Posts Tagged ‘Dave Brainard’

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

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

June 9, 2016

Brandy Clark

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Big Day In A Small Town

* * * 1/2

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

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

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

Too bad love ain’t a local parade

In your uncle’s Corvette on a Saturday

With all the little girls waiting on you to wave

When you’re 17

You don’t know

That you won’t always be

Homecoming queen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Album Review – Jerrod Niemann – ‘Free The Music’

October 18, 2012

Jerrod Niemann

Free The Music

* * * 1/2 

Since debuting with Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury in 2010, Jerrod Niemann has rightfully earned his reputation as one of the genre’s strongest mainstream assets, someone who resects tradition but is modern enough to exist in the current marketplace. I loved his 2010 top 5 “What Do You Want From Me” so much, I couldn’t wait to dig in and see what Free The Music had in store.

For someone who counts themselves among Lefty Frizzell’s biggest fans and opening admits to studying the history of country music back to the 1920s, I was taken aback at Niemann’s desire to push the limits with his new album Free The Music. The inclusion of R&B and Hip-Hop accents seems to go against his personal mantra and makes it difficult to believe his stance that he wants to be known as a country singer through and through.

At its best, Free The Music is somewhat of a feel good album, as shown with the fabulous lead single “Shinin’ On Me.” But even though Niemann wants to party and have a good time, it’s always with purpose, like mending a broken heart. He exemplifies this best on “I’ll Have To Kill The Pain,” a horn heavy standout highlighting his every guy persona. The same is true for “It Won’t Matter Anymore” a lyrically amusing ode to letting go of taxing jobs and bad relationships in favor of kicking back on the beach. Both are excellent earworms showcasing Niemann’s lighter side, one of his stronger qualities as an artist, while the former begs to be released as a single.

Niemann only gets trendy once on Free The Music and it comes courtesy of his co-write with Houston Phillips, “Real Women Drink Beer.” The market for beer centric tunes is overly saturated, while references to “denim on the rear” are a dime a dozen. But he manages to infuse the track with a Dwight Yoakam-like vocal sensibility and strict country arrangement that is actually endearing. In much the same way, it’s his vocal that rescues the jazzy “Honky Tonk Fever.” What could’ve been very cheesy is at least made interesting by his inflections and the way he uses his voice to play with the listener. Niemann and co-producer Dave Brainard do a wonderful job of utilizing the piano as well, using it to underscore the melodies and move each track along nicely.

Another standout is the brilliant yet sonically progressive tour de force “Guessing Games,” a break up ballad where Niemann channels “Wicked Games” era Chris Isaak. The track is one of my favorites and easily the strongest lyric (Neimann co-wrote it with J.R. McCoy) on the album. I wish I could say the same for the soft rockish “Only God Could Love You More,” a fan favorite. The lyric and vocal are fine, but Niemann downplays the country elements of the track a bit too much for my taste. A better love song is “All About You” is duet with Colbie Caillat that gets the romanticism right despite falling into cliché territory with the coral line “It’s all about the way/You kiss me baby.” Like Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson’s duet, Niemann and Caillat’s voices blend well together on a much subtler song.

The title track, more hip-hop than anything else, falls victim to similar non-country trappings although I do really like the chorus. It’s a cool sounding song, and I sort of understand his message about freeing music from constrictions, but overall it just doesn’t come together for me. I do love the last line – “If you’re sitting alone with a bottle of jack/listening for traditions skip to the next track.” That he understands, and even addresses the lack of country music on the song proves he understands balance, which is more than can be said for many of his peers. He’s also outside the country realm with “Get On Up,” but the cool funky vibe saves it from obscurity.

The traditional song he references on the title track is the excellent “Whiskey Kinda Way,” the purest country song on the album. A 90s country throwback (but with horns in place of steel guitar), it’s one of the strongest mainstream lyrics released all year. I wish “Fraction of a Man” Niemann’s self penned introspective closing track was much the same, but I can’t get passed the song’s jarring structure and enjoy the lyric underneath.

But more than the songs themselves, it’s the inclusion of horns that’s going to make Free The Music polarizing to the listener hoping for more steel in the mix. They don’t bother me, as they help much more than hinder the overall sound of the album. At its best, Free The Music is a strong album ripe with interestingly crafted and complete songs. Niemann may push the boundaries of tradition, but he does it in a way that’s not only cool but also thoroughly enjoyable.