Posts Tagged ‘Don Williams’

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

May 11, 2017

Angaleena Presley

Wrangled

* * * 1/2

 

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

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Concert Review: Lee Ann Womack in Brownfield, Maine

July 6, 2015

10418219_10153975043913916_5933730150065047502_nWith her blonde hair resting in curls below her shoulders, Lee Ann Womack strutted onto the stage to the tune of her debut single, “Never Again, Again.” The setting was Stone Mountain Arts Center; a barn located five miles down a rural road in the sticks of Brownfield, Maine.

Womack charmed the packed house; capacity is just 200 people, with a taut set that revisited the past, reverted to the present, and took some satisfying left turns along the way. At forty-eight Womack’s as spry as ever, with one of the clearest sopranos I’ve ever heard.

Earlier in the week she did an interview with The Boston Globe in which she said she only sings her favorite past hits, so as she ticked them off one by one, I had fun guessing what she would and would not sing. Womack ran through the majority of her eponymous debut, stopping short of “The Fool.”

I was quite surprised that she performed “Buckaroo,” which barely qualifies as an essential Womack single, but it sounded incredible in the setting, which is regarded as one of the top ten venues in the country to hear music. Her biggest risk came with “The Bees,” a Call Me Crazy non-single that would only appeal to those who are intimately familiar with that album. Womack also shined on “You’ve Got To Talk To Me,” which has been a favorite of mine going on eighteen years now.

Additional highlights included a sinister reimagining of “Little Past Little Rock” and a toe-tapping “I’ll Think of a Reason Later,” one of those hits I fully expected she’d thrown away. Womack stopped in the middle of her set to reflect on her upbringing in church before launching into a breathtaking mandolin soaked reading of “Wayfaring Stranger,” which she performed how she learned it all those years ago.

Her small town childhood crept in again, as slight context before her latest single “Send It On Down.” Womack spent ample time treating us to her masterful The Way I’m Livin’, from renditions of “Don’t Listen To The Wind” and “All Them Saints” to an effortless take on “Chances Are.”

The night’s most enjoyable element was the cheeky introductions Womack gave to her past hits. The band would play some slightly non-descript instrumental bed before playing the recognizable openings of the various songs. This concept provedIMG_1130 fun, especially as a segway from her aching new material to something more sunny and upbeat from her early years.

To that end the night leaned heavily on her most recognizable material, although she threw in a beautiful rendition of her low charting hit “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” which foreshadows the darker elements that threads together her most recent material. Womack even found a way to make her biggest hit, “I Hope You Dance,” work. By stripping the song bare, she ditched the sheen and reduced the song to its simplest form. By focusing squarely on the lyric message, Womack proved there was substance beneath the inspirational hoopla. She closed her main set with “Ashes By Now,” which sounds as good today as it did fifteen years ago.

Throughout the night, Womack referenced her admiration for George Jones, but even I was surprised when she emerged for her encore, asking the audience if they were ready to hear some hardcore country music. She sang a Jones song I’m still unfamiliar with, but it involved drinking in a barroom. Womack closed with her beautiful rendition of the Don Williams classic “Lord I Hope This Day Is Good.”

If you only know Womack from her albums, than you must find a way to see her live. She’s easily one of the most remarkable vocalists I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing in person. Unlike a lot of singers, she not only knows what she has but how to use it. I couldn’t ask for any more from an artist. Well, she could’ve sung “The Fool,” “I May Hate Myself In The Morning,” and “Last Call.” But other than that she more than gave us a stellar evening of fine country music in a setting worthy of her authenticity.

Album Review: Nancy Beaudette – ‘South Branch Road’

June 23, 2015

Nancy Beaudette

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South Branch Road

* * * * *

A virtue of the independent music scene is the joy in discovering artists for which the act of creating music is a deeply personal art. Nancy Beaudette, who hails from Cornwall, Ontario, but has made a name for herself in Central Massachusetts, is one such singer-songwriter. With South Branch Road, her eighth release, Beaudette’s homespun tales are the most fully realized of her nearly three-decade career.

The gorgeous title track, where the gentle strums of an acoustic guitar frame Beaudette’s elegant ode to her childhood, is a perfect example:

I fell in love with tar and stone

And a county lined with maple and oak

In sixty-one with three kids in tow

Mom and dad bought a place there and made it home

I spent my summers on a steel blue bike

Weaving shoulder to shoulder like wind in a kite

Dreaming big and reaching high

Riding further and further out on my own

The image of a girl and her bike surfaces again on “Ride On,” a wispy ballad chronicling a daughter’s relationship with her father. The track, co-written by Beaudette, Kerry Chater, and Lynn Gillespie Chater, succeeds on the fact it doesn’t end with the father’s death, like these songs almost always do. The journey of life surfaces again on “Can’t Hold Back,” a mid-tempo ballad co-written with Rick Lang. The track beautifully employs a nature metaphor that Beaudette and Lang keep fresh and exciting with their clever lyric.

Beaudette solely penned the masterfully constructed “Something Tells Me,” the devastating centerpiece of South Branch Road. An unpredictable twist follows a story that sits in an air of mystery until the final verse belts you square in the gut. I haven’t felt this much emotion towards a song in years, probably because the woman in the song and my mom are the same age.

Beaudette clearly isn’t a novice, as she smartly surrounds “Something Tells Me,” the most affecting number on South Branch Road, with joyous moments of levity. These moments are the heart and soul of the record, showcasing Beaudette’s everywoman nature and her ability to draw you in with her aptitude for turning narratives into conversations, as though you were just casually catching up over a cup of coffee.

“’Till The Tomatoes Ripen” takes me back to my childhood and my grandfather’s tradition of planting an insanely large garden of the titular vegetable. I fondly remember the pleasure of going through the rows and picking the red ones by the basketful. Beaudette’s lyric conveys the much simpler notion of planting the garden itself and the contented happiness that comes from watching it grow. The peaceful oceanfront setting in which she places said garden only increases the joy abounding from the proceedings.

The bonds of newly minted friendship take center ice on “Shoot to Score,” a hockey-themed uptempo number that values the importance of dream visualization. Cornwall is a hockey city, so Beaudette is right-at-home name-checking the likes of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. The lyric turns wonderfully personal when Beaudette recounts her own memories with the sport:

I loved to play but I wasn’t great

An’ I showed up with my figure skates

And my first step out onto the ice

And I fell flat on my face

“End of Line” is the purest country song on South Branch Road. Banjo and fiddle abound on a story about a couple, their love of watching trains, and the moment their relationship has to end. The rollicking tune feels almost like a prelude to “Between Your Heart and Mine,” a mournful ballad about a woman, a lost love, and a stroll across the Brooklyn Bridge. I can’t remember an instance when such a memorable walk was so delightfully clouded in ambiguity.

“Build It Up” teams Beaudette with Marc Rossi, a Nashville-based songwriter who graduated from high school with my parents. The lyric details a farmhouse fire in the early 20th century and the way lives were altered as a result. The slicker production, which recalls Forget About It era Alison Krauss, is perfectly in service to the downbeat but catchy lyric. Opener “Starlight” harkens back to early 1990s Mary Chapin Carpenter with a gloriously bright production and Beaudette’s high energy vocal.

South Branch Road is extraordinarily layered and nuanced. Channeling her inner Don Williams, Beaudette draws you in with her natural simplicity. Her songwriting gets to the heart of the matter by conveying emotion without bogging down the listener with unnecessarily clunky lyrics. She’s a master storyteller, which in turn has informed her ability to craft lyrical compositions that fully utilize this very rare gift.

Beaudette’s relatability, and the personal connections I’ve found within these songs, drew me in to fully appreciate the magic of South Branch Road; a window into her soul. She’s constructed an album from the inside out, using her own life to give the listener a deeply personal tour of her many winds and roads, reflecting on the lessons learned around each curve and bend. Beaudette is already a bright bulb on the independent music scene but the release of South Branch Road demands that light shine even brighter.

Album Review – Don Williams – ‘Reflections’

March 11, 2014

Don Williams

4096_donwilliamsreflections

Reflections

* * * * 1/2

On his second Sugar Hill Release, and his third album in a decade, 74-year-old Don Williams spends a lot of time reflecting, just as the album’s title suggests. In the forty-plus years he’s been in the music industry he’s certainly earned the right, and with ten expertly chosen songs, he also gets right to the point.

As per usual Garth Fundis is along for the introspective journey and he succeeds masterfully in placing Williams’ distinctive baritone front and center, allowing the conversational way in which he sings to anchor the album extraordinarily.

This is no more apparent than on the one-two punch that opens the project. Townes Van Zant’s folksy “I’ll Be There In The Morning” is as honest a love song as it was forty-six years ago, with Williams breathing new life into the number with a combination of acoustic and steel guitars accentuated with ribbons of glorious harmonica. “Talk Is Cheap,” a Guy Clark co-write (with Chris Stapleton & Morgane Hayes) that previously found a home on Alan Jackson’s Thirty Miles West, lays bare our tendency to dream hypothetically and brings out the song’s urgency (‘wine’s for tasting, roads for taking’) in a way Jackson’s version didn’t. Both are two of the finest moments on record all year thus far.

Jennifer Hanson, Marty Dodson, and Mark Nesler’s “Back To The Simple Things” furthers the urgency felt in “Talk Is Cheap” by lamenting on modern technology and the stronghold is has on society. On one hand Williams is calling on us to live, on the other he’s making sure we remember what’s most important along that journey – human connection. The chugging beat, which backs the song, is fabulous, too, as is the uncomplicated way Williams is gets the message across.

“Working Man’s Son” finds Williams ruminating on a life lived while perfectly capturing the male psyche. Where most singers desire to run in the opposite direction from their elderliness, Williams stairs it squarely in the face with a stunningly age-appropriate lyric by Bob Regan and Jim Collins:

 I’ve had my fun, I’ve made some friends

I’ve loved and lost and loved again

Been down that less traveled road

Just to see how far it goes

Spoke my mind to defend myself

Tried not to hurt nobody else

But if I did, I hope they’ll forgive

Williams turns negative on Doug Gill’s “Stronger Back,” an antidote to the man taking the good with the bad on “Working Man’s Son.” He may be wishing for ‘a stronger back, a bigger heart, the will to keep on walking when the way is dark” but instead of letting his problems go, he just wants to embrace them and thus take responsibility. The flourishes of steel help to extenuate the track’s beautifully steady beat, and keeps the proceedings from getting too dark and moody.

“Healing Hands” is another life-well-lived moment, this time from a grandchild lamenting on the calluses as a benchmark of life in one’s years and the relationship between healing hands and a kind heart. The sentiment is there in Steve Gillette & Rex Benson lyric, but the execution is too schmaltzy. Fundis nicely makes up for it and saves the song with a striking mandolin and guitar heavy arraignment that’s slightly addictive.

In life, you know you ‘get it’ when you realize our days on earth are a journey full of lessons that never cease to reveal themselves to us. Steve Wariner and Tony Arata wrote “The Answer” about this phenomenon and framed the tale as a boy with countless questions for his all-knowing father. Williams does an impeccable job of bringing the ballad to life as does Fundis with his gorgeous production.

Much like he did with “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” Williams breathes new light into Jesse Winchester’s “If I Were Free” not by removing the song’s simplicity, but by adding to it. He turns the folk song into a country ballad backed solely by an acoustic guitar. The track takes on new meaning, too, with Williams at the helm.

With reflections on a life-well-lived, laments against modern technology, and disgust for people who dream without execution, a song like Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” about a man watching a prison execution, is the odd one out. But the tale does work, seeing as Reflections is an album, in part, about looking back on one’s life. The album’s real weak link is “I Won’t Give Up On You.” There’s nothing wrong with the beautiful love song at all, it just isn’t as spectacular a moment for Williams when compared to the rest of the record.

Often when singers make a record they talk about the idea of ‘having something to say’ with the songs they’re releasing. It’s especially true of songwriters, which makes Reflections all the more remarkable – Williams didn’t write a single word (he did co-produce) yet he has more to say in these ten tracks than most anyone over the course of their whole careers. His gifts as a singer and song interrupter are unmatched and help to elevate Reflections above the usual faire. If you’ve been waiting for a substantive collection full of meaning, with tasteful country production and class – than this is it. I can’t recommend Reflections enough.

Album Review – Garth Brooks – ‘Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence’

December 17, 2013

Garth Brooks

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Blame It All On My Roots: Five Decades of Influence 

* * *

When the message came down a few months ago that “the sevens have aligned” on Garth Brooks’ website, I was over the moon excited for his return to country music, in any form. He’s the precursor to the country-rock of today and the main reason country artists in his wake have been so lucrative on the road. But he’s also the only one who got it right. At his core, Brooks is a song man. If you stripped away his mesmerizing stage show, put aside his never-before-seen album sales, and listened to the music, you’ll find a legacy of incredible songs. I cannot say that about any genre superstar (Kenny Chesney, mostly) who’s risen to similar levels since he retired.

But even more then his ear for great songs, I was far more interested in seeing how the new generation (those born after 1997/1998) would respond to Brooks’ return. Without the ability to digitally download or stream his music and no memory of a live Brooks’ special on TV (let alone seeing him in person with his full band), would they care? Time will be the ultimate judge, but the ‘Garth Brooks magic’ remains as strong as ever. His Black Friday concert special was watched by an estimated 10 million people and the accompanying boxed set has just surpassed One Direction as the #1 album in the country, all-genre.

Blame It All On My Roots – Five Decades of Influence is more then just an 8-disc set; it’s a celebration of Brooks’ residency in Las Vegas. For the past four years, he’s been performing weekends in the Encore Theatre at Steve Wynn’s Hotel & Casino. But instead of bringing his legendary live act, Brooks performs a one-man show where he tells his life story though the music that built him – just his voice, a guitar, and a hooded sweatshirt. The boxed set extends that idea to four CDs, 11 songs each, with Brooks covering a handful of these songs in full broken down asCountry ClassicsClassic RockBlue-Eyed Soul, and Melting Pot.

The most obvious disc is Country Classics, where Brooks covers everyone from Conway & Loretta to George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Keith Whitley. He’s trying to fill some big shoes here and the results are far more underwhelming then they should be. Opener “Great Balls of Fire” and closer “Jambalaya” comes off as cheesy karaoke while he isn’t quite convincing as a hillbilly on “White Lightnin’.” I really wanted to love “After The Fire Is Gone,” his sole duet with Trisha Yearwood, but the pair didn’t bring any ache to their vocals, merely turning in gorgeous performances that fail to convey the sense they’re a couple on the outs. He’s better on the more traditional numbers like “The Bottle Let Me Down” and “Act Naturally,” and I really enjoyed his take on “Unwound.” But my favorite track by a mile is “Good ‘Ol Boys Like Me.” I’ve always thought Brooks’ does a wonderful job on more tender songs (like “She’s Every Woman”) and this selection from Don Williams’ catalog fits him like a glove.

Classic Rock is a bit better, with Brooks turning in three of the set’s best tracks. It’s not surprising he does a fantastic job on “Against The Wind,” seeing that Bob Seger is one of his major influences and the inspiration behind “That Summer.” Brooks’ is equally wonderful on Elton John’s “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me,” on which he gives one of the most passionate vocals of any song on any disc. Listening to it, I felt like I was back in the Fresh Horses era. But the highlight is one I wasn’t familiar with going in, Billy Joel’s stunning rock opera “Goodnight Saigon.” The song is an ode to the Vietnam War that Brooks tares into with vengeance. The rest of the disc is mostly bad karaoke, with songs like  “Addicted To Love,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” and “Somebody To Love” that fail to translate when anyone but the original artist is singing them. But I do have to give Brooks credit for doing the Eagles justice and turning in an above average “Life In The Fast Lane.”

Blue-Eyed Soul is by far my least favorite disc, mostly because soul music just isn’t my taste. But he does cover songs I actually like. “Midnight Train to Georgia” is my favorite, as Brooks puts his own stamp on the song. Other favorites are “Lean On Me” and “Drift Away,” but they become disjointed in Brooks’ hands, loosing the flow of the original versions. He’s in top form on “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but even Brooks cannot get me to enjoy “Stand By Me,” no matter how great his vocal may be. The rest of the record is just ok, with “Shout” being the only real clunker.

Melting Pot is where Brooks covers a bunch of tracks that didn’t fit categorically on the other discs. It’s hands down the best of four, and the one I enjoy most, because of the song selection. He does a wonderful job on rock standards “Mrs. Robinson” and “Maggie May” while turning in another of the box sets’ best performances with “Amie,” one of Pure Prairie League’s best known hits. “Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels)” and “Wild World” are just as good, as is “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight” although I would’ve chosen a different James Taylor song, like “Sweet Baby James” instead. I just happen to like some of Taylor’s other songs better.

In addition to the four discs of covers, Blame It All On My Roots also has The Ultimate Hits two disc set and DVD and a DVD of his Las Vegas show. Repackaging his 2007 collection is pointless, but Brooks’ has made a career out of repackaging his albums, so this is hardly a surprise. The four albums of covers are the real draw and while they’re good, they fail to be anything exceptional because Brooks stays too faithful to the originals (especially on “Don’t Close Your Eyes”). I would’ve liked to see him put his own stamp on the tracks, opposed to just covering them faithfully. That being said, Blame It All On My Roots is still worth checking out, especially for those like me who’ve been Garth fans since they can remember.

Album Review: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – “Cheater’s Game”

February 21, 2013

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison 

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Cheater’s Game

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If there exists a constant within country music in 2013, it’s the collaborative album. Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell are teaming up for a long-awaited record, tour partners Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan recently completed work on an album, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin have a record of their own in the works, and Steve Martin is branching out from The Steep Canyon Rangers to release a CD with Edie Brickell.

Yet another project, and first of these to see release, is Cheater’s Game, the inaugural duets album from Kelly Willis and her husband Bruce Robison. Produced by singer/songwriter Brad Jones, it’s the first album from either artist in more than five years, and well worth the wait.

The majority of the project strikes a mournful tone, allowing Willis to showcase her fine interpretive skills as a honky-tonk balladeer. She does it best on the stunning title track, a couple’s lament on their marriage in the wake of unfaithful behavior. But she’s equally superb on “Ordinary Fool,” the story of a woman who understands a friend’s predicament following the end of a relationship. Both boast excellent lyrics (Robison co-wrote the title track with Liz Foster and The Trishas’ Savannah Welch and penned “Ordinary Fool” solo) and fine production work by Jones who uses wistful steel and lush acoustic guitars to effectively set the mood.

“Waterfall,” also written solely by Robison, showcases Willis’ gifts a singer better than any track on the album, opening with her gorgeous twang backed by a mandolin so light and weightless, it need not exist. The track, about a woman begging a bartender to pour her a waterfall of drinks to drown her sorrows, is one of the best and most delicately handled drinking songs I’ve ever heard.

Robison is a criminally underrated songwriter, on par with the likes of Bobby Braddock, Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard. His innate ability to take well-worn themes and vigorously bring them back to life with dynamic hooks elevates Cheater’s Game from ordinary to extraordinary. Even better is the pair’s ability to weave in outside material that blends with, opposed to distract from, the originals.

My favorite of the covers is Dave Alvin’s “Border Radio,” which wouldn’t sound out of place on a George Strait album. It took me a minute to warm up to the Tex-Mex vibe, but the duo brings it to life wonderfully. Also excellent is Robison’s laid-back reading of Don Williams’ “We’re All The Way,” which brings out the sensual side of his voice and showcases a tender moment for the pair as a duo.

I much prefer Willis and Robison’s take on “Long Way Home” to Hayes Carll’s original, as they exude a warmth missing from the gruffness of his version. Only Razzy Bailey’s “9,999,999 Tears” (a #3 hit for Dickey Lee in 1976) doesn’t fit the vibe of project, and while Willis sings it wonderfully, the catchy sing-a-long aspects of the track take away from the album as a whole.

Robison takes the lead on many of the project’s uptempo moments and adds a pleasing contrast to the seriousness of the songs sung by his wife. A fabulous mixture of acoustic guitar and fiddle prove the perfect backdrop for his take on Lawrence Shoberg’s “Born To Roll,” and he brings a calming easiness to his solely penned “Leavin,” a road song with an appealing singer-songwriter vibe and Spanish-y acoustic guitar.

“But I Do,” a co-write with Jedd Hughes, has an attractively plucky acoustic aura and playful vocals from the duo that match the vibrancy of the backing track. It’s a sharp contrast from “Dreamin,” a delicate acoustic ballad about budding love. I especially love the banjo on “Lifeline,” and the way the fiddle and steel gently guide his somewhat sleepy vocal on Robert Earl Keen Jr’s, “No Kinda Dancer,” which would otherwise have been too slow for me to fully appreciate.

Before Cheater’s Game I had begun to think that the heart and soul of country music had been lost, replaced by sound-a-like party anthems extenuated by an 80s rock mentality. Thank goodness Willis and Robison remain unaffected by the glitz of mainstream Nashville and put authentically raw and uncomplicated gems like this out into the world. Music in this vein isn’t made much anymore, which makes albums like this such a treat. I highly recommend it to anyone who appreciates and loves traditional country music. 

Top 19 Favorite Country Albums of 2012: 19-11

December 5, 2012

Adventurism. Turing convention on its head. Those are just two of the themes threading each of the 19 albums on my list. I’ve noticed my tastes venturing further and further from the mainstream, as radio playlists are marginalized and top 40 acts are less and less interesting. Here’s 19-11, enjoy!

Wreck and Ruin

19. Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

Wreck and Ruin

Peculiarity only works when it doesn’t feel like a shot in the dark, but rather a driving force. Following Rattlin’ Bones proved no easy undertaking, but Chambers and Nicholson deliver another quirky set all their own – ripe with originality but most importantly, fun.

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18. The Little Willies

For The Good Times

Listening to this band, I’m always amazed at Norah Jones ability to finally let loose, breaking down the tight reins she holds on her solo work. Their second outing, another set of wonderfully executed cover tunes, is excellent – especially on the Jones fronted “Fist City,” a rousing three minutes of pure sassy exuberance.

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17. Carrie Underwood

Blown Away

The best compliment I can pay Carrie Underwood right now is to reward her efforts of ambition, now matter how bombastic they may be. Her “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs” were two of the year’s most daring singles – dark and twisted but also unnervingly smart. Of all her contemporaries, Underwood is trying hardest to be an excellent songstress and her results are paying off. Now if she’d only release “Do You Think About Me…”

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16. Don Williams

And So It Goes

It’s a fine legacy if you’re known for fostering exciting new talent, but also resurrecting the careers of genre legends? That’s what elevates Sugar Hill Records into one of the finest entities around.

That’s thanks in large part to And So It Goes, which may cast Williams in the same mellow light he created more than forty years ago, but in 2012, that makes for a simple delight.

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15. Jason Eady

A.M. Country Heaven

What’s a guy to do who’s fed up with the general adolescence of Nashville’s country scene? Well, go write and record the smartest and most articulate slice of genre commentary  since “Murder On Music Row.” Oh, and following it up with a duet featuring Patty Loveless? That doesn’t hurt either.

Joey + Rory

14. Joey + Rory

His and Hers

Here’s a concept – build an album in two halves – he takes six songs, she takes six songs. But instead of seemingly mashing together two solo projects, make the result feel like a cohesive whole.

Joey + Rory’s appeal is their down home neighbors next door appeal and His and Hers furthers their homespun image wonderfully, but also elevates them to new and daring heights, proving that with the right song, they are outmatched. The title track is a fine ode to the trajectory of a couple’s love but they are simply devastating when tackling death, whether from the battlefield (“Josephine”) or old age (“When I’m Gone”). Palpable emotion hardly ever feels this real.

Free The Music

13. Jerrod Niemann

Free The Music

Often, newer acts are easily panned for staying on message by following the trends of the day, thus never really making a musical imprint of their own. Leave Jerrod Niemann to be the exception to that and every other rule.

Free The Music bucks convention so abrasively it’s difficult to find common ground, but underneath the smorgasbord of horns and beats is a man trying to be an artistic country singer, a title he pretty much has locked up. Never has an individual sound been this fully formed, or sound so good.

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12. Little Big Town

Tornado

Coming out parties are never this exciting, are they? The latest in a long line of B acts elevating to A list status, LBT finally broke the mold and brought their expertly crafted harmonies and keen ear for song selection into the mainstream. It’s not a perfect album, but it blows almost all their competition out of the water.

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11. Lori McKenna

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole – EP

The title track may be the attention grabbing risk taker, but its how she changes up her sound – all while staying true to herself that makes this EP so exciting. Expertly crafted songs? That a bonus this time around.

Album Review – Don Williams – “And So It Goes”

June 21, 2012

Don Williams

And So It Goes

* * * *

In the eight years since Don Williams released My Heart To You he seemed to go comfortably into retirement. His warm baritone and mellow style, indicative of the 1970s and 1980s where he found major success, was far out of touch with the beer chugging and hot girl chasing boys who’d taken over country radio, and induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame aside, there was no real incentive to return.

So it’s a welcome surprise to see And So It Goes, Williams’ new ten-song collection out on Sugar Hill Records. Produced by his longtime wingman Garth Fundis (who should be hard at work on Trisha Yearwood’s next album), it comes across as a visit from an old friend, that never forgotten person from your past who you’re so glad to see again, someone who hasn’t changed a bit.

By sticking to the familiar, Williams has created an impressive collection of songs that perfectly display his distinct and mellow style, all wrapped in his warm baritone (an instrument that hasn’t shown any distinct wear and tear). Each of these songs would also stand up nicely against any of Williams’ classic recordings.

A few even rank among the strongest songs released this year. “I Just Come Here For The Music” a gorgeous duet with Alison Krauss, finds their voices blending effortlessly on a gentle weeper about a man in a barroom for the music, only to find a woman instead. “Hearts of Hearts,” enhanced by Vince Gill’s backing vocal, is a quiet reminder to live from truth and “She’s With Me” is the song every woman wants to hear from their man, a sentiment about true love.

And So It Goes abounds with relationship-centric tunes, from the lasting-love anthem “Infinity” to the out-of-love title track, a Williams co-write. “She’s A Natural” finds Williams pleased by everything his woman does and “Imagine That” finds him pining for a life he can visualize but one that hasn’t yet come true.

All are expertly crafted and treated with the respect they deserve, but framing them in the same mellow, dobro and fiddle heavy production can make the listening experience a bit dense and they tend to run together, hard to distinguish. That more than illuminates “Better Than Today” and “What If It Worked Like That,” noticeable for their driving guitar and use of drums.

“What If It Worked Like That,” is also the biggest breath of fresh air lyrically, somewhat of a sequel to his classic hit “I Believe In You.” He wonders aloud about his ideal version of the world, a place where beer would make a person thin and the world gave a little back after we’ve taken so much.

Both melodically and lyrically, it ranks with “I Just Come Here For The Music” as my favorite tracks on the project, both unique in nature from the rest of the album, and the two that have stuck with me the most.

All and all And So It Goes is another fine collection of songs and a stellar return from Williams, who in just under 36 minutes schools all of us in the creation of authentic and genuine country music. He could’ve, however, stood to vary the tempo a tad more, tapping into his “Tulsa Time” groove on more tracks. A more frequent change of pace would’ve helped the songs sink in deeper and keep from running together.

But nonetheless, this is still one of the top releases from 2012 and a suburb collection of songs.

So, how musically healthy am I?

May 20, 2012

Last week the good folks at Country California issued a mid-year battle cry – “You’re overdue for your seasonal music check-up.”

The exam is as follows, in these simple steps:

1) grab your media player of choice

2) turn your head to the left

3) Shuffle 20 times

In doing so, and without any editing of embarrassing results, my returns are as follows:

  1. Miranda Lambert – “Guilty In Here”
  2. Don Williams – “The Flood (Wish I Was In Nashville)”
  3. Connie Smith – “I’m So Afraid Of Losing You Again”
  4. Patty Loveless – “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am”
  5. Trisha Yearwood – “The Woman Before Me”
  6. Connie Smith – “Blue Little Girl”
  7. Jamey Johnson – “Lonely At The Top”
  8. Tracy Lawrence – “If The Good Die Young”
  9. Randy Travis – “Forever Together”
  10. Rosanne Cash – “Big River”
  11. Patty Loveless – “Feelings Of Love”
  12. Rosanne Cash – “707”
  13. Emmylou Harris – “Ooh Las Vegas”
  14. Bradley Gaskin – “I’m All About It”
  15. Tanya Tucker – “Down To My Last Teardrop”
  16. Garth Brooks – “Shameless”
  17. Nickel Creek – “Scotch and Chocolate”
  18. Sugarland – “Something More”
  19. Eric Church – “Like Jesus Does”
  20. Collin Raye – “I Think About You”

I was amazed, actually, at what my iPod spit back. This could’ve gone in so many ways and yet the random shuffle actually showcased some of the better tunes in my collection. It’s never a bad day when the likes of Connie Smith, Emmylou Harris, Trisha Yearwood, Rosanne Cash, Patty Loveless, and Tanya Tucker show up in the same random 20 song sampling.

At least my copies of Kip Moore’s Up All Night and Tim McGraw’s Emotional Traffic were no where in sight.