Archive for May, 2015

Album Review – Shelby Lynne – ‘I Can’t Imagine’

May 27, 2015

Shelby Lynne

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I Can’t Imagine

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For the first time in twenty years Shelby Lynne has recorded an album outside of Southern California, where she first found her artistic voice on I Am Shelby Lynne. The sessions for I Can’t Imagine, her fifth self-produced set, took place at Dockside Studio in Maurice, Louisiana.

The album continues Lynne’s penchant for jazzy acoustic ballads, a signature of her most recent work. The title track, a co-write with Pete Donnelly, was issued as the lead single. An excellent mid-tempo ballad, the track centers on a breakup with a woman friend sympathizing with the man, unable to comprehend what he must be feeling.

Lynne co-wrote half the album, while she authored the other half solo. On the self-penned tracks, Lynne finds herself exploring themes of exploration and self-examination. She desires to find herself within the woman she’s become on “Back Porch, Front Door” while she longs for her place in this world on “Son of a Gun,” which straightforwardly references her mother’s death. “Following You” centers on a flashback to her childhood, where she’s more observant of her father’s habits then she chooses to let on.

She finally breaks on “Paper Van Gogh,” the soaring centerpiece that opens the album with a defiant roar. Lynne leads with the record’s greatest statement, that little in her life is organic and real, a mantra that threads the personal confessions that follow. Rock thumper “Down Here” is the columniation of her five-track odyssey, where she seeks comfort in her relationship to God, the only person who knows who she feels truly knows her.

These tracks are wonderful explorations of Lynne’s broken soul, segmented into different fractions of her shattered spirit. While they transmit a decided lyrical heaviness, she keeps them approachable by giving each moment enough tempo to engage the audience. We hear her pain because prodding arrangements don’t bog us down.

Lynne finds some positivity in “Love Is Strong,” a co-write with Canadian Singer-Songwriter Ron Sexsmith. Even though her vocal may suggest otherwise, she feels newly born; an odd one-off on an album filled with despair. Her other co-write with Sexsmith, “Be In The Now” is the album’s lone anthem, a battle cry to enjoy the present for it isn’t as bad as the darkness that surrounds it.

“Sold The Devil (Sunshine)” is the lone track Lynne co-wrote with Mavericks guitarist Ben Peeler. The song rests on the brilliant metaphor “we sold the devil a dash of sunshine,” one of the greatest ways of describing desperation I’ve ever heard.

“Better,” the other track co-written with Donnelly, is an ambiguous ballad with a beautifully poetic lyric. The protagonist is stronger now that she’s without her man, better off now that he’s long gone.

I Can’t Imagine is as emotional an album as you’re going to find this year, a project that finds Lynne in a strong a voice as she’s ever been. It’s an incredible glimpse into her psyche as she battles the demons that have followed her for most of her life. It’s a journey well worth taking with an artist who gets better and better with each passing album.

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Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Jekyll + Hyde’

May 20, 2015

Zac Brown Band

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Jekyll + Hyde

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Since debuting eight years ago, Zac Brown Band has been a bright light on the increasingly barren landscape of mainstream country music. Ballads “Highway 20 Ride,” “Colder Weather” and “Goodbye In Your Eyes” join rompers “As She’s Walking Away” and “The Wind” as some of the strongest radio singles of the period. I’ve always loved Brown’s affable voice and his instance that fiddle prominently factor into the core of his band’s harmonic sound.

Still, the need for change has always been there. Zac Brown Band is quick to grow complacent, retreading musical ground when they should be pushing to elevate to the next level artistically. Uncaged, for example, beat their island-themed subset into the ground with the ear piercing “Jump Right In.”

Like clockwork, they’ve managed to do it again. Jekyll + Hyde is their widest album yet stylistically, covering everything from EDM and rock to jam band and, yes, more of those island rhythms. In turn, it mixes a hodge-podge of everything with a lot of retreaded ground.

The album opens with the wailing “Beautiful Drug,” which attempts to cross-pollinate by mixing EDM with acoustic country instrumentation. They venture into acid rock on the disastrous second single (it was a #1 on the Billboard Rock Chart) “Heavy Is The Head,” which features an assist from Soundgarden lead vocalist Chris Cornell. They further hone this sound on “Junkyard,” another slice of head pounding acid drivel.

Lead single “Homegrown,” while not a complete misstep, is the worst song they’ve ever sent to country radio. The suffocating production, complete with harmonies lifted from Eagles “The Long Run,” is only compounded by a lyric that’s too rudimentary to be interesting. Brown, Niko Moon, and Al Anderson ingeniously give third single “Loving You Easy” a catchy chorus to distract from the fact the song is nothing more than blandly warmed-over 1970s soft rock, a slower sonic counterpart to “Keep Me In Mind.” The jam band aesthetic continues on groovy love songs “One Day” and “Young and Wild.”

Brown employs a hoard of songwriters, a tradition in modern pop music, to help with two of the album’s tracks. “Wildfire,” which is co-written with Eric Church, follows in the same musical vein as “Homegrown” and feels primed to be a single. “I’ll Be Your Man (Song for a Daughter),” presumably written from Brown’s personal experience (he has four of them), explores a pop-leaning waltzing style complete with staccato beats.

The resurrection of their island-theme signature comes in the form of “Castaway.” A breezy ukulele and steel drum soaked jam that continues the escapism of “Knee Deep,” the song beautifully evokes the intended feeling in a way that feels somewhat fresh yet cheesy at the same time. They go a step further by fully exploring horn-laden Swing on “Mango Tree,” a duet with pop vocalist Sara Bareilles. The upbeat jazzy grove fits Brown like a glove, which surprised even me.

The remainder of the album showcases how Zac Brown Band fares when they revisit what they’ve already done musically, but with fresh eyes. Life affirming “Remedy” preaches love as the answer with ribbons of Celtic influence. Discourse continues on “Tomorrow Never Comes,” a bluegrass romp delivering the same central message as the Garth Brooks classic. “Bittersweet” tells a dark tale about lost love with a melody that recalls, but adds a bit more meat to, their penchant for tracks with a delicate acoustic softness.

The Jason Isbell composition “Dress Blues” is easily the album’s most hyped moment, a rare instance where a mainstream artist uses their platform to elevate the stature an independent singer/songwriter. The proceedings are marred by a production that favors slick over raw, but it doesn’t hinder the overall beauty of the song, which features harmonies by Jewel. It says a lot about the quality of an album when its strongest track comes courtesy of an outside songwriter.