Archive for the ‘Music Reviews’ Category

Album Review: Hayes Carll — ‘What It Is’

February 14, 2019

Hayes Carll

What It Is

* * * * 1/2

One listen to Hayes Carll’s What It Is and it becomes abundantly clear he’s using these twelve songs, his first new music in three years, to express himself fearlessly. The album is a split personality with one parts love, Carll is engaged to Allison Moorer, whom he plans to wed later this year, and one parts social commentary.

Not surprisingly, it’s the latter that wins the fight for dominance, and while it may seem repetitive to hear another artist use their music to vent their frustrations, or as Carll puts it “get off the sidelines,” few execute as uniquely and memorably as he does here.

The first of these songs is the solely written “Times Like These,” an effective rocker about our current political climate and how Carll desires “to do my labor, love my girl and help my neighbor while I keep a little hope in my dreams” which he says is “sure getting hard brother in times like these.” Less successful is the eccentric “Wild Pointy Finger,” which begins strong:

It points at the fever and the accomplishes of man

It points at all the problems it don’t understand

It points at Persians across the sea

It points at anybody who thinks differently than me

If you’re marching to your own drum or kneeling in the news

My wild pointy finger is probably pointing right at you

But dissolves into a bizarre rant weighted down by unwieldily symbolism. He rebounds nicely with the excellent “Fragile Men,” in which he talks directly to those who feel the world is undermining their ideals. Carll turns inward on “If I May Be So Bold,” the record’s thesis statement, where he sings about no longer standing in the shadows:

I’ll make my way if I should be so bold

Bold enough to make a difference

Bold enough to say I care

Bold enough to keep on trying

Even when the wills not there

There’s a whole world out there waiting

Full of stories to be told

And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all

If I may be so bold

“Jesus and Elvis,” the album’s best-known song thanks to Kenny Chesney, who included it on Cosmic Hallelujah in 2017, is one of those compositions. The title originated with co-writer Matraca Berg, but the story of the bar and its patrons, which is rich with the tiniest of details, from the “neon cross and the string of Christmas lights” to the camaraderie between “old friends,” is all Carll’s.

He bridges the gap between the album’s two halves on the gorgeous “American Dream,” where he uses everyday observances (summer sunshine, tumbleweeds, dresses on a clothesline waiting for Saturday night) to paint an idyllic picture of his life in Texas. The romantic side of the album, largely bolstered by his romance with Moorer, also his co-producer and frequent co-writer, finds him as relaxed as Johnny Cash in the presence of June Carter.

Carll is at his most tender on the sparse “I Will Stay,” the album’s masterpiece and the essence of true love, a relationship ballad where he vows to be there for Moorer through the good times and the bad. He goes back in time on “Beautiful Thing,” a shot of bluesy adrenaline that details the combustion he felt in the infancy of their courtship.

Although Moorer co-wrote “None’ya” with Carll, the song his tribute to her, his perspective on the woman he’ll soon call his wife. He shares intimate details of their lives together, like how she painted the ceiling of their front porch turquoise in order to keep out evil spirits because it’s “the way we do it the south,” and captures her essence in all its eccentricities with beauty and sensitivity.

Given the self-doubt he hints at in “I Will Stay,” it’s safe to assume Moorer is the one taking the lead on “Be There,” which paints a less than optimistic view of the couple’s relationship. The banjo-driven title track, in which she provides background vocals, serves as a reminder that “what it was is gone forever, what it could be god only knows, and what it is, is right here in front of me, and I’m not letting go.”

Carll’s very character is at the heart of the cautionary “Things You Don’t Want To Know,” which is directed at Moorer and his fans and warns against asking questions that can lead to uncomfortable truths you might not be ready to hear.

What It Is may be a record of two halves, showcasing distinctly different sides of a fascinating and complicated man, but it works as a cohesive whole thanks to Moorer and co-producer Brad Jones, who infuse the album with an urgency that binds the songs together with a softness and aggression that reveal Carll’s unwavering assurance in his ideals.

What It Is is a journey worth taking from beginning to end, with not a single pit-stop along the way.

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Album Review: The Mavericks — ‘Hey! Merry Christmas!’

December 24, 2018

The Mavericks

Hey! Merry Christmas!

* * * 1/2

What I love about The Mavericks is you always know what to expect from their music. You’re always going to get something radically different than you could even imagine, which has been even more true with their most recent albums. Hey! Merry Christmas! is no exception, and only proves, once again, that Raul Malo can sing anything and everything, regardless of style.

The album opens with a joyous ode to the season, “Christmas Time (Is Coming ‘Round Again),” with follows in the company of “The Most Wonderful Time of The Year” and “Happy Holidays.” The listener is transported to another place and time, in classic Mavericks’ style.

“Santa Does” and “I Have Wanted You for Christmas” are both excellent in their own ways, whether celebrating the omnipresent one in the red suit or tributing a love that has endured through the generations. The album’s first ballad, the beautifully sparse “Christmas For Me (Is You)” is a revelation, with Malo committing to record a spellbinding R&B and jazz style vocal you have to hear to believe.

The R&B and jazz influence continues on “Santa Wants To Take You for a Ride,” a sensual and slinky double entendre that works, despite objectification. The mournful “Christmas Without You” is in more of a traditional Christmas style and finds Malo engulfed in Christmas cheer he can’t enjoy while also mending a broken heart. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” is a cover of the classic, which is well executed, but a bit too bombastic for my ears.

The title track, which appears next, swerves the album out of its detour into the emotional wrought and back into the light. It’s not my favorite song on the album, but it is very, very well done. “One More Christmas” is unremarkable at best, while the closing number “Happy Holiday,” which Andy Williams made famous, has been given the most eccentric treatment I’ve ever heard. The song, which typically exudes brightness and joy, has been stripped bare to reveal an almost suicidal underbelly I can only regard as interesting.

In my time as a Mavericks fan, I’ve come to enjoy their 1990s output more than their more recent stuff. Maybe it’s because I’m a fan of Don Cook’s signature production style or I just like their country stuff better, but I’ve had a difficult time embracing their latest works. But I have to say I really enjoy Hey! Merry Christmas! There are some excellent original tracks on here that add a bit of punch to the holiday music market and make this album well worth checking out if you haven’t heard it yet.

Album Review: Aaron Watson — ‘An Aaron Watson Family Christmas’

December 13, 2018

Aaron Watson

An Aaron Watson Family Christmas

* * * 1/2

Country traditionalist Aaron Watson has been promising his fans a family Christmas album for a while now, and in 2018 he finally got it released. The ten-track album, which features Watson singing with his wife and three children, mixes eight holiday standards with two original songs.

One of those originals, “Lonely Lonestar Christmas” is the only song Watson wrote for the album. The mid-tempo ballad, about a sad sack who is facing Christmas alone, has a surprisingly humorous tone for the subject matter. The fiddle and mandolin prominently featured throughout is a nice touch, too.

The second original, “She Starred At Him All Night” comes from the pen of Drew Womack, who rose to fame with Sons of the Desert in the late 1990s. The song retells the familiar story of Mary and Jesus Christ, with Mary in awe of this miracle boy she created. The track has good bones and a pretty melody. The lyric, which Womack drowns in lazy repetitiveness and Christmas signifiers, leaves much to be desired.

Watson’s take on “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” is charming, with his children (Jake (age 12), Jack (age 10) and Jolee Kate (age 8)) adding a nice assist to keep the song playful and fun. Jolee Kate takes the lead on “Christmas Time Is Here,” a traditional ballad, while her brother Jack joins in for a nice recitation about halfway through. Jake joins his dad for a fun rendition of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.”

Watson’s wife Kimberly joins him on two songs. The first is the oft-covered and recently ridiculed  “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” which has always grated on my nerves. The other, “Jingle Bells,” is an excellent take on the song. Kimberly’s breathy vocal doesn’t work for me on the duet at all, but she adds some nice harmony to the latter.

The family comes together for ‘A Watson Family Greeting’ to close the album. It’s their take on “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” which is elongated by instrumental beds of lovely ribbons of fiddle. Watson does much of the heavy lifting himself, with his kids joining in by the end. It comes complete with a ‘hidden track,’ a recitation by one of his sons.

Watson handles the final two songs solo. “The Christmas Waltz” and “Silent Night” are both excellent and two of the album’s highlights.

Watson describes the album as “Sinatra on the farm,” which fits the album perfectly. He sticks to his wheelhouse wonderfully, resisting the temptation to veer into big band territory. I highly recommend checking this one out, as it has its considerable charm, although I probably won’t be revisiting it much. Don’t get me wrong, I love it for what it is, but the contributions by kids, while cute, don’t really lend themselves to repeated listenings, year-after-year.

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.

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.

Album Review: Mandy Barnett — ‘Strange Conversation’

October 3, 2018

Mandy Barnett

Strange Conversation

* * * 1/2

The last time we heard from Mandy Barnett was 2013, when she released I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson. It’s taken five years for her to follow it up and she does so with an album that finds her exploring uncharted territory in her 22-year career.

As Barnett puts it frankly, Strange Conversation isn’t a country album. She recorded it in Muscle Shoals, and through inspiration from the area’s classic sound, she plays instead under the umbrella and within the sonic textures of modern-day Americana and she’s enlisted drummer Marco Giovino and guitarist Doug Lancio to serve as her producers. The former has worked with Robert Plant and Buddy Miller while the latter has collaborated with John Hiatt and Patty Griffin.

Strange Conversation opens with “More Lovin,’” an excellent cover of the song originally recorded by Mabel John. The groove, created by a nice mixture of upright bass and crashing percussion, gives the song an appealing jazzy groove. She travels back to the 1960s for her R&B and soul-infused version of “It’s All Right (You’re Just In Love),” which originates with the Alabama-based band The Tams.

“Dream Too Real To Hold” jumps ahead to 1997 and came to Barnett via Greg Garing, who among his many contributions, worked with Kenny Vaughn to revitalize Lower Broadway in Nashville some time ago. It’s another excellent song, with nice jazzy undertones. The title track is a pleasant ballad which finds Barnett turning in a sultry vocal performance.

The album continues with “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” originally recorded and released by Sonny & Cher in 1972. Barnett mostly keeps the song within the same vein as the original, retaining Hiatt to sing on it with her. They work fine together and the lyric is good, but I hate the fuzzy and cluttered arrangement, which unnecessarily drowns them out. I know it’s in keeping with how the song was intended when written, but it’s very unappealing to my ears.

Tom Waits originally released “Puttin’ On The Dog” in 2000. The lyric, a sexual innuendo, is slinky and the song is downright obscure. Like the Sonny & Cher cover that preceded it, it’s also not to my taste. “All Night” is pure lounge and torch, as though it comes straight from an old smoky jazz club. It fits perfectly within Barnett’s classic wheelhouse.

Neil Sedaka pitched “My World Keeps Slipping Away” to Barnett directly. She evokes Rosanne Cash, who I could easily hear covering this song, on the sparse ballad, which she knocks out of the park. “The Fool” is not a cover of the Lee Ann Womack classic, but rather a tune written by legendary country and pop singer Lee Hazlewood. The barroom anthem, one of the album’s best tracks, revives Barnett’s classic sound and gives the latter half of the Strange Conversation some much-needed pep and variety. She closes the ten-track album with a cover of Andre Williams’ “Put A Chain On It,” a slice of straight-up R&B that features backing from the McCrary Sisters.

Besides insisting Strange Conversation isn’t a country album, which it most certainly is not, Barnett also says it purposefully doesn’t rely on the full-power of her voice. This choice, which makes use of her sultry lower register, gives the music a different feel from her previous albums, which I like. I certainly appreciate Barnett’s artistry and feel the end result is the album she set out to make. The tracks are on YouTube and I highly recommend you go check out the album for yourself.

Album Review: Kelly Willis — ‘Back Being Blue’

July 10, 2018

Kelly Willis

Back Being Blue

* * * 1/2

Kelly Willis retreated forty miles south of Austin, Texas to The Bunker, her husband Bruce Robison’s rustic recording studio located on a five-acre plot with a fishing hole, to record Back Being Blue, her first solo album in a decade. The album, produced by Robison, was recorded to analog tape using an old board he frequently has fixed from a trusted source in Nashville.

Back Being Blue consists of ten songs, six of which Willis wrote solo, the most she’s ever contributed to any of her seven albums. She says the songs aren’t deeply personal or autobiographical, nor is the album intended as a showcase for her distinctive singing voice.

Willis instead drew inspiration from the melting pot of influences that first inspired her to make music, from Marshall Crenshaw to Skeeter Davis and Crystal Gayle. But one artist, in particular, guided her way:

“Nick Lowe was a real north star for me on this record. Like, ‘What would do Nick Lowe do?’ He was able to write modern songs that were like old songs—that had a cool soul/R&B/Buddy Holly kind of a thing that had sounds from that early rock and roll era—but that felt really fresh and exciting and now. I just love the A-B-C’s of rock and roll. Before everybody had to start piling on different things to make it sound different, it had all been done. With this record I was trying to go with the styles of music that have really impacted my life, especially when I moved to Austin as a teenager, and make it country-sounding like Austin used to sound.”

Lowe may have inspired the album as a whole, but it’s Gayle’s influence driving the sublime title track, which kicks off a trifecta of songs about men, and their inability to treat women with the respect they deserve. A mellow guitar-driven melody framing Willis’ biting and direct lyric:

She’s back in my baby’s arms

And I’m back being blue

The percussion-heavy “Only You” finds a man using the excuse that’s what lovers do to justify his consistently inconsistent behavior — he loves his woman one day than ignores her the next. “Fool’s Paradise,” which beautifully blends fiddle with Urban Cowboy-era guitar riffs, finds a man thinking he can emotionally manipulate a woman who sees him coming from a mile away:

I’m not riding this town

You’ll tell me again if you come back around

All that ache in your voice, like I don’t have a choice

It’s a fool’s paradise

Willis wrote the barnburner “Modern World” to vent her frustrations about how cell phone use has led to a society that’s less engaged. The fiddle returns on the gorgeous “Freewheeling,” about the wish to let go of old anxieties and live a less mentally-stressful life. She’s back in a mournful state of mind on “The Heart Doesn’t Know,” a striking ballad about that feeling of knowing a relationship is over, yet unresolved feelings still remain.

For the remaining four songs, Willis sought contributions from other writers. “Afternoon’s Gone Blind” is a sonically stunning slice of traditional country written by Eric Brace and Karl Straub about an individual having a difficult time with the end of a relationship.

The most eccentric number on Back Being Blue is “I’m A Lover (Not A Fighter),” which was originally released as a single by Davis in 1969 when it peaked at #9. The song exudes a lot of charm, and has an engaging melody, but threw me with the dated reference to Cassius Clay. Willis says she did entertain the idea of swapping out the late boxer’s name for the more contemporary Sugar Ray, but ultimately decided the song should stand as written. It’s growing on me, but it’s not my favorite song on the album, especially with the heavy reverb casting a film over the recording.

It’s no surprise one of the album’s most well-written numbers comes from the pen of Rodney Crowell. He recommended she cut “We’ll Do It For Love Next Time,” a romantic yet risqué ballad about a couple going to second base. Willis handles the song, which features a nice dose of mandolin throughout, with the ease she’s brought to her most stellar recordings over the last 28 years.

Willis closes Back Being Blue with Jeff Rymes and Randy Weeks’ “Don’t Step Away,” a song sent to her by her hairdresser, who recommended it after Willis said she needed one or two more songs to finish the album. The song is bristling with Austin funk, and a fair amount of guitars to bring up the tempo.

When I first listened to Back Being Blue I thought it was less than the sum of its parts. I hold Kelly Willis in the highest esteem and this just wasn’t making it for me. My opinion only changed when I dug into the context behind the album and understood what Willis was going for with the vibe and her relaxed vocals. Back Being Blue is a great album, even if some of her compositions feel unnecessarily repetitive. I’m glad she’s back and steering the conversation in her direction again.

John Anderson is far more than an old chunk of coal at Boston’s City Winery

July 4, 2018

John Anderson may have opened his show Monday night at Boston’s City Winery with his 1981 #4 “I’m Just an Old Chunk Of Coal,” but judging from his brisk 90-minute set, the choice wasn’t self-referential. Armed with an acoustic guitar and his longtime accompanist Glenn Rieuf, he ran through hit-after-hit with merely a break to catch his breath.

Anderson traversed his whole career, jumping around so as not to put emphasis on any particular song or time period. He wasted no time getting to fan favorites like “Money In The Bank” and “Straight Tequila Night,” two of his signature tunes from his big comeback in the early 1990s. He dedicated the latter to the ladies in the crowd, which was at about half-capacity for the 300-seat venue, a respectable turnout considering the scorching heatwave and proximity to July 4th.

He didn’t talk much during the show, opting instead to give his fans their money’s worth of music. He introduced Rieuf as someone he’s known for more than 40 years and played with for more than 30. The two were perfectly in sync, with Anderson often turning to Rieuf between songs to figure out what would be sung next. Rieuf switched from acoustic guitar to dobro early on, giving the bulk of the songs some added texture Anderson couldn’t achieve with just his guitar alone.

When he did speak, Anderson made it count. He told a story about a day on his farm when he was trying to write a song. The ideas weren’t coming, and he was about to give up when his phone rang. Waylon Jennings was on the other end, requesting Anderson join him at the Ryman Auditorium to lend his talents to a live album he was making. The sessions, which took place in January 2000, would cumulate as the final album Jennings would release during his lifetime. Anderson then played “Waymore’s Blues,”  the track they collaborated on together.

Like the majority of male country singers from his era, Anderson wears his patriotism on his sleeve. He turned in a poignant rendition of “1959,” the fifth single from his debut album, his first top ten, released in 1980. The song, about a solider’s heartbreak at learning his high school sweetheart, Betty, had broken her promise never to leave him while he was deployed, is as powerful today as it must’ve been 38 years ago. He followed with “An Occasional Eagle,” an ode to American Pride and a deep cut from 1983’s All The People Are Talkin’.

He stayed in the 1980s to bring the audience some real country music, “I Just Came Home to Count The Memories,” the title cut from his third album, released back in 1981. He also mined “Would You Catch A Falling Star” from the same album. Although it’s not my favorite of his songs, “Swingin’” has retained all the swagger he originally brought to his chart-topping recording in 1983.

To this day, I still become affected when I hear “I Wish I Could’ve Been There,” which he delivered beautifully Monday night. He said it was written about his life on the road, while the next song was composed about life “back home” in Apopka, Florida. “Seminole Wind,” which I’ve always adored, is probably the most unlikely song ever to hit the country airwaves and explode into a #2 hit. Released in August 1992, when Garth Brooks was decimating everything in his path, a lyric about conservation efforts in the Everglades was just a crazy enough concept to work.

“When I Get Down” was Anderson’s sole nod to his 2011 gospel album Praise For You and was accompanied by him recounting the hearing loss that kept him off the road, missing “seven months of work” in 2017. He’s thankfully recovered, which for a time, was in jeopardy. He and Rieuff left the stage for a brief moment, and when they returned, Anderson referenced his friend Merle Haggard, who he called one of the greatest country singers who ever lived. Anderson brilliantly sang the standard “Long Black Veil,” which he associates with the beginnings of his friendship with Haggard. He closed with his outlaw classic “Black Sheep,” which became his third #1 in late 1983.

Throughout his set, Anderson was ever the southern gentleman, pausing multiple times with “thank y’all so much” as the audience cheered between songs. He also felt his sound mixing was off, stopping at the top of the show a few times to tune his guitar and ask the sound people to adjust his guitar in the monitors. The sound was fine by my ears, but when he got it just right, we could enjoy the show without further tweaking.

The acoustic format, which Anderson said will be the sonic backdrop of his next album, worked well although I could’ve used a bit more instrumentation, especially on “Straight Tequila Night,” which seemed to be needing some extra ingredients, likely just a fiddle, to bring it even further to life.

At 63, Anderson still sounds fantastic, with his signature gravely rasp firmly intact. It was an unexpected treat to see someone perform whom I never even gave a second thought to seeing live. He made a point of saying he doesn’t come around “these parts that often,” meaning Boston, and he would like to come back again real soon. I for one, wouldn’t mind in the least if he did.

EP Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Re-Imagined’

June 25, 2018

LeAnn Rimes

Re-Imagined

* * * 1/2

While the craze of mainstream country stars collaborating with mainstream pop acts has garnered major attention, and rightfully so, another trend has been making waves but leaving far too little a wake. In August 2016, Suzy Bogguss released Aces Redux, a complete re-recording of her classic album in the lush acoustic style she favored in recent years. Dixie Chicks completely overhauled the arrangements on their songs for their MMXVI tour and companion concert album. Mary Chapin Carpenter reexamined parts of her back catalog on Sometimes Just The Sky this past March. Rodney Crowell has Acoustic Classics coming out the middle of next month.

Artists re-recording their hits have been going on since the beginning of recorded music. A recent cause for this is a little-known fact that when artists switch record labels, they don’t get to take the masters and rights to their discography with them. In other words, the artists entire back catalog is the sole property of their former home, especially if it was a major label.

Those re-recorded songs are typically sung as facsimiles of the original hit recording with the hopes a gullible music buying public won’t be able to tell the difference. Very often it’s those re-recordings that make their way onto digital platforms, especially if the artist’s original music hasn’t been licensed by their record label for release in that format.

What’s going on here is entirely different and completely by choice. These albums aren’t merely gimmicky cash grabs but thoughtful reexaminations of songs, and in this case of Rodney Crowell different songs entirely. For his new album, he completely re-wrote “Shame On The Moon.” He felt his original composition, which was a massive hit for Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band in 1982, wasn’t composed with the depth and complexity he would bring to the song today.

In the case of LeAnn Rimes and her new five-track EP Re-Imagined, she reworked these songs for her Remnants tour last year and decided to commit them to record. Although I’ve been somewhat of a rabid fan of her music since the very beginning, I haven’t been paying too much attention to her lately. This release broke the short drought, which I’m also sure it was intended to do.  

She opens the collection with “How Do I Live.” Her original version, from 1997, is still one of the cleanest and most masterful pop records I’ve ever heard. She transforms Diane Warren’s lyric into a piano ballad, which might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. I really don’t care for Rimes in this style, which always comes off heavy, slow and prodding.

I had actually forgotten what the original version of “Can’t Fight The Moonlight” sounded like, the one featured on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack in 2000. Listening to it again, it’s clearly influenced by Britney Spears’ debut from a year earlier. I’m more familiar with the dance remix, which worked on an international scale as I’m sure Curb intended at the time. This new version, taken live from a concert, has more in common with the remix but features actually instrumentation.

Rimes’ original version of “Blue,” from 1996, is arguably still the greatest record she’s ever made. She gave it new life, in collaboration with The Time Jumpers, on Lady & Gentlemen in 2011. For this version, also taken live from a concert, she goes full-on jazz but doesn’t sacrifice the trademark yodel or the song’s traditional country roots.

The revelation, as far as her hit records are concerned, is “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” Rimes gives the song a gorgeously soft acoustic arrangement stripping the song of any smoke and mirrors. It’s truly impressive what she does with the song, alone, without backup singers to give her a lift. Rimes still has it more than 22 years later.

The final track is one of the two songs from Spitfire that elude to the cheating scandal that soured her reputation with the public and ended her first marriage. “Borrowed” was originally produced by Rimes’ long-time collaborator Darrell Brown, who also oversaw this EP. The track was already in this style so nothing about the arrangement really changed.

However, this version is a duet with Stevie Nicks. Rimes and Nicks harmonize throughout the song, which is a mistake given the lyrical content. I’m also a huge fan of Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, so I’m saying this with love, but Nicks’ voice isn’t what it used to be but either is Don Henley’s. The age on Nicks’ rasp, which is far too low now, is just unappealing.

The majority of this EP feels utterly unnecessary and in place of new music, not really worth much of anyone’s time. Rimes’ voice has changed, too, which she claimed in a 2013 lawsuit was the result of botched dental work. She still has incredible range, which I noted when I reviewed “How To Kiss A Boy” in November 2016, but the clarity is gone.

I still recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Rimes’ work, to hear this new addition to her musical legacy.

Album Review: Gretchen Peters — ‘Dancing With The Beast’

June 13, 2018

Gretchen Peters

Dancing With The Beast

* * * * 1/2

2016 was an unintentionally cruel transitional year for Gretchen Peters. In the span of twelve months, she encountered a myriad of loss — her mom, her dog, and two of her best friends. The results of the US presidential election only confounded her already fragile state of mind.

She turned to music to make sense of it all, which has resulted in her eighth album, Dancing With The Beast, eleven snapshots of gut-wrenching brilliance inspired as much by her personal misfortune and the 2017 Woman’s March, as the #MeToo Movement that swept into our collective consciousness last autumn. Female-centric perspectives lead the record and the listener on a journey both horrifically candid and deeply satisfying.

The album opens with “Arguing With Ghosts,” a meditation on the passage of time that began when co-writer Matraca Berg supplied what became the opening line ‘I get lost in my hometown’ to describe how much, and how quickly, Nashville has changed into a city she no longer recognizes. I, too, struggle with the quickness of life and find great solace when Peters sings:

The years go by like days

Sometimes the days go by like years

And I don’t know which one I hate the most

At this same old kitchen table

in this same old busted chair

I’m drinking coffee and arguing with ghosts

“Wichita” revives the southern gothic murder ballad and the subset of songs about children, both of which were once mainstays in country music. The song is told from the perspective of Cora Lee, a mentally challenged twelve-year-old girl who uses her mama’s gun to kill a sexual predator who robs her of her innocence and takes advantage of her mother. It’s my favorite song so far this year.

The loss of innocence is the foundation for “Truckstop Angel,” which originates from a New Yorker article Peters read twenty years ago detailing prostitutes who work at roadside truckstops. She encountered just such a girl (all of 17-18 years old) in Alabama and composed the song from her perspective:

I meet them in the truckstops

I meet them in the bars

I meet them in the parking lots

And I slip into their cars

They come and put their money down

They come and place their bets

I swallow their indifference

But I choke on my regrets

 

Sometimes they ask me questions

Sometimes they treat me nice

You don’t know what you’ll get

Until you roll the dice

You’re a loser or a winner here

Predator or prey

I’m still not sure which one I am

Or how I got this way

“The Boy from Rye” details the overwhelming insecurities of female adolescence. The lyric finds a town of teenage girls in competition for the affection of a guy who rolled into town one summer with his parents and his sister. It’s horrifying how easily the teenagers surrender their bodies to him:

The girls from school in our summer tans
Suddenly self conscious and uncertain
All in a row we arranged ourselves for him
Waiting to see if we deserved him

One too fat, one too thin
One too many flaws to measure
Impossible to live inside your skin
And serve at someone else’s pleasure

**

One too strong, one too smart
But none immune to love or summer
One by one he broke our virgin hearts
And set us one against the other

We dreamed of boys and kisses on the lawn
We yearned to feel that mystery inside us
And there we were with the summer nearly gone
We’d let that mystery divide us

“Lowlands” is Peters’ take on the 2016 US Presidential election:

And the TV it just lies to keep you watching

Politician lies to get your vote

But a man who lies just for the sake of lying

He’ll sell you kerosene and call it hope

Political-minded songs, especially ones referencing our current President, can be polarizing and tiring, and Peters allows “Lowlands” to intentionally drone on-and-on Dylan-esque without a chorus or a hook; a hint of subtly nodding to her state of mind.

“Love That Makes A Cup of Tea” originated from a dream Peters had about her mother, a woman who would show her affection by baking and knitting. The lyric ends the album steeped in hope:

And there is love that makes a cup of tea

Asks you how you’re doing, and listens quietly

Slips you twenty dollars when your rent’s behind

That’s the kind of love I hope you find

“Disappearing Act” lives in the same sonic vein as “Wichita” with a mainstream-minded production adding a layer of fury to the record. The song wonderfully chronicles the frustrations of life, the yin, and yang of good and bad. The title track details a woman in a marriage where her husband always has the upper hand:

He only comes around when he pleases

He only comes around when I’m alone

He don’t like my friends or my family

He don’t like me talkin’ on the phone

 

It isn’t that he doesn’t care about me

If anything it’s that he cares too much

It’s only that he wants the best for me

It’s only that I don’t try hard enough

 

But he takes me in his arms like a lover

He hears my confession like a priest

He whispers in my ear, in the darkness

I’m dancing with the beast

“The Show” finds Peters with ‘Nineteen songs and one more night to go’ until a stretch of concerts draws to a close. “Lay Low” plays like a companion piece, with Peters surrendering to the voice begging her to take some time away and ‘just lay low for awhile.’ She uses “Say Grace” as permission to ‘forgive yourself for all of your mistakes.’

Female perspectives have been the hallmark of Peters’ writing for the whole of her career, whether an eight-year-old girl caught in the middle of destructive domestic abuse or a liberated wife and mother setting her husband free of their crumbled marriage. She says it’s a prism from which to view Dancing With The Beast, and while she’s been writing this way for more than thirty years, her words have never come with this much urgency.

Dancing With The Beast is as masterful as it is bleak. Peters is in a class of her own, especially now that she’s let go of her mainstream inclinations and has been crafting albums for herself and not as a vehicle for other female singers to mine for chart hits. I’m forever grateful for her immense success in the United Kingdom and the incentive it provides her to keep her musical journey alive.

She’s been one of my favorite songwriters since I began listening to country music more than twenty years ago. She’s now one of my favorite artists, too. Dancing With The Beast is among her finest work to date.

Album Review: Robby Hecht & Caroline Spence – ‘Two People’

June 8, 2018

Robby Hecht & Caroline Spence

Two People

* * * * *

Two People is the debut duo album of Nashville born singer/songwriters Robby Hecht & Caroline Spence. The pair met at the Rocky Mountain Folk Festival in 2013 and instantaneously hit it off musically. After two singles garnered eight million streams on Spotify, the duo decided to hunker down and record a full-length album.

While Two People is a duo album, Hecht & Spence are solo artists in their own right. If Robby’s name sounds familiar, it might be because I reviewed his solo record back in 2014, which I had almost forgotten about until Two People hit my radar screen last month courtesy of Juli Thanki from The Tennessean.

The album plays like an independent film centered around a charming and human love story worth rooting for and getting behind. The album traces that story through all of its facets, giving the listener eight perfect snapshots, each one capturing another moment in time.

Our story begins on “The Real Thing,” a warm ballad in which our couple meets at a crowded party. He knows she’s with someone else, a guy who wants nothing more than a fling. Our guy offers this girl an alternative — “We can ditch this crowd, we can ditch this scene, come on, take a ride with me.” He has money, and a car, but most importantly, he can offer her what her current guy cannot — a healthy relationship.

Spence takes the lead on “Trying,” in which our girl promises she’s doing everything she can to give our guy her heart. She’s having trouble giving in, letting go and trusting what’s right in front of her. “All On The Table” finds our couple laying everything bare in order to see if their relationship can go the distance. It’s Spence who takes the lead once again, using her sweet soprano to draw the listener in with her palpable venerability. This is the rare song that reenergizes my love for music, giving me the realization that real country music still exists in the world if you know where to look.

Hecht takes the lead on the romantic “Holding You,” in which our guy has found something to get him through the mundane day-to-day of life — her awaiting arms each night. When that proves not to be nearly enough he needs to spend “A Night Together” with her. He wants to go out but doesn’t care where — a country fair with a Ferris Wheel, a romantic dinner with an expensive bottle of wine that keeps them occupied until closing time — he doesn’t care as long as he can show her off and take her back home with him.

A time jump reveals the relationship began to crack and eventually fell apart. Spence leads the way on “I’ll Keep You,” a surprisingly sweet tale that finds her sorting through and boxing up the couple’s memories from their time together. It ends with a sign on the corner, pointing to their house, indicating a yard sale.

“Over You” finds Hecht embodying the guy’s gut-wrenching ache at the relationship meeting its end and finds him trying to convince himself he’s over her, as he continues to question everything he thought was right while they were together.

The album ends with an interesting thought. What if the couple had never been destined to meet in the first place? What if their paths had almost crossed but at the last second he exited the train, or he gave his seat to someone else just before she sat down? Those are the questions and thoughts raised by “Parallel Lines,” which was one of the two early singles that convinced the duo to make an album together.

I don’t want to suggest Two People is by any means autobiographical even though Hecht and Spence did write all the songs together. They are a magical pairing, bringing these songs to life with an effortlessness that cannot be fabricated. Spence is an otherworldly vocalist, with a similar tone to Ashley Monroe, while Hecht is a captivating conversationalist.

Two People is an independent release that likely won’t get the press coverage it deserves, especially in the crowed Americana/folk world it finds itself in. It may be a quieter album, but it’s powerful in its own unique way. I highly recommend everyone check it out.

Album Review: I’m With Her – ‘See You Around’

March 6, 2018

I’m With Her

See You Around

* * * * 1/2

I’m With Her is a folk supergroup. Sara Watkins, a founding member of Nickel Creek, has been reaping the rewards of solo success since releasing her eponymous album in 2009. Sarah Jarosz began releasing albums that year as well. The final member is Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of the Bluegrass band Crooked Still and the daughter of Brian O’Donovan, host of A Celtic Sojourn on WGBH Radio here in Boston.

The trio came together for an impromptu performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2014 and released their two-song EP, Crossing Muddy Waters/Be My Husband in 2015. They gathered in Los Angeles and Vermont once their solo careers had slowed down a bit to record See You Around, which was produced by Ethan Johns in a tiny village near Bath, England at a recording studio owned by Peter Gabriel. The trio co-wrote the album together.

The album is rich with their tightly-woven harmonies and ear for crafting songs completely unique to themselves, that come together to create a wonderfully fully-formed record. The album begins strong, with the mid-tempo title track. “See You Around” crafts a tale of pain, with vivid imagery:

A constant ringing bell

Or the ocean in a shell I held up to my ear

While everything else

 

Is breaking like the waves down on the coastline

Breaking like the wine-stained glass that held my drink

Breaking like the heart that’s stuck inside my skin

Will it ever beat again

 

Or just go on bleeding ’til it’s empty

‘Til I fill it up again

I feel you baby

These aren’t fighting words, just a declaration

I feel you

So I guess I’ll be going now

I know you’re looking out for new eyes in the crowd

I’ll see you around

The gorgeous “Game To Lose” is a perfectly accentuated ballad anchored by Jarosz’s mandolin and Watkins’ warm and familiar fiddle. Watkins’ rich vocal tone is the centerpiece of “Ain’t That Fine,” while her falsetto leads the way on “Wild One.” The former is the sparse look at a budding relationship, while the latter is a cautionary tale and possibly my favorite song on the album. I also love “Waitsfield,” a jaunty and engaging instrumental.

Another standout moment is “Overland,” a striking lament on the promise of a new life far away from your current circumstances:

Goodbye brother, hello railroad

So long, Chicago

All these years, thought I was where I ought to be

But times are changing

This country’s growing

And I’m bound for San Francisco

Where a new life waits for me

“I-89,” which is an interstate that runs through both New Hampshire and Vermont, is actually an ode to finding an alternate escape route:

Waitin’ for the sight of headlights flashin’

Fussing with the dial on the radio

Burning through the pages of the Rand McNally

Fire in my belly gonna keep you warm

If there was another way out I’d take it

If there was another way down I’d go

If there was another way other than the highway

Show me on a map, point out the road

Two fiddle-laced ballads grace the back half of See You Around. “Crescent City” rides along at mid-tempo and relays the timeless message to make each moment of your life truly count. “Close It Down” is a tale of regret, with the protagonist falling for the charmer who has cast their spell on many a resident of the town where they reside.

“Ryland (Under The Apple Tree)” stands with “Ain’t That Fine,” in its depictions of the idyllic beginnings of a new relationship, but it strikes an ominous tone with the constant refrain: “under the apple tree, I planted for my love and me.” The final track is Gillian Welch’s “Hundred Miles,” which they perform with minimal accompaniment and partly a cappella.

It took me a bit to warm up to See You Around, but the nuances the trio brings to these songs are unique and captivating. This is clearly a record all their own, a great one indeed and well worth checking out.

Album Review: Tim McGraw & Faith Hill – ‘The Rest of Our Life’

January 16, 2018

Tim McGraw & Faith Hill

The Rest of Our Life

* *

It’s no secret that two of the most influential artists that have shaped my understanding and love of country music is Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Their love story was the first celebrity love story I bought into as a kid and the one that has lasted the longest. Hill, especially, remains one of my favorite artists.

Count me among those who found it puzzling that McGraw would exit Big Machine to be a little fish in a big pond at Sony Nashville. His artistic credibility had reached new heights in 2016 and he was back in the Male Vocalist of the Year race at the CMA Awards. You do have to commend him for giving that up to help re-launch Hill into the mainstream. His heart was definitely in the right place.

But the first taste of new music from the pair, the Adult Contemporary “Speak To A Girl” was not. The ballad may have shot to #19, but it exposed Hill’s newly-acquired rasp in her lower register. Her inability to hold onto notes in her lower register was painful to hear and distracted by the message of the song, which wasn’t all that thought out anyways.

The title track, and second single, wasn’t much better. It throws the pair further into pop territory, with a lyric (co-written by Ed Sheeran) that attempts to trace a romantic relationship. The lyric is terrible, especially in the Hill-led second verse:

I’ve been making plans for children

Since I’ve been looking in your eyes

I even have names picked out for them

Daughter’d be Rose

Son it’d be Ryan

The pair debuted two of the tracks on their tour last summer. “Break First,” is a mid-paced ballad of temptation (dominated by an electronic drum loop) in which a couple is eying each other from across the room. “Telluride,” is a funky up-tempo change of pace, and while it shares a name with a track from Set This Circus Down, it is most definitely a different song.

The majority of the album is dominated by songs that just aren’t that great or worth adding to your collection. “Devil Callin’ Me Back” strips them of their individually and highlights everything that’s wrong with modern commercially-focused music. “Roll The Dice” is an electronic mess while “Love Me To Lie,” in which Hill sings lead throughout, is at least okay.

“Sleeping In The Stars” lets the pair’s harmonies shine through. “Cowboy Lullaby” is a somewhat well-written song and a good vehicle for McGraw, but I can’t help but think it would’ve sounded a lot stronger with a far less watered down arrangement.

The final two tracks were co-written by Lori McKenna and I cannot help but hold them to a higher standard. She reunited with The Love Junkies on “The Bed We Made,” which actually has bones, but likely would’ve been more appropriate for someone younger and not a couple who has been married for twenty-one years.

“Damn Good At Holdin’ On,” which McKenna wrote with Barry Dean, is the album’s strongest track by a mile. I don’t like the chorus that much, but this is the closest Hill and McGraw come to rekindling the magic of their previous duets.

The lack of that magical spark found on “It’s Your Love” or “Let’s Make Love” is truly what sinks The Rest of Our Life. Hill and McGraw are far better than most of the material they pulled together for this album. They don’t need to craft an entire album of love songs – we all get it by now. If they had diversified, with another “Angry All The Time,” or at least put effort into finding even a couple artistic moments to sprinkle amongst the radio fodder than all might not have been lost. But as it stands, The Rest of Our Lives is beneath both of them. They’ve more than proven they can do a heck of a lot better than they do here.

Album Review: The Kelly Girls – ‘May You Always’

December 27, 2017

The Kelly Girls

May You Always

* * * * 1/2 

I first came to know Massachusetts based Celtic band The Kelly Girls when I had the opportunity to attend one of their delightful live performances in Spring 2016. I’ve been waiting for the group’s debut album ever since and I’m thrilled to say it’s finally arrived and surpasses the already high expectations I had for it.

May You Always was produced by band member Nancy Beaudette, an artist of which I’ve long been an admirer. The band, which is comprised of Beaudette along with Christine Hatch, Aisling Keating, and Melinda Kerwin, recorded the album, a beautiful mixture of newly-written and traditional tunes, in Central Massachusetts.

Beaudette had a hand in writing or co-writing six of the album’s songs, including four by herself. She tells of strangers in a bar connecting over a pint in the gorgeous “Reeds on the River” and gives fair warning not to mess with the Canadian riverboat captain at the center of the feisty “Molly Kool.” The title track is a wish of continued good fortune for us all and a timely message any time of year.

Her final solely written number, “Mariners of England,” was adapted from the 1880 Thomas Campbell poem “Ye Mariners of England”. The mid-paced waltz “Daffodils,” co-written with Keating, has its origins in the William Wadsworth poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” She teams with Kerwin for her final writing credit, the stunning lullaby “Another Goodnight.”

Kerwin and Keating teamed up for, “Miss Martha / Barney’s Shenanigans & Barney Get Home,” a medley of striking instrumentals. Hatch and Kate Chadbourne contribute “Last Rose of Summer,” a haunting ballad about the passage of time framed in a story about a woman’s relationship with her mother.

The jaunty, and excellent, “Walk In The Irish Rain,” comes from the pen of Americana singer-songwriter Steve Spurgin. The band also includes their beautiful version of iconic Canadian singer-songwriter Allister MacGillivray’s “Song for the Mira,” one of my favorite songs on the album.

Another favorite, “Wild Mountain Tyme and Sommervals,” was one of the traditional tunes they performed when I saw them live. I loved it then and I adore it equally now. “Jolly Rovin’ Tar,” which opens the album, is a wonderful Irish jig and a perfect way to set the mood for the album as a whole. “I Know My Love” is equally spirited and just as delightful.

May You Always is a fantastic introduction to The Kelly Girls and a stellar debut album. I fell in love with them and their sound when I caught their show and I’m pleased to see how brilliantly their distinct personalities translated to this record. I eagerly look forward to continue following them and cannot wait for whatever it is they choose to do next. I’m very fortunate to have them performing, living and recording essentially in my backyard.

NOTE: For more information on The Kelly Girls, please visit their website

Album Review: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Good Old Days’

December 8, 2017

Tracy Lawrence

Good Ole Days

* * *

If popular culture is to be believed, it seems the 1990s is the hottest decade right now. Most of the ‘new’ television shows are reboots of classics from the era, including Full House and Will & Grace, with the originals casts reprising their roles. In popular music, if you were a major player 20-25 years ago, then its suddenly fashionable to return with new music and slews of concert dates.

In country music, this trend extends to the return of Faith Hill and Shania Twain with their first new music in more than a decade while Garth Brooks is wrapping up his massive three-year tour this month in Nashville. Even Dixie Chicks came home to the United States with their first tour in ten years. What’s old is new again or rather the music that defined my childhood is suddenly hip again.

It would be a stretch to place Tracy Lawrence at the same level since he was never a global superstar or wheeled much influence on an international stage. But he was one of the most consistent and traditional artists in his day, with a catalog that more than stands up to anything released by the artists who may have eclipsed him in status.

To celebrate this resurgence, Lawrence has released Good Ole Days, which recognizes what he refers to as a ‘hunger for the music from my era.’ The album pairs him with modern day country artists singing his hits. The whole concept does seem like a gimmick, a cash grab for the gullible fan unaware they are likely only lining the pockets of the executive who dreamt up this project. But really it’s a chance to finally hear country’s current class sing real well-written songs for the first time in their careers. I jumped at the chance to review this album simply so I could hear how these artists sound when forced to interrupt the actual country music. I’ve always had a theory that there is talent there if these artists had the proper vehicle to show it off.

This is the proper vehicle because instead of the artists making these songs their own, with their typical non-country producers and such, they have to stick within the confines of the original arrangements, including the steel, fiddle, and twang. Without the ability to hide, every weakness would be on the table.

Luke Bryan tackles Lawrence’s 1991 debut “Sticks and Stones” and handles it well. I wasn’t impressed with Jason Aldean’s take on “Just Can’t Break It to My Heart,” his voice was a bit too dirty, but the energy was good.

I remember reading in Quotable Country, on the dearly-departed Country California, Justin Moore says if he had a say he would make an album in the vein of I See It Now. He goes back a bit further here with “Alibis” and knocks it out of the park. Moore is a great country singer and it’s a shame he has to reside in this current climate.

Dustin Lynch sounds exactly like a young Lawrence on “Texas Tornado,” which is kind of scary. His performance isn’t excellent, but it’s damn close. I was surprised Miranda Lambert, who has been known to belt this out in concert, wasn’t singing it but that could’ve been label politics.

Probably the newest artist featured here is Luke Combs, who just hit number one with “When It Rains It Pours.” There’s no mistaking he’s a country singer and he easily pulls this off. The same is true for Chris Young, but he sounds like he’s just going through the paces on “If The Good Die Young.” If he had just let go the results could’ve been incredible.

The legend of Tim McGraw is he moved to Nashville on May 9, 1989, and has always said he’s more of a storyteller while Keith Whitley is a singer. I agree wholeheartedly, but his performance of “Time Marches On” is bland. In contrast, Easton Corbin shines on “Paint Me A Birmingham.”

Kellie Pickler’s talent is wasted on “Stars Over Texas,” which finds her regulated to singing the chorus. As the sole female voice on the whole album, you would’ve thought she’d be allowed more of a presence. I didn’t care for her vocal either, which makes her sound like a little girl.

There are two new songs in the mix. Brad Arnold, the lead singer of Alternative Rock band Three Doors Down (think ‘Here Without You’) joins Lawrence on the title track, which is being billed as his “country music debut.” The song, which also features Big & Rich, is a faux-rock disaster. The military-themed fiddle drenched ballad “Finally Home,” which features Craig Morgan, is better but not really for my tastes.

Good Ole Days is a great concept with lousy execution. These tracks are collaborations between the singer and Tracy Lawrence which doesn’t work on any level. Get rid of Lawrence entirely and turn this into the proper tribute album it’s screaming to be. His nasally twang is insufferable and pointlessly distracting. The lack of female artists in the mix is also troubling, as you don’t need just men to sing these songs.

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis – ‘Come See Me and Come Lonely’

November 30, 2017

Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis

Come See Me and Come Lonely

* * * 1/2

Come See Me and Come Lonely, Lorrie Morgan & Pam Tillis’ second collaborative album, is strictly a covers record with their version of twelve classic country songs ranging from the familiar to the slightly obscure. I didn’t even have an inkling this record was in the works, so count me among the pleased, and surprised when news broke about the impending release this past summer.

The album was produced by Richard Landis, who has handled the majority of Morgan’s production duties for more than 25 years. While he maintains the essence of each song, he updates the arraignments just enough to give the album a contemporary flair that allows the album to feel modern and not note-for-note recreations of the classic recordings from which these compositions are most known.

His choices result in a very good album that unfortunately begins with K.T. Oslin’s romantic ballad “Do Ya” sung as a duel-lead duet. The results are ridiculous but Tillis does bring vigor to an otherwise lifeless song. I had no idea what to expect from another seemingly random choice, Dwight Yoakam’s “Guitars, Cadillacs.” They handled the song with ease, as though it was born from a Nashville honky-tonk.

Skeeter Davis’ version of “The End of the World” has always been too schmaltzy and slightly comedic for my twenty-first-century ears. Morgan and Tillis’ interpretation is gorgeous and brings the underlying heartbreak in the lyrics to the forefront. “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” is similarly excellent and a brilliant nod to Tillis’ sound and style from the early 1990s.

The title track is brilliant and actually improves upon the version Dottie West released in 1978. I like their rendition of “Walk Right Back” and love how the emulate the Everly Brothers with their close-knit harmonies.

Morgan all but knocks Sammi Smith’s “Saunders Ferry Lane” out of the park, but I’ll always wonder how it would’ve sounded without so much age on her voice. “Rose In Paradise” is a southern gothic beauty, anchored masterfully by Tillis. My favorite track on the album is “Summer Wine,” presented as a duet with Darryl Worley and an almost unrecognizable Joe Diffie.

Tackling anything written and sung by Roy Orbison is a feat and Morgan and Tillis fall short on “It’s Over,” which just isn’t to my tastes at all. An acoustic take on “Blanket On The Ground” would’ve allowed Morgan and Tillis’ harmonies to shine, whereas the version they gave us drowns them out with obtrusive clutter.

Come See Me and Come Lonely isn’t a perfect album but there are some stunning performances throughout. Morgan and Tillis are on top of their artistic game even if the arrangements are too loud on occasion. I highly recommend checking this one out.

Album Review: Katie Dobbins – ‘She is Free’

October 2, 2017

Katie Dobbins

She Is Free

* * * * *

Boston based contemporary folk and new country singer Katie Dobbins released her debut album, She is Free back in May. The album emerged from an epiphany that the life she was living, complete with a salaried job, wasn’t satisfying her soul. It was just the last couple of years that she was able to fully embrace her musical muse and embark on the journey cumulating with this album.

She is Free opens with her debut single, the autobiographical “Something To Be Found.” Dobbins chronicles her journey, from the college student with two degrees to the twenty-five-year-old re-engaging with her inner child:

Will this road take me where I want to go
Where that is I have to say I really don’t know
I’m driving now, hoping somewhere there’s something to be found
Everything in me says I gotta get out

Get out and get back to her, to that little girl
She’s stares at me in photographs
Shining eyes, delirious
Begging me to come back home

“Post-It Notes” is a beautifully romantic mid-tempo ballad, about a guy declaring his love with a declaration tacked to the fridge. “More Love” is a battle-cry calling for compassion, whether it’s the man whose bike was hit by an elderly gentleman, parents dropping their kids off at school or soldiers on the battlefield:

This world needs more love
And it starts with you and it starts with me
There’s no telling what this world would be
If every single hand was outstretched wide
What do we miss just being passerby’s
We need more love

The jazzy “Bring On The Fire” is an anthem for anyone who needs to push out of their comfort zone and stand in their own sun, gets burned and get on with living life. “Beautiful” is a steel-laced ballad about love, with Dobbins singing about the guy who encourages her to follow her passions with simple words and gestures that define their intimate relationship. The heartbreaking “Marry You” tells a different story, one in which Dobbins envisions how incredible it would be to marry the guy if life didn’t intervene:

You and I are writing different stories
You’re the hero, baby I’m some girl with a dream
I can’t be the one to take your glory
You can’t be the one to write this chapter for me

Closing track “Puzzles” is a perfectly written empowerment anthem saying we as humans are whole and not puzzle pieces that need to be put together. Dobbins is saying we’re perfectly imperfect and that’s more than okay.

“Daddy’s Song” is one of the more personal lyrics on the album. It finds Dobbins sharing her story of encouragement as she ventured to Nashville to follow her dreams. Piano ballad “Cards on a Tuesday (Nana’s Song)” follows suit and offers a gorgeous tribute to her grandmother, her inspiration, the woman Dobbins hopes to be as she ventures through this world.

Dobbins says She is Free “is a collection of songs I created over time, and its release signifies my own personal freedom from any insecurities or fears I have held about myself or my music up to this point. The songs on the album pay tribute to certain people in my life who have empowered me along the way, and also tell stories of various real and imagined characters pursuing love and freedom.”

The time and attention Dobbins put forth when making this album shows in the nine songs, which give insight into her life and her journey back to music. I thoroughly enjoyed taking this voyage with her, whether it was empowering, heartwarming or even heartbreaking.

I highly recommend checking out this album. For further information on Katie Dobbins, you can visit her website or find her on Bandcamp.

Album Review: Natalie Hemby – ‘Puxico’

August 29, 2017

Natalie Hemby

Puxico

* * * 1/2

Natalie Hemby, Dean Dillon to Miranda Lambert’s George Strait, released her debut album back in January. The album, seven years in the making, is the musical accompaniment to a documentary she produced about her hometown of Puxico, Missouri. Hemby solely composed each of the project’s nine songs.

Hemby opens the album wonderfully, with the folksy tones of “Time-Honored Tradition,” a jaunty uptempo number about her longing for “kindred town filled with good company.” Said town ultimately goes through a “Grand Restoration,” in which the past and present beautifully collide to bring a sense of history into the modern day. She gets the sentiment right on “Worn,” a characteristic she gives to “the finer things worth keeping,” but I could’ve done with a more interesting execution. Similarly rudimentary is lead single “Return,” which details the idea that you need to get away in order to fully appreciate your life back home.

“Lovers On Display” is one of many relationship-centric tunes on Puxico. The simplistic ballad is an appealing dissertation on love, using carnival imagery to evoke innocent romance. The ambiguous steel drenched “This Town Still Talks About You” is a brilliantly heartbreaking reminder that a person’s presence can be alive and well even if they aren’t physically present. Our minds aren’t so lucky, as Hemby points out in “I’ll Remember How You Loved Me,” which says memories fade but we never forget love.

The love, or really praise, for “Cairo, IL” is a big reason why I decided to finally listen to Puxico. The gorgeous ballad, a tribute to a long abandoned ghost town, is considered one of the best country songs released this year:

All the fields are flooded up to Highway 51

Illinois is coming ’cross the bridge where the Old Ohio was

Don’t look away, it will be gone

 

Kentucky and Missouri, a trinity of states

Nothing’s in a hurry ’cept the water in between the rising banks

Oh nothing moves but nothing stays

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

 

She used to be a beauty back in 1891

After Fort Defiance, now she’s weathered by the river and the sun

She’s still around but she is gone

 

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

The lyric is simple, and the song itself is very quiet, but the hook does pack a nice punch. I probably enjoy “Ferris Wheel,” a track Faith Hill recently featured in her Instagram Stories when Hemby was scheduled to open up for her and Tim McGraw on a recent Soul2Soul tour stop, even more. The steel-drenched ballad, which has a lovely and inviting melody, is far and away my favorite track on the album.

On the whole, Puxico is a very strong album and a wonderful introduction to Hemby and her personal style. I just found it to be a bit too sing-song-y in places and some of the songs could’ve been more complex. I kept comparing her, in my head, to Kacey Musgraves, which I’m having a hard time shaking.

But, that being said, this is an album well-worth checking out.