Archive for November, 2018

Album Review: David Lee Murphy — ‘No Zip Code’

November 28, 2018

David Lee Murphy

No Zip Code

* *

Mid-1990s hitmaker David Lee Murphy has finally shifted his attention back to his own music after a decade and a half focused on writing major hits for the likes of Kenny Chesney and Thompson Square. He produced No Zip Code, his first album since 2004, alongside Chesney and Buddy Cannon.

To ensure his comeback at radio, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright,” a duet with Chesney, was issued as the album’s lead single. The track’s breezy escapism was cotton candy to radio programmers, who helped push the song to #1. I quite like it, although it is light, and a bit too processed. It won the pair Musical Event of the Year at the recent CMA Awards, giving Murphy his first nomination and win. They were also due to perform the song on the telecast, but a death in the family caused Chesney to have to miss the ceremony.

The album’s second single “I Won’t Be Sorry” is classic Murphy, recalling hits like “Every Time I Get Around You.” Unsurprisingly, the song is dressed for the modern era, with a blaze of electric guitars blending together to create a wall of noise that distracts from the defiant lyric.

“Way Gone” is a step in the right direction, taking the listener back to the days when the female protagonist in a song was more than an object of desire. In this case, she’s on the run, leaving her no-good man in a cloud of dust. The driving arrangement, while hideous, does give the track an adrenaline rush in keeping with the overall theme.

The title track is a pleasant ode to life so far out in the country the spot isn’t detectable on a map. The story has its appeal, but the overall mix leaves much to be desired. The cranked up loudness, do to compression of natural dynamics, gives the track an overall loudness that is unforgivable and unnecessary. But I do like the story and feel the song would benefit greatly from a softer arrangement.

When I was looking over the tracklist in preparation for writing this review, “As The Crow Flies” jumped out at me. Murphy co-wrote the song with Dean Dillon, Jamey Johnson, and Phil O’Donnell, and with that pedigree, it had better rise above the rest of the album. I’m sad to say, it doesn’t. The lyric, about a guy determined to follow his woman wherever she goes, is pedestrian and the overall mixing ensures the only thing the listener will focus on is the noise level of the song.

“Winnebago,” which Murphy wrote solo, is a left-over bro-country relic with all the usual tropes. “Haywire,” “Get Go,” and “That’s Alright” are just more heavily compressed uptempo rockers. “Voice of Reason” is much better, with a pleasing melody, that could’ve benefited greatly from a softer more acoustic arrangement. “Waylon and Willie (and a Bottle of Jack)” isn’t as good as its title suggests, unfortunately.

I’ve been a fan of Murphy’s since the beginning, so I was expecting great things from No Zip Code. Sure, I figured a number of the tracks would make concessions for modern commercial country, but I wasn’t expecting the whole album to have been ruined by cranked up loudness and compressed dynamics. There are some listenable songs throughout, but mostly this album is a throw-away missed opportunity. Murphy, and his longtime fans, deserve better than what’s presented here.

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Single Review: Garth Brooks — ‘Stronger Than Me’

November 26, 2018

Garth Brooks

“Stronger Than Me”

* * 1/2

I have a confession to make. I’ve been falling for Garth Brooks’ marketing schemes for more than 20 years now. I’ve been smarter about avoiding his wicked games in recent years, but I have my share of his box sets and first addition albums with alternate covers in my expansive music collection. I also own the Chris Gaines album, mostly out of curiosity, which says way too much about my musical gullibility.

Brooks’ most recent marketing ploy occurred two weeks ago when he strong-armed the Country Music Association into letting him play what was then an unnamed new song he had recently recorded in tribute to Trisha Yearwood, live on the show. Neither Yearwood nor the audience had heard the song prior to the telecast.

As the story goes, Brooks approached the CMA with his idea for the performance. The producers turned him down, saying a ballad just wasn’t going to work for them the year. Unaccustomed to being told no, he did whatever he had to do to secure the slot.

I just wanted to hear the song and was honestly upset with the CMA for turning him away. I hate, more than anything, when producers and image consultants control what we see on screen. It’s become far more transparent in recent years on various awards shows.

I don’t believe the CMA corroborated his story, so who knows if it’s accurate, or just another ploy in his plan to drum up pre-buzz for this new song. It doesn’t matter at the end of the day if the song itself is worth the hassle to be given such visible exposure. When all is said and done, a quality song is always worth celebrating.

“Stronger Than Me,” which was composed by Matt Rossi and Bobby Terry specifically for Brooks, depicts a man who is awestruck that his woman is always there for him when he needs her:

She always says that I’m the rock that she leans on

But it’s so hard to believe

Cause she is always there when I start losing faith, going crazy

She saves me

And every now and then she just wants me to hold her

But that don’t mean she’s weak

The way she’s unafraid to let her feelings show just means she’s stronger than me

 

She lifts the weight of this whole world off of my shoulders

With nothing but the touch of her hand

And every day and I wake up and she tells me that she loves me

I feel more like a man

I know I always thought I had to have the answer

Be her strength and take the lead

But when it comes to everything that really matters

She’s stronger than me

I really like how Rossi and Terry build up the woman in the relationship to be more than the spouse or girlfriend. The man actually recognizes her worth and admits his own flaws, all characteristics I can stand behind.

I just can’t forgive the execution. This idea that the guy is “saved” or “feels more like a man” simply because of his woman irks me. Those feelings and revelations have to come from within, not as a by-product of a romantic relationship. What happens if the relationship ends? What happens if she’s not there anymore to build him up? He’s defining his well-being based on the relationship instead of standing on his own two feet. He needs to know he can be okay without her, too, a lesson he clearly never learns:

I’d give her anything in life that’s mine to give her

Till the last breath that I breathe

And if I have a choice I pray God takes me first

Because she’s stronger than me

Sonically, the piano-centric arrangement is tasteful, but I don’t hear any ounce of passion in the finished record at all. The mixing is muffled and sounds like they recorded the song into a mobile phone or similar device. Brooks doesn’t display his usual emotion or sincerity vocally, two characteristics that drew me to his music in the first place.

“Stronger Than Me” is very similar to the formula he perfected on Fresh Horses, but comes off like a half-hearted attempt at regaining the glory of that album. “She’s Every Woman” this is not, and that’s a damn shame.

To listen to “Stronger Than Me” click here

Single Review: Brad Paisley — ‘Bucked Off”

November 21, 2018

Brad Paisley

“Bucked Off”

* * * 1/2

Prior to the 52nd annual CMA Awards telecast last week, it was heavily buzzed about that co-host Brad Paisley was going to sing a new song, his first from a new album, of which he’s only recorded 3-5 songs so far. One review I read even heralded the song as a return to his traditional country roots, and let’s face it, Paisley has become so irrelevant in recent years, it’s about the only move he could make that would actually make sense.

“Bucked Off” starts out innocently enough. Paisley is on a bar stool having a conversation with his woman, who is clearly ending their relationship. He likens himself to a cowboy on a bull, about to be thrown off. So you don’t mistake his situation, he sets the mood:

And George Strait’s on the jukebox in the corner

Singing about cowboys riding away

Name-checking Strait and his #5 hit from 1985 is totally appropriate in this instance. Then he goes on, laying the rodeo/cowboy imagery on thick:

You can go to Houston, Vegas or San Antone

And watch a bull rider hit the dirt

Or head down to this bar for a little cover charge

You can watch me get thrown by her

George Strait’s on the jukebox again

Says if I leave now I can still make Cheyenne

By the time Strait came around for a second time, I knew exactly what was going on. “Bucked Off” isn’t just another song in Paisley’s catalog. It’s a dedicated tribute to Strait. This jukebox reference, which in any other song would’ve gone to a different country singer, is forced and cutesy. Paisley doubles down on the bridge:

I think about those nights in Marina Del Rey

As this beautiful cowgirl slips away

But pain only lasts so long

And when you get bucked off you get back on

Going into his CMA performance, I was expecting what I thought to be true — Paisley was releasing a honky-tonk song to country radio, in pure form, not the faux honky-tonk Garth Brooks tried to pull over our eyes with “All Day Long.” Sadly, this isn’t the case.

But I will give Paisley credit where it’s due. “Bucked Off” is the most traditional country song released to radio since the leaves turned colors and began to fall from the trees. There is a full dose of steel and fiddle very audible in the mix. It has good bones, a catchy melody, and a somewhat engaging story. Paisley also deserves a tremendous amount of praise for not selling out like Keith Urban and using “Bucked Off” as a desperate attempt at relevancy.

He just takes the Strait thing too far (even the lettering and font of his name on the cover art is a nod back to when Strait portrayed Dusty Chandler in Pure Country). The right way to honor a country legend isn’t to sample that artists’ classic melodies throughout, nor is it right to drown those melodies and traditional instruments in a haze of guitars, no matter how well they’re played. He made similar mistakes on the trepid “Old Alabama.”

My issue here is that Paisley knows better. He proved that seventeen years ago when he took “Wrapped Around” to #2, as the second single from Part II. It showed how Strait influenced him, while correctly moving the genre forward into the new Millennium. It’s a pipe dream to think he would go back there, but I can always hold out hope, no matter how thin a sliver it might be at this point.

 

Album Review: Pistol Annies — ‘Interstate Gospel’

November 19, 2018

Pistol Annies

Interstate Gospel

* * * *

The most pleasant surprise for me this decade has been the emergence of Pistol Annies as a creative force in modern country music. My admiration for the artistic sensibilities of Miranda Lambert has been well-documented, but I’ve come to acquire a deeper appreciation for Ashley Monroe, and a new affection for Angaleena Presley.

The trio got the ball rolling on their third album, Interstate Gospel, at the beginning of this year when Lambert sent Monroe and Presley a verse and chorus to a song she was working on. Within 20 minutes they had each sent back a verse. That song, “When I Was His Wife,” is a blistering waltz from the heightened perspective of a woman post-divorce:

He’d never cheat, he’d never lie

He’ll love me forever ’til the day that we die

He’ll never take me for granted I

Said that too when I was his wife

 

God, he looks handsome in the bright morning light

His smile can light up your world for a while

His love is enough to keep me satisfied

I said that too when I was his wife

 

He’s funny as hell, hot as July

He’s strong when I’m weak, sweet when I cry

I’ll always be the apple of his eye

I said that too when I was his wife

The keen sense of awareness they tapped into on “When I Was His Wife” permeates throughout the record. Presley takes the lead on “This Too Shall Pass,” a not-so-delicate ballad about being trapped in a dead-end relationship. The true cost of staying in that relationship, the subject of the gorgeous “Leavers Lullaby,” finds Monroe at a moment of clarity:

When did I get this crazy?

When did I get so mean?

Living wild and exhausted

Paying what it cost to feel so free

 

Run along, little daddy, take the dog and the house and dang me

It ain’t worth the time that it’s gonna take to change me

It’s as deep as the holler and clear as the water that stains me

I want whatever it is I ain’t gettin’ from you

 

I know you need me to need you

I tried to teach you to be tough

There’d be no such thing as leaving

If just loving somebody was enough

“Best Years of My Life,” the purest moment on the record and one of the strongest mainstream country songs released this year, happens when you realize just what it takes to get you through the day:

I picked a good day for a recreational Percocet

I’ve got an itch to just get high

I’m in the middle of the worst of it

These are the best years of my life

 

I’ve got the hankering for intellectual emptiness

I’ve got the need to ease my mind

I’ll watch some re-runs on the TV set

These are the best years of my life

 

I’m gonna mix a drink and try to drown this worthlessness

Call mom and tell her I’m alright

Well he don’t love me but he ain’t gone yet

These are the best years of my life

“Masterpiece” finds a couple on the brink, questioning the possibility of undoing what to the rest of the world seems so perfect. The song, which Lambert said needed to be written, celebrates the darker side of being “that couple:”

Baby, we were just a masterpiece

Up there on the wall for all to see

We were body and soul, we were talked about

Once you’ve been framed you can’t get out

 

Who’s brave enough to take it down?

Who’s fool enough to lose the crown?

We’re just another thing they’ll all forget about

They’ll be standing around laughin’

Like nothing ever happened

All these moments of clarity reach their apex on “Got My Name Changed Back,” which has never made reclaiming your personal identity sound more fun. It has some clever wordplay, a nice dose of dobro, and a melody that’s catchy as hell. “Milkman” is melodically softer than its lyric, which finds a daughter putting her mother on blast for judging her personal choices:

If mama would’ve loved the milkman

Maybe she wouldn’t judge me

If she’d’ve had a ride in his white van

Up and down Baker Street

On a Monday with her hair down and hand about to slide between his knees

But mama never did love nothin’ but daddy and me

 

If mama would’ve smoked her a cigarette

Maybe she wouldn’t judge me

If she’d’ve done more than the dishes

Untied them apron strings

She’d be sittin’ in her sundress on the back porch mixing whiskey and sweet tea

Mama never did think twice about feelin’ this free

 

Mama never liked to pick wildflowers

Drinkin’ on a Sunday was a sin

She might’ve made it past the water tower

If she’d’ve loved the milkman

“Sugar Daddy” is about reclaiming your power by knowing and getting exactly what you want. “Stop Drop and Roll One” is unapologetically defiant, with the hard edge of pure country rock. “Cheyenne” finds Lambert enviously singing about a very flawed woman:

She lives for the nightlife and trashy tattoos

She loves country music and broken-in boots

Nobody can blame her for the chip on her shoulder

She finds plenty of pool-table cowboys to hold her

 

Her daddy says she was destined for sadness

And her grandmama Lily’s to blame for the madness

The only forever she knew ended tragic

So she’ll fall the night while the neon light flashes

 

If I could trade love like Cheyenne

If I could be just as cold as the beer in her hand

If I could move men and mountains with a wink and a grin

Oh, if I could treat love like Cheyenne

Another of the album’s shining moments, the title track, celebrates all those signs we see along the highways and backroads, not billboards, but those ones on the lawns of churches and the like that often display inspirational messages. “Interstate Gospel” isn’t just a great title for a classic country shuffle, but it lyrically ties the whole record together:

These church signs, they light up these roads that I roam

They’re leading me closer, they’re calling me home

The further I get, the further I go

This interstate gospel is saving my soul

This interstate gospel is saving my soul

Interstate Gospel, as far as mainstream country albums go, saved my soul, too. “Got My Named Changed Back” is lyrically thin with all the repetition and the “la-la-la” and “oh-oh-ohs” throughout are disconcerting. But overall this is a great album and well worth the five-year wait.

 

Single Review: Tenille Towns — ‘Somebody’s Daughter’

November 12, 2018

Tenille Townes

“Somebody’s Daughter”

* * *

The newest acquisition to Nashville’s storied Columbia label, which rebranded as Columbia Nashville in 2007 after it was purchased by Sony Music, is Tenille Townes, a 24-year-old country singer hailing from Grande Prairie, Alberta, Canada.

Over the summer, I had the honor of attending a private concert by Townes atop a prestigious vineyard in Napa Valley, CA. She was the featured entertainment for night one of a two-night wine auction I’ve been fortunate to attend for the past three years. She sang acoustic, with just a guitar, giving the audience a perfect sense of both her voice and her personality.

She opened the show with what has become her debut American single, “Somebody’s Daughter,” which went for adds at country radio just after Labor Day. As she explained at the event, the song tells the story of a homeless girl she spotted on the side of the road:

I drive home the same way

Two left turns off the interstate

And she’s always standing

At the stoplight on 18th Street

She could be a Sarah

She could be an Emily

An Olivia, maybe a Cassidy

With the shaky hands

On the cardboard sign

And she’s looking at me

 

Bet she was somebody’s best friend laughing

Back when she was somebody’s sister

Counting change at the lemonade stand

Probably somebody’s high school first kiss

Dancing in a gym where the kids all talk about someday plans

Now this light’ll turn green and I’ll hand her a couple dollars

And I’ll wonder if she got lost or they forgot her

She’s somebody’s daughter

Somebody’s daughter

Somebody’s daughter

Townes co-wrote the song with Barry Dean and Luke Laird, two of the better songwriters in Nashville at the moment. Laird is not without his critics, but he has won Lori McKenna’s seal-of-approval, and the songs they’ve collaborated on together have been fantastic. He’s also turned in above-average work with both Eric Church and Miranda Lambert. Dean has also worked with McKenna, penning some great songs.

I really like the story, especially the way the three of them crafted it, with utmost sincerity. The lyric cleverly jumps out at the listener, with nice turns-of-phrase, and the melody commands attention. “Somebody’s Daughter” is It’s hardly revelatory or destined to become a classic, but it is a great modern mainstream country record. It’s a cut above typical and actually has something to say.

Problem is, for the most part, the listener cannot extract any of that. “Somebody’s Daughter” was put through the Nashville machine in order to maximize its chances at airplay. Jay Joyce’s production drowns the song in unnecessary noise that hinders Townes’ ability to showcase her voice, or the lyric, properly. I can’t fault Columbia Nashville for concentrating on their bottom line, as that’s all label executives care about anyways, but they’re doing Townes a disservice here. I don’t dislike Joyce when he’s working with Church, but he almost always fails every other artist he produces. They, more often than not, deserve better than his best inclinations.

There are some great bones here, and I wish Columbia Nashville had sought fit to pair her with Lambert’s production team, Frank Liddell and Glenn Worf. They would’ve known how to make this a great record overall, much like they did with Lambert on “Heart Like Mine.”

“Somebody’s Daughter,” in this state, is a missed opportunity. Townes has talent, and a great voice, but you’d hardly know it since it isn’t being properly showcased here. Joyce has produced a record that is too loud and too processed. It’s too bad.