Posts Tagged ‘Hayes Carll’

Album Review: Hayes Carll — ‘What It Is’

February 14, 2019

Hayes Carll

What It Is

* * * * 1/2

One listen to Hayes Carll’s What It Is and it becomes abundantly clear he’s using these twelve songs, his first new music in three years, to express himself fearlessly. The album is a split personality with one parts love, Carll is engaged to Allison Moorer, whom he plans to wed later this year, and one parts social commentary.

Not surprisingly, it’s the latter that wins the fight for dominance, and while it may seem repetitive to hear another artist use their music to vent their frustrations, or as Carll puts it “get off the sidelines,” few execute as uniquely and memorably as he does here.

The first of these songs is the solely written “Times Like These,” an effective rocker about our current political climate and how Carll desires “to do my labor, love my girl and help my neighbor while I keep a little hope in my dreams” which he says is “sure getting hard brother in times like these.” Less successful is the eccentric “Wild Pointy Finger,” which begins strong:

It points at the fever and the accomplishes of man

It points at all the problems it don’t understand

It points at Persians across the sea

It points at anybody who thinks differently than me

If you’re marching to your own drum or kneeling in the news

My wild pointy finger is probably pointing right at you

But dissolves into a bizarre rant weighted down by unwieldily symbolism. He rebounds nicely with the excellent “Fragile Men,” in which he talks directly to those who feel the world is undermining their ideals. Carll turns inward on “If I May Be So Bold,” the record’s thesis statement, where he sings about no longer standing in the shadows:

I’ll make my way if I should be so bold

Bold enough to make a difference

Bold enough to say I care

Bold enough to keep on trying

Even when the wills not there

There’s a whole world out there waiting

Full of stories to be told

And I’ll heed the call and tell ‘em all

If I may be so bold

“Jesus and Elvis,” the album’s best-known song thanks to Kenny Chesney, who included it on Cosmic Hallelujah in 2017, is one of those compositions. The title originated with co-writer Matraca Berg, but the story of the bar and its patrons, which is rich with the tiniest of details, from the “neon cross and the string of Christmas lights” to the camaraderie between “old friends,” is all Carll’s.

He bridges the gap between the album’s two halves on the gorgeous “American Dream,” where he uses everyday observances (summer sunshine, tumbleweeds, dresses on a clothesline waiting for Saturday night) to paint an idyllic picture of his life in Texas. The romantic side of the album, largely bolstered by his romance with Moorer, also his co-producer and frequent co-writer, finds him as relaxed as Johnny Cash in the presence of June Carter.

Carll is at his most tender on the sparse “I Will Stay,” the album’s masterpiece and the essence of true love, a relationship ballad where he vows to be there for Moorer through the good times and the bad. He goes back in time on “Beautiful Thing,” a shot of bluesy adrenaline that details the combustion he felt in the infancy of their courtship.

Although Moorer co-wrote “None’ya” with Carll, the song his tribute to her, his perspective on the woman he’ll soon call his wife. He shares intimate details of their lives together, like how she painted the ceiling of their front porch turquoise in order to keep out evil spirits because it’s “the way we do it the south,” and captures her essence in all its eccentricities with beauty and sensitivity.

Given the self-doubt he hints at in “I Will Stay,” it’s safe to assume Moorer is the one taking the lead on “Be There,” which paints a less than optimistic view of the couple’s relationship. The banjo-driven title track, in which she provides background vocals, serves as a reminder that “what it was is gone forever, what it could be god only knows, and what it is, is right here in front of me, and I’m not letting go.”

Carll’s very character is at the heart of the cautionary “Things You Don’t Want To Know,” which is directed at Moorer and his fans and warns against asking questions that can lead to uncomfortable truths you might not be ready to hear.

What It Is may be a record of two halves, showcasing distinctly different sides of a fascinating and complicated man, but it works as a cohesive whole thanks to Moorer and co-producer Brad Jones, who infuse the album with an urgency that binds the songs together with a softness and aggression that reveal Carll’s unwavering assurance in his ideals.

What It Is is a journey worth taking from beginning to end, with not a single pit-stop along the way.

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Album Review: Lee Ann Womack: ‘The Way I’m Livin'”

September 23, 2014

Lee Ann Womack

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The Way I’m Livin’

* * * 1/2

In the seventeen years since her debut, Womack has made a career out of crafting individual albums with unique personalities distinguished by their sonic footprints and her exceptional sense of song. Produced by her husband Frank Liddell, The Way I’m Livin is easily the most ambitious album of her career.

Womack turned to ‘songwriter-artists’ this go around, opting to relinquish her own unique perspective in favor of interpreting that of others. The chosen material is incredible, proving that if an artist knows where to look, it isn’t difficult to find a treasure trove of great songs. Womack has always been drawn to portraying introspective heroines shockingly aware of their own self-destruction. More such moments abound on The Way I’m livin, and they’re exquisite.

“Nightwind” finds Womack interpreting Bruce Robison’s tale about a woman moving away, realizing the ‘only true love’ she’s ever known comes at a price, one she isn’t willing to pay. She hasn’t yet left in Chris Knight’s “Send It On Down,” but as a woman suffocated by the state of her life, she’s turning to Jesus for clarity in figuring out her next move.

Brennen Leigh’s “Sleeping With The Devil” is the album’s purest honky-tonk ballad, with Womack’s tender vocal soaked in steel and fiddle. “Don’t Listen To The Wind,” Julie Miller’s mournful ballad about obsession over a tattooed memory, and the pulsating title track are companion pieces, reflections on the stronghold of love and life. The haunting production beds only further hone the already present message.

She reverses the story twice, first on Hayes Carll’s brilliant “Chances Are” and then Neil Young’s “Out On The Weekend.” Carll’s number finds Womack gloriously regretful and framed in drenching steel while her cover of Young’s classic is aided by the addition of fiddle and her dedication to bring out the country elements within the story.

The album’s two best tracks are so good, it would’ve been a doggone shame had they never seen the light of day. Back solely by an acoustic guitar, album opener “Fly” finds Womack displaying her singular gifts as a vocalist to stunning effect. Adam Hood’s “Same Kind of Different,” meanwhile, is the album’s centerpiece, a warm and inviting number that builds in intensity from an a capella beginning to heights unimagined by the end.

With The Way I’m Livin’ filled with such long-deserved goodness perfectly inline with Womack’s trajectory as an artist, why is the album so ambitious? Well, there are a couple of missteps I’m finding it difficult to ignore.

I found the album a bit too dense, with too many similarly paced tracks that as a whole leave the album needing a change of pace at various points throughout. A well-executed cover of Robison’s “Not Forgotten You” accomplishes this objective, but I would’ve liked a couple more in the same vein earlier on the album.

The bigger slip-up is Liddell’s production. After a decade of producing Miranda Lambert and a few years with David Nail, he’s lost an ability to decipher when a track is just too damn loud. Having never heard it before, I sought out Roger Miller’s original version of “Tomorrow Night In Baltimore,” which was wonderful in all its 70s glory. So why on earth would Liddell crank up the volume on Womack’s version to the point where you can barely understand the lyric? There’s no benefit served to the song to have it drowned out in electric guitars, which only add excessive noise to a track that doesn’t need it.

But even worse is Liddell’s habit of distorting tracks, so that even if the execution by the singer and band (he does this with Lambert, too) is flawless, the end results aren’t clean. Womack’s cover of Mindy Smith’s “All His Saints” is borderline unlistenable thanks to this technique, which makes Womack sound as though she’s singing through a funnel. A similar issue mars her take on Mando Saenz’s “When I Come Around,” but the issues are with Liddell’s mixing of the band, and thankfully not Womack’s vocal.

That being said, The Way I’m Livin’ is worth the six-year wait. The majority of the tracks are excellent and Womack is true to form as always. With Sugar Hill Records firmly behind her now, I just hope we don’t have to wait as long for a follow-up.

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

* * * * *

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.