Posts Tagged ‘Pam Tillis’

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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Album Review: Miranda Lambert: “Platinum”

June 12, 2014

Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertPlatinum

Platinum

* * * * 1/2

Midway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came Fromnine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, butPlatinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

The Best Country Albums of 2013

December 31, 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

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9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

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8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

AnnieUp

7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

Vince Gill And Paul Franklin - Bakersfield_Cvr_5x5_300cmyk

3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Album Review – Grits and Glamour (Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan) – ‘Dos Divas’

July 31, 2013

Grits and Glamour (Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan)

DosDivas

Dos Divas

* * * 1/2 

It’s always interesting when a favorite artist issues a new recording. Your gut instinct is excitement, but you also wonder if the new material will measure up to the iconic music from that singer’s catalog. That sentiment certainly rings true about Dos Divas, the much anticipated duets project by Grits and Glamour, the duo comprised of Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan.

Tillis and Morgan are certainly an inspired pairing. They’re second-generation country singers who’ve grown up in the business and have been close friends since they landed major label record deals some twenty-five years ago. The pair even co-headlined (along with third-generation country singer Carlene Carter) a tour together in 1996. They’ve been touring under their current moniker going on some three years now and it was the fans that demanded this new release.

You have to be careful what you wish for. Dos Divas is a smorgasbord of duets and solo efforts that aims high, but never quite reaches its full potential. The main problem is Morgan, who’s still pushing her I’m-fifty-going-on-twenty persona that’s been her calling card for over a decade now. Her voice has also caught up with her look, and while she has moments where she makes it work, the control she once possessed so beautifully just isn’t there anymore. Tillis, meanwhile, is the same powerhouse dynamo that brought us to our knees on “Maybe It Was Memphis” twenty-two years ago.

Among the six duets on Dos Divas, there are some standout moments. I quite like “Bless Their Hearts,” a mid-tempo number Tillis co-wrote with Jimmy Richie and Joanna Smith that wouldn’t be out of place on a Miranda Lambert album. Morgan’s vocal is nasally, but the lyric and understated melody shine. Also good is Mary Sue England and Thom Shepherd’s “I Am A Woman,” a beautiful 90s-inspired piano ballad that shows off how well the pair harmonize together.

They turn up the energy on “I Know What You Did Last Night,” the fun and campy lead single. It’s the next morning recap of last night’s shenanigans and easily   the best party song of 2013. Tillis and Morgan are excellent when they play off each other with a nicely structured lyric. “I’m Tired,” a wisp of a honky-tonker complete with brilliantly placed fiddle, works just as well.

Initially I was frustrated by the inclusion of solo numbers as this is billed as a duets project. But the pair calls Dos Divas three albums in one, and the solo numbers are a chance to see how they fit into contemporary country. Interestingly enough, they balance it out with some excellent and some horrid numbers.

Morgan shines on the plaintive ballad “Another Chance To,” written by Joe West, Tom Shapiro, and Tammi Kidd. Framed by fiddle, mandolin, and piano, Morgan sings of second chances – spurred by a traffic jam caused by a med-flight helicopter landing just up ahead on the highway. The resulting euphony (every day’s a gift) is predictable, but Morgan infuses the song with the right amounts of sincerity and believability. “Last Night’s Makeup,” co-written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally (with Jessie Jo Dillon) is almost as good, but I found the word “makeup” just a little too jarring. The sentiment is good, though, and Morgan brings her real-life romantic experiences to her vocal.

I’ve had issue with songs that mention mobile phones and Facebook because they seem out of place to me for some reason. So I was inclined to hate “That’s So Cool,” but the melody is just so darn appealing that it cancels out the lyrical inanity in Morgan’s co-write with Eddy Raven and Frank J. Myers. I also have issue with Morgan’s inability to act her age on the track, but it fits well within her persona.

Tillis doesn’t have any solo numbers that reach the heights of “Another Chance To,” but torch ballad “Even The Stars” comes close. Tillis sings the hell out of the lyric, and I love how the arrangement so brilliantly frames her voice. She also gives a vocal master class on “I Envy The Sun,” although I couldn’t totally engage with the lyric. The melody of “Ain’t Enough Roses” can become grating, but once again, she sings the track well.

More often than not I do really, really like Dos Divas. But when the songs veer off course, they are embarrassingly bad. “Old Enough To Be Your Lover,” a number Tillis handles solo, is unintelligent and while she gets the “fun” just right, Lisa Carver’s lyric forces Tillis to wear a character that just doesn’t fit right. She’s better than this. The pair team up for one track they co-wrote together, and “What Was I Thinkin’” was supposed to be a comical tour-de-force about the their past romantic conquests. In execution it’s sloppy dreck that fails to be funny or clever.

Dos Divas is one of those weird projects that is nothing like anyone thought it would sound, giving the pedigree these two share, and Tillis’ near flawless track record for turning out expertly crafted albums. I love almost every track here, but wouldn’t deem any essential listening. I’m glad the record exists, for shear listening pleasure, but both ladies have already proven they’re better than this artistically.

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

April 30, 2013

Kacey Musgraves

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Same Trailer, Different Park

* * * * 1/2

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: 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. 

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.