Archive for June, 2015

Album Review: Nancy Beaudette – ‘South Branch Road’

June 23, 2015

Nancy Beaudette

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South Branch Road

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A virtue of the independent music scene is the joy in discovering artists for which the act of creating music is a deeply personal art. Nancy Beaudette, who hails from Cornwall, Ontario, but has made a name for herself in Central Massachusetts, is one such singer-songwriter. With South Branch Road, her eighth release, Beaudette’s homespun tales are the most fully realized of her nearly three-decade career.

The gorgeous title track, where the gentle strums of an acoustic guitar frame Beaudette’s elegant ode to her childhood, is a perfect example:

I fell in love with tar and stone

And a county lined with maple and oak

In sixty-one with three kids in tow

Mom and dad bought a place there and made it home

I spent my summers on a steel blue bike

Weaving shoulder to shoulder like wind in a kite

Dreaming big and reaching high

Riding further and further out on my own

The image of a girl and her bike surfaces again on “Ride On,” a wispy ballad chronicling a daughter’s relationship with her father. The track, co-written by Beaudette, Kerry Chater, and Lynn Gillespie Chater, succeeds on the fact it doesn’t end with the father’s death, like these songs almost always do. The journey of life surfaces again on “Can’t Hold Back,” a mid-tempo ballad co-written with Rick Lang. The track beautifully employs a nature metaphor that Beaudette and Lang keep fresh and exciting with their clever lyric.

Beaudette solely penned the masterfully constructed “Something Tells Me,” the devastating centerpiece of South Branch Road. An unpredictable twist follows a story that sits in an air of mystery until the final verse belts you square in the gut. I haven’t felt this much emotion towards a song in years, probably because the woman in the song and my mom are the same age.

Beaudette clearly isn’t a novice, as she smartly surrounds “Something Tells Me,” the most affecting number on South Branch Road, with joyous moments of levity. These moments are the heart and soul of the record, showcasing Beaudette’s everywoman nature and her ability to draw you in with her aptitude for turning narratives into conversations, as though you were just casually catching up over a cup of coffee.

“’Till The Tomatoes Ripen” takes me back to my childhood and my grandfather’s tradition of planting an insanely large garden of the titular vegetable. I fondly remember the pleasure of going through the rows and picking the red ones by the basketful. Beaudette’s lyric conveys the much simpler notion of planting the garden itself and the contented happiness that comes from watching it grow. The peaceful oceanfront setting in which she places said garden only increases the joy abounding from the proceedings.

The bonds of newly minted friendship take center ice on “Shoot to Score,” a hockey-themed uptempo number that values the importance of dream visualization. Cornwall is a hockey city, so Beaudette is right-at-home name-checking the likes of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. The lyric turns wonderfully personal when Beaudette recounts her own memories with the sport:

I loved to play but I wasn’t great

An’ I showed up with my figure skates

And my first step out onto the ice

And I fell flat on my face

“End of Line” is the purest country song on South Branch Road. Banjo and fiddle abound on a story about a couple, their love of watching trains, and the moment their relationship has to end. The rollicking tune feels almost like a prelude to “Between Your Heart and Mine,” a mournful ballad about a woman, a lost love, and a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. I can’t remember an instance when such a memorable walk was so delightfully clouded in ambiguity.

“Build It Up” teams Beaudette with Marc Rossi, a Nashville-based songwriter who graduated from high school with my parents. The lyric details a farmhouse fire in the early 20th century and the way lives were altered as a result. The slicker production, which recalls Forget About It era Alison Krauss, is perfectly in service to the downbeat but catchy lyric. Opener “Starlight” harkens back to early 1990s Mary Chapin Carpenter with a gloriously bright production and Beaudette’s high energy vocal.

South Branch Road is extraordinarily layered and nuanced. Channeling her inner Don Williams, Beaudette draws you in with her natural simplicity. Her songwriting gets to the heart of the matter by conveying emotion without bogging down the listener with unnecessarily clunky lyrics. She’s a master storyteller, which in turn has informed her ability to craft lyrical compositions that fully utilize this very rare gift.

Beaudette’s relatability, and the personal connections I’ve found within these songs, drew me in to fully appreciate the magic of South Branch Road; a window into her soul. She’s constructed an album from the inside out, using her own life to give the listener a deeply personal tour of her many winds and roads, reflecting on the lessons learned around each curve and bend. Beaudette is already a bright bulb on the independent music scene but the release of South Branch Road demands that light shine even brighter.

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Album Review: Della Mae – ‘Della Mae’

June 11, 2015

Della Mae

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Della Mae

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2015 has already been an exceptional year for releases from roots and Americana based artists. Sets from Rhiannon Giddens, Punch Brothers, Gretchen Peters, Alison Moorer, and Shelby Lynne are some of the year’s strongest; with more standout moments then one can count off hand. The eponymous third album from Della Mae, out last month on Rounder Records, is worthy addition to that hallowed list.

The Boston-bred Della Mae, who formed in 2009, consist of Celia Woodsmith on guitar, Kimber Ludiker on fiddle, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, and Courtney Hartman on guitar and banjo. The foursome shares the vocal duties on the album, which was produced by Jacquire King.

The album is anchored by Woodsmith’s distinctive voice, deep and swampy, like a preacher sent from a higher power to deliver upon us a message we can’t help but want to hear. Her songwriting prospective is just as sharp, beautifully evidenced on five of the album’s very diverse tunes co-written with Hartman.

Nowhere is the power of her voice more evident then on album closer “High Away Gone,” a gospel-tinged number that recalls Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss’ duet of “I’ll Fly Away” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Rude Awakening” blends mandolin, guitar, and fiddle quite sadistically, while serving as a battle cry for eliminating stagnation from one’s tired life. “Can’t Go Back” is a softer ballad featuring gentle acoustic guitar with the thought-provoking hook, “if you never go, you can’t go back again.”

“Shambles” is a stunning folksy kiss-off about a girl carrying on with her life, while her man continues to dig himself into an increasingly deeper hole. “Take One Day” is a sunny banjo-driven change of pace, and one of the best straightforward bluegrass numbers I’ve heard in a long time.

The album’s standout track, “Boston Town,” is the first single. Woodsmith, who penned the track solo, has the guts to create a modern-day workingwoman’s anthem the dives headfirst into wage equality. She beautifully structures the lyric to juxtapose the physical pain of the work with the emotional ruin of disrespect. She drives her message home without hitting us over the head, a fine achievement for anyone tackling a hot-button issue.

Hartman takes the lyrical reins on “For the Sake of My Heart,” a tender ballad about reconnecting with one’s homeland. She also teams up with Sara Siskind for “Long Shadow,” a mid-tempo number beaming with acoustic texture.

To round out the album, the band looked to outside inspirations including covering two tracks previously done by other country artists. They managed to outshine Emmylou Harris with their take on The Low Anthem’s “To Ohio,” which was more grounded then Harris’ wispy 2011 recording. They were less successful on a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.” It wasn’t terrible, but Nanci Griffith proved the song, in her 1997 version, deserves more imagination than they brought.

The album rounds out with Phoebe Hunt and Matt Rollings “Good Blood,” the second true uptempo number on the album, and a vocal showcase for Gardner. Woodsmith has an incredible voice with enough color and nuance to wrap around just about anything and make it her own, but Gardner’s pure twang is just as powerful and a welcomed change of pace.

Della Mae is a very strong album that traverses a wide expanse of ground in a quick thirty-eight minutes. Woodsmith proves she’s not only an incredibly gifted foundation for the group vocally, but she has a sharp pen as well. In a world where there is an embarrassment of riches with regards to banjo, fiddle, and mandolin based groups it’s easy to overlook Della Mae. But to ignore them is to miss out on tight musicianship and four women with unique substantive perspectives.

Shania Twain, The Woman In Me

June 1, 2015

This is the first in an occasional series of reviews spotlight albums celebrating significant anniversaries.

Shania Twain

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The Woman In Me

 February 7, 1995

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After the commercial failure of her eponymous debut, the execs at Mercury Nashville pushed Shania Twain to return to the studio and ready a second album. It was during this period between projects that her legendary affair with Robert John “Mutt” Lange began, with long-range telephone calls cumulating in their first face-to-face meeting at Fan Fair in 1993. The pair would marry at the end of that year.

Treading lightly, Twain returned to Luke Lewis, her label president, with the confession she’d been writing with Lange. Lewis initially balked at the notion of a full-length collaboration, fearful Lange would move Twain too far away from what was considered commercially acceptable at the time. After hearing a demo of their work together, Lewis reluctantly agreed to hire Lange as the album’s producer.

By January 1995, Twain hadn’t had a single at radio since “You Lay A Whole Lot of Love On Me” failed to chart sixteen-months earlier. To introduce her new sound, Twain wanted “Any Man of Mine” to be the lead single from The Woman In Me. Mercury Nashville, much to Twain’s chagrin, went more conservative and released fiddle-heavy “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” instead. The very clever tune, about a woman confronting her husband over his many infidelities, began at radio with a whimper. It wasn’t until The Woman In Me started selling, that radio finally took notice. By April, the track had reached #11.

That same month, the trajectory of Twain’s career, and the sonic direction of country radio, changed forever. “Any Man of Mine,” the most significant radio offering since Randy Travis’ “On The Other Hand” ten years earlier, was unleashed upon the masses. Mixing elements of a backwoods hoedown with brazen signifiers of arena rock, “Any Man of Mine” was unlike anything country radio had ever heard – a fully formed artistic statement that melded genres without sacrificing integrity. It quickly rose to #1.

The title track, a seductive ballad, impacted radio next. It was met with a cooler reception, peaking at #14 despite a gorgeous music video that had Twain gallivanting amongst the Egyptian Pyramids. Her next three singles were all radio smashes, with each hitting #1. “(If You’re Not In It For Love) I’m Outta Here!” and “You Win My Love” were expertly crafted slices of country-rock. “No One Needs To Know” was back-porch acoustic country at its commercial best.

Hoping to finally strike with a ballad, “Home Ain’t Where His Heart Is (Anymore)” was selected next. It may’ve been the worst performing single from The Woman In Me (peaking at #28), but it was also the strongest lyrically and emotionally. With flourishes of steel guitar, Twain takes on the role of a woman reflecting on her husband’s behavior in their disintegrating marriage. They were once in love but bills, babies, and change broke him while she stayed home to keep what was left of their lives afloat. “God Bless The Child,” a minute-and-a-half long a capella prayer that was expanded into a full-length track for its music video was the eighth and final single.

In a format known for the ten songs per album with just three singles formula, releasing eight songs to radio was virtually unprecedented. That left four of the album’s twelve tracks, which were also the most traditionally minded songs on The Woman In Me, as forgotten leftovers. “Is There Life After Love,” “Raining on Our Love,” and “Leaving Is The Only Way Out” mix steel guitar with lush strings and piano. “If It Don’t Take Two” remains one of the purest examples of a song that actually got the line dance craze right with a throwback honky-tonk arrangement that wouldn’t have been out of place just a few years earlier.

In just five years, The Woman In Me sold a staggering twelve million copies in the United States alone. When fans bought the project, they were getting the single greatest example of a formula every female artist who came up in Twain’s wake has spent the last twenty years ruining. The Woman In Me is brilliant because Lange’s deceptive simplicity perfectly showcased Twain’s personality all the while keeping her wild abandonment in check.

Even more astonishingly, you can make out each instrument and aren’t bombarded by noise and distortion. This is how you expertly meld rock, pop, and country together – cleanly and with adequate breathing space. There’s a reason no one, not even Twain herself, has been able to duplicate the magic of The Woman In Me – it cannot be done, even with all the right ingredients. Simply put, The Woman In Me is a record for the ages.