Archive for the ‘Music Reviews’ Category

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Trophy’

March 21, 2017

Sunny Sweeney

Trophy

* * * * *

After falling in love with Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, Sunny Sweeney tapped Dave Brainard to produce Trophy, which grapples with misery and longing, tackling the well-worn themes with exciting twists and turns. Brainard works to nicely compliment Sweeney’s firecracker personality, giving us a sound far meatier than Clark’s, but in no way less sublime.

Our first taste, which Occasional Hope lovingly reviewed, is the astonishing “Bottle By My Bed,” a heartbreaking tale about Sweeney’s struggles with infertility co-written with Lori McKenna. I, too, have a very personal connection to the track, which details the anguish felt when “you never never wanted something so bad that it hurts.”

Sweeney begs the bartender to reserve judgment and just “Pass The Pain” on the album’s brilliant steel-drenched opener, a decade-old neotraditional ballad she felt was potentially too country for a modern audience. She recorded the song, which features an assist from Trisha Yearwood, at the insistence of her rock-leaning father.

She bookends with the stunning “Unsaid,” a heavily orchestrated ballad written with Caitlyn Smith following the suicide of a friend who was a father of two young children. While the track doesn’t chronicle his story, it lays bare her feelings towards the circumstances:

There’s so much left unsaid

Cuts to the bone to see your name written in stone

Wish I could get it off my chest

Shoulda let go of my pride when I still had the time

Dammit it hurts these words I left unsaid

Sweeney has said Chris Wall’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight” is her favorite country song ever. The track, a fiddle-drenched waltz popularized by Jerry Jeff Walker, boasts an engaging melody and killer hook:

And I play classical music when it rains,

I play country when I am in pain

But I won’t play Beethoven, the mood’s just not right

Oh, I feel like Hank Williams tonight

I also love “Nothing Wrong With Texas,” another of the four tracks she and McKenna co-wrote for Trophy. The song, an ode to Sweeney’s home state, is an effortless fiddle and steel adorned mid-tempo ballad.

The pair also wrote two distinctly different numbers about Sweeney’s marriage to her second husband Jeff Hellmer, a police sergeant in Austin, Texas. “Grow Old With Me” is a breathtaking love song, in which Sweeney promises, “grow old with me and I’ll keep you young forever.”

The other song is the feisty title track, written in response to Hellmer’s ex calling Sweeney a ‘trophy wife.’ She proves her worth in the situation with a clever, albeit cunning, retort:

I know what you called me

That word fits me to a T

You just think I’m pretty

And you’re just full of jealousy

I don’t make him play the fool

Put him on a pedestal

Something you would never do

Yah, he’s got a trophy now

For putting up with you

Like “Trophy,” the rest of the album trends uptempo, with in-your-face barn burning honky-tonkers. “Better Bad Idea” is a moment of levity, which finds Sweeney on the prowl to be naughty, hoping her man can top the mischief she’s thinking up on her own.

“Why People Change” is an excellent take on failed relationships, with Sweeney questioning why couples can drift apart. The lyric is well-written, and the engaging melody is nothing short of glorious.

I haven’t been this richly satisfied with an album probably since Twelve Stories. With Trophy, Sweeney has crafted a whip-smart and mature record nodding to tradition while correctly pushing the genre forward. Trophy is what happens when everyone steps aside and puts the focus deservedly on the music, where it belongs.

_____________

Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘The Breaker’

March 10, 2017

Little Big Town

the-breaker

The Breaker

* * * 1/2

I sit here in amazement that five years have come and gone since Little Big Town scrapped Wayne Kirkpatrick for Jay Joyce and ensured they wouldn’t face the commercial disappointment that greeted 2010’s The Reasons Why ever again. They’ve since proven themselves to be a shameless mainstream act out for success at the expense of creative credibility.

You cannot deny they’ve achieved their greatest success in these years, winning every Vocal Group of the Year award for which they’ve been nominated. “Girl Crush” was another triumph, but disastrously overblown. I do like the song, but I’m more than glad to see its reign has come to an end at long last.

I last reviewed Pain Killer, which was easily among the worst mainstream country albums this decade. Their pop detour last spring, Wanderlust, was even worse. But I’ve been a fan of theirs for eleven years since I first heard “Boondocks” in 2005. I don’t know what keeps me coming back, especially in this era of their career, but here I am again.

Little Big Town has reunited with Joyce for The Breaker, their bid to regain their country momentum, which has proven successful thus far. Lead single “Better Man” is their fastest rising, zipping up the airplay chart at a breakneck speed unusual for them. It doesn’t hurt that the ballad, penned by Taylor Swift, is the best they’ve ever recorded. “Better Man” doesn’t break any new ground for Swift, she’s actually retreading much of what she’s already written, but I’m thrilled to see her finally return to form, if even for a one off. “Better Man” has the substance missing from her pop catalog.

The Breaker finds Little Big Town in the post-”Girl Crush” era, one in which they double down on Lori McKenna, in hopes of lightening striking twice. The album features no less than five of her writing credits. In anticipation of the album, they previewed “Happy People,” which she wrote with Hailey Waters. The track, mid-tempo pop, generalizes the characteristics of happy people, with a laundry list of signifiers:

Happy people don’t cheat

Happy people don’t lie

They don’t judge or hold a grudge, don’t criticize

Happy people don’t hate

Happy people don’t steal

Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel

 

Happy people don’t fail

Happy people just learn

Don’t think that we’re above the push and shove

We just wait their turn

They always got a hand

Or a dollar to spare

Know the golden rule what you’re goin’ through

Even if it never been there

“We Went to the Beach” was the album’s second preview, is a refreshing change of pace with Philip Sweet on lead vocals. The track may seem like it has much in common with “Pontoon,” “Day Drinking” and “Pain Killer,” but it’s nowhere near as vapid. The ballad has a wonderfully engaging melody that perfectly frames Sweet’s buttery voice.

The third and final preview, “When Someone Stops Loving You,” is another of McKenna’s co-written offerings. The tastefully produced ethereal ballad is a showcase for Jimi Westbrook, who elevates the 1970s soft rock undertones with his smooth yet pleasing vocal turn.

McKenna is one of four writers on “Free,” a sonically adventurous ballad celebrating the not-so-novel idea that the best aspects of life don’t cost anything. “Lost In California,” is the only contribution solely by the Love Junkies, who co-wrote “Girl Crush.” The song, which should definitely be a single, is an excellent sultry ballad and one of the album’s strongest tracks outside of “Better Man.”

Karen and Kimberly join the Love Junkies on “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old,” is a pleasant ballad with interesting finger snaps and their gorgeous harmonies. They continue to slow the pace on “Beat Up Bible,” an acoustic guitar-led ballad showcasing Schlapman singing lead. The track is very good albeit a bit bland. The title track, another one with Sweet singing lead, has a nice lyric but could’ve used a bit more life in the production.

The main difference between The Breaker and previous Little Big Town albums is the suppression of uptempo material, which is surprising given the current climate of mainstream country. The album isn’t devoid of such songs and numbers like “Night On Our Side,” aren’t not only terrible, they’re out of place. “Driving Around” isn’t much better and harkens back to a Little Big Town this album works so hard to leave behind. “Rollin,’” in which Westbrook sings lead, doesn’t even sound like them.

The Breaker is the beginning of a new chapter for Little Big Town, one that finds the band slowing the pace to highlight the substance they’ve brought back to their music. The Breaker is far from a perfect album, but it is a step in the right direction, even if that step has more in common with 1970s soft rock than country music.

EP Review: Jenny Gill – ‘The House Sessions’

March 9, 2017

Jenny Gill

the-house-sessions

The House Sessions

  * * * * 

The House Sessions, Jenny Gill’s debut EP, finds her drawing on personal experience as she strives to establish her own voice separate from her esteemed pedigree. Her father, who most everyone knows is Vince Gill, produced the album at the home studio for which the six-song set finds its name.

The material that comprises The House Sessions finds Gill transported to the past while specific memories tied to the lyrics. The gorgeous “Whisky Words,” a ballad concerning an ex who’s all talk, was birthed from her time working at a publishing company tasked with pitching songs to others. It comes across as a record that would’ve been popular in the early-2000s when it likely would’ve done quite well.

“Lean On Love” finds Gill exercising her bluesy side in homage to Bonnie Raitt whom she cites as a primary influence. The tune is excellent, tastefully produced and subtly evocative. “Lonely Lost Me,” the lead single, which features harmonies by Sheryl Crow, is a jazzy ballad that settles into an intoxicating and memorable groove.

Gill’s husband, Sony/ATV executive Josh Van Valkenberg, inspired the title of “Look Where Loving You Landed Me” when he sang the line on their honeymoon. The track is a terrific ballad melding her blues and jazz influences with the personal touches (references to the beach) that keep the song from feeling generic.

The most adventurous track on The House Sessions is Motown classic “The Letter,” which was originally recorded by The Box Tops fifty years ago. I do find it strange that Gill would choose to add a cover song to an EP when she could’ve added another original instead, but she handles the track with ease while showcasing additional aspects of her voice.

Gill freely admits that the gospel-tinged “Your Shadow” is the album’s most personal number. The song tackles the heavy emotions surrounding her good fortune at being Vince’s daughter. The track also contains the most memorable line on the whole project:

And someone will say, I’ll never compare

And I’ll pour my heart out and no one will care

And I’ve got to find a dream that will shine on its own

In the light of your shadow

While it is easy to compare an offspring to their famous parents, Gill doesn’t have that problem on The House Sessions. She makes the album her own with an authentic sound true to her voice and influences. She recorded the album in a week; utilizing studio time her father gave her as a Christmas present. I’m glad he was involved in shaping the sound of the record because the final mixing is clear and clean, devoid of excess. He let each song breathe and find itself musically, which rewards the listener with a rich experience that puts the song, and not ego, front and center.

The House Sessions, which has been available digitally since September, is getting another push this month with renewed publicity and a video for “Lonely Lost Me.” I wouldn’t categorize the project as country per se, as it melds those sensibilities with jazz and blues to find its own place within the musical space. Ultimately genre classification doesn’t matter since The House Sessions wonderfully succeeds in showcasing Gill as a fully formed artist and writer. I look forward any new music she chooses to release in the years to come.

Album Review: Tift Merritt – ‘Stitch of the World’

March 8, 2017

Tift Merritt

stitch-of-the-world

Stitch Of The World

* * * 1/2

Stitch of the World, Tift Merritt’s third release for Yep Roc Records, emerged at the end of her marriage to her longtime drummer Zeke Hutchins, a life change that prompted her to return home to North Carolina. The album came together in just four brisk days during the third trimester of her first pregnancy.

Merritt gained reassurance from Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam, the sounding board who signed off on the material, co-produced the album and became the project’s loudest voice. His wail can be heard on first single “Dusty Old Man,” a rollicking carefree bluesy barnburner that opens the ten-song set.

He also joins Merritt for three collaborations. “Something Came Over Me” is a stunning steel-drenched ballad while “Eastern Light” is acoustic driven and gorgeously stark. “Wait for Me” is a sonic blend of the two and equally as striking.

She garnered inspiration for “Love Soldiers On” while witnessing the monotonous work of ranch hands. She concluded that love lies in our ability to keep on going, a worthy sentiment from a pitch-perfect lyric. “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb” is an exquisite ballad of difficult introspection. The title track was born in California when she witnessed landscapes and skies that didn’t seem real. The song is wonderful although the sonic elements can seem a bit heavy at times.

My favorite track on the album is “My Boat,” which features a nice driving beat and a wonderful lyric adapted from Raymond Carver’s poem “Water Comes Together With Other Water.” I couldn’t really get into either “Icarus” or “Proclamation Bones,” but they are both worthy tracks nonetheless.

Sonically speaking, Stitch of the World isn’t my style of music within the country realm. But Merritt’s adult female perspective is intoxicatingly beautiful and a reminder of why she shouldn’t go so long between solo sets. I highly recommend checking this album out.

 

EP Review: J.P. Harris (with Nikki Lane, Kristina Murray, Kelsey Waldon and Leigh Nash) – ‘Why Don’t We Duet In The Road’

March 7, 2017

J.P. Harris

jpharris_duet_largeweb_1024x1024

Why Don’t We Duet In The Road

* * * *

J.P. Harris, whose sound is described as ‘booming hippie-friendly honky-tonk,’ found the inspiration for Why Don’t We Duet In The Road in the collaborative spirit of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The EP finds Harris covering iconic duets with some of Nashville’s most innovate female singer/songwriters, in an effort to bottle his experiences in Music City with a record aimed at prosperity over commercial viability.

Harris hunkered down in Ronnie Milsap’s former studio to record the four-track album, which he self-produced in a single six-hour session. What resulted is rough around the edges, fueled by twangy guitars and a gorgeous interpretation of outlaw country.

No one better exemplifies the modern outlaw spirit than Nikki Lane, who burst onto the scene in 2011 blending rockabilly and honky-tonk. She teams with Harris on “You’re The Reason Our Kids are Ugly,” which finds the pair embodying the spirit of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn’s 1978 original. Harris’ choice of Lane to accompany him is a smart one. You can hear her ballsy grit as she uses her smoky alto to channel Lynn’s feisty spirit without sacrificing her distinct personality.

The least familiar of Harris’ collaborators is likely Americana darling Kristina Murray, who joins him for an excellent reading of George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “Golden Ring.” The pair is brilliant together, with Murray emerging as a revelation with her effortless mix of ease and approachability. I quite enjoyed the arrangement, too, which has the perfectly imperfect feel of a band completely in sync with one another.

Harris is the star on “If I Was A Carpenter,” which finds him with the criminally underrated Kelsey Waldon. Her quiet assertiveness, which could’ve used a touch more bravado, is, unfortunately, no match for his buttery vocal. Waldon’s contributions are by no means slight; he’s just magnetic.

The final selection, Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner’s “Better Move It On Home,” finds Harris with the most recognizable vocalist of the bunch, Leigh Nash. She’s best known as the lead singer of Sixpence None The Richer, the band that hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 with the iconic “Kiss Me” in 1998. She’s since gone on to a solo career, which includes a country album released in September 2015. She taps into that grit here, and erases any notion of her pop sensibilities, but proves she doesn’t quite measure up to Parton on the 1971 original. The pair had an uphill battle ahead of them from the onset and they didn’t quite deliver.

That being said Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is a fantastic extended play highlighting five uniquely talented vocalists. If country artists continue to churn out releases of this high a quality than 2017 is going to be a very good year, indeed.

Grade: A 

NOTE: Why Don’t We Duet in the Road is offered as a random colored double 7” limited to 500 copies, which as of press time are about halfway to sold out. Rolling Stone Country also has the tracks accessible for streaming, which I highly recommend. The EP is also available on iTunes as of January 6.

Favorite Singles of 2016

March 6, 2017

My favorite singles of the year run the gamut from commercial to obscure and everything in between. Keep reading for career moments from Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire to shining examples of why Lori McKenna and Brandy Clark are more than expert songwriters.

unknown10. Chris Young Feat Cassadee Pope – ‘Think Of You’

Young deserves credit for searching within his own genre for a female collaborator. He deserves praise for co-writing a song that doesn’t use Pope as
window dressing, but rather as a means of furthering the story. This tale of a once-great couple isn’t revelatory, but it’s catchy as hell.

 9. William Michael Morgan – ‘Missing’

The influence George Strait said was absent from country radio came roaring back to life with William Michael Morgan’s follow-up to “I Met A Girl.” “Missing” is an astonishing single in that it makes little compromise to the modern landscape. Warner Bros deserves credit for releasing something this country to radio. Time will tell if they respond favorably.

 500x5008. Kelsey Waldon – ‘All By Myself’

Among its many achievements, a few of which you’ll see highlighted further down, 2016 introduced Kelsey Waldon, a killer traditionalist, to the masses. “All By Myself” is a stern warning to fakers, a biting assessment of authenticity and a woman’s empowerment anthem for the current generation. 

7. Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Something Tamed, Something Wild’

The most common criticism I’ve heard about Mary Chapin Carpenter’s more recent works is she ‘lacks a pulse.’ It may be true to an extent, but I’m not hearing it here. This introspective examination of existential curiosity is one of her finest in recent memory. The parent album it comes from is her best in more than a decade.

6. Time Jumpers – ‘Kid Sister’

Vince Gill’s tribute to Dawn Sears is both personal and touching.

record-year-cover5. Eric Church – ‘Record Year’

Not since “The Song Remembers When” has a song about songs been this clever or powerful. Church proves he’s a master once again, name checking legends at every turn and laying out a jovial tale of heartbreak both ear catching and believable. “Record Year” is undoubtedly the best mainstream single of the year.

 4. Lori McKenna – ‘Wreck You’

The lead single from The Bird and the Rifle is this masterful look at sabotage in which the woman is admitting fault, with brutal candor – “Something between us changed, I’m not sure if its you or me But lately all I do seems to wreck you.”

unspecified-13. Tim McGraw – ‘How I’ll Always Be’

2016 found Tim McGraw in an artistic renaissance, with his strongest back-to-back singles in twenty years. He succeeded in a climate unfavorable to substance without conceding to modern pressures. “Humble & Kind” is the better lyric. But “How I’ll Always Be” shines melodically. Not since “Just To See You Smile” has McGraw sounded this good on record. 

2. Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can Go To Hell’

The genius is in the delivery. Brandy Clark sings this so deadpan, it’s easy to miss the dark humor underneath the surface. I totally missed it, but when it hit me, I never heard this the same way again.

reba-1024x10241. Reba McEntire – ‘Just Like Them Horses’

Tim McGraw wasn’t the only one in the throws of an artistic reawaking in 2016. This tale of a dying man giving positive reassurance to the loved one he’s leaving behind may’ve been too much for radio to bare, the unique take on ‘if you love me, let me go’ too smart for the masses.

Reba eulogized her father with this tune before committing it to record, which only solidified the emotional undertones she brought forth in her performance, her strongest vocal since “If I Had Only Known” twenty-five years ago. “Just Like Them Horses” is just that good, a bone-chilling highlight from a career with far too many to count.

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

July 22, 2016

Lori McKenna

lori_mckenna_cover_sq-8bf01c93fab9c51c99c2845e5912678475452f65-s300-c85

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: 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

 

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

June 9, 2016

Brandy Clark

promoted-media-optimized_56fe8b2ad785e

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

JN_ART_ALBUM_PWF_Cover_2016.03.02_FNL_1_67b07e04-f0ad-4db5-bb6c-9d0a73d70a65_2048x2048

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.

(more…)

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.

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.

EP Review: Yes Dear – ‘Yes Dear’

November 16, 2015

Yes Dear

33nYyffRcAu7IONCp92GNM6MeP7qlWfxn1Me8Sw3ipQ,i3D-78qmByddxgt3wMm2UTDFGjbEUpmLEq3ZNVSQfxI

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

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Damn Country Music’

November 12, 2015

Tim McGraw

1035x1035-image003

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: Carrie Underwood – ‘Storyteller’

November 10, 2015

Carrie Underwood

Carrie_Underwood_-_Storyteller_(Official_Album_Cover)

Storyteller

** 1/2 

Of all the criticisms I can level at mainstream country this year, the most unnerving is the brazen shamelessness of artists who’ve gone out of their way to change everything they’re about in order to chase a bigger high that doesn’t exist. More than adapting to changing trends, artists like Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry have abandoned their earnestness and sold their souls to Scott Borchetta, who interfered with their artistry in order to fill his pockets.

Carrie Underwood, luckily, isn’t on the Big Machine Label Group. That being said, I was still nervous about the direction of Storyteller. To compete in a tomato-smeared world, how much would she have to veer from the sound that made her a household name?

As much as I admire Underwood’s music, I cannot help but feel her output has been geared toward the right now, with songs that don’t stand the test of time. A lot of her music, especially the rockers, just isn’t strong enough to carry the nostalgia we now feel for the 1990s country we all love. She’s an incredible vocalist, and when she’s on point, no one can hold a candle to her.

That’s why I’m always excited when she releases new music. I’m even more pleased she and Arista Nashville added Jay Joyce and Zach Crowell as producers alongside Mark Bright. Underwood and Bright have been a well-oiled machine going on ten years, but it’s time to change it up for the sake of variety.

Our first taste of the switch-up is the Joyce produced “Smoke Break,” a rocker Underwood co-wrote with Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsay. It’s easily one of the most country songs on the radio right now, with Underwood’s natural twang carrying the somewhat generic story quite nicely. I only wish Joyce had dialed it back on the chorus, going for a more organic punch than the screaming rock that drowns Underwood out.

Likely second single “Heartbeat,” which features Sam Hunt and was produced by his orchestrator Crowell, finds Underwood in a field with her man ‘dancing to the rhythm of [his] heartbeat.’ The track, which Underwood and Crowell co-wrote with Ashley Gorley, is a pleasant pop ballad that finds Underwood nicely subdued.

She also co-wrote four other tracks on the album. “Renegade Runaway” kicks off Storyteller with bang. The rocker, co-written with her “Smoke Break” comrades, is slinky and fun but suffers from a god-awful chorus that renders the song almost unlistenable. Mike Elizondo, best known for his work with Drake and Eminem, was brought in collaborate with Underwood and Lindsay on club thumper “Chaser.” The results are immature at best and showcase Underwood at her most watered down.

Fortunately, Underwood rebounds with her final two co-writes. Underwood and Lindsay turned to David Hodges to write “The Girl You Think I Am,” an ode to her father in the vein of “Mama’s Song” from Play On. It’s a beautiful prayer about acceptance, from a daughter who wants to overcome her insecurities to live up to her father’s expectations.

The other, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” is the centerpiece of Storyteller even though it closes the album. Underwood isn’t an artist who normally looks from within for inspiration, so it’s rare when she finds inspiration in her own life for a song. The results aren’t spectacular – she could’ve gone a lot deeper lyrically and found even a little hint of country music in the execution – but she’s gotten her feet wet for future moves in this direction.

Storyteller wouldn’t be an Underwood album unless she revisits the murderous themes that have become her touchstone. These songs have grown into bigger productions in the ten years since “Before He Cheats” and usually suffer from a lack of subtlety. That doesn’t change much here, although they are kind of fun to listen to. “Choctaw County Affair” showcases Underwood’s growth as a vocalist with a delicious story about a woman’s mysterious death. “Church Bells” is an excellent backwoods rocker about domestic abuse. “Dirty Laundry,” on the other hand, is juvenile and revisits themes already too well worn. “Mexico,” about bandits on the run, isn’t the island song you’d expect but a typical Underwood rocker.

On every Underwood album there’s one song that stands out from the rest, a likely non-single that’ll always be a much-appreciated deep album cut. On Storyteller that distinction goes to sensual ballad “Like I’ll Never Love You Again,” written by the CMA Song of the Year winning team behind “Girl Crush.” Underwood delivers flawlessly, while the lyric is the strongest and most well written on the whole album.

“Relapse” is nothing more than a blown out pop power ballad that does little to advance Underwood’s artistry beyond the fact she showcases new colors in her voice. “Clock Don’t Stop,” another ballad, suffers from a hip-hop inspired chorus that relies far too heavily on drawn out one syllable words and yeahs in place of actual lyrics.

Storyteller is an odd album. I refuse to judge its complete lack of actual country music as a flaw even though it hurts the proceedings quite a bit. There are some listenable pop songs here, like “Heartbeat,” but most of this music is below Underwood’s talent level. The deliciousness of “Choctaw County Affair” saves it from the scrap heap while the articulate lyric of “Like I’ll Never Love You Again” is very, very good. But there isn’t much here that doesn’t feel like poorly written middle of the road pop/rock passing as modern country.

I give Underwood complete credit for changing up her sound and trying something new. It just isn’t to my taste at all. I much prefer the powerhouse who gave us the one-two-punch of “Something In The Water” and “Little Toy Guns.” That’s the Carrie Underwood I could listen to all day.

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

lb_final_cover_digital_1

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

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x560

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.