Posts Tagged ‘Scott Borchetta’

Album Review: Carrie Underwood – ‘Storyteller’

November 10, 2015

Carrie Underwood

Carrie_Underwood_-_Storyteller_(Official_Album_Cover)

Storyteller

** 1/2 

Of all the criticisms I can level at mainstream country this year, the most unnerving is the brazen shamelessness of artists who’ve gone out of their way to change everything they’re about in order to chase a bigger high that doesn’t exist. More than adapting to changing trends, artists like Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry have abandoned their earnestness and sold their souls to Scott Borchetta, who interfered with their artistry in order to fill his pockets.

Carrie Underwood, luckily, isn’t on the Big Machine Label Group. That being said, I was still nervous about the direction of Storyteller. To compete in a tomato-smeared world, how much would she have to veer from the sound that made her a household name?

As much as I admire Underwood’s music, I cannot help but feel her output has been geared toward the right now, with songs that don’t stand the test of time. A lot of her music, especially the rockers, just isn’t strong enough to carry the nostalgia we now feel for the 1990s country we all love. She’s an incredible vocalist, and when she’s on point, no one can hold a candle to her.

That’s why I’m always excited when she releases new music. I’m even more pleased she and Arista Nashville added Jay Joyce and Zach Crowell as producers alongside Mark Bright. Underwood and Bright have been a well-oiled machine going on ten years, but it’s time to change it up for the sake of variety.

Our first taste of the switch-up is the Joyce produced “Smoke Break,” a rocker Underwood co-wrote with Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsay. It’s easily one of the most country songs on the radio right now, with Underwood’s natural twang carrying the somewhat generic story quite nicely. I only wish Joyce had dialed it back on the chorus, going for a more organic punch than the screaming rock that drowns Underwood out.

Likely second single “Heartbeat,” which features Sam Hunt and was produced by his orchestrator Crowell, finds Underwood in a field with her man ‘dancing to the rhythm of [his] heartbeat.’ The track, which Underwood and Crowell co-wrote with Ashley Gorley, is a pleasant pop ballad that finds Underwood nicely subdued.

She also co-wrote four other tracks on the album. “Renegade Runaway” kicks off Storyteller with bang. The rocker, co-written with her “Smoke Break” comrades, is slinky and fun but suffers from a god-awful chorus that renders the song almost unlistenable. Mike Elizondo, best known for his work with Drake and Eminem, was brought in collaborate with Underwood and Lindsay on club thumper “Chaser.” The results are immature at best and showcase Underwood at her most watered down.

Fortunately, Underwood rebounds with her final two co-writes. Underwood and Lindsay turned to David Hodges to write “The Girl You Think I Am,” an ode to her father in the vein of “Mama’s Song” from Play On. It’s a beautiful prayer about acceptance, from a daughter who wants to overcome her insecurities to live up to her father’s expectations.

The other, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” is the centerpiece of Storyteller even though it closes the album. Underwood isn’t an artist who normally looks from within for inspiration, so it’s rare when she finds inspiration in her own life for a song. The results aren’t spectacular – she could’ve gone a lot deeper lyrically and found even a little hint of country music in the execution – but she’s gotten her feet wet for future moves in this direction.

Storyteller wouldn’t be an Underwood album unless she revisits the murderous themes that have become her touchstone. These songs have grown into bigger productions in the ten years since “Before He Cheats” and usually suffer from a lack of subtlety. That doesn’t change much here, although they are kind of fun to listen to. “Choctaw County Affair” showcases Underwood’s growth as a vocalist with a delicious story about a woman’s mysterious death. “Church Bells” is an excellent backwoods rocker about domestic abuse. “Dirty Laundry,” on the other hand, is juvenile and revisits themes already too well worn. “Mexico,” about bandits on the run, isn’t the island song you’d expect but a typical Underwood rocker.

On every Underwood album there’s one song that stands out from the rest, a likely non-single that’ll always be a much-appreciated deep album cut. On Storyteller that distinction goes to sensual ballad “Like I’ll Never Love You Again,” written by the CMA Song of the Year winning team behind “Girl Crush.” Underwood delivers flawlessly, while the lyric is the strongest and most well written on the whole album.

“Relapse” is nothing more than a blown out pop power ballad that does little to advance Underwood’s artistry beyond the fact she showcases new colors in her voice. “Clock Don’t Stop,” another ballad, suffers from a hip-hop inspired chorus that relies far too heavily on drawn out one syllable words and yeahs in place of actual lyrics.

Storyteller is an odd album. I refuse to judge its complete lack of actual country music as a flaw even though it hurts the proceedings quite a bit. There are some listenable pop songs here, like “Heartbeat,” but most of this music is below Underwood’s talent level. The deliciousness of “Choctaw County Affair” saves it from the scrap heap while the articulate lyric of “Like I’ll Never Love You Again” is very, very good. But there isn’t much here that doesn’t feel like poorly written middle of the road pop/rock passing as modern country.

I give Underwood complete credit for changing up her sound and trying something new. It just isn’t to my taste at all. I much prefer the powerhouse who gave us the one-two-punch of “Something In The Water” and “Little Toy Guns.” That’s the Carrie Underwood I could listen to all day.

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Album Review: Reba McEntire – “Love Somebody”

April 14, 2015

Reba McEntire

Reba_LoveSomebody

Love Somebody

* * * 1/2

In the five years since All The Women I Am, Reba McEntire thought the changing tides of mainstream country music had swung too far in the opposite direction and thus she had recorded her final album. With playlists catering almost exclusively to men, she felt there wasn’t room for her anymore. That didn’t stop Scott Borchetta from begging, and after four years, he finally got her back in the studio.

Love Somebody is McEntire’s twenty-seventh album and first as the flagship artist of Nash Icon, Borchetta’s newest venture in which he signs legacy acts with hopes of returning them to prominence. The album, co-produced between McEntire, Tony Brown, and James Stroud, is an eclectic slice of modern country that proves the 60-year-old hall of famer can still keep up with the young guns. She hasn’t lost any of the distinctive color in her voice nor has she forsaken the themes that have kept her career afloat for more than forty years.

McEntire’s distinctive ear for songs brimming with attitude is evident in “Going Out Like That,” the lead single that’s beating the odds and becoming a sizeable hit. She continues in that vein on “Until They Don’t Love You,” a Shane McAnally co-write with Lori McKenna and Josh Osborne. Brash and theatrical, the track has prominent backing vocals and nods to her mid-90s anthems although it lacks their distinctiveness. The electric guitar soaked “This Living Ain’t Killed Me Yet” has an engaging lyric courtesy of Tommy Lee James and Laura Veltz and is far more structured melodically.

Pedal Steel leads the way on “She Got Drunk Last Night,” which finds a woman drunk-dialing an old flame. McEntire conveys Brandy Clark and McAnally’s lyric with ease, but I would’ve liked the song to go a bit deeper into the woman’s desperation. She finds herself haunted by the memory of an ex on “That’s When I Knew,” about the moment a woman realizes she’s finally moved on. Jim Collins and Ashley Gorley’s lyric is very good and finds McEntire coping splendidly with a powerful yet thick arrangement.

Throughout Love Somebody, McEntire grapples with intriguing thematic and sonic choices that display her ability to reach beyond her usual material. “I’ll Go On” finds her singing from the prospective of a woman who actually forgives the man who doesn’t love her. She tries and ultimately fails to adequately execute a Sam Hunt co-written hip-hop groove on the title track, one of two love songs. The other, “Promise Me Love,” is a much better song, although Brown’s busy production hinders any chance of the listener truly engaging with the lyric.

She also takes a stab at recreating the magic of “Does He Love You” through a duet with Jennifer Nettles. Written by Kelly Archer, Aaron Scherz, and Emily Shackelton, “Enough” boasts a strong lyric about two women who’ll never be sufficient for this one guy. The premise is stellar and McEntire and Nettles deliver vocally. I just wish the production were softer so we could get the full effect of their anger and despair.

While not particularly unusual, McEntire turns in another story song with “Love Land,” Tom Douglas and Rachael Thibodeau’s composition first recorded by Martina McBride on her 2007 album Waking Up Laughing. It’s never been one of my favorite songs, as I find it very heavy-handed, but McEntire handles it well.

The centerpiece of Love Somebody is Liz Hengber’s “Just Like Them Horses,” a delicate ballad about a recently departed loved one journeying to the other side. The recording is a masterpiece of emotion from Hengber’s perfect lyric to Brown’s elegant production. McEntire’s vocal, channeling the pain she felt when she first sang it at her father’s funeral last fall, is in hallowed company – it’s on par with her delivery of “If I’d Only Known” from twenty-four years ago.

The album closes with her charity single “Pray For Peace” the first self-written song McEntire has recorded since “Only In My Mind” thirty years ago. Like the majority of Love Somebody it shows her taking chances while also staying true to authentic self. While there are few truly knockout punches, this is a very good album. It might not be the strongest set she’s ever released, but it’s a solid reminder that she should stay in the game and take shorter gaps between projects.

Favorite Songs By Favorite Artists: Taylor Swift

January 2, 2015

10858588_10152594659633196_3607573155036106459_nOver the course of the last decade, no artist has been scrutinized and debated more than Taylor Swift. Large swaths of music fans don’t understand the appeal citing either weak vocals, the fact they’re out of her target demographic, or both in their critiques. But through it all Swift has grown into a one woman machine who’s become the heart and soul of the music industry. The first genuine superstar of the social media age, she connects with fans at a level never before seen. Her impact and influence cannot be understated.

On some level Swift is a brilliant business woman. You don’t sell a million copies of your last three albums – Speak Now (2010), Red (2012) and 1989 (2014) – in the first week by accident. Swift knows her audience inside and out, thus giving them exactly what they want.

I’ve loved Swift ever since “Our Song” was released to country radio in the summer of 2007. Her five albums have constantly been some of my favorite records during the years they were released. In fact, no other artist has gotten me more excited for new product than Swift. Why? Simply put, her songwriting speaks to me. No one crafts lyrics like her, framed impeccably in the melody and instrumentation that best suits the song. Taylor Swift has it all figured out – haters be damned – and is laughing all the way to global domination.

Ranking my 25 favorite songs of hers was a challenge. I finally got it down to list I could live with, which you see here, complete with commentary. These truly are my favorite songs by a favorite artist, a singer who’s grown from a teenager to a fully fledged woman before our eyes.

Taylor_Swift_-_Fearless

#25

The Way I Love You

Fearless (2008)

Written By: Taylor Swift & John Rich

I was obsessed with this thumper in the early days of the Fearless era, stomping to the infectious drumbeat and screaming along as she belted the lyrics. Swift rarely expands her co-writing circle, but she let in Rich, if only for a one-off. My ears find this a bit cluttered now, but how I loved it back then.

(more…)

The Worst Country Songs of 2013, Part II: 10-1

December 3, 2013

Last August, when Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise” became the biggest country single of all-time by logging the most weeks at #1 by a song in the history of the Billboard Hot Country Singles Chart, Jody Rosen of Vulture defined the current strain of mainstream country trends as ‘bro-country’ or “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude.” Bro-country is by and large one of the worst epidemics to ever strike mainstream country, far worse then the Urban Cowboy era, 90s Hat Acts, or The Nashville Sound. The roots of this ‘sub-genre’ are 80s arena rock and 90s hip-hop and are about as far away from the traditions of country music as Sidney, Australia is from New York City. This drivel is a surprising hit, and why not? It appeals to the adolescent and college set who buy songs and fill stadiums. It also, unequivocally, makes for the worst music in the history of the country genre.  Compiling this list was easy, with ten reasons why most people cannot even stomach mainstream country anymore:

Parking_Lot_Party

10. Parking Lot Party – Lee Brice

is there a chance Lee Brice may be the only male country singer to understand the concept of balance? I could knock him for recording this awful cliché-drenched ode to tailgating, but it comes on the heels of “I Drive Your Truck,” a surprisingly substantive moment in mainstream country this year. It’s just too bad he needs to offset a steel-heavy ballad with a desperate attempt at remaining a hero to the teen and college set.

Days-of-GOld

9. Days of Gold – Jake Owen

One of the benchmarks of a great country song is the ability to be drawn in by the story through production and vocals that help, not hinder, the listener’s ability to understand the lyrics. That simple logic has been thrown out the window here, which in part is smart given the vapid nature of this song. There’s nothing here but summertime cliché after summertime cliché sung in rapid-fire succession behind a wall of irritating sound. Owen wants more substance in his music, but if he keeps playing to radio, he’s not going to achieve that goal anytime soon.

timmcgraw_southerngirl_single_h

8. Southern Girl – Tim McGraw

Twenty years into his career, Tim McGraw proves he’s a master at curtailing his music to fit whatever trend will help him score huge radio hits. “Southern Girl” isn’t as nonsensical as “Truck Yeah” but with dumb rhyming schemes and irritating echoes, it’s just as annoying.

AwNaw

7. Aw Naw – Chris Young

Like it or not, Chris Young’s traditional country career ended the second “Neon” stalled at radio. In the course of three singles songs like “The Man I Want To Be” and “Tomorrow” were out of fashion as the new wave of bro-country swept in like a tsunami. So what’s a twenty-something guy to do? Make like Dierks Bentley and suppress his artistic sensibilities in an effort to stay in the good graces of country radio. “Aw Naw” is the first, and certainly not the last, example of the theory working wonders for Young. Oh, how I miss the days when an artist could record quality songs and be rewarded with big hits.

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6. DONE. – The Band Perry

Imagine my immense disappointment when the group that gave us my favorite country song so far this decade (“If I Die Young”) churns out this mess as their new single. “Done” is an appeal-to-the-tweens breakup anthem that’s too loud and would’ve even been immature coming from Taylor Swift on her debut album seven years ago. This is just another example of a worthy talent being compromised by the commercial country machine in order to make their label (once again run by Borchetta) millions.

1994_(Jason_Aldean)

5. 1994 – Jason Aldean

Like most of Jason Aldean’s singles of late, ‘1994’ has no narrative to speak of, no point to its existence, or any artistic credibility whatsoever. Aldean is singing about a man once nicknamed ‘Joe Ditty,’ in a song that makes “Pickup Man” and “John Deere Green” sound like the second coming of “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” When tribute songs are of a far lesser quality than the music of artist they’re honoring, is there even a point?

Blake-Shelton-2013-300-Boys-Round-Here

4. Boys ‘Round Here – Blake Shelton

As evidenced by the massive success of Duck Dynasty there’s a redneck craze sweeping America that songs like this buy right into. Shelton is pandering like never before making him the most successful he’s ever been in his ten+ years as a recording artist.

Shelton’s embrace of the culture isn’t the problem here, it’s that he’s doing at the expense of country music. He’ll clearly do anything to stay popular including rap and chant cliché after cliché. Worst of all, though? He’s recruited a cast of fellow singers (Miranda Lambert Ashley Monroe, Josh Turner, etc) to join him in saluting his forbearers with a big ‘ol middle finger while he laughs all the way to the bank. Just thinking about it makes me sick.

Florida-Georgia-Line-Cruise-Remix-2013-1200x1200

3. Cruise – Florida Georgia Line featuring Nelly

The newly minted CMA Single of the Year is the worst novelty hit in decades. The rap remix is nothing more then ‘Anti-Christ’ Scott Borchetta cementing his stronghold over commercial country, and his dominance as dictator of Music Row. He’s becoming more of a problem then his artists at this point.

Luke-Bryan-2013-300-05

2. That’s My Kind of Night – Luke Bryan 

Zac Brown dubbed it ‘the worst song he’d ever heard’ and it’s hard to disagree. An obvious attempt at pandering to trends in order to stay relevant, “That’s My Kind of Night” is one of the laziest pieces of drivel ever recorded by a superstar in their supposed commercial prime. With the eyes of the world on him, Bryan should be using his platform to record good quality country music – not this faux-rap garbage.

TF_RedneckCrazy_Album-Cover

1. Redneck Crazy – Tyler Farr

Who would’ve thought we’d see the day when an up and coming country singer would score their first major (i.e. top 5) hit with a song about a guy who stalks his ex-girlfriend after she’s moved on with another man? He’s also about to get violent declaring, “I didn’t come here to start a fight, but I’m up for anything tonight, you know you broke the wrong heart baby, and drove me redneck crazy.”

Farr has defended the track, saying every woman wants a man who loves them that much while Martina McBride has squashed comparisons to “Independence Day” saying the domestic abuse in her 1994 hit is in no way comparable to the unhinged man at the center of Farr’s hit. In any event this tasteless muck (co-written by Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins of “Before He Cheats” fame) is another low for country music, in an era in which everyone seems to be trying to out do themselves for the lowest levels of douchedom. Count me out.

Country Music’s Next Great Renaissance: The unthinkable success of Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Cruise’

August 2, 2013

Florida-Georgia-Line-Cruise-Remix-2013-1200x12002013 in country music:

  • Vince Gill and Paul Franklin release the sublime Bakersfield
  • Alan Jackson treats his fans to his long-awaited bluegrass record
  • Florida Georgia Line’s single “Cruise” surpasses Hank Snow’s “I’m Moving On” to become the longest #1 in the history of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs Chart, breaking a 63 year record

Wait, what? You read that right, folks. 2013 will forever be known as the year mainstream country music officially went to the dogs. I don’t even know how to begin expressing my anger, hiding my palpable sadness, or getting over a turn of events that marks the most significant failure in the history of country music.

So, why is this so bad? A popular song, that the public is responding to with open arms (5 million + downloads), has reaped the ultimate reward for its mammoth success – tenure at the top so rock solid, not even Taylor Swift can dislodge it. But isn’t that what it’s all about, being rewarded for your success? I mean, aren’t records meant to be broken at some point anyways?

Yes, all that is true. But it isn’t about breaking the record; it’s how the record was broken. In this case it came last October when Billboard significantly changed the way song ranks were calculated on the Hot Country Songs Chart. Instead of only factoring in radio airplay from country stations, data from streaming services downloads of songs, and airplay for country singles on pop stations were now in the running to determine where a song would place on the chart. A separate Country Airplay chart was created to stand in addition to the old chart with new rules.

Factoring in streaming data and song downloads is fine. It is 2013 after all. Music doesn’t come solely from the radio anymore. But they went a step further – when a country single crosses over to ‘the pop world’ and charts, that data is factored in, too. And thanks to a pop/rap remix featuring rapper Nelly, you now have the phenomenon that’s going on with “Cruise.” In other words, a song can log multiple weeks at #1 on the Hot Country Song chart without any significant airplay within the format.

So, Hank Snow was dislodged from the top by a song featuring a guest rapper that took full advantage of a chart that recently changed its rules. That’s my first issue with this “accomplishment.” On Engine 145 the other day, I commented that this record (which wasn’t broken at the time) meant nothing simply because of the chart tweak. If it had happened this time last year, obviously under the old rules, then I would have no problem at all. At least then it would’ve been fair game.

Garth Brooks accomplished something similar six years ago when his “More Than A Memory” single became the first country song ever to debut on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at #1. Did I cry fowl? No, I didn’t. At the time, it didn’t feel like country music was selling out, even if, (allegedly) Clear Channel had a hand in getting the song played each hour for a week. It was just Brooks breaking yet another record on a chart that was equal opportunity for everyone.

This new Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart is so easy to manipulate it’s scary. Scott Borchetta, the mastermind at Big Machine Label Group, is currently the only one greedy enough to see this, the only label exec who’s conscience is suppressed deep enough to change the course of country music and not give a crap about how he is impacting the greater good of the genre. If we’ve learned anything from Hollywood celebrities and politicians, its money is the route of all evil, and people will stop at nothing to pocket big.

My other issue is the quality of the song. Is it really too much to ask for the song breaking the record to feature even a hint of artistic merit? J.R. Journey said it best last December:

“The only thing worse than this pair of deebags hitting a major breakthrough in their career with a piece of drivel like this will be the countless deebags-in-training that will be inspired to emulate Florida Georgia Line’s success. From the butchered grammar lyrics to the singers’ affected twang and dog tags around their necks, these guys are a legit training manual on how to be scuzzy deebag losers.”

I shudder to think about the doors being opened by the success of “Cruise.” Like “On The Other Hand” and “Any Man of Mine” before it, we’re likely in the middle of the next great renaissance in country music. But instead of eliciting excitement, I only feel dirty. “Cruise” marks the first time a cult song was met with such success and that’s most dangerous of all. Trailer Choir’s “Rockin’ The Beer Gut” was arguably just as big a fan hit, but country radio knew enough to spit it out before it got even half this big. Now there’s no telling what kinds of songs will be heard from radio speakers in the years to come.

Any historian with half a brain will look back at this and wonder – how do you go from “I’m Moving On” to “Cruise?” In those sixty-three years country music stopped evolving and outright changed. The closet pre-cursor to a track like “Cruise” is “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” but even the Charlie Daniels Band classic was loaded with equal parts sincerity and shredded fiddle. Country Universe’s Dan Milliken can believe, “love it, hate it, or tolerate it, the one thing “Cruise” undeniably had going for it was a mighty hook,” all he wants. But good or bad hooks aside; it doesn’t alter the fact that “Cruise” is the new benchmark for success in mainstream country. Lord help and save us all.