Posts Tagged ‘Charles Kelley’

Album Review – The Little Willies – “For The Good Times”

January 15, 2012

The Little Willies

For The Good Times

**** 1/2

Isn’t it refreshing? The first new country album of 2012 also marks the year’s first great one. A sequel of sorts to the one-off side project from Jazz/pop vocalist Norah Jones and vocalist Richard Julian (among others), For The Good Times features a smart mix of tunes originally written and sung by the likes of Dolly Parton, Ralf Stanley, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Lefty Frizzell, and band namesake Willie Nelson.

Like their 2006 debut, For The Good Times consists mainly of cover songs but this is hardly another in the “covers album” sub-genre. Instead they leave their own mark on each recording, making it sound like their own. I’ve been really digging the retro sound the band has cultivated making For The Good Times feel like a long lost album from the 1960s and not a new project from 2012.

The record opens with their take on Stanley’s “I Worship You,” an acquired taste for country fans, like myself, who haven’t grown up listening to songs with distinct changes in tempo. The slow burning chorus, complete with the crescendoing drums and guitars, is the perfect compliment to the heavy twang from Jones and Julian, but the song truly shines when it picks up steam and becomes a rockabilly stomp. I only wish “I Worship You” didn’t keep the back-and-fourth in tempo, it feels quite awkward to me when it changes from fast to slow and the heavy twang on the chorus becomes grating as the song progresses.

While “I Worship You” may not have been a slam dunk, the other places The Little Willies experimented with sound and texture come off much better. I’m in love with Cal Martin’s “Diesel Smoke, Dangerous Curves” which features a gorgeous almost snake-like guitar riff and the magical combination of Jones and Julian, who work extremely well together when they use the contrast of their voices on different parts of a song.

Throughout the album he sounds a lot like Lyle Lovett while she comes like a gypsy woman plucked from another era. The conviction in their vocals helps to enhance the overall mood of the record and they don’t just play their parts perfectly, they sound like they’ve been making this music all their lives. I’m always amazed when a singer, such as Jones, can exist in multiple musical landscapes seemingly without transition.

I was never one to consider her as serious country vocalist but her take on Lynn’s iconic “Fist City” easily rivals the original. It’s always tricky when a vocalist tries to take on one of Lynn’s classics since you need the right amount of ferocity in your delivery to pull it off without sounding like a cheap imitation, or worse, a singer simply trying to show they have country cred. Jones aces the exam and the arrangement of drums, guitar, and piano give her the perfect backdrop to let loose and tap into the growl in her voice. This is my first favorite song of 2012 because Jones and company pull off what could’ve been an epic mess by lesser musicians.

Another such slam dunk is their smoky and bluesy take on Williams’s “Lovesick Blues.” For a song with such honky-tonk beginnings it’s quite alarming to hear it given a jazzy club treatment but it works. In their attempt to honor opposed to discriminate against, they’ve given the song a new lease on life. Given that this isn’t the first time Jones has covered Williams, “Cold, Cold Heart” appeared on Come Away With Me, she knows how to handle the material quite well.

The same though can’t be said for their take on Parton’s “Jolene.” I was slightly disappointed in how they turned it into a ballad given that it was done before by Mindy Smith on Just Because I’m A Woman – The Songs of Dolly Parton in 2003. But while they failed to bring anything new to the song, there’s nothing wrong with how they interpreted it, just that it had been done before. Given how they took on “Fist City” and “Lovesick Blues” with such attack, I was hoping for more from this one.

But the slight disappointment in “Jolene” is easily forgotten on tracks like Cash’s “Wide Open Road” and Frizzell’s “If You Got The Money (I Got The Time).” Prior to this album I wasn’t familiar with “Road,” but their fast paced take on the song makes me wonder how it slipped under my radar. Julian takes on the bulk of the work here and pulls it off wonderfully. But more than his vocal, I’m really enjoying the arraingment what at first, when the guitars some screeching in on the opening chords, can sound a little loud turns out to be quite delightful. The fast-paced drum throughout may just be one of my favorite production choices on the whole project. Sonically, it doesn’t get much better this for country music in any era let alone in 2012.

“If You Got the Money” benefits from a very similar arrangement and works equally as well. The blending of both Jones and Julian’s voices here works pretty well although she does tend to overpower him. While that could’ve been purposefully done, it would’ve been just as effective to hear both vocalists on a more even playing field. But, no matter what, I’ll prefer this pair to the likes of Hillary Scott and Charles Kelley any day.

Given that they’re known as The Little Willies, leaving out a homage to their namesake would make an album of theirs seem incomplete. Here they cover his “Permanently Lonely,” Scotty Wiseman’s “Remember Me” which he covered last November on his Remember Me, Vol. 1, and of course, “If You Got the Money.” The aforementioned “Money” is the lone uptempo number of the group. Both “Lonely” and “Remember Me” are gorgeous ballads showcasing the best of what Jones and Julian have to offer.

“Remember Me” is given a straightforward piano-driven arrangement not unlike Jones’s solo work and the best indicator for her jazz/pop fans that she isn’t turning completely away from the singer they love (which is a farce in and of itself – a new solo album from her is expected this summer). But no matter what the style, she pulls it off with the brilliance she’s mastered during her years in the big leagues. Plus, it isn’t jazzy at all bur rather the best in 1970s honky-tonk ballad tradition.

Along the same lines, Julian takes “Permanently Lonely” to much the same places. It’s another I hadn’t known previously and he digs deep into the lyric and pulls out a stunning emotional conviction that’s only heightened by the slow and brooding piano-led arraignment.

Another of my favorite tracks, “For The Good Times” has an arrangement that would make Charlie Rich smile. When Jones comes in on the opening line, “Don’t look so sad/I know it’s over” I instantly have a smile on my face. No matter the subject matter, there is something inherently comfortable in everything Kris Kristofferson writes and I feel like I’m being visited by a friend. I have to give Jones credit here for handling the song with tender care and pulling off another stunning achievement.

For The Good Times is the year’s first great country album because it displays a level of appreciation for the material being covered lacking in almost any covers project coming out of Nashville today. Instead of trying to make these songs fit within today’s market, the band uses a retro sound to transport the listener back to when these songs were commonplace on the radio. In addition, the combination of Julian and Jones on vocals only heightens that feel as Jones is able to tap into not only her gravel but her twang. She isn’t a jazz/pop singer doing country songs but rather a full-fledged country singer. In the era of imitation, that is nearly impossible to achieve.

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.