Posts Tagged ‘Luke Laird’

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘Pageant Material’

July 13, 2015

Kacey Musgraves

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Pageant Material

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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.

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Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

October 23, 2014

Angaleena Presley

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American Middle Class

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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.

Album Review: Lucy Hale: “Road Between”

June 11, 2014

Lucy Hale

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Road Between

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As predicted by Bob McDill twenty years ago, it’s not that uncommon anymore for artists to go country, especially those known for other career aspirations. It’s particularly true for television actresses, with Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale adding her name to the growing list that includes Jana Kramer and Julianne Hough.

Hale is no different than her contemporaries, having to fight to earn her country credentials just like Kramer and Hough before her. With ample fiddle and a cool yet catchy drumbeat, she sets off on the right foot with “You Sound Good To Me,” a sunny uptempo number written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird, and Hillary Lindsey. Hale brings a natural effervescence to the track that works well.

Hale brings a sinister vibe to “Goodbye Gone,” a dusty banjo-infused rocker written by J.T. Harding, Melissa Peirce and Andy Dodd. She may be caught up in the all-to-familiar tale of a woman ending things with her man, but Hale brings ferocity to the proceedings that help sell the track beautifully.

While the electric guitars may come on a little thick on “Lie A Little Better,” Hale’s confident vocal cuts through the noise just enough that isn’t as intrusive as it could be. “Kiss Me” is a lot softer and allows Hale the room to breathe and give a tender vocal that’s quite endearing. With neither of the songs overwhelm lyrically, Hale saves the day by injecting the right amounts of personality into her vocal performances. “Love Tonight” is another similar song in nature, but the handclaps in the melody are a bit addicting and make up for any weaknesses in the lyric.

“From the Backseat” is a nice mid-tempo number sonically reminiscent of Sara Evans’ Restless album written by Mike Daly, Jimmy Robbins, and Nicolle Clawson. The track had me until it went flavorless on the chorus, which employs the wall-of-sound production technique so much that it intrudes on the uniqueness of the song and Hale’s vocal.

The truest test for any singer on a debut album is the moments where the production is left sparse, where any vocal limitations will stand out like a sore thumb. Hale’s moment comes on Tom Douglas, James Slater, and Lindsey’s “Nervous Girls” and she passes with flying colors. The production may still lean country-pop, but she proves quite nicely that she can hold her own against any of her contemporaries.

Joe Nichols, back in traditional country mode vocally, joins Hale for “Red Dress,” a somewhat awkward moment that finds the two playing out the male and female aspects of a relationship. Kacey Musgraves co-wrote “That’s What I Call Crazy” and proves she’s adept at writing both artistic and commercially viable numbers. Hale’s only co-write comes in album closer “Just Another Song” and it’s one of the strongest numbers on the album thanks to a co-writing credit by Catt Gravitt, who helped write some of the best numbers on Kramer’s debut two years ago.

Listening to “Just Another Song” makes one wish Gravitt had contributed more here, as she thrives in this type of setting, writing songs for young female artists who may be looking for a voice. While there’s little revelatory aboutRoad Between, it does showcase a budding talent that has the goods to extend her television career into one involving music. Hopefully she’ll be allowed to record a bit more substantive material going forward (really, how many numbers about kissing does one need on an eleven song album?) and further develop the strong potential she showcases onRoad Between.

Album Review – Eric Church – “The Outsiders”

March 6, 2014

Eric Church

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The Outsiders

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When it comes to reviewing new releases, my philosophy is to tackle albums by artists for which I’m a fan opposed to critiquing records by artists that aren’t my taste. That way the review isn’t a one-sided analysis based solely on an already established dislike for the artist or the music. I don’t usually like to waste my time on releases that are more of the usual mainstream drivel and don’t have the slightest chance of being anything other than trend-following fodder designed for maximum airplay on the ever shrinking playlists of country radio.

That being said, I’ve been an Eric Church fan since “How ‘Bout You” in 2006. While that might not have been my favorite song, I loved “Two Pink Lines” and “Guys Like Me.” From then on, I’ve loved the majority of his singles and count Chief among the best mainstream releases this decade. Church has always been an original who follows the beat of his own drum and I wholeheartedly respect him for being his own man in a sea of interchangeable sameness.

But now it seems the biggest side effect of his success is overblown ego. Instead of using Chief as the platform from which build a follow-up record, he’s disregarded it completely and crafted what’ll likely be one of the most polarizing albums to come out of Nashville this year from a genre heavyweight. The Outsiders defies logic with a decidedly noncommercial sound that alienates the masses in favor of playing to whomever you would call the group that shares in his odd vision.

When listening to the album, which the majority of critics have referred to as “groundbreaking,” I kept searching for those more normal moments, songs like “Springsteen” or even “Love Your Love The Most” that I could easily enjoy (or see on country radio as potential singles). While they were hard to find, thankfully they are there in some form or another.

“Talladega,” co-written by Church and Luke Laird, is the most conventional and thus the album’s strongest moment overall. A story of friendship, the tune centers around five friends and their unforgettable times together at the famed racetrack. It’s a near perfect slice of rock-country and a song that wouldn’t have been out of place on Tim McGraw’sSet This Circus Down.

Church teams up with his “Springsteen” co-writers Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tendell for “Roller Coaster Ride,” a more progressive experience sonically, but a darn catchy tune with a nice hook (“Since you had to go, I’ve been on a roller coaster ride”). Also appealing is drinking song “Cold One” in which a man is lamenting the sudden end of a relationship when his girl leaves him ‘one beer short of a twelve pack.’ The track would’ve been a home run had Church and producer Jay Joyce kept the ear-catching backwoods arraignment that opens the track. When it morphs into the progressive hip/hop meets EDM mess towards the second verse, I’m all but lost. But the writers (Church, Hyde, and Luke Hutton) have written a fantastic lyric, and that about saves the whole thing.

As a general rule, Church is often better lyrically than sonically. Often, his best songs (think “Creepin’”) are as loud and obnoxious as they are lyrically inventive and original. That’s why I was kind of upset when the title track dropped last fall and left me cold. “The Outsiders” has since grown on me lyrically, but I still hate the heavy metal breakdown towards the end. Thankfully I do love second single “Give Me Back My Hometown” warts and all. It’s a far cry better than almost everything currently on country radio and one of the most exciting songs released so far this year even though it doesn’t have much to do with country music beyond Church’s audible twang.

The only other song on the project I can confess to liking even a little is “Broke Record,” since it is catchy although it wears thin on repeated listenings. The rest of the project, unfortunately, is a mess. Church mumbles his way through “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” and thus renders the lyric impossible to understand. “Like A Wrecking Ball” features Church’s voice marred in an annoying echo effect, “That’s Damn Rock and Roll” is the dictionary definition of dreck, “Dark Side” is too moody, “Devil, Devil” is just awful, and “The Joint” is too hip/hop inspired (if that’s even what you call it) for my taste.

Given my admiration for Church has an artist, I wanted to love this album. But too many of the songs left me wishing for the formula he perfected with Chief and rightfully won the CMA Album of the Year trophy for. The Outsiders is an uneven album at best, heavy on experimentation and light on good quality music. But thankfully Church manages to keep his head out of the gutter for at least some of the tracks, and if his label is smart, those are the ones that’ll be sent to radio for a shot at heavy rotation airplay.

Album Review – Kiley Evans – ‘2 Pieces of 3 Hearts’

August 18, 2013

Kiley Evans

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2 Pieces of 3 Hearts

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Marshfield, Massachusetts native Kiley Evans has come a long way from her days studying engineering at Wentworth Institute of Technology. Since forgoing her college degree for the lure of a guitar, she’s participated in Bluebird Café in-the-round performances with Luke Laird and written with Stoughton, MA native Lori McKenna. Evans and McKenna recently shared a stage in Martha’s Vineyard, and she’s performed multiple dates with fellow rising country star and American Idol finalist Ayla Brown.

Evans recently released her debut album, three years in the making. 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts is a hybrid project comprised of her 2011 Kiley Evans EP and five newer songs (i.e. “2 Pieces”) she’s debuted at various concert dates. Evans had made waves here on the South Shore but also in Rhode Island – local country station Cat Country 98.1 WCTK plays her music on a regular basis, as does 95.9 WATD, where I intern. Evans has been a frequent guest of their Almost Famous local music show, where she’s graced their Tiny Stage and showed up on their playlists.

I’ve long been looking forward to this release since Almost Famous co-DJ John Shea brought her music to my attention a few years ago. I attended a show last fall, and caught her again this past spring. Evans has an every girl personality that endears her to fans and simple songs that offer a peak inside her world.

I’ve been most excited to get my hands on the CD for “Free Fallin,’” a solo composition that’s among my favorite songs she’s ever done. She sings about a phenomenon we’ve all experienced – that moment when we finally hear a song for the first time, fully understanding a lyric we’d known forever but never really listened to (the track in question here is, of course, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers classic):

I never really understood

I never really listened right

I’m singing ‘Free Fallin’ all the way home tonight

I never really heard the music

I never really saw the light

I’m singing ‘Free Fallin’ all the way home tonight

Also excellent is “One More Spin Around,” written about a woman who falls for a guy at a party who ends up giving her a ride home. She pretends she can’t find her keys in an effort to stall their inevitable goodbye, and they take multiple spins around the neighborhood. I love the sunny vibe and electric guitar riffs that frame Evans’ high-energy vocal. “Devil On Your Soldier” is sonically similar and just as good, although there’s more going on in the production.

She displays her vocal prowess again on 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts lead single “Easy,” which adds an element of blues into her country repertoire. The production track is a tad busy, but Evans pushes through with a stunningly confident vocal reminiscent of Christina Aguilera that adds another dimension to her artistic wheelhouse. She continues in this vein with “Tuck & Roll,” a perfectly composed tale about being played in a relationship.

Evans continues to stretch and grow on “We’d Be Lying,” a sexy love song that could’ve easily been a force attempt at creating a moment, but works surprisingly well. The gorgeous ribbons of piano nicely frame her delicate vocal, and Boston-based singer-guitarist Joe Merrick is a delight as Evans’ duet partner.

The most exciting aspect of the album is the melding of old and new, allowing the listener to fully grasp Evans’ maturity as an artist over the past few years. “Easy” and “We’d Be Lying” show just how far she’s come since the days of “Johnny Depp” and “Not Today,” which are both included here. Both of those now vintage songs hold up well against the newer material. The chorus of “Johnny Depp” is what hooked me in the beginning and its still one of Evans’ most memorable compositions. Mid-tempo ballad “Not Today” is even better, showcasing Evans’ ability to craft songs that are instantly relatable. Her ability to write relationship songs that appeal to everyone is one of her greatest assets.

Evans thankfully also understands that life is more than romance and adds depth to the project with “Papa’s Song,” a tribute to her grandfather that’s a bare bones moment of reflection and the record’s emotional centerpiece. If there’s any doubt as to Evans’ country credibility, “Papa’s Song” puts it all to rest. There’s brilliance in her emotional intimacy that’s breathtaking – she bares her soul in the way only the best singer/songwriters are able. It’s worth the price of the album to hear her share this moment with us.

Evans announced this week she’s moving to Nashville to make her dream a reality, which makes 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts even more special. She’s definitely going to be missed around the South Shore, but she leaves us with a wonderful collection of songs that stand as an argument for her bright future. I cannot wait to see what she does next.

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For more information on Kiley Evans, and to buy a physical copy of 2 Pieces of 3 Hearts, check out her website

The album is also available on iTunes.

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

April 30, 2013

Kacey Musgraves

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Same Trailer, Different Park

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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 – Little Big Town – “Tornado”

September 18, 2012

Little Big Town

Tornado

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You’d think the combination of irresistible four part harmonies and a keen sense of song would be the makings of country music royalty, but Little Big Town have had more starts and halts in the past ten years than just about any mainstream act. They more than won the respect of the industry, but never quite latched onto the fans and country radio.

Their fifth album, a deliberate attempt to reverse those fortunes, is the group’s first to utilize producer-of-the-moment Jay Joyce, a smart decision that presents the quartet in a new and exciting light. Thanks to a stellar collection of songs tastefully sung and framed, Tornado blows recent releases by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band out of the water and is easily the best mainstream country album since Eric Church’s Chief (also helmed by Joyce) came out a year ago.

Tornado works because it tampers with their core formula without sacrificing the qualities that have endeared them to the country audience for the past ten years. Platinum selling lead single “Pontoon,” a Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean co-write about summertime fun on the water got them off on the right foot, and recently became their first number one.

Anchored by Karen Fairchild’s commanding lead vocal and a slinky ear-catching beat, the song works because it isn’t a mid-life ploy at reclaiming adolescence, but rather three minutes of harmless fun aboard a boat. The second verse should’ve been developed more fully, but it works really well as a concept, and the arrangement is one of my favorites of any single this year.

Tornado matches the exuberance of “Pontoon”, but in most cases exceeds it. I’m really enjoying the album’s opening four tracks, each one a showcase for a different member of the group. Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on “Pavement Ends,” Fairchild on “Pontoon,” Kimberly Schlapman on “Sober” and Phillip Sweet on “Front Porch Thing.”

Westbrook, the thinnest vocally of the group, is adequate on “Pavement Ends,” Jason Saenz and Brent Cobb’s rollicking ode to dirt road partying, one of the more exciting songs on the subject matter. His male counterpart, Sweet (one of my favorite male vocalists in contemporary country), is excellent on “Front Porch Thing,” a wonderful banjo-led song about kicking back on a front porch with an old guitar and a song to sing.

But Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.

Other album highlights include the first-rate title song and second single, a sinister Bobbie Gentry-like ballad about a woman seeking vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Written by Hemby and Delta Maid, and effectively sung by Fairchild, the track blows away Underwood’s latest (which tackles a similar theme) and works thanks to the tasteful spooky guitars and moody vibe.

I also love the Westbrook fronted “Leavin’ In Your Eyes,” which Joyce turns into a 1970s inspired soft rock opus, complete with a simple driving beat. The use of Fairchild and Schlapman on harmony vocals was a brilliant decision, as it helps to make the song more interesting than if the foursome sang together.

“Can’t Go Back,” written by Hemby with Kate York and Israeli-born Rosi Golan is another striking ballad and a fine showcase for the band’s signature harmonies, while album closer “Night Owl,” written by the band with Hemby, is a gorgeous reverse of “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” in which Fairchild and Schlapman take the lead while Westbrook and Sweet take the harmonies. “Night Owl” is another of my favorites sonically and nicely frames the group’s delicate vocals with lush acoustic guitars

Not all the tracks work, however. Sung as a duet by husband and wife Westbrook and Fairchild, “Your Side of the Bed” is a rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed,” down to the story of a failing marriage under the microscope in the bedroom. I’m having a difficult time believing the couple’s pain and the use of harmonies in the chorus. A better decision would’ve been to have Westbrook or Fairchild sing it solo, as the harmonies dilute the song’s emotional heft. I love the idea of the track as a duet, but it plain doesn’t work for a four-part group.

“On Fire Tonight” is an attempt at amped up rock that’s well presented and sung, and should work wonderfully in a live setting. But on record the Laird co-write with band comes off as underwhelming and a bit subpar for the group that has proven (even on Tornado) they can do a lot better.

I’m also having trouble getting into “Self Made,” which probably has a nice message, but is overtaken by a disastrously cluttered production that’s so bombastic, its hard to hear what the group is singing. Joyce, who should’ve kept with the rest of the album and continued with the less is more approach, failed Hemby and Jedd Hughes’s co-write with Westbrook and Fairchild.

All and all, Tornado is an excellent mainstream country album and the strongest so far this year, bar none. I’m finding it impossible to drum up excitement for mainstream country these days but Little Big Town has managed to do that for me. I was so afraid they were on the path to compromising themselves at the price of commercial viability, but thankfully I was wrong.

Tornado isn’t a masterwork like Kathy Mattea’s Calling Me Home, but I’m confident in saying it stands next to the likes of Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Miranda Lambert’s Revolution, and Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love as some of the best mainstream fare released in the past five years.

Concert Review – CMA Songwriters Series at the Royale Boston (Featuring Carrie Underwood)

August 26, 2012

Luke Laird is one of the coolest dudes on earth.

At least that’s the perspective I gleaned from his participation in the CMA Songwriters Series, back for its sophomore outing in Boston, July 31. Laird lacked the I-aim-to-please convention of the other participants, and thus gave the deepest insight into the songs that came from his pen.

Laird peeled his material back to its original form, often exposing the forged purity of country radio. He restored “Hillbilly Bone” to its country-rap beginnings, turning in a far more interesting song than Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins took up the charts in 2009/2010. He also sang the real lyrics to “Pontoon – ” it’s “back this bitch up into the water” not “back this hitch up into the water.”

To an outsider those amendments can seem insignificant; even pointless. But they reveal an authenticity about his writing process; a glimpse into his psyche. Laird is a very provocative writer, an outlander in a world of convention. By night’s end I was longing for the opportunity to jet down to Nashville and spend an afternoon with him.

The whole night was indicative of that feeling, turning songwriters into  stars, and Carrie Underwood into their equal, not a celebrity amongst peons. The round robin style contributed to that, lessening any opportunity to upstage anyone else.

The remarkable fact of the evening, far more noteworthy than a sold-out crowd, was the crop of songs sung, some of the blandest in recent memory, ones often filling up “worst songs of the year” lists on country blogs. But for two hours on a Tuesday evening that hardly mattered, as personality far out shined quality.

The affable Bob DiPiero hosted the evening, keeping the proceedings moving along, scolding a group of talking fans, and giving a shout out to the countless others watching via live stream. As a still relevant member of the 90s guard (and one time husband of Pam Tillis), DiPiero should’ve been the avenue for a trip down memory lane, but instead he chose to focus on his more recent, post millennium compositions (“If You Ever Stop Loving Me,” “Gone”).

DiPiero did turn the clock back once, however, singing a song he wrote about the daughter of his friend who showed up at his house in a red convertible. I was thinking he was going to sing the 1997 Collin Raye smash “Little Red Rodeo,” but instead DiPiero took on “Daddy’s Money” his #1 hit for Ricochet from 1996. I was nervous it wouldn’t go down well (who would know that song?), but it was one of the night’s most well-recieved moments.

The showcase, more panel than fluid concert, went down the line, letting each songwriter take turns on something they wrote. The evening had a wonderfully intimate feel in part because everyone was sitting down and also because of the acoustic guitar backing. DiPiero sat on the far left followed by Laird, Underwood, Hillary Lindsey, and Brett James.

The focus on post-2000 material pandered to the largely newer-country-fan crowd, and it showed in their marked excitement for what was being sung. DiPiero revved the crowd with opener “Southern Voice” (his excuse to write a song with the line “Appalachia Cola”), while Laird had everyone singing along to “Take A Back Road,” the gravel-in-my-travel ode to the cultural differences in upbringings between him and his co-writer Rhett Akins.

After the requisite jokes regarding his longer-than-usual hair moved the spotlight off his music, James, a 90s recording star, got the crowd going with a fine version of his Ashley Monroe co-write “The Truth,”  Jason Aldean’s career highpoint, as well as fine versions of “Mr. Know It All” and the sing-a-long “When The Sun Goes Down.” James was easily the night’s most annoying participant, whither it was the deep gravel of his vocals (blamed on a cold) or his cocky attitude.

As much as the focus shifted to other well-known compositions, the night belonged to Underwood. This meeting of the CMA Songwriters was meant as a showcase for her material, as much as for everyone else’s.

Underwood opened with “So Small,” her first linkage with Laird, and his first #1 as a songwriter. Throughout the night she also rolled through past hits  “Undo It” and “Temporary Home,” all while dressed more causally in pants and a white top, accented with her little-past-shoulder length hair in tight blond curls. She appeared as relaxed as any on stage, an everywoman among her peers.

This ego-less attitude extended to Lindsey who used her spotlight to showcase her connections with Underwood. She spoke lovingly of hoping the recently signed Idol winner would even consider recording one of her songs before launching into “Jesus, Take The Wheel,” the inaugural collaboration between songwriter and singer.

The songs she wrote for, and with Underwood, stole the show. They teamed up twice on Blown Away album cuts – “Do You Think About Me” and “Two Black Cadillacs.” Both proved excellent, and succeeded as pitches to get them released as singles (and in that order). The performance of “Cadillacs,” was a spoiler though, as the stripped down atmosphere is a much better setting for the, as Underwood put it, “sinister” lyrics.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, James took his turn and apologized in advance for, a comical reading of “Cowboy Casanova” that came off like a drunk guy doing grating bar karaoke. It marked the night’s most annoying moment, almost frat like in nature. I’m just not as big a fan of that particular composition as I thought, and after only three years, its proving not to age well.

Of all, Lindsey appeared the most carefree, whimsically seducing the audience with her charisma. Her need to pee turned into a running gag she kept comical, an accentuation of her southern charm and ability to develop a rapport with the audience.

This palpable charm extended to her detours from her connections with Underwood, most notably “American Honey,” her co-write that became a hit for Lady Antebellum. Better than any, the song fits Lindsey’s overall persona like a glove, as she exudes the same innocence projected by the lyrics. Lindsey also sang a new song, one not yet recorded, entitled “Concrete Heart.” If country radio can put aside the frivolous material currently hawking spins, it should be a hit for someone. I look forward to seeing who records it (Underwood, perhaps?).

The night’s musical highlight came with the ridiculously fun “Pontoon,” as Underwood shared an e-mail she wrote to Laird congratulating him  on his next #1. Even better were Underwood’s attempts at helping Laird sing it, blanking on half the bridge before turning out the final “motorboatin'” solo, in her soft girly voice. (Excerpts of it can be heard in the viral video “Pontoon Party.”)

But what I greatly appreciated from the whole evening was the atmosphere. I came away wanting to be friends with all on stage, and I couldn’t believe songwriters (non, apart from James, have released albums) could be so entertaining. But more than that, the acoustic setting reeled in Underwood’s wild abandon, and she was able to sing without dancing around distractedly.

That’s a feat in and of itself and it put the focus back on the music, not Underwood the stage performer (which could use major polishing). Without the loud production everyone could be heard and thus the music could be appreciated. It makes such a difference in a concert when everyone on stage can be heard. And kind of surprisingly, the multiple acoustic guitars sounded so full, you didn’t miss the band. 

 I knew buying tickets, the night had the potential to be a very special gathering, a once in a lifetime opportunity to witness a performer at the peak of their abilities in a very rare setting. I didn’t really know what to expect going in, and I came away having my expectations exceeded.

If you ever have the chance to catch one of these gatherings, seize the opportunity with gusto. They happen country wide during the whole year and offer more satisfaction for country fans, than any major Kenny Chesney or Taylor Swift styled tour. At least they did for me anyway.

The CMA Songwriters Series is just another in a long list of genre only happenings, that make me proud to be a country music fan and reinforce my stance, that I’m musically right where I belong.

It’s a good day to be a Little Big Town fan

July 18, 2012

There aren’t many announcements in modern country worth even a modicum of excitement, but news of brand new music from Little Big Town (Tornado, their fifth album, hits Sept. 11) is worth shouting from the rooftops.

Why? Because their the most consistently good and highly underrated band in country music gunning for radio airplay.  Their brilliance as a tight unit has led to some of this century’s most interesting singles from “Boondocks” and “Bring It On Home” to “Fine Line” and “Little White Church.”

That keen ear for song selection looks to continue with Tornado as the crop of writers chosen to pen the songs are among Nashville’s strongest from Lori McKenna to Jedd Hughes to Luke Laird.

The overwhelmingly intoxicating “Pontoon” has exploded as the lead single, hitting the top 15 in eleven weeks while also sitting atop the iTunes country chart for most of the last two months.

So what accounts for the change of heart from radio and fans?

A modification in sound for one. Out is Wayne Kurkpatrick, the mastermind behind their Road to Here-Place To Land-Reasons Why albums and in is Jay Joyce, the man behind Eric Church’s style of country. This change has lit a fire within and created a hunger missing from their previous music. There’s a new determination now to force country radio to stop ignoring them, once and for all.

Only time will tell if subsequent singles match the buzz of “Pontoon.” I’m in love with the sound of this song for sure, but the very underwhelming second verse, which misses (as well as desperately needs) a second half, irks me to no end and displays the laziness penetrating most of the lyrics in modern country. But, I’ll be darned if there is a cooler sounding song currently vying for radio airplay.

Thankfully, though, to hear Jimi Westbrook talk about Tornado, there’s a lot to get worked up about:

“I am so excited for people to hear this new record. “Jay really pushed us to be in the moment. There was such an amazing energy between all of us in the studio and I think you can feel it.”

Here’s the album’s cover, complete with their rebranding campagin:

Here’s the track list:

1. “Pavement Ends”
Jason Saenz/Brent Cobb

2. “Pontoon”
Barry Dean/Natalie Hemby/Luke Laird

3. “Sober”
Liz Rose/Hillary Lindsey/Lori McKenna

4. “Front Porch Thing”
Chris Stapleton/Adam Hood

5. “On Your Side of the Bed”
Lori McKenna/Karen Fairchild/Jimi Westbrook/Kimberly Schlapman/Phillip Sweet

6. “Leavin’ in Your Eyes”
Brett Warren/Brad Warren/Jay Joyce/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild/K.Schlapman

7. “Tornado”
Natalie Hemby/Delta Made

8. “On Fire Tonight”
Luke Laird/P.Sweet/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild/K.Schlapman

9. “Can’t Go Back”
Natalie Hemby/Kate York/Rosi Golan

10. “Self Made”
Natalie Hemby/Jedd Hughes/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild

11. “Night Owl”
Natalie Hemby/J.Westbrook/K.Fairchild/K.Schlapman/P.Sweet

Is it too much to ask for September 11 come just a bit faster, please?

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.