Archive for the ‘Country Music’ Category

Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘The Bird & The Rifle’

July 22, 2016

Lori McKenna

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The Bid & The Rifle

* * * *

The Bird & The Rifle comes on the heels of Lori McKenna finally achieving the level of songwriting success she’s so richly deserved since Faith Hill plucked her from obscurity in 2005. This record, her tenth, positions her at the next level – the masterful Dave Cobb produced it.

She’ll likely always be known more for songwriting cuts by other artists, which is a shame, since she’s a powerful artist in her own right. I’ll always be a bit biased, as McKenna is a local in my neck of the woods here in Massachusetts.

McKenna smartly included her own version of “Humble & Kind” among these ten tracks, which will hopefully draw some attention to the album. Given her local status I first heard the song when Little Big Town invited her on stage at the South Shore Music Circus in 2014. She also sang on Almost Famous, the local music show on my radio station 95.9 WATD-FM, long before Tim McGraw released it on Damn Country Music. Her version of “Humble & Kind,” which she wrote to impart wisdom to her children, is gorgeous and far more homespun than the one McGraw brought to #1.

The album, as one would expect, does go beyond that song. While she doesn’t treat us to “Girl Crush,” thank goodness, she does give us nine more original numbers. The album kicks of with the self-aware “Wreck You,” which Heidi Newfield recorded on What Am I Waiting For in 2008. The song, co-written with Felix McTeigue, details a shift in McKenna’s most important relationship:

I don’t know how to pull you back

I don’t know how to pull you close

All I know is how to wreck you

****

Somethin between us changed

I’m not sure if it’s you or me

But lately all I do seems to wreck you

McKenna also solely wrote a number of the album’s tracks. “We Were Cool” is nostalgia at its finest, reliving in brilliant detail, carefree times with great friends. Pessimism grips “Giving Up On Your Hometown,” a critical view of change in the place you grew up. “If Whiskey Were A Woman” is the perfect bookend to “Wreck You,” a darker take on a concept conceived by Highway 101 twenty-nine years ago. McKenna imagines, through a killer vocal, how much more sinister the bottle would be as a relationship partner than her, for her husband.

The Love Junkies, masterminds behind “Girl Crush,” reunite for a couple of tracks on The Bird & The Rifle. “Always Want You,” a lush waltz, deals with sameness and the idea that no matter what happens in this world, she’ll always want her man. Mid-tempo rocker “All These Things” was co-written by two-thirds of the trio (McKenna & Liz Rose) and while I love the melody, it offers little lyrically beyond a laundry list of different signifiers.

The morning after never sounded so beautifully regretful as it does on “Halfway Home,” a co-write with Barry Dean and easily one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Old Men Young Women” is brilliant commentary on the phenomenon of third wives that are often years their husband’s junior. A Modern Family rerun, in which Claire and Hailey in which the pair consider companion tattoos, inspired the title track. McKenna co-wrote the lovely ballad with Caitlyn Smith and Troy Verges.

The most apparent takeaway from The Bird & The Rifle is how little McKenna has changed in the face of momentous success. She clearly has a solid sense of self, which undoubtedly continues to serve her well. While the album does feature songs stronger than others, it’s still one of the year’s top releases and not to be missed. McKenna’s pen and Cobb’s production make for a fruitful marriage I hope continues in the years to come.

Album Review: Sara Watkins – ‘Young In All The Wrong Ways’

July 14, 2016

Sara Watkins

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Young In All The Wrong Ways

* * * * *

Since the release of her eponymous solo debut in 2009, Sara Watkins has been embarking on an artistic journey towards finding her own voice as a singer and songwriter. She populated her first two albums with outstanding cuts by others, all the while honing her personal craft. Her output has been as rich as it is interesting, but it’s child’s play compared to Young In All The Wrong Ways, where she finally shed her inhibitions, picked up her pen and wrote the entirety of the album herself.

The difference is clear, from the strums of the blazing electric guitar on the opening title track. We’re hearing Watkins emerge as a woman for the first time, one who isn’t scared to embrace the messy and lay it all on the line. There’s a newfound defiance as she sings desperately about needing to turn the page. The aggressive backdrop provides the perfect emotional balance as she bleeds the frustration she’s kept bottled up inside.

She’s equally as punchy on “Move Me,” which I lovingly reviewed back in April. The bite in her vocal, paired brilliantly with the barn-thumping arrangement, reveals an urgency that drives the restlessness in her soul. Watkins’ agitation turns to regret on “Without A Word,” in which she gorgeously displays her stirring unease with lush precision.

Confrontation with an ex sets the stage for bluegrass romp “One Last Time,” in which she reveals he’s merely in love with the idea of her. “Say So” is introspection at its finest, a moment where Watkins looks inward to reveal the only one holding her back is herself.

The exploration continues on “The Truth Won’t Set Us Free,” a delicious slice of classic country with a modern twist, which finds Watkins fully aware that we take ourselves with us wherever we go. She takes a step back on “Invisible,” a prequel of sorts, in which she is searching for the very truth she’ll not be able to escape.

“The Love That Got Away,” one of Watkins’ finest vocals ever on record, is a spellbinding delicate mediation on voyeurism of examining life from the prospective of others. Her innate restlessness, once again, takes center stage:

All the people passing by

I wonder how they live their lives

And think of one outside of mine

I imagine and I envy all of their discoveries

Their simple, plain complexities

I’ve often taken issue with her songwriting – her songs often rely too heavily on repetition – but that gives way here to beautiful bouts of poetry, especially on “Like New Years Day” and “Tenderhearted,” two more highlights. Young In All The Wrong Ways is Watkins’ masterpiece, a searing self-exploration in which she emerges as the fully formed artist (thanks in part to friend and producer Gabe Wicher, who is also a member of Punch Brothers) her previous solo releases only hinted at.

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘A Whole Lot More To Me’

June 30, 2016

Craig Morgan

CraigMorgan-AWholeLotMoretoMe

A Whole Lot More To Me

* * *

For his seventh album, A Whole Lot More To Me, Craig Morgan wanted to craft a record that broke down genre stereotypes and cast him in a new light. It’s his first album of original material in four years as well as his second album for Black River.

The first single, “When I’m Gone” was released back in September and peaked at #48. Written by Justin Ebach and Steven Dale Jones is an optimistic banjo-driven uptempo about wanting to be remembered as someone who lived life to the fullest.

The second single, released in May and yet to chart, is the power ballad “I’ll Be Home Soon” written by Ebach, Jones and John King. The lyric is typical of modern country love songs, but Morgan brings an emotional gravitas that elevates the song to just above generic.

Morgan had a hand in co-writing five of the album’s twelve tracks. “Living On The Memories” is a bombastic power ballad he collaborated on with Scott Stepakoff and Josh Osborne. Mike Rogers joined him for the title track, where he goes out of his way to debunk his country boy image with an interesting laundry list of illustrations emoted by a vocal that could’ve been toned down a few notches. “I’m That Country” walks everything back by devolving into Morgan’s typical style. “Remind Me Why I’m Crazy” is an excellent ballad about lost love with a cluttered treatment that intrudes on my overall enjoyment. Morgan’s final co-write, “I Can’t Wait to Stay,” is nothing more than a song about remaining in the town where your family has generational roots.

It feels as if a prerequisite of any modern day country album is having a song co-written by Shane McAnally. His contribution, a co-write with Eric Paslay and Dylan Altman is “Country Side of Heaven,” which is actually a great song. The overall track would’ve been better served with an acoustic arrangement, which would’ve brought fourth the interesting lyric a lot more.

“All Cried Out” is a bombastic power ballad ruined by atrocious wall-of-sound production that causes Morgan to over sing. “Nowhere Without You,” co-written by Michal McDonald and John Goodwin, is much better although I found the piano based production rather bland. Will Hoge and Gordie Sampson teamed with Altman on “Who Would It Be,” a name-check song about the legends you would spend time with if you could.

The final cut, “Hearts I Leave Behind,” features Christian Rock singer Mac Powell. The song was originally recorded by Pete Scobell Band Featuring Wynonna Judd, which I reviewed last year. It’s far and away the crowning achievement of A Whole Lot More To Me and a perfect song for Morgan.

The marketing materials for A Whole Lot More To Me describe the album as ‘sexy,’ which I most certainly would not. There is hardly anything here in that vein, unlike Dierks Bentley’s Black, which makes it an odd descriptor. Morgan does sing at full power, which showcases his range but unintentionally sound like Blake Shelton circa 2008. The album is bombastic and unremarkable on the whole, but I give Morgan credit for giving into mainstream pressures without selling his soul. A Whole Lot More To Me is nowhere near the upper echelon of albums for 2016, but it is far from the scrap heap. He could’ve done better, but it’s clear he is giving his all.

Album Review: David Trull – ‘Coin Toss’

June 27, 2016

David Trull

album

Coin Toss

* * * *

David Trull composed the songs for Coin Toss, his debut album, while hiking the Camino de Santiago in France and Spain. Trull, a St. Louis native, roots his music in the blues, for which he has a deep affection.

Trull also has an affinity for lyric-focused songs with lush unintuitive melodies, a style that defines the sonic fabric of Coin Toss. The album opens strong with “Dark Magic,” a meditation on the loss of innocence set to the gentle strums of an acoustic guitar laced with ethereal ribbons of steel. He takes a sinister view of our existence on “Beautiful World,” which examines the fragility of life with refreshing candor.

The main guiding force of Coin Toss is Trull’s excellent explorations of connection, both physical and literal. He uses a trifecta of songs to trace the trajectory of a relationship, from confliction (“Montague and Capulet”) to bliss (“When You’re Around”) and ultimately annoyance (“Too Much”). Trull does an excellent job – the small town imagery in the lyric of “When You’re Around” is fantastic – of letting us grasp each distinct feeling, which allows each song to stand on its own through a unique flavor profile.

Even stronger is the plucky “Apple of My Eye,” which uses straightforward country to detail a story about a love long gone, but not forgotten. “Welcome Home” extends the relationship theme to a sense of place with the hope that you’ll always have somewhere to go back to. He imagines it in the form of a heartwarming celebratory embrace from the hometown that has proudly watched as you’ve lived, grown and found your way in the world.

“Old Town” is about reminiscence shared between friends in a locale that no one else may know about but is always real to you. “Another Day,” a biting look at the passage of time, is easily the strongest of these songs and my favorite track on the whole album.

The thought-provoking “Passing Phase” packs an inimitable view on life into a deceptively unassuming package. Trull uses the lyric to observe that our individual journeys on Earth are a series of stages, with one leading into the next. Seemingly without knowing it, he hit upon the essence of our existence – it’s not each stage that marks our travels, but the knowing when one must end for another to begin.

The exceptional Coin Toss introduces David Trull as a bright young talent on the independent music scene. He draws you in with his natural approachability, quietly commanding your attention with his perfectly crafted lyrical melodies. I highly recommend picking up a copy.

For more information on David Trull:

www.davidtrull.com
www.twitter.com/davidtrulltunes
www.instagram.com/davidtrull

 

Dixie Chicks Live: long time gone, but back once again

June 22, 2016

imageThe balance skewed Taking The Long Way-heavy (although “Easy Silence, complete with a lyrical video, and the unexpected and rarely performed “Silent House” were fabulous), which allowed banjos, fiddles and dobros to act as accents opposed to centerpieces for the majority of the evening. But this being a Dixie Chicks show, they honored their past with fiery renditions of “Sin Wagon,” “Wide Open Spaces,” “Some Days You Gotta Dance,” “Mississippi” and “Not Ready To Make Nice.” Lush renditions of “Cowboy Take Me Away” and “Landslide” were also excellent, while the latter had a beautiful backdrop containing reflective images of the Chicks’ heads.

The rock theme was matched by the black and white set, minimal yet powerful, which hit you in the face with lights and sound as Dixie Chicks took the stage for the one-two punch of “The Long Way Around” and “Lubbock or Leave It.” They added significant muscle to the uptempos from Home, giving “Truth No. 2” and “Long Time Gone” a charge of energy unmatched by their humble acoustic beginnings.

The show is broken into two separate sections at the conclusion of show highlight “Goodbye Earl,” and is bridged by a black-and-white car chase in which the ladies race to the sounds of Motörhead’s “Ace of Spades.” They returned with the night’s strongest segment, an acoustic set that hinted at their beginnings (“Traveling Shoulder” and “White Trash Wedding”) while nicely showing where they could go with a cover of Beyoncé’s “Daddy’s Lessons,” from her recently released Lemonade. (They excluded their brilliant reading of Patty Griffin’s “Don’t Let Me Die In Florida,” for obvious reasons). They concluded this portion with an instrumental they concocted that had Maines banging a single drum framed in bluegrass beats.

FullSizeRenderThey skewed the presidential race jib-jab style on “Ready To Run,” my favorite moment of the whole show, which ended with red, white and blue confetti festively blanketing the audience. The eluded to Donald Trump just twice more; giving him devil horns during “Goodbye Earl” and when Maines said she’d protect a bug that had flown on stage by ‘building a wall’ around it.

It actually wasn’t Trump, but the recently deceased Prince that dominated the evening. They set the stage for the evening with him singing “Let’s Go Crazy” (after a video about wrongly incrassated inmates, Dixie Chicks trivia questions and a random selections of Maines’ always colorful tweets) and treated the crowd to a stunning cover of “Nothing Compares 2 U” that brought fourth unforeseen colors in Maines’ voice soaked in a backdrop of his giant purple symbol. They ended the evening with Ben Harper’s “Better Way,” which they dedicated to the Pulse Nightclub victims in Orlando.

This Mansfield, MA stop on their tour was my fourth time seeing Dixie Chicks live. I saw them open for George Strait in 1999 and headline their own Top of The World (2003) and Accidents and Accusations (2006) tours. I was supposed to see them open for Eagles in 2010 at Gillette Stadium, but an unforeseen engagement got in the way. Each show has been dramatically different from the last, providing its own distinct flavors and textures.

While I’ll likely always regard their 2003 outing as their finest, this show wasn’t without considerable charms. The Chicks haven’t lost an ounce of the spunk they’ve cultivated over the past twenty years. They may have been pushing a bit too hard – the show was much louder than it needed to be – but the true essence of Dixie Chicks came through wonderfully. They’ve only gotten better, which is a testament to their incredible prowess. Ten years was a long time, but it was certainly worth the agonizing wait.

Album Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Big Day In A Small Town’

June 9, 2016

Brandy Clark

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Big Day In A Small Town

* * * 1/2

In recording 12 Stories Brandy Clark said she made a concept record about a small-town woman and her journey through our world. The finished product didn’t completely fulfill that vision (the song sequence was changed), but it did introduce us to a compelling and complex heroine framed with sonic touches that made 12 Stories an album that respected the past in order to create the future.

Big Day In A Small Town ultimately builds upon its predecessor by giving our heroine a backbone formed on the foundation of experience woven by Clark’s eye for detailing the emotional complexities of everyday life with razor-sharp precision. Our main character reached this authoritative state (elevated with an eclectic sonic backdrop spearheaded by Jay Joyce) by having lived and come out the other side with a clear picture of how she wants to move forward with her life. Her circumstances will never be without turmoil, but for her to live as her authentic self means she has to embrace who she is at her messiest while attempting to establish some type of order to her state of affairs.

To fully understand her newly enlightened state, we need to fill the gaps in her back-story. Those details come courtesy of the brilliant “Homecoming Queen,” in which she finds herself at twenty-eight realizing she’s holding onto a superficial falsity that is as empty as the dead-end town she calls home:

Too bad love ain’t a local parade

In your uncle’s Corvette on a Saturday

With all the little girls waiting on you to wave

When you’re 17

You don’t know

That you won’t always be

Homecoming queen

It’s worth reiterating that our heroine isn’t a single construct but a composite sketch of women everywhere. She’s the one-time “Homecoming Queen” as much as she’s the mother with “Three Kids No Husband.” Both scenarios find her living out the reality of her situation including the latter, a co-write with Lori McKenna that beautifully details the laundry list of different people our heroine has become to keep her family running smoothly.

Her backbone manifests as a take-no-prisoners frankness that unapologetically stings any man who crosses her path. This change in her attitude is best exemplified by the subtle twist in “You Can Come Over,” a lush slice of piano pop that finds the man able to visit but not allowed inside. Cyclone-wrapped “Girl Next Door” shoves the man to the curb, instructing him to look to the neighbor for his idea of the perfect woman.

That feistiness is even more fully formed on “Daughter,” an outstanding takedown in which the woman wants karma to bite him in the ass by his own offspring. The track is modern day Loretta Lynn at her finest, down to a 1960s inspired arrangement and bold lyric that pushes even Lynn’s stretchiest envelope.

Through it all she still has weaknesses, and they take the form of the deliciously banjo-drenched “Love Can Go To Hell.” Once she realizes what it’s like to be alone, that life might not be all she imagined when she kicked him to the curb. The up-tempo number (my favorite amongst the eleven tracks) is the album’s most commercial, but its infectiousness is more Dixie Chicks than Bon Jovi.

Clark travels even further into classic country on the wonderful “Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin,’” the proof that through it all morality still wins. As much as playing the good girl makes her miserable, our heroine can’t help but draw a line she won’t cross.

By the end of Big Day In A Small Town, our heroine isn’t any better or worse off than she was three years ago. Clark closes the album on a sober note, with the slow-burning ballad “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” a striking look at life in the wake of a father’s death. It’s the album’s sole break in the story and one of its most vivid tracks.

It would be easy to compare Big Day In A Small Town to 12 Stories, but to do so would be unfair to the distinctive characteristics that make each album uniquely their own. If Clark set out to prove anything it’s that she didn’t have to sacrifice her unique individuality while working with a producer very much the antithesis of Dave Brainard. Joyce’s choices do overwhelm a couple of songs, but he mostly stays out of Clark’s way, letting her narratives take center stage and command our complete and undivided attention.

Album Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘Playing with Fire’

June 2, 2016

Jennifer Nettles

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Playing With Fire

* * *

Our first taste of Playing with Fire came a year ago when Jennifer Nettles debuted the dobro-driven “Sugar.” The depth-defying track displays Nettles at her most cunning, wrapping a stern message to the country music industry in a deceptively easy-to-swallow package:

Don’t You Go a Changin’

Cause They Only Like You One Way

Oh But This Girl You See

Is Only Pieces of Me

And I’m More Than Just A Toppin’

“Unlove You,” which I reviewed unfavorably back in January, is a classic example of the Jennifer Nettles the industry has shaped over these past eleven years. Those moldings actually work in the song’s favor, a track I must confess I’ve changed my tune on. After repeated listenings, I’ve come to hear the striking vulnerability in the lyric, which Nettles conveys in spades through her vocal performance.

“Unlove You,” more than anything, is the bridge from which we journey from the Jennifer Nettles of old to a newfound risk taker with bold ambitions. She’s out for blood, literally playing with fire, fearless and confident. Nettles co-wrote the majority of the album with Brandy Clark, her tour mate for the past two years. They collaborated on seven of the album’s twelve tracks.

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Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Black’

May 24, 2016

Dierks Bentley

dierks-bentley-black-album-cover

Black

* * *

Dierks Bentley describes his eighth album Black as “a relationship album that covers the ups and downs of the journey and ends with some self-realization and evolvement.” The title comes from his wife’s maiden name, although the themes of the record are universal and not specifically about her.

I’ve already said my piece about the album’s vapid first single, the out-of-character “Somewhere On A Beach.” The song is awful, but the video’s farcical nature has eased my fears that this song is supposed to be taken seriously.

Bentley has followed with a unique marketing strategy that successfully sets the mood for the album. He’s released four black-and-white music videos connected by the story of a woman juggling two lovers. The visualization gives context to Black while simultaneously giving fans a taste of the record. He began with “I’ll Be The Moon,” an excellent duet with newcomer Maren Morris. Bentley has always championed up-and-coming female artists, and this is a perfect showcase for her contemporary stylings that allows her (and him) to show maturity.

The bombastic “What The Hell Did I Say,” came next. The rockish uptempo number, about a 3 a.m. drunk dial doesn’t fall into familiar troupes, which is a refreshing change of pace. “Pick Up” is even more modern, and unlike its predecessor, it’s nothing more than what you’d expect – a guy with a pickup truck and a phone desperate for time with his girl.

The final number in the video series is the title track, which Bentley chose to open the album and set the mood for the project as a whole. It’s a very sexy slice of pop/rock that has no resemblance to country music whatsoever. I will give slight credit to Bentley, who is wonderfully committed to helping advance the ambiance of the song through his vocal.

“Freedom” is atmospheric rock, an anthem for a life free of constrictions. “Roses and Time Machine,” with its hip-hop beat and deliberate phrasing, is likely to be the album’s most alienating number. Bentley doesn’t do himself any favors with the immature lyric or grating melody. The sonic nature of “Mardi Gras” is even worse, with Trombone Shorty’s contributions making the song damn near unlistenable. He mostly gets the lyric right on “All The Way To Me,” but fails to keep the arrangement tastefully uncluttered.

Bentley does succeed lyrically with the blistering “Light It Up,” a track that could easily be written for his wife. It’s a number about his woman’s ability to turn around his attitude with the little things in life. “Why Do I Feel” is the sense of balance on Black, a modern ballad that retains a bit the old-school Bentley we’ve come to admire all these years. I hate the repetition of the word ‘girl’ throughout, the song doesn’t need it at all, but in 2016 it’s all but unfortunately required.

“Different for Girls,” on the surface, isn’t a great song. But once it gets to the chorus, I like how Bentley turns convention on its head and makes it a breakup song detailing the differences in how a woman responds to the situation opposed to a guy. Elle King, of “Exs and O’s” fame provides a somewhat weak vocal that lacks the punch she brings to her own work.

The smartest aspect of Bentley’s video series is how it positions him as the narrator of Black and not the guy in these songs. In that sense he hasn’t lost his integrity as an artist. That doesn’t excuse the fact that Black is the most polarizing album he’s released to date, with hardly any reminders of his bluegrass-loving traditionalist side coming through. He’s forged ahead with a modern country album aimed at taking his career to the next level. Black is a serious push to get Bentley in awards contention, especially in Male Vocalist races. I cannot blame the strategy, nor do I blame him for it.

I do actively hate how the album is littered with references to modern technology, including cell phones and text messages. I understand it’s all a part of our modern world but I’m just not ready to have it bleed into my music in this heavy an extent. Black is just a bit too modern for my tastes but I’m also not embarrassed by it either. There’s too much by way of sex, but I didn’t feel it was handled in a grotesque manner. Bentley is still the adult in a world of overgrown boys.

Concert Review: Nancy Beaudette & The Kelly Girls in Framingham, Massachusetts

May 1, 2016
The Kelly Girls (L-R: Christine Hatch, Nancy Beaudette, Aisling Keating and Theresa Gerene) perform at Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, MA

The Kelly Girls (L-R: Christine Hatch, Nancy Beaudette, Aisling Keating and Theresa Gerene) perform at Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, MA

As our world becomes increasingly more frivolous, it’s harder and harder to find cultural experiences that truly awaken the soul. I was witness to a gem recently, when Nancy Beaudette and The Kelly Girls performed at The Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, Massachusetts.

I’ve been a fan of Beaudette’s music for a few years now but I’d yet to see her live until this April 23 concert. I had a feeling the show would be special; her latest album South Branch Road is exquisite, but I didn’t know how far it would exceed my expectations.

She opened solo, taking to the stage backed solely by the trusty six-string strung across her shoulder. Beaudette began wistfully with “Starlight” and closed merrily with “’Till The Tomatoes Ripen,” which had ample audience participation.

Beaudette shared many stories along the way, from her time growing up in Cornwall, Ontario to her distinctly separate relationships with her parents. She’s the middle of five kids, and not afraid to admit she was the rebellious one. These autobiographical anecdotes were perfect fodder to pair with songs like “South Branch Road,” a nostalgic ode to her childhood home. She livened up the room with the jaunty “Build It Up,” about a fire suffered by her great-grandmother who, incredibly, had fifteen children.

My favorite moment in her set wasn’t a song, but a tale about her annual writer’s retreats, trips that have taken her across continents. This past January brought her to Bali, where she connected with children in a small village through a love of music. They didn’t have the resources for everyone to have an instrument, so Beaudette made sure they all received a guitar before her departure back to the states.

The cultural immersion kicked into high gear when The Kelly Girls took the stage in the second half. The four-piece Celtic band, of which Beaudette is a part along with Christine Hatch, Aisling Keating and Theresa Gerene, performed songs that traversed centuries, generations and even ancestry.

Their set was richly layered with historical significance and a captivating approachability. They opened strong, with their tight harmonies giving way to infectious fiddle-drenched instrumentation. They ran through traditional and newly penned Irish tunes along with accents of folk and a touch of country. The set was distinctly diverse, with Keating displaying her angelic soprano and Gerene firing off verses at breakneck speed. Hatch sang lead on two of the evening’s most charming numbers, the folksy “Charlie On The M.T.A.” and the Western classic “I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart.” Their yodels were impeccably distinct signatures of their personalities, which added unique texture to the more than ninety-year-old standard.

Nancy Beaudette performs at Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, MA on April 23, 2016.

Nancy Beaudette performs at Amazing Things Arts Center in Framingham, MA on April 23, 2016.

The ballads were just as robust as the uptempo numbers, striking in their simplicity. I adored their take on Beaudette’s “The Company of Stones,” which is rooted in the ancestral homeland where the Beaudette family first settled in Canada. I loved Keating’s accents of flute, an instrument I can’t say I hear live all that often.

As if the music wasn’t enough, they brought a human element to the evening that aided in personal connection. The Kelly Girls gave away prizes during their set and Beaudette singled out my mom, who went to High School with her ‘Build It Up’ co-writer Marc Rossi. They even greeted the crowd (which consisted of friends and family, including Hatch’s mom) before and after the show, which just doesn’t happen anymore no matter how localized the artist may be.

I came away having witnessed a unique bond between friends making music simply out of passion for the art. The Kelly Girls, the epitome of a tightly in synch ensemble, left me in the best possible place – wanting more and more. If you ever get a chance to see them live, hopefully accompanied with a Beaudette solo set, I’m sure you’ll come away feeling exactly as I did that evening. Make it a point to seek out a performance; I know for sure you won’t regret it.

Album Review: Eric Church – ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

March 16, 2016

Eric Church

Misunderstood

Mr. Misunderstood

* * * *

There’s a quote from Marty Stuart that says the most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is play actual country music. I’d go on to add that the second most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is to record and release an album of your own volition on a major label without any executives getting in your way.

For his fifth album, the spellbinding Mr. Misunderstood, Eric Church was able to accomplish that second feat. In a handwritten letter published upon the album’s surprise release last November, he relayed a touching story about finding inspiration through a guitar his son had named late last summer and the music that poured out of it as a result. In a brisk 30 days, Church had recorded the ten tracks that would comprise the strongest mainstream country album of the decade thus far.

Mr. Misunderstood triumphs on the strength of Church’s willingness to mature as an artist and songwriter. He’s letting the music speak for itself, forgoing egotistical pretense, and highlighting Jay Joyce’s strength at elevating lyrical compositions without bombarding the audience with needless noise.

Nowhere is the pair more masterful then on “Knives of New Orleans,” the album’s blistering centerpiece. Written by Church, Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman, the song tells the tale of a fugitive wanted for a brutal murder he mercilessly committed without remorse:

Yeah, tonight, every man with a TV

Is seeing a man with my clothes and my face

In the last thirty minutes

I’ve gone from a person of interest

To a full-blown manhunt underway

 

I did what I did

I have no regrets

When you cross the line

You get what you get

 

Tonight, a bleeding memory

Is tomorrow’s guilty vein

Your auburn hair on a faraway sea wall

Screams across the Pontchartrain

I’m haunted by headlights

And a crescent city breeze

One wrong turn on Bourbon

Cuts like the knives of New Orleans

It’s far and away my favorite song on the project. I also equally adore Church’s solo-penned “Holdin’ My Own,” an unapologetic acoustic masterclass in introspection. In just under four minutes, he brilliantly traces his career trajectory and stands firm against anyone who wants a piece of him:

Always been a fighter scrapper and a clawer

Used up some luck in lawyers

Like huck from tom sawyer jumped on my raft

And shoved off chasing my dreams

Reeling in big fishes

I had some hits a few big misses

I gave em hell and got a few stitches

And these days I show off my scars

 

With one arm around my baby

And one arm around my boys

A heart that’s still pretty crazy

And a head that hates the noise

If the world comes knockin

Tell em I’m not home

I’m finally holdin my own

 

I’ve burned up the fast lane

Dodging drugs and divorce

If I’m proof of anything

God sure loves troubadour

Sometimes late at night

I miss the smoke and neon

Sneak out of bed grab a six string

Play what’s still turnin me on

Like that tight old time rock n roll

Or that right down home country gold

I miss blues and soul

But not more than I miss being home

Also outstanding is “Three Year Old,” a tender ballad Church wrote about his son Boone with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell. It follows “Holdin’ My Own” in showing a more mellow side of Church, the man behind the sunglasses and electric guitars. The trio relies on personal observances to frame the story:

Use every crayon color that you’ve got

A fishing pole sinks faster than a tackle box

Nothing turns a day around like licking a mixing bowl

I learned that from a three year old

 

A garbage can is a damn good spot to hide truck keys

Why go inside when you can go behind a tree?

Walking barefoot through the mud will knock the rust right off your soul

I learned that from a three year old

 

You can be a cowboy on the moon

Dig to China with a spoon

Talk to Jesus on the phone

Say “I love you” all day long

And when you’re wrong, you should just say so

I learned that from a three year old

Church balances the self-examination with some primed-for-radio hits. “Round Here Buzz” it’s about the self-destruction after she’s left the hometown he’s hell-bent on staying in. He’s also without his woman on “Record Year,” but instead of turning to alcohol he’s drowned his sorrows in a ‘three-foot stack of vinyl.’

On his last tour, Church won raves for including artistic-driven Roots and Americana artists as his opening acts. The mutual admiration continues with Rhiannon Giddens joining Church for powerful background vocals on “Kill A Word,” a slice of social commentary about destroying words that aren’t good for our society. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a full-fledged duet with Susan Tedeschi that mixes blues and rock. It’s not my favorite track on the album, but it is very good.

I also have mixed emotions about “Mistress Named Music,” which Church also wrote with Beathard. The vibe of the track is very good, Church gives a powerful vocal performance and the use of organ wonderfully sets the tone for the moody ballad. I just don’t seem to go back to it that often. The same goes for “Chattanooga Lucy,” which I flat out don’t get. It’s easily the most esoteric track on the whole album. I don’t hate the title track, either, but it has grown repetitive on repeated listenings. That said, I fully stand behind the song’s message.

The only thing truly misunderstood about Church is the whole point of his musical journey over the past ten years. He hasn’t won any favors with country purists nor has he gone out of his way to please those put off by his egotism. But he has built a career on real music that bucks every trend. He stands out because he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Church isn’t dumb nor is he a maniac. At the end of the day he’s an authentic artist releasing his own music. He’s getting massive airplay for songs that shouldn’t even be breaking through at all. He’s the last real country singer standing in mainstream Nashville. He may have an edge, but he can stand tall with the best of them. Mr. Misunderstood proves that in spades.

Predictions for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards

February 11, 2016

logoCountry music fans have much to look forward to come Grammy Night, which is coming up on Monday this year. Carrie Underwood and Sam Hunt will croon their duet “Heartbreat.” Chris Stapleton is slated to join Bonnie Raitt and others in a tribute to B.B. King. Luke Bryan is joining a slew of pop artists in honoring Lionel Richie, who is the Grammys MusiCares Person of the Year. Little Big Town will take the stage as well.

Best of all is the last minute announcement is that Eagles will honor Glenn Frey along with their good friend Jackson Browne. The rest of the show promises to be equally as jammed packed, with just about every major artist under the sun slated to take the stage.

Here are my predictions for the country nominees, plus categories that feature artists marketed within the country or American Roots genres. Please leave a comment and let me know who you think/hope will walk away with Grammy Gold.

Best Country Solo Performance

Little-Toy-GunsThis is a very solid group of nominees. Perennial favorite Carrie Underwood has lost this category only once – when Taylor Swift’s “White Horse” bested “Just A Dream.” Cam, surprisingly, is the weak link. Her hit version of “Burning House” is nowhere near as good as Emily Ann Roberts’ from The Voice last season. Who would’ve imagined a contestant on a reality singing competition would find the hidden nuance in a song its own singer couldn’t?

Should Win: “Chances Are” – Lee Ann Womack has yet to win a single award for her seventh album, a transitional record that showcased the artistic sensibilities she’s only hinted at until now. This is the album’s finest track, possibly the greatest performance she’s given to date. Real country music deserves to slay the competition.

Will Win: “Little Toy Guns” – It’s a fool’s game to bet against Carrie Underwood. Not only does she stand the strongest chance of winning, she’s the only one powerful enough to stop Chris Stapleton in his tracks. He will walk away a Grammy winner before the night it through, it just won’t be for the title track of his debut album.

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

81T8Z9H91mL._SL1500_This is a hodgepodge of nominees, with some forgettable performances along side some treasures.

Should Win: “If I Needed You” – Joey + Rory have the sentimental vote and a serge in name recognition since Joey’s cancer turned terminal last fall. They deserve to walk away the winner on what is their first and will likely be their only Grammy nomination.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – There’s no stopping the Little Big Town behemoth, which is also in the running for the overall Song of the Year award. No one else is going to win this award.

Best Country Song

lovejunkies-660x400This is a heavyweight category, with a few extremely worthy nominees. I would love to see an upset here, but like the category above, there’s a very clear winner.

Should Win: “Hold My Hand” – Brandy Clark stole the show with her simple performance of this tune on last year’s telecast. The story of a woman determined to hold on to her man in the face of his ex is an instant classic. Clark deserves the prize for a tune she wrote and smartly kept for herself.

Will Win: “Girl Crush” – Should they lose Song of the Year, this will be their consolation prize. Should they win both, this will serve as icing on the cake.

travellerBest Country Album

Of all the country categories, this is easily the weakest. Little Big Town’s album was a dud, Kacey Musgraves’ was charming yet very uneven and Sam Hunt is…Same Hunt. The Grammys do deserve credit though – this is the first time in her career that Ashley Monroe has been nominated for an award for her own music.

Should Win: Traveller – I’m not fully on the Chris Stapleton bandwagon, but he does have the strongest album in this bunch. 

Will Win: Traveller – This is one, if not the only place, the Chris Stapleton bandwagon won’t be stopped.

A few more Predictions:

Jason-Isbell-24-frames-single-500x500Best American Roots Performance: I’d like to see Punch Brothers take this and finally win a Grammy of their own.

Best American Roots Song: Jason Isbell and “24 Frames.” The genius in the lyric is criminally underrated.

Best American Roots Album: I liked the upbeat nature of Punch Brothers Who’s Feeling Young Now better than the somber tone of The Phosphorescent Blues. They still deserve it, but I’d love to see Jason Isbell take this one. He hasn’t been recognized enough for his brilliant work.

Best Bluegrass Album: I haven’t a clue, but it would be interesting if the Steeldrivers take home an award the same night as their former lead singer Chris Stapleton does the same. If not, I’d go with Dale Ann Bradley.

Album of the Year: A strong category from which I’ve heard cases for each nominee to win. Stapleton could take it, as couldUnknown Alabama Shakes. But I’m going to go with Taylor Swift’s 1989, easily the most important pop album of the eligibility period.

Song of the Year: Taylor Swift has never won an award for her pop work with Max Martin. I expect that to change this year, when “Blank Space” deservedly takes this category. “Girl Crush” has a shot, but “Blank Space” is far more developed and clever.

Best New Artist: I’ll take a shot in the dark and choose Courtney Barnett. I just don’t see how this award could go to Sam Hunt. But stranger things have happened.

Top 10 Singles of 2015

December 16, 2015

What does it say about me that the highest charting single on my list took eight months to peak at #9? I’ve continued to broaden my tastes as I’ve aged while continuing to closely follow the artists I’ve always admired. There was some stunning music this year and these ten selections are only the tip of the iceberg. Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

cdca72c7ec5625f0f1f483fb_440x44010. I’m With Her – ‘Crossing Muddy Waters’

I’m With Her (Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz, and Aoife O’Donovan) is one of the more unique collaborations of the year and their cover of the fifteen year old John Hiatt song is the amuse-bouche to a main course full-length album that may come within the next few years. This track is too faithful to be a doozy but it more than proves they have the potential to be an artistic force should they go down that road. I really hope they do.

Trisha-Yearwood-I-remember-You9. Trisha Yearwood – ‘I Remember You’

Every Trisha Yearwood album has its own personality and PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit lies on the more Adult Contemporary side of the country spectrum. “I Remember You,” a tribute to her mom, is far from the most dynamic ballad she’s ever recorded. But it shows off a tender side of her voice we’ve never heard before. Yearwood is a vocal chameleon able to adapt to any style and work within any parameters. She’s still a master after twenty-five years. I cannot wait to see what she has in store for us next.

Traveller8. Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

“Tennessee Whiskey,” the early 1980s George Jones hit he sang on the CMA Awards, is the standout showcase for his gifts as a vocalist. “Traveller,” showcases his talents as a songwriter. This autobiographical mid-tempo ballad casts Stapleton as a vagabond who knows his path but cannot see his destination. Like any great artist he’s spent his time paying his dues and working the system until he could shine in his own light. He may always be a “Traveller,” but I bet he has a much clearer picture of where he’s headed now that the world finally knows his name.

Screen-Shot-2015-05-05-at-10.39.03-AM7. Jason Isbell – ’24 Frames’

“24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with a chorus that compares God to an architect and declares, “he’s something like a pipe bomb ready to blow.”

Thile & PB6. Punch Brothers – ‘I Blew It Off’

The coolest track from The Phosphorescent Blues is this plucky slice of bluegrass-pop, a style Chris Thile and the boys have perfected over the course of their four albums. They returned after a three-year hiatus to find Thile with a ‘bad case of twenty-first century stress,’ which is about the only thing he can’t shrug off. He’s furious yet knows he isn’t alone, declaring by the end that modern technology is having an effect on everyone, not just him. “I Blew It Off” is as simple as any song could be saying a lot in a very tiny space. That’s often where the most valuable riches can be found.

Fly5. Maddie & Tae – ‘Fly’

Not since “Cowboy Take Me Away” has a fiddle driven pop-country ballad reached these artistic heights. At a moment when Maddie & Tae had to show the world what else they could do, they blew away the competition with their exquisite harmonies and pitch perfect lyric. They aren’t the Dixie Chicks by any means, but they’re pretty darn close.


Dierks-Bentley-Riser-Album-Art-CountryMusicIsLove4. Dierks Bentley – ‘Riser’

Even in the face of commercial pressures, Dierks Bentley sticks to his convictions. “Riser” is a sweeping tale of overcoming odds and one of his finest singles. I have no clue why he hasn’t risen (no pun intended) to the upper echelon of country greats at a time when he’s bucking trends and releasing worthy songs to country radio. He’s one of the best we have and deserves to be compensated as such.

2647969113. Jana Kramer – ‘I Got The Boy’

Leave it to Jamie Lynn Spears, of all people, to write the strongest hook of the year: ‘I got the boy, you got the man.’ Leave it to Jana Kramer to sell the pain and conviction felt by the scorned ex who is seeing the boy she loved transformed into the man she always wanted him to be.

Eric-Church-Like-a-Wrecking-Ball2. Eric Church – ‘Like A Wrecking Ball’

When Eric Church brought the idea for this song to co-writer Casey Beathard he balked. At the time, Miley Cyrus was hitting big with her similarly titled smash. Church, who cannot be under estimated, knew exactly what he was doing. This tour de force is the most original song about making love to hit any radio format in recent memory. It’s also the coolest one-off artistic statement since Dwight Yoakam hit with “Nothing” twenty years ago. Eric Church is the strongest male country singer in the mainstream right now.

lee-ann-womack_9601. Lee Ann Womack – ‘Chances Are’

What needs to be said about Lee Ann Womack wrapping her exquisite voice around a pure country weeper? She came into her own on The Way I’m Livin’ and finally found the space to create the music in her soul. The album’s third single is a shining example of the perfect song matched with the only artist who has enough nuance to drive it home. Lee Ann Womack is simply one of the greatest female country singers ever to walk the earth.

EP Review: Yes Dear – ‘Yes Dear’

November 16, 2015

Yes Dear

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Yes Dear

****

Yes Dear is an acoustic trio formed in Nashville, TN whose members each have an impressive back story. Lead Vocalist Joey Boone released his debut album at 16 and spent the better part of the late 1990s working with country songwriters such as Bobby Emmons and Johnny Christopher. Rhythm Guitarist Josh Jackson fronted a namesake rock band and garnered critical acclaim from The Nashville Scene Critics Poll and Rolling Stone Magazine. Multi- Instrumentalist Locke Sandahl was the lead guitarist in Jackson’s band.

The band released their eponymous debut album last December. It’s an eight-song collection bursting with tight-knit harmonies framed by Steve Gibson’s warm and inviting production.

The EP is at its strongest when the band blends their harmonies with ear pleasing organic production. Two fine examples bookend the album, perfectly showcasing the band’s tight synchronicity. They open with the surprisingly sunny “Baby Don’t Go,” about a man pleading with his woman not to leave. They close the album even stronger, with the exquisite bluegrass romp “Train Bound for Anywhere.” The track, my favorite on the album, marries together a winning lyric with Gibson’s crisp mandolin and banjo-drenched production.

“Rusty Old American Dream” is an excellent love song told from the prospective of a very used 1950s car looking for a new home. The lyric is a magical slice of songwriting gold, framed in a plucky arrangement that perf9sOWnm1QiK1KzMJcvrd6VIulskzFsHTI1JkEaqLYhDkectly captures the hopefulness within the story.

“If You Weren’t Here Today” rests on a sarcastic response to a nagging girlfriend. The concept is nothing new but they cleverly (and subtly) approach it in a three-act story that paints a clear picture of the guy’s growing distain.

“Rosa” shows a more contemporary side of the band. The track employs more of a pop leaning sound with a fuller production that leaves ample room for the lyric, about a girl wanting to spread her wings, to remain the central focus.

The chorus is slightly underdeveloped on the funky “Na Na,” which has a very appealing groove and more of the band’s signature harmonies. The story, which becomes topical in the second verse, is also very strong.

Among the eight tracks on Yes Dear are two outstanding ballads. “Somebody Like You,” about the joys of being in a healthy relationship, would easily come off saccharine or cutesy in lesser hands. They avoid it with their palpable sincerity, which gives the story a genuine feel. “Things That Little Girls Do,” in which a father is observing the innocent behaviors of his daughter, is a stunning showcase of authentic emotion.

Yes Dear is the perfect introduction to a fresh talent on the independent country music scene. I highly recommend checking them out and look forward to whatever they plan to do musically in the years to come.

___________________

For more information on Yes Dear: Website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter

To purchase their EP, check them out on iTunes

Christa Gniadek needs your help

November 12, 2015

image

Christa Gniadek is one of the most talented country singers based here in The South Shore of Massachusetts. I was introduced to her by a friend who knew I would love her music as much as he does. He was right. After listening to her album, Leaving Boston, it was my pleasure to review it.

She now needs our help to get her new album, Hard Summer, off the ground. Gniadek has turned to Kickstarter because, as she says, “my absolute favorite thing to do – all I want to do – is share my music with the people.” This is our chance to insure she fulfills her mission.

I know first hand how appreciative artists are when their projects are funded. In April, I met Suzy Bogguss at her show at TCAN in Natick, MA. She was very thankful that I’d helped to fund her Merle Haggard tribute album, Lucky. Seeing how appreciative she was for the support made my contribution feel even more important.

Even if you’re never able to meet Gniadek in person, I can attest that this album is everything to her. To have the ability to record it, would be a dream come true.

Let’s do our part to make Hard Summer the reality it deserves to be. The November 17 deadline is fast approaching. Let’s get this done! I have zero doubts that Hard Summer will be every bit as wonderful as Leaving Boston.

To help fund the album: http://kck.st/1kRbvs6

For more info on Christa Gniadek: http://bit.ly/1HLAhPC

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Damn Country Music’

November 12, 2015

Tim McGraw

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Damn Country Music

**

Tim McGraw’s fourteenth album, Damn Country Music, is his third release for Big Machine Records in as many years. Like the majority of his work, McGraw co-produced the album with Byron Gallimore.

Lead single “Top of the World” currently sits just inside the top ten. The sweeping ballad is a pop confection, complete with beats surrounding McGraw’s smooth voice. He’s done better, but he’s also given us far worse.

McGraw previewed the title track in lead up to the album’s release. “Damn Country Music” is a chase your dreams in the music industry song, set to a somewhat cluttered unmistakably country arrangement. I really like the message that no matter what, life always circles back to the same thing:

It’s the hum of wheels on a blacktop

The strum of strings on a flat top

It’ll take you, break you

Damn sure, make you

Do things; you never thought you’d be doing

Damn country music

Rodney Clawson scored three co-writes on the album. “Losin’ You” is a progressive laundry list pop ballad about all the places he keeps losing the woman who already broke up with him. “Want You Back” is more of the same, but this time he’s begging his girl to come back home. “California” is the most ‘country’ of the three, but the arrangement is so progressive, you’d never know it. The track features Big & Rich, but their ‘contributions’ are basically inaudible.

“Here Tonight,” the other duet, features his eldest daughter eighteen-year-old Gracie, the front woman of alt-rock band Tingo. It’s very good, although McGraw and Gallimore should’ve stripped away the wailing guitars to reveal the organic charm underneath.

I first heard “Humble and Kind” when Little Big Town brought Lori McKenna on stage to sing it at a local concert last year (McKenna lives in my area and has even appeared on the radio station where I assist with the morning news show). The song is excellent and I like what McGraw has done with it. I only wish the key could’ve been moved up so McGraw could sing in a more pleasing place in his voice. As it stands, he doesn’t have the vocal to carry the song.

“How I’ll Always Be” is one of the more charming songs, with a shuffle arrangement echoing “Just To See You Smile.” The latter blows the former out of the water, but at least McGraw gives us one track that tries to retain some hint of country music.

I can hear how “Love Does” would’ve easily fit into an early 2000s context, but the proceedings are ruined by a clubby arrangement and processed vocal that renders McGraw almost unrecognizable. “What You’re Looking For” is just more of the same.

What isn’t more of the same is “Don’t Make Me Feel At Home,” the only track on the album that is unmistakably country music through and through. The arrangement is crap, but the obvious country elements shine through loud and clear. In the late 1990s, this tune about a guy begging to be loved would’ve been clean, sharp and a multi-week chart topper. As it stands right now, the track is just too cluttered.

Damn Country Music, despite its title, is country music by association only. Tim McGraw has made a progressive pop record, and a bad one at that. I’m sick of him showing his gravelly side dressed up with gritty gruff guitars. I’m sick of the processed vocals and watered down vibe he continues to go for. McGraw should’ve been at the CMAs to watch Chris Stapleton execute this style correctly. Let the new guy teach the old guy how its done.

Album Review: Kasey Chambers – ‘Bittersweet’

August 6, 2015

Kasey Chambers

Kasey-Chambers-Bittersweet

Bittersweet

* * * *

Kasey Chambers’ tenth album, which has finally been released in the United States, has quickly become one of my favorite records of the year. Composed on the heels of her divorce from Shane Nicholson, Bittersweet is also her first set of music without her brother Nash at the helm.

Chambers wanted something different this time around and enlisted the aide of Nick DiDia, a rock producer best known for collaborating with Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen. As a result, Bittersweet is a tender collection soaked in Banjo, tasteful piano, and a whole lot of emotion.

At its heart and soul, Bittersweet showcases a woman grappling with the sensations that follow unexpected life turns. On “I Would Do” Chambers beautifully lays out her devotion to her man, vowing to go to the ends of the earth for him – even if the journey leads to heartbreak. The waltzy “House on a Hill” likens her brokenness to the plight of a dilapidated house, spelled out with gorgeous poetry:

And it’s old and it’s worn

And the curtains are torn

And tomorrow they’re tearing it down

And just like a heart

It’s falling apart

It couldn’t stand up

If a hard wind blew

And it’s been through it all

And there’s cracks in the wall

They may as well just

Take me down too

She spells out her pain in the devastating title track, my favorite song on the album. A duet with Bernard Fanning, “Bittersweet” is a masterful reflection by a couple that have grown so far apart they don’t need each other anymore. Chambers relinquishes the lead to Fanning, which gives the track its bite. As a result, her interjections are all the more powerful.

“I’m Alive,” in direct contrast, finds Chambers turning defiant, declaring she’s gone through the fire and come out the other side a stronger woman. Backed by acoustic guitar and harmonica, Chambers adds every ounce of pathos to the lyric she can muster:

And through all the blood and the sweat and the tears

Things ain’t always what they appear

I made it through the hardest fucking year

Rockers like “I’m Alive” are hard to come by on Bittersweet, but they’re also some of the album’s finest moments. I adore lead single “Wheelbarrow,” a collaboration with Ashleigh Dallas. The lyric relies on repetitive phrasing, which allows it to joyfully get under your skin. I’m not usually one for loud arrangements but the mix of blistering rock and back porch picking is perfection. “Hell of a Way To Go” applies similar production techniques to frame Chambers’ request of what should be done with her remains if she dies of a broken heart.

“Stalker” finds Chambers unleashing her inner crazy while “Heaven or Hell” has her warning an egomaniac to come off his high horse. The almightily plays a surprising role on Bittersweet, showing up at the beginning and end of the album. The beautiful “Is God Real” finds Chambers looking for something to believe in. “Christmas Day” is an exquisite holiday tune about Mary and Jesus.

Bittersweet is my favorite album so far this year because Chambers has a way with a lyric that keeps the project from detouring into ‘breakup record’ territory. Her ability to traverse a wide array of emotions, while coming to terms with the changing tides of life, is striking.

Album Review: Christa Gniadek – ‘Leaving Boston’

July 16, 2015

Christa Gniadek

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Leaving Boston

* * * *

For 25-year-old Christa Gniadek, music has always been in her blood. A classically trained pianist she left her Connecticut hometown for Boston. Gniadek studied at Berklee College of Music where she earned a Songwriting Degree.

In her relatively short career, Gniadek first took to the stage at 18; she’s recorded three full-length albums and two EPs. Gniadek teamed with Charles Haynes, best known for his work with Ed Sheeran and Lady Gaga, for her latest release, Leaving Boston. The ballad heavy album is lush in nature, which perfectly compliments Gniadek’s beautifully smoky voice.

A steady melody of guitars and light percussion frames “I Had You,” about a woman ready to dive into a relationship headfirst. I love Gniadek’s clever lyric, which dives into her fearlessness about the potential for heartbreak, and boldly declares, ‘if I lose you, that means I had you.’

Gniadek’s palpable pain is all too real on “No Way Out,” a heartbreaker about a relationship gone sour. She’s at his place, with ‘a wall of sheetrock between your hand and mine’ and so may internal feelings left unsaid. Gniadek ‘s quiet simplicity reveals her hurt, allowing the listener to fully appreciate the magnitude of her circumstances. On “Never Let Me Go” Gniadek is a woman pleading with her man to sober up and realize what he has – a woman committed to his love.

“Love Like Ours” is my favorite type of song, rich with details about the little things in life that comprise the bond between a woman and her man. Their relationship isn’t about fancy indulgences. It’s about the little gestures that mean a whole lot more:

It’s barely eight you made coffee and pancakes

One of the few mornings I’m glad that I’m awake

I take a sip,

Know you left the sugar out

Look up for a kiss, yeah,

This is what it’s about

The beautiful “You” is another love song. Gniadek is torn in two – she wants to live her dreams yet desires to have her man by her side to wake up to each morning. The push and pull is all too real, perfectly detailed in Gniadek’s brutally honest lyric.

She’s ravished on “Nothing Left,” which finds a woman with an empty heart who doesn’t really know exactly what she wants. “Worst Kind of Love” may give some answers, as Gniadek has no idea what she’s done to deserve the treatment she’s experiencing. That treatment is all too clear on jaunty album opener “It’s Not Right,” which has Gniadek confronting her man for not being more explicit with his feelings. It’s my favorite song on the record because of the production, which adds a texture that invited me in from the first note.

Gniadek is a woman on the run in the title track; quickly ripping the Band-Aid off the relationship in order to move on, no matter how much hurt is left in her wake. In the end she leaves for “The Road,” which is where her heart belonged all this time. The intoxicating pull was too much for her to bear and Gniadek had to do what was right for her and follow what is really in her heart.

The journey of this record is fascinating. Gniadek uses Leaving Boston to work through unresolved questions and pain to get the clarity she needed to follow the right path. Her astute songwriting makes these songs come alive. This is not your average singer-songwriter rehashing well-worn themes. Leaving Boston showcases a fully formed woman elevating those themes to another level with honest relatability. You feel exactly what she’s going through, which makes it all the more satisfying to join her on this journey.

At first I wasn’t onboard with the quietness of the album, but it’s what makes Leaving Boston so special. Gniadek forces you to stop and pay attention to every last word. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.

_______________________________

For more information on Christa Gniadek, check out her website.

Leaving Boston is available on iTunes and Noisetrade

You can also ‘Like’ her on Facebook

Album Review: Jason Isbell – ‘Something More Than Free’

July 15, 2015

Jason Isbell

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Something More Than Free

* * * * 1/2

Following up an album as iconic and masterful as Southeastern is not an easy task, even for the smartest of artists. I was very pleasantly surprised when I heard Jason Isbell had readied a follow-up record so quickly but nervous that it wouldn’t live up to the artistic behemoth that proceeded it. After all, how does an artist even begin to build upon the impossible foundation set by the greatest songwriting triumph this decade? Well, he just does it all over again.

Something More Than Free cements Isbell’s status as the best singer-songwriter currently orbiting the country universe. His way with a lyric is unparalleled to his peers, who can’t even come close to bringing as much sensitivity and nuance to the stories they construct. He’s simply a master among armatures.

Lead single “24 Frames” is a 1990s inspired gem that owes more to R.E.M. than Alan Jackson, bringing the same addictive quality (minus the mandolins) that made “Losing My Religion” so intoxicating. “24 Frames” is a fantastic meditation on relationships, cumulating with the chorus:

You thought God was an architect

Now you know
He’s something like a pipe-bomb ready to blow
Everything you’ve built that’s all for show goes up in flames

In twenty-four frames

One of the most poignant aspects of Something More Than Free is the reliance on songs about work with an overarching reflection on life as a whole. Album opener “If It Takes A Lifetime” is the greatest rumination on patience I’ve ever heard. “The Life You Chose” is a take-no-prisoners reality check on personal trajectory, asking, ‘are you living the life you chose? Are you living the life that chose you?’ Isbell’s turns of phrase are impeccable, when the chorus continues by asking, ‘are you taking the grownup dose?

Isbell is at his strongest on the title track, in which he paints a character spending his days enduring hellish extremes who is ‘just lucky to have the work.’ His songwriting genius reveals itself in the sly way he incorporates the lyric’s true meaning, by stating the song’s title only once. That single usage gives the song its powerful twist:

The day will come. I’ll find a reason
Somebody proud to love a man like me
My back is numb and my hands are freezing
but what I’m working for is something more than free

Those who’ve been deeply affected by Andy’s love for his cancer stricken friend in “Elephant” know Isbell is a storyteller in his class of his own. The remarkable “Speed Trap Town” isn’t as by the book, but it finds Isbell embodying the soul of a man as he realizes he needs a quick exit strategy:

And it never did occur to me to leave ’til tonight,
when there’s no one left to ask if I’m alright
I’ll sleep until I’m straight enough to drive, then decide

if there’s anything that can’t be left behind

In “Children of Children” Isbell introduces us to Michael, the son of a teenage mother who becomes a teenager with a child of his own. The heartbreaking twist comes when you realize the song is really about a woman’s worth and sacrifice:

You were riding on your mother’s hip

She was shorter than the corn
and all the years you took from her just by being born

Amidst all the grim realities, Isbell throws us a bone with “Flagship,” a sweet love song about one man’s observances and a simple vow to always find a way to keep the romance alive. He gives us a completely different kind of adoration on “The Band I Loved,” which is presumably about The Drive-By-Truckers. Isbell is trying to justify the circumstances when everything went to hell and how he looks back on it all today.

Like Southeastern before it, Something More Than Free is soaked in gritty reality. Isbell is fearless in the honest way he stays true to the authenticity of every moment he creates. His albums, at least these last two, are drenched in rock elements that perfectly compliment his signature gravel and help create the individual mood of each song. Now that he’s strongly framed the house, I cannot wait to see where he takes us next.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material’

July 13, 2015

Kacey Musgraves

kacey-musgraves-album-pageant-material-2015

Pageant Material

* * *

Despite the prestigious awards and critical acclaim, Kacey Musgraves has spent the better part of the last two years failed by an industry that doesn’t appreciate her unique quirkiness. The Country Music Association marred her performance of “Follow Your Arrow” by bleeping the word ‘joint.’

The Academy of Country Music offered her a slot for a shortened performance on their 2014 telecast, which she refused. Country Radio pulled “Biscuits” before it could gain any momentum. Mercury Nashville held back on “The Trailer Song,” her most fully formed slice of commentary, only to dump it on iTunes as an afterthought.

Fortunately for Musgraves, the songs speak for themselves. Same Trailer Different Park is one of the best mainstream country albums of the decade, showcasing an artist with an original perspective confidently following her own arrow. That arrow has now pointed to Pageant Material, her second major label album.

Like Same Trailer, Luke Laird and Shane McAnally produced Pageant Material, with Brandy Clark and McAnally returning as co-writers. That’s all fine and good, but is Pageant Material the worthy sophomore release it should be? Well, it’s not Same Trailer Different Park.

For all the criticism that both projects are incongruously similar, Pageant Material relies too heavily on observation. I don’t think Musgraves is deliberately trying to duplicate “Merry Go Round” and “Follow Your Arrow,” but the album sure has more than a few songs in that vein.

Pageant Material begins very strong. “High Time” is an excellent backwards country romp featuring handclaps and whistling, which keep it thoroughly modern. “Dime Store Cowgirl” is a strong first person ‘where I’m from’ narrative that cultivates an image without succumbing to cliché or stereotype.

When it debuted in April, I thought “Biscuits” was a contrived second-rate knockoff, but I’ve grown to admire the infectious melody and memorable hook. I also love “Good ‘Ol Boys Club,” which uses a soaking of steel to take the male artists monopolizing Nashville to task. Pageant Material comes alive on “Late For The Party,” easily the best song by a mile. Musgraves’ conversational vocal and the lush production are flawless, giving the track inviting warmth. “Fine” is also excellent, as is the cruelly hidden duet with Willie Nelson.

Problem is the majority of Pageant Material suffers without more “Life of the Party” or “Fine” type moments, which would’ve given the record much need diversity. Instead we’re treated to “Family Is Family” and “Cup of Tea,” and the title track, which come off as cheap imitations that try too hard to live up to her other songs in the same vein. If Musgraves had made smarter choices that relied more on varietal substance, I would’ve enjoyed the album more.

Concert Review: Lee Ann Womack in Brownfield, Maine

July 6, 2015

10418219_10153975043913916_5933730150065047502_nWith her blonde hair resting in curls below her shoulders, Lee Ann Womack strutted onto the stage to the tune of her debut single, “Never Again, Again.” The setting was Stone Mountain Arts Center; a barn located five miles down a rural road in the sticks of Brownfield, Maine.

Womack charmed the packed house; capacity is just 200 people, with a taut set that revisited the past, reverted to the present, and took some satisfying left turns along the way. At forty-eight Womack’s as spry as ever, with one of the clearest sopranos I’ve ever heard.

Earlier in the week she did an interview with The Boston Globe in which she said she only sings her favorite past hits, so as she ticked them off one by one, I had fun guessing what she would and would not sing. Womack ran through the majority of her eponymous debut, stopping short of “The Fool.”

I was quite surprised that she performed “Buckaroo,” which barely qualifies as an essential Womack single, but it sounded incredible in the setting, which is regarded as one of the top ten venues in the country to hear music. Her biggest risk came with “The Bees,” a Call Me Crazy non-single that would only appeal to those who are intimately familiar with that album. Womack also shined on “You’ve Got To Talk To Me,” which has been a favorite of mine going on eighteen years now.

Additional highlights included a sinister reimagining of “Little Past Little Rock” and a toe-tapping “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” one of those hits I fully expected she’d thrown away. Womack stopped in the middle of her set to reflect on her upbringing in church before launching into a breathtaking mandolin soaked reading of “Wayfaring Stranger,” which she performed how she learned it all those years ago.

Her small town childhood crept in again, as slight context before her latest single “Send It On Down.” Womack spent ample time treating us to her masterful The Way I’m Livin’, from renditions of “Don’t Listen To The Wind” and “All Them Saints” to an effortless take on “Chances Are.”

The night’s most enjoyable element was the cheeky introductions Womack gave to her past hits. The band would play some slightly non-descript instrumental bed before playing the recognizable openings of the various songs. This concept provedIMG_1130 fun, especially as a segway from her aching new material to something more sunny and upbeat from her early years.

To that end the night leaned heavily on her most recognizable material, although she threw in a beautiful rendition of her low charting hit “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” which foreshadows the darker elements that threads together her most recent material. Womack even found a way to make her biggest hit, “I Hope You Dance,” work. By stripping the song bare, she ditched the sheen and reduced the song to its simplest form. By focusing squarely on the lyric message, Womack proved there was substance beneath the inspirational hoopla. She closed her main set with “Ashes By Now,” which sounds as good today as it did fifteen years ago.

Throughout the night, Womack referenced her admiration for George Jones, but even I was surprised when she emerged for her encore, asking the audience if they were ready to hear some hardcore country music. She sang a Jones song I’m still unfamiliar with, but it involved drinking in a barroom. Womack closed with her beautiful rendition of the Don Williams classic “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good.”

If you only know Womack from her albums, than you must find a way to see her live. She’s easily one of the most remarkable vocalists I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing in person. Unlike a lot of singers, she not only knows what she has but how to use it. I couldn’t ask for any more from an artist. Well, she could’ve sung “The Fool,” “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” and “Last Call.” But other than that she more than gave us a stellar evening of fine country music in a setting worthy of her authenticity.


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