Posts Tagged ‘Brandy Clark’

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.

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Sunny Sweeny was also interviewed on Rolling Stone Country

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: 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

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

Don’t You Go a Changin’

Cause They Only Like You One Way

Oh But This Girl You See

Is Only Pieces of Me

And I’m More Than Just A Toppin’

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

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

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Predictions for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards

February 11, 2016

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

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

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

Best Country Solo Performance

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

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

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

Best Country Duo/Group Performance

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

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

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

Best Country Song

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

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

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

travellerBest Country Album

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

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

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

A few more Predictions:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Predictions for the 50th annual ACM Awards

April 16, 2015

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, The Academy of Country Music Awards is being held at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, TX  this Sunday on CBS. Blake Shelton is returning for his fifth year as host while Luke Bryan will co-host for the third consecutive time. Notable performers include George Strait, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and Dierks Bentley along with the usual mainstream country suspects. Nick Jonas and Christina Aguilera will also take the stage as part of unique duets.

Along with the regular awards, the ACM will also be handing out specially designed 50th anniversary Milestone Awards to Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks and George Strait. (Swift is expected to accept in person despite distancing herself from the genre).

Check out the nominations, here.

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks, who has six previous wins, is nominated for the first time since 2001 in a year that saw him break ticket sale records, but underwhelm with his Man Against Machine album. The absence of Taylor Swift, George Strait and Tim McGraw left the category open for some fresh blood, resulting in Florida Georgia Line’s first nomination.

Should Win: Garth Brooks – he continues to show how it’s done, twenty-five years after his debut.

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’ll ride his CMA momentum all the way to the finish line, scoring his second win in three nominations.

4e35192a48a8e1409d2f92873a0dbab7Male Vocalist of the Year

Despite eight previous nominations with five wins, it’s not shocking to see Brad Paisley included here. But after such an underwhelming year, it’s still surprising to see him included in a six-way tie. Dierks Bentley scores his second nomination in ten years, while half of the remaining four consist of previous winners. Jason Aldean has taken home this award for the past two years.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – His only previous nomination came in 2005, while he was still in the promotional cycle for his sophomore album. His stature has only risen in the years since, with critical acclaim and consistent support from country radio, making him long overdue for his turn in the spotlight.   

Will Win: Luke Bryan – He’s arguably the biggest male artist in country music right now, eclipsing Aldean, Eric Church, and Blake Shelton with his stadium show, fast rising singles, and immense popularity. There’s little chance he’ll walk away empty handed, taking home his first win on his third consecutive nomination.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – “Love Somebody”

April 14, 2015

Reba McEntire

Reba_LoveSomebody

Love Somebody

* * * 1/2

In the five years since All The Women I Am, Reba McEntire thought the changing tides of mainstream country music had swung too far in the opposite direction and thus she had recorded her final album. With playlists catering almost exclusively to men, she felt there wasn’t room for her anymore. That didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from begging, and after four years, he finally got her back in the studio.

Love Somebody is McEntire’s twenty-seventh album and first as the flagship artist of Nash Icon, Borchetta’s newest venture in which he signs legacy acts with hopes of returning them to prominence. The album, co-produced between McEntire, Tony Brown, and James Stroud, is an eclectic slice of modern country that proves the 60-year-old hall of famer can still keep up with the young guns. She hasn’t lost any of the distinctive color in her voice nor has she forsaken the themes that have kept her career afloat for more than forty years.

McEntire’s distinctive ear for songs brimming with attitude is evident in “Going Out Like That,” the lead single that’s beating the odds and becoming a sizeable hit. She continues in that vein on “Until They Don’t Love You,” a Shane McAnally co-write with Lori McKenna and Josh Osborne. Brash and theatrical, the track has prominent backing vocals and nods to her mid-90s anthems although it lacks their distinctiveness. The electric guitar soaked “This Living Ain’t Killed Me Yet” has an engaging lyric courtesy of Tommy Lee James and Laura Veltz and is far more structured melodically.

Pedal Steel leads the way on “She Got Drunk Last Night,” which finds a woman drunk-dialing an old flame. McEntire conveys Brandy Clark and McAnally’s lyric with ease, but I would’ve liked the song to go a bit deeper into the woman’s desperation. She finds herself haunted by the memory of an ex on “That’s When I Knew,” about the moment a woman realizes she’s finally moved on. Jim Collins and Ashley Gorley’s lyric is very good and finds McEntire coping splendidly with a powerful yet thick arrangement.

Throughout Love Somebody, McEntire grapples with intriguing thematic and sonic choices that display her ability to reach beyond her usual material. “I’ll Go On” finds her singing from the prospective of a woman who actually forgives the man who doesn’t love her. She tries and ultimately fails to adequately execute a Sam Hunt co-written hip-hop groove on the title track, one of two love songs. The other, “Promise Me Love,” is a much better song, although Brown’s busy production hinders any chance of the listener truly engaging with the lyric.

She also takes a stab at recreating the magic of “Does He Love You” through a duet with Jennifer Nettles. Written by Kelly Archer, Aaron Scherz, and Emily Shackelton, “Enough” boasts a strong lyric about two women who’ll never be sufficient for this one guy. The premise is stellar and McEntire and Nettles deliver vocally. I just wish the production were softer so we could get the full effect of their anger and despair.

While not particularly unusual, McEntire turns in another story song with “Love Land,” Tom Douglas and Rachael Thibodeau’s composition first recorded by Martina McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, as I find it very heavy-handed, but McEntire handles it well.

The centerpiece of Love Somebody is Liz Hengber’s “Just Like Them Horses,” a delicate ballad about a recently departed loved one journeying to the other side. The recording is a masterpiece of emotion from Hengber’s perfect lyric to Brown’s elegant production. McEntire’s vocal, channeling the pain she felt when she first sang it at her father’s funeral last fall, is in hallowed company – it’s on par with her delivery of “If I’d Only Known” from twenty-four years ago.

The album closes with her charity single “Pray For Peace” the first self-written song McEntire has recorded since “Only In My Mind” thirty years ago. Like the majority of Love Somebody it shows her taking chances while also staying true to authentic self. While there are few truly knockout punches, this is a very good album. It might not be the strongest set she’s ever released, but it’s a solid reminder that she should stay in the game and take shorter gaps between projects.

It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

October 31, 2014

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

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Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

October 23, 2014

Angaleena Presley

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000px

American Middle Class

* * * * *

For her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Concert Review: Jennifer Nettles & Brandy Clark at The South Shore Music Circus

August 15, 2014

IMG_3594The gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar and rolling percussion fill the tent. Most turn a deaf ear to the customary sounds of house music as a concert commences. The lights were low and the stage empty, instruments waiting to be played, microphones eager to be sung into. A baby-voiced vocal adds character to the instrumentation, a singer with a distinctive bite. It’s a forty-one year old classic recording, a composition we’ve all dug into time and again. When the two-and-a-half minute ballad draws to a close, the audience erupts. The band files in and begins.

More light procession fills the tent. The sounds are different this time, subtly so, modernized with handclaps. The singer, with her sandy blonde hair back in a ponytail adorning dark jeans and a white Keith Richards tank under a white vest is handed a guitar. She makes her way to the microphone for a seemingly endless parade of “ohohohohohs” before launching into, “a friend gave me your number…”

The delicate connection between the two songs is missed, if you weren’t aware Jennifer Nettles and Butch Walker wrote “That Girl” as an answer song to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which filled the air before the band took the stage. Little connections like that were the benchmark of the evening, as Nettles gifted the crowed a lengthy set that had the audience in the palm of her hand.

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Album Review: Miranda Lambert: “Platinum”

June 12, 2014

Miranda Lambert

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Platinum

* * * * 1/2

Midway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came Fromnine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, butPlatinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

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7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

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3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1

December 5, 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013 Part I: 20-11

December 4, 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. Here’s part I, 20-11:

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20. That Girl – Jennifer Nettles

Back in “Stay” mode, Nettles is once again the other woman. Sequels often pale in comparison to the original, as “That Girl” does, but Nettles scores points for writing the first answer song to Dolly Parton’s classic “Jolene” and pulling it off with ease.

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19. Someone, Somewhere Tonight – Kellie Pickler

Treading hallowed ground, Kellie Pickler tackles one of Pam Tillis’ greatest vocal performances ever by covering one of the best songs she’s ever recorded. Finally stripped of her caricature image thanks to Dancing With The Stars, Picker plays it smart by making “Someone Somewhere Tonight” her own. While it pails in comparison to Tillis’ brilliant rendition, Pickler more than makes up for it with a mature performance that marks her growth as a singer and a person.

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18. Your Side of the Bed – Little Big Town 

So what if the third single from Tornado is a rip-off of a Gretchen Wilson album cut? Husband-and-wife Karen Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook bring stunning conviction to this tale of a relationship breaking down from both sides of a king sized bed.

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17. Don’t Let Me Be Lonely – The Band Perry

This must be a trend – when The Band Perry’s debut album came out, they placed one single apiece on both my best and worst lists. They’ve done the same again. Their best? This little ode to spreading your wings when you’re young. It’s a bit too loud towards the middle, but it works for me nonetheless.

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16. Enough – Joey + Rory

Originally written by Rory for a Kraft commercial, “Enough” is a sweet tale about family values and having “just enough to get by on.” There’s nothing revelatory about its sentiment (especially after “That’s Important To Me”) but it exudes charm nonetheless.

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15. Hush, Hush – Pistol Annies

How many of us have been there? You’re at the dreaded family reunion and just as you expected, no one is speaking to anyone. Brother is just out of rehab, daddy’s obsessed with the end of the world, and mom is sneaking vodka just to cope with it all. “Hush, Hush” is family dysfunction at it’s best with some vivid characters to boot.

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14. Travelin’ Alone – Jason Isbell

The best truckin’ song of the year is Isbell’s ode to loneliness on the road. He just wants someone to share it all with. Is that really too much to ask?

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13. Blowin’ Smoke – Kacey Musgraves

The shortsighted working poor come roaring back to life courtesy of Musgraves and her team of diner waitresses who are dreaming of a better life. Kelly may’ve gotten out, and hitched a ride to Vegas, but the others will forever be blowing smoke, and not just what comes from their cigarettes. It’s mystifying how fully formed Musgraves’ perspective on life is for a twenty-four year old.

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12. Mama’s Broken Heart – Miranda Lambert

Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves’ greatest success in 2013 came from writing this biting look at breakups from the standpoint of a generational gap between a mother and daughter. She’s cutting her bangs, screaming his name, and contemplating revenge while mom, who raised her better, wants her to “Cross [her] legs and dot [her] eyes and never let ‘em see [her] cry.” Lambert has never played this type of conflict so well.

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11. Like Jesus Does – Eric Church 

Another example of Church proving he’s an artist, not just a puppet of the country music industry. I will always reward those who show some effort and Church pulls out the effort in spades here. One of his finest singles.

Album Review – Brandy Clark – ’12 Stories’

October 21, 2013

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12 Stories

* * * * 1/2

If you’ve been paying attention to country music in 2013 there’s likely one name on the tip of your tongue – Brandy Clark. The buzz about the songwriter behind such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two” has been at fever pitch, and it’s easy to understand why with just one listen to her debut record.

Clark has stolen the Linda Ronstadt rulebook that Trisha Yearwood and company made famous in the 1990s, rewritten it, and crafted an album that borrows yet improves upon the past, all the while introducing an artist who is completely and uniquely herself. With12 Stories Clark has redrafted the textbook on how to evolve, and not change, the country genre.

At its core 12 Stories is an exercise in immaculate songwriting. Clark has an innate ability to take hefty subjects and morph them into delicious slices of black comedy, skewing the stories to forgo the ache in an effort to focus on creating little vignettes that play like some of the best episodes of television.

My favorite of these is “Hungover,” a Sara Evans-like co-write with Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon about a woman’s realization that her drunken man isn’t going to change. Also stunning is “The Day She Got Divorced,” a wonderfully addicting day-in-the-life about a woman’s itinerary the day her marriage officially ends. Reba had it onAll The Women I Am and it was my favorite track on that project three years ago.

“Strips,” the album’s lead single, is the new standard-bearer for cheating songs, with the woman declaring there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion as she ponders killing her husband, stopping only because I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes. Clark (along with McAnally and Matt Jenkins) has co-written one hell of a clever song, and while the premise is laid on a little thick it works surprisingly well.

“Crazy Women” was an excellent yet low-charting single for LeAnn Rimes (from Lady & Gentlemen), and Clark’s version is good, but lacks the punch of personality Rimes brought to her recording. In addition, “Get High,” the only song Clark wrote solo (and the oldest composition on the album) suffers from a weak hook (‘sometimes the only way to get by is to get high’) that leaves the chorus feeling underdeveloped.

What elevates 12 Stories into echelon of masterworks is the emotional depth Clark brings to the project. She elegantly weaves a series of ballads between the vignettes that rank among the finest moments on a country album this decade.

Weeds-inspired “Pray To Jesus” is a timeless anthem for the working poor that doesn’t stereotype or judge. It acts an affirmation that we’re just trying to better ourselves from within, because the fix doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s the lone socially conscious track on 12 Stories and currently the best song of its kind from this somewhat forgotten sub-genre.

“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a reflection on the pull between right and wrong framed around two married individuals about to cheat on their spouses. Clark is able to get inside the woman’s psyche (I don’t know what scares me most, the ride up, or the ride down) in way that’s both ordinary and extraordinary; exercising both arguments while letting the listener make their own conclusions. The simple beauty recalls Matraca Berg’s “Lying To The Moon.”

Clark and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” co-writer Mark Stephen Jones teamed up again on “Hold My Hand,” the story of a couple running into his alluring ex-lover, only to have his current love plead for definition in their relationship. Meanwhile “In Some Corner” spins another side of the “Last Call”/”Keep It To Yourself” drunken dialing saga that amazingly hasn’t been played out yet. It’s Clark’s turn to show her moment of weakness and she’s praying he doesn’t call, as she can’t refuse his advances.

The strongest track on 12 Stories comes at the end, with an all too common narrative about a woman who marries the mirror image of her always-absent father. “Just Like Him,” (co-written with Dillon and McAnally) beautifully hits upon the unspoken truth that people marry at the level of their self-esteem, thinking they’re only worth the same-gender role models (or lack thereof) they grew up around. The conviction Clark brings to this song is remarkable, showcasing her incredible knack at crafting tales purely from observances – her dad is the antithesis of this character.

In truth Clark brings that conviction to the entire project. As a child of the 90s, I came of age in the era when music such as this was the rule and not the exception, when artists were allowed to have real problems that were bigger then which truck was going to transport some beer keg to lake whatever down some dirt road littered with bikini-clad country girls.

It makes me sick that every record label in Nashville (even two that confessed to loving it) past on releasing 12 Stories but I’m glad an independent label in Texas picked it up. This is music that needs to be heard. I urge you to pick up a copy, as it’s well worth the money, and time spent listening. Clark is the most important singer/songwriter to come around in a long, long time and 12 Stories is the best album of its kind I’ve heard in many, many years.

A Separation of Church and State: How the Country Music Association mostly got their nominations right this year

September 20, 2013

as13-dateIn 2006, the Country Music Association sent Faith Hill a clear message when Carrie Underwood was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year, only two singles removed from winning American Idol. They were ushering in a changing of the guard that sent ripple effects through country’s core women, making way for new talent at the helm.

Underwood has received a similar message this year with Taylor Swift being nominated for Entertainer of the Year in her place. Swift may be a bigger celebrity with a broader reach, but Underwood’s no slouch – a sold out tour, four #1 singles, ambassadorship for country music, and she’s been hosting the ceremony going on five consecutive years. Heck she just took over Sunday Night Football theme song duties.

In recent history all the top solo female artists (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill) have been nominated and won (Hill lost to Dixie Chicks in 2000) while her contemporaries Swift has won twice and Miranda Lambert received her only nod to date in 2010. That Underwood is being snubbed yet again is one of the biggest injustices in the 47-year history of the award show. Underwood and Swift should be competing in the category together – they both have rightfully earned their place in the category.

Underwood aside, it’s nice to see the Country Music Association mostly get it right this year. The major theme of the nominations is artistic quality, as evidenced by Kacey Musgraves receiving six nominations, a move I didn’t see coming. She’s been building a lot of buzz this year but with little support from country radio, I hardly gave her a chance. Her nominations prove the CMA is still looking for quality contemporary music and actually care about maintaining at least one shred of dignity. They should’ve gone further and showered Ashley Monroe with praise, too, but her outsider-looking-in status likely left her a square peg in a round hole and she was deemed too Americana for this mostly mainstream affair.

There was once a time when you could count the number of females who’ve taken home Album of the Year on one hand. That list has grown in the past few years thanks to wins by Lee Ann Womack (2005), Taylor Swift (2008) and Miranda Lambert (2010). This year Blake Shelton stands alone as the only solo male artist in the category, proving that airplay on country radio isn’t the only factor in scoring a nomination.

I believe whole heartedly that you cannot deny an artist success once they’ve achieved it, no matter how much you may dislike the singer or their song. The world may cry foul over Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” but they clearly earned the Single of the Year, Musical Event of the Year, Duo Of The Year, and New Artist nods. The song is a behemoth and is clearly being rewarded as such. Swift’s showering of affection is more puzzling, since the success ofRed came in the pop market, but “Begin Again” and “Highway Don’t Care” did keep her relevant in her home genre this year.

Where the Country Music Association deserve the most credit is with the separation of church and state – if you notice, “Cruise” isn’t in the Song of the Year race nor is Here For The Good Times up for Album. In fact, none of the genre’s biggest names (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Shelton) have a Single or Song of the year nod, something I never thought I’d see. Absence by ‘bro-country’ powerhouses leaves the likes of “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to battle it out for the win.

It’s nice to see Nashville songwriters back in the Song of The Year race, too. Even more impressive is the CMA’s distinction in excellence, seeing that the best of commercial Nashville scored big, while the laundry list lovers are left to voyage down dirt roads with beer kegs, country girls, and pickup trucks. Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are two of the best writers around right now and combined with Musgraves, they’re killer. What other writing team can claim two nominations in the same year?

In sizing up the New Artist competition, I was about to show my denial of a mass extinction, until I looked at the Billboard Airplay Chart and noticed “Parking Lot Party” in the top 10, on it’s way to becoming Lee Brice’s fourth consecutive number one. Like fellow nominee Kip Moore, he’s becoming a force for the future, and with his single “I Drive Your Truck” up for Song of the Year (Brice doesn’t have a writing credit on it), he has a better chance of winning than I gave him credit for initially. This is a very strong category, although Musgraves is the only nominee with proven artistic potential, a necessary ingredient for longevity.

I’ll have my predictions closer to the November 9 telecast, with a breakdown per category, and thoughts on each individual race. But overall the Country Music Association deserves credit for getting more right than wrong this year, mostly opting for artistic integrity over commercial viability.

Check out all the nominations here.     

Album Review – Grits and Glamour (Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan) – ‘Dos Divas’

July 31, 2013

Grits and Glamour (Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan)

DosDivas

Dos Divas

* * * 1/2 

It’s always interesting when a favorite artist issues a new recording. Your gut instinct is excitement, but you also wonder if the new material will measure up to the iconic music from that singer’s catalog. That sentiment certainly rings true about Dos Divas, the much anticipated duets project by Grits and Glamour, the duo comprised of Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan.

Tillis and Morgan are certainly an inspired pairing. They’re second-generation country singers who’ve grown up in the business and have been close friends since they landed major label record deals some twenty-five years ago. The pair even co-headlined (along with third-generation country singer Carlene Carter) a tour together in 1996. They’ve been touring under their current moniker going on some three years now and it was the fans that demanded this new release.

You have to be careful what you wish for. Dos Divas is a smorgasbord of duets and solo efforts that aims high, but never quite reaches its full potential. The main problem is Morgan, who’s still pushing her I’m-fifty-going-on-twenty persona that’s been her calling card for over a decade now. Her voice has also caught up with her look, and while she has moments where she makes it work, the control she once possessed so beautifully just isn’t there anymore. Tillis, meanwhile, is the same powerhouse dynamo that brought us to our knees on “Maybe It Was Memphis” twenty-two years ago.

Among the six duets on Dos Divas, there are some standout moments. I quite like “Bless Their Hearts,” a mid-tempo number Tillis co-wrote with Jimmy Richie and Joanna Smith that wouldn’t be out of place on a Miranda Lambert album. Morgan’s vocal is nasally, but the lyric and understated melody shine. Also good is Mary Sue England and Thom Shepherd’s “I Am A Woman,” a beautiful 90s-inspired piano ballad that shows off how well the pair harmonize together.

They turn up the energy on “I Know What You Did Last Night,” the fun and campy lead single. It’s the next morning recap of last night’s shenanigans and easily   the best party song of 2013. Tillis and Morgan are excellent when they play off each other with a nicely structured lyric. “I’m Tired,” a wisp of a honky-tonker complete with brilliantly placed fiddle, works just as well.

Initially I was frustrated by the inclusion of solo numbers as this is billed as a duets project. But the pair calls Dos Divas three albums in one, and the solo numbers are a chance to see how they fit into contemporary country. Interestingly enough, they balance it out with some excellent and some horrid numbers.

Morgan shines on the plaintive ballad “Another Chance To,” written by Joe West, Tom Shapiro, and Tammi Kidd. Framed by fiddle, mandolin, and piano, Morgan sings of second chances – spurred by a traffic jam caused by a med-flight helicopter landing just up ahead on the highway. The resulting euphony (every day’s a gift) is predictable, but Morgan infuses the song with the right amounts of sincerity and believability. “Last Night’s Makeup,” co-written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally (with Jessie Jo Dillon) is almost as good, but I found the word “makeup” just a little too jarring. The sentiment is good, though, and Morgan brings her real-life romantic experiences to her vocal.

I’ve had issue with songs that mention mobile phones and Facebook because they seem out of place to me for some reason. So I was inclined to hate “That’s So Cool,” but the melody is just so darn appealing that it cancels out the lyrical inanity in Morgan’s co-write with Eddy Raven and Frank J. Myers. I also have issue with Morgan’s inability to act her age on the track, but it fits well within her persona.

Tillis doesn’t have any solo numbers that reach the heights of “Another Chance To,” but torch ballad “Even The Stars” comes close. Tillis sings the hell out of the lyric, and I love how the arrangement so brilliantly frames her voice. She also gives a vocal master class on “I Envy The Sun,” although I couldn’t totally engage with the lyric. The melody of “Ain’t Enough Roses” can become grating, but once again, she sings the track well.

More often than not I do really, really like Dos Divas. But when the songs veer off course, they are embarrassingly bad. “Old Enough To Be Your Lover,” a number Tillis handles solo, is unintelligent and while she gets the “fun” just right, Lisa Carver’s lyric forces Tillis to wear a character that just doesn’t fit right. She’s better than this. The pair team up for one track they co-wrote together, and “What Was I Thinkin’” was supposed to be a comical tour-de-force about the their past romantic conquests. In execution it’s sloppy dreck that fails to be funny or clever.

Dos Divas is one of those weird projects that is nothing like anyone thought it would sound, giving the pedigree these two share, and Tillis’ near flawless track record for turning out expertly crafted albums. I love almost every track here, but wouldn’t deem any essential listening. I’m glad the record exists, for shear listening pleasure, but both ladies have already proven they’re better than this artistically.

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – “Same Trailer, Different Park”

April 30, 2013

Kacey Musgraves

images1

Same Trailer, Different Park

* * * * 1/2

A major reason for my disillusionment with modern commercial country music is the lack of the mature adult female prospective that elevated the quality of radio playlists throughout the 1990s. The absence of Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters songs on major label albums (and the decline in popularity of artists such as Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Trisha Yearwood) has left a noticeable gap, one filled with unsatisfying party anthems and the occasional attempt at a throwback that just never quite quenches the thirst.

Thank goodness for Kacey Musgraves. The 24-year-old formerNashville Star contestant from Golden, TX is the take-no-prisoners rebel country music needs to get out of its funk.Same Trailer, Different Park is the strongest commercial country album I’ve heard in ages, filled with timely songs that say something relevant to the modern world. She has a way of crafting lyrics that touch a nerve without seeming offensive that goes well beyond her years.

Initially I will admit I wasn’t floored by “Merry Go ‘Round” the way that most everyone else was, because I managed to get it lost in the shuffle when it debuted late last year. I now fully see the genius in it – the striking way Musgraves (along with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne) paints a deeply honest portrait of small town life so simply. She also brings those same qualities to her new single “Blowin’ Smoke,” which includes a genius play on words (literally smoking/wasting time) for added effect.

I found that a main commonality in the records I’ve loved in past few years are lyrics containing interesting couplets, and Same Trailer Different Park is no different. The obvious example is scrapped second single “Follow Your Arrow,” which among other things, brings the equality debate firmly to the forefront:

Make lots of noise
And kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls
If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points, yeah
Follow your arrow
Wherever it points

Say what you feel
Love who you love
‘Cause you just get
So many trips ’round the sun
Yeah, you only
Only live once

To me it’s a shame that the country music industry has evolved into a place where such a song can’t be given its due, especially since it’s not so different from such classics as “The Pill” or “The Rubber Room,” and is an anthem for our times. Personally I celebrate her boldness (which in actuality is pretty tame) and quite enjoy both the banjo driven musical arrangement and her uncomplicated twangy vocal. The track’s overall feel good attitude really works for me.

Another favorite line, ‘You sure look pretty in your glass house/You probably think you’re too good to take the trash out’ opens another confident statement piece, “Step Off,” which plays like the typical breakup ballad sans petty revenge. Also slightly atypical is the similar themed “I Miss You,” another love gone wrong song, but this time with the added vulnerability of actually missing the guy she’s broken up with. It’s nice, and a refreshing change of pace, to hear someone still grappling with feelings towards the ex instead of just writing them off in a typical Taylor Swift type scenario. The gently rocking “Back On The Map” goes even a step further and finds Musgraves pleading for a date, telling the men of the world “I’ll do anything that you ask.”

That’s a far cry from “Keep It To Yourself.” Musgraves does a brilliant job of playing the strong woman here, and like Lee Ann Womack’s (a major influence) “Last Call” she doesn’t buy into an ex’s advances once he’s under far too strong an influence:

Keep it to yourself
If you think that you still love me
Put it on a shelf
If you’re looking for someone
Make it someone else
When you’re drunk
And it’s late
And you’re missing me like hell
Keep it to yourself

Possibly the strongest aspect of Same Trailer is the emotional range Musgraves covers in the songs. Everyone knows that life has its share of euphoric highs and crushing lows, even if most modern music hardly reflects that at all. She manages to pack desperation into the majority of the album albeit her own (“Back On The Map”) or society’s (“Merry Go ‘Round”) but also touches on the idea of finding one’s place in the world, no matter how scary. “Follow Your Arrow” is as much about love as life and “Silver Lining” takes it to the next level, saying “If you wanna fill your bottle up with lightning/You’re gonna have to stand in the rain.” The sunny steel guitar-laced atmosphere suggests she thinks going through life’s fire is a joyous undertaking, and while the outcome might be so, getting there more often than not, isn’t.

Probably the frankest moment of desperation comes from “It Is What It Is,” a McAnally, Brandy Clark co-write that finds Musgraves dealing with the after effects of a relationship in which the pair is ‘so much alike’ they’re doomed to failure, but can’t get enough of each other. I love the simple steel-fronted arrangement and how Musgraves so beautifully brings out the pain on the final chorus by starting it a cappella:

But I aint got no one sleepin’ with me,
And you aint got no where that you need to be,
Maybe I love you,
Maybe I’m just kind of bored,
It is what it is
Till it aint,
Anymore

“My House” comes on the flipside to the heaviness of the other tracks, providing a welcomed respite and chance for Musgraves to show off a playful side (she is young, after all) without resorting to fluff territory. I love the Dylan-esque 60s folk arrangement here a lot, especially the harmonica and upright bass. The humorous and memorable line, ‘Water and electric and a place to drain the septic’ doesn’t hurt either.

The main criticism Musgraves has gotten for the project is the demo-like delivery of the tracks, almost too under produced. I don’t hear it at all because in my opinion this is how music is supposed to sound – uncomplicated and straightforward. One of my favorite people, Luke Laird, produced the album and he did an incredible job of bringing the tracks to life. The album does verge on being a bit too pop in places and I still can’t figure out the metaphor she was reaching for on “Dandelion,” but this is as close to perfect (and country) as a mainstream album is likely to get in 2013. Loretta Lynn, who’s longed for songs that actually say something, should be very proud.

Album Review – Miranda Lambert “Four The Record”

November 10, 2011

Miranda Lambert

Four The Record

* * * * 1/2

Miranda Lambert is by and large my favorite contemporary female artist because of her intrinsic ability to blend both the artistic and commercial sensibilities of country music on her records. She appeals to country radio with singles ready for heavy rotation yet restrains from populating her albums with gutless filler like her fellow artists.

Four The Record was recorded in six days, the week following her wedding to Blake Shelton.  Sessions began at 10am and lasted until midnight each day. Lambert has said she likes getting into a vibe and hunkering down to complete a record. This technique works in her favor, making the album every bit as cohesive as diverse. Plus, she’s using it to further her individuality. It sounds like nothing else coming out of Nashville right now and the uniqueness sets her apart from her peers.

Lambert is also a prime example of the quintessential songwriter. She knows how to write a killer song yet has a knack for selecting outside material from some of the most unique and interesting songwriters. Its one reason why listening to a Lambert album is such a joy. Four The Record features many such moments from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings gorgeous “Look at Miss Ohio” to Brandi Carlile’s folksy “Same Out You.”

I love the Welch/Rawlings ballad for it’s captivating story. Lambert has a way of making everything she sings sound interesting and she succeeds here. The air of mystery holds together the brilliant lyric – she’s running around with her ragtop down to escape the pressures of getting married. She’s fleeing her obligations to do the right thing, yet we never really know why she’s bolting to Atlanta. She’s reclaiming her independence but not without the guilt of what she’s leaving behind. It’s a story song for the ages, made even more appealing by the understated production and backing vocals by Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town.

“Same Old You,” another understated winner, fell into Lambert’s lap after Carlile felt she couldn’t sell it like Lambert. I love the folksy vibe of the production here – the gentle strum of the lead guitar sets it apart from the rest of the album. But what brings the song to new heights is the Loretta Lynn-like quality of Carlile’s lyric. (Lynn is the common dominator the bonds Lambert’s friendship with Carlile). It’s refreshing when the narrator finally sees what’s in front of her – that no matter what day of the week, he’s just the same old person and he’s never going to change. When Lambert sings about how hurt his mama’s going to be when she finds out there won’t be any wedding to cap off this relationship, it shows her maturity. I like how she’s drawn to songs that bring new depths to her feistiness. She’s every bit the same woman, but doesn’t have to resort to killing off her man to prove it.

Another track to display this growth is Don Henry and Phillip Coleman’s “All Kinds of Kinds.” A sweeping ballad about diversity, it not only defines the link binding all the songs together, but spins a unique angle on acceptance. The beautiful flourishes of Dobro give the song a soft quality I find appealing and the metaphor of circus acts as a means of driving home the main point showcases the songwriters’ cleverness in crafting their story.

Her overall growth continues in Kacey Musgraves, Shane McAnally, and Brandy Clark’s gritty “Mama’s Broken Heart” as well as in the six songs she wrote or co-wrote herself for the project. I love the driving production on this song, especially on the chorus. The loud thumping drums and guitars help it become a standout moment on the album. I also adore how the songwriters spun the old adage of it’s not you’re parents (fill in the blank) into the hook line, “it’s not your mama’s broken heart.” I’ve heard rumblings this might be in contention for release to country radio and I’m all for it. What a joy it would be to hear this song coming through my radio speakers.

As for the six she wrote or co-wrote herself, Lambert never fails to disappoint. My favorite of these is “Easy Living,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray. She was going for the vibe of sitting on the back porch, strumming a guitar, while listening to an AM radio. I love “am radio” effect cut underneath the song which is actually Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report. I wish I could hear what he’s saying but for this distinctive effect to work, it couldn’t be too distracting from the overall song. I also admire the acoustic production, which brings to mind Shania Twain’s “No One Needs To Know.”

Another Lambert co-write is the emotional “Over You” written with Shelton about the death of his brother Richie when he was 24 and Shelton only 14 (he died in a car accident). They wrote the track in his honor as to say you may be in heaven but you’re still a part of our lives. They took the approach of crafting the song more as a break-up ballad than a song of death, which aids in its universal appeal but makes it easy to forget the overall message they are trying to convey. I also would’ve liked a more traditional production but the emotion in Lambert’s vocal saves the song from being slightly below what it could’ve been. Not surprisingly, it’s being downloaded like crazy on iTunes and is likely the second single from the project.

Her other moment of collaboration with Shelton is their duet “Better In The Long Run.” Pinned by Ashley Monroe, Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley, and Gordie Sampson, it features Shelton’s most committed vocal in years. While not up to the iconic nature of country’s legendary duet-pairings, it’s still above average, and works as their first serious duet together.

Lambert takes the liberty of pinning two of the album’s ballads solo, her way of making sure she can still write a great song on her own. I love the sweeping nature of “Safe,” a song she wrote about her feelings towards Shelton, but was taken aback by “Dear Diamond.” It’s a great lyric and all, and I love Patty Loveless’s harmony vocal, but I wasn’t expecting the song to be a ballad. With its biting lyrics, I thought it would have a bit more drive.

One song with plenty of drive is “Fine Tune,” a prime example of a song that probably won’t be a single but adds to the depth of the record. I thought my CD was broken when I first heard it, as I wasn’t expecting the vocal treatment. Writers Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby recorded the demo with a filter on the microphone, inspiring Lambert’s treatment of the song. I love the overall vibe here, especially after understanding Lambert’s reasons for the offbeat recording method. And while it works for this one song, I wouldn’t want to hear a whole album recorded like this.

In the end, Four The Record is essentially an album of all kinds of songs linked together by their overall diversity. I love that Lambert is taking more risks here by delivering an album that isn’t coasting on her success but using it as a springboard to bring outstanding material to the masses. She’s using her newfound clout to hopefully introduce some very talented singers and songwriters to people who would otherwise not have heard of them. In a world of singles, Lambert is the rare albums artist with the richest discography of any country singer since the turn of the millennium. Four The Record not only adds to her growing legacy, but also pushes her career forward in a big way.