, 2014

IMG_3885Sara Evans is an incredible vocalist. That at least was evident when she took the stage August 29 at the South Shore Music Circus in Cohasset, MA. Evans turned in one brilliant performance after another, wrapping her comforting twang around a majority of her most recognizable singles.

She opened the show with “Born To Fly” before treating the audience to a brisk set of her career during the new millennium. This fantastic overview ranged from “Perfect” and “I Keep Looking” to “Real Fine Place To Start” and “As If” with ease. She loaded the set with uptempo tunes, bringing out lesser faire like “Coalmine” and enjoying the audience’s eruption during “Suds In The Bucket,” which followed a brief synopsis of her upbringing on the Missouri farm; a life with three older brothers and four younger sisters.

In the beginning Evans stuck with the music, pausing after a generous strand of songs before engaging the audience. While I normally enjoy banter, Evans has a way of coming off slightly disingenuous, like a performer fulfilling a job, and not a singer giving a whole-hearted performance. This is just Evans’ way; a fact that hasn’t changed in the three years since I last saw her live (and wrote a concert review of her show).