Posts Tagged ‘Shane McAnally’

Album Review: Craig Morgan – ‘A Whole Lot More To Me’

June 30, 2016

Craig Morgan

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A Whole Lot More To Me

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For his seventh album, A Whole Lot More To Me, Craig Morgan wanted to craft a record that broke down genre stereotypes and cast him in a new light. It’s his first album of original material in four years as well as his second album for Black River.

The first single, “When I’m Gone” was released back in September and peaked at #48. Written by Justin Ebach and Steven Dale Jones is an optimistic banjo-driven uptempo about wanting to be remembered as someone who lived life to the fullest.

The second single, released in May and yet to chart, is the power ballad “I’ll Be Home Soon” written by Ebach, Jones and John King. The lyric is typical of modern country love songs, but Morgan brings an emotional gravitas that elevates the song to just above generic.

Morgan had a hand in co-writing five of the album’s twelve tracks. “Living On The Memories” is a bombastic power ballad he collaborated on with Scott Stepakoff and Josh Osborne. Mike Rogers joined him for the title track, where he goes out of his way to debunk his country boy image with an interesting laundry list of illustrations emoted by a vocal that could’ve been toned down a few notches. “I’m That Country” walks everything back by devolving into Morgan’s typical style. “Remind Me Why I’m Crazy” is an excellent ballad about lost love with a cluttered treatment that intrudes on my overall enjoyment. Morgan’s final co-write, “I Can’t Wait to Stay,” is nothing more than a song about remaining in the town where your family has generational roots.

It feels as if a prerequisite of any modern day country album is having a song co-written by Shane McAnally. His contribution, a co-write with Eric Paslay and Dylan Altman is “Country Side of Heaven,” which is actually a great song. The overall track would’ve been better served with an acoustic arrangement, which would’ve brought fourth the interesting lyric a lot more.

“All Cried Out” is a bombastic power ballad ruined by atrocious wall-of-sound production that causes Morgan to over sing. “Nowhere Without You,” co-written by Michal McDonald and John Goodwin, is much better although I found the piano based production rather bland. Will Hoge and Gordie Sampson teamed with Altman on “Who Would It Be,” a name-check song about the legends you would spend time with if you could.

The final cut, “Hearts I Leave Behind,” features Christian Rock singer Mac Powell. The song was originally recorded by Pete Scobell Band Featuring Wynonna Judd, which I reviewed last year. It’s far and away the crowning achievement of A Whole Lot More To Me and a perfect song for Morgan.

The marketing materials for A Whole Lot More To Me describe the album as ‘sexy,’ which I most certainly would not. There is hardly anything here in that vein, unlike Dierks Bentley’s Black, which makes it an odd descriptor. Morgan does sing at full power, which showcases his range but unintentionally sound like Blake Shelton circa 2008. The album is bombastic and unremarkable on the whole, but I give Morgan credit for giving into mainstream pressures without selling his soul. A Whole Lot More To Me is nowhere near the upper echelon of albums for 2016, but it is far from the scrap heap. He could’ve done better, but it’s clear he is giving his all.

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Album Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘Playing with Fire’

June 2, 2016

Jennifer Nettles

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Playing With Fire

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Our first taste of Playing with Fire came a year ago when Jennifer Nettles debuted the dobro-driven “Sugar.” The depth-defying track displays Nettles at her most cunning, wrapping a stern message to the country music industry in a deceptively easy-to-swallow package:

Don’t You Go a Changin’

Cause They Only Like You One Way

Oh But This Girl You See

Is Only Pieces of Me

And I’m More Than Just A Toppin’

“Unlove You,” which I reviewed unfavorably back in January, is a classic example of the Jennifer Nettles the industry has shaped over these past eleven years. Those moldings actually work in the song’s favor, a track I must confess I’ve changed my tune on. After repeated listenings, I’ve come to hear the striking vulnerability in the lyric, which Nettles conveys in spades through her vocal performance.

“Unlove You,” more than anything, is the bridge from which we journey from the Jennifer Nettles of old to a newfound risk taker with bold ambitions. She’s out for blood, literally playing with fire, fearless and confident. Nettles co-wrote the majority of the album with Brandy Clark, her tour mate for the past two years. They collaborated on seven of the album’s twelve tracks.

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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.

Album Review: Reba McEntire – “Love Somebody”

April 14, 2015

Reba McEntire

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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.

It’s that time of year: Predictions for the 48th annual CMA Awards

October 31, 2014

Logo for "The 48th Annual CMA Awards"With Brad Paisley and a pregnant Carrie Underwood set to host for the seventh straight year, and all the usual suspects set to perform, you’d think business would run as normal. But you’re wrong. Not only will this mark the first CMA telecast without Taylor Swift in nine years, pop starlet Ariana Grande is set to perform with Little Big Town while Meghan Trainor will sing her hit “All About That Bass” with Miranda Lambert. Few other surprises have been announced, but God only knows why Trisha Yearwood has been regulated to a presenter’s slot and not given prime exposure to sing “PrizeFighter” with Kelly Clarkson.

At any rate, here are the nominees. You’ll find my Should Win / Will Win perdictions below. Do you agree/disagree? Sound off in the comments.

Entertainer of the Year

george-strait-credit-vanessa-gavalya-650Blake Shelton and Keith Urban have one trophy apiece while George Strait is nominated the year he gave his final concert. Only Luke Bryan and Miranda Lambert, who are on their second nominations, have yet to win.

Should Win: George Strait – The Country Music Hall of Famer and country music legend wrapped his Cowboy Rides Away Tour a year after beating his younger competition to win this award for the first time in 24 years. When all is said and done, the CMA would be foolish to deny Strait his rightful place as an all-time category winner (four wins), along with Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney.

Will Win: George Strait – Prissy Luke Bryan can have his turn with his third consecutive nod next year. Strait, who’ll never be eligible for this award again, will go out in style.

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Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

September 26, 2014

Tim McGraw

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Sundown Heaven Town

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Tim McGraw got off to as bad a start as any could ever dream of when introducing his thirteenth album to the world this past winter. The first single, Mark Irwin, James T. Slater, and Chris Tompkins’ “Lookin’ For That Girl” was a smooth hip/hop meets R&B ballad with McGraw desperately pleading for relevance by pandering to trends in order to score airplay. Then came the album’s title,Sundown Heaven Town, which carries with it racial connotations so horrid, everyone in McGraw’s camp should’ve known better and avoided completely unnecessary controversy.

By the time “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” dropped this spring, McGraw needed the course correction the single ultimately gave him. The elegantly sparse ballad, co-written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, and Jeffery Steele, is McGraw’s finest single in seven years thanks to an assist from Faith Hill and a charming tale about home. McGraw and Hill are deservedly vying for both Single and Musical Event of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards.

Just this month Big Machine released the third single from the album, a Marv Green, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Verges penned tune entitled “Shotgun Rider.” The track, while it sounds good with a shuffle beat, is middle of the road at best and hardly memorable. The problem is keen McGraw fans will remember a different tune with the same name appearing on his Let It Go album in 2007. That “Shotgun Rider,” a duet with Hill, was far more country and less wordy than this tune.

McGraw treated fans to another of the album’s tracks, Canadian country singer/songwriter Deric Ruttan’s “City Lights” when he performed on The Voice this spring. The track is excellent, and while louder, recalls the best of his 90s/00s work. Also classic McGraw is “Overrated,” a sonically progressive muscular ballad penned by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Rivers Rutherford. The chorus is strong and memorable and he gives a nicely commanding performance reminiscent of “Unbroken” from 2001. Big Machine would be smart to release this as a single.

Newcomer Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin, joins him on “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” a pure country album highlight that has a bit too much electric guitar, but adds a nice helping of steel about halfway through. While she’s regulated to singing harmony, Dunn adds a nice texture to the track that helps balance McGraw’s gruffness. It’s just weird to me he isn’t singing with Hill, who also would’ve been perfect here.

I also like “Words are Medicine,” a good pop-country number that I might’ve loved had someone like Jennifer Nettles sang it. As it is McGraw does well with it, but his vocal lacks a subtly a better song interpreter would’ve brought to it. “Last Turn Home” is just too loud and McGraw gives an annoying vocal performance on it, which is unfortunate.

“Portland, Maine” finds McGraw with a smoothed processed vocal that does little to give him any credibility. The lyric, by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, is idiotic, with the laughable hook of “Portland, Maine I don’t know where that is.” The track is ripe for parody and completely beneath McGraw’s talents. “Still On The Line” isn’t any better, with an arrangement that leans far too pop for my tastes.

Also terrible is “Dust,” an embarrassing slice of bro-country dreck unsurprisingly co-written by two-thirds of the Peach Pickers. McGraw co-wrote “Keep On Truckin’” with The Warren Brothers and Bill Daly. Like most of the dreck in mainstream country music, it’s another laundry list number that spends a lot of time saying next to nothing. Andrew Dorff’s “Sick of Me” isn’t awful, but McGraw’s vocal is grating and the song’s structure is annoying.

A deluxe edition of Sundown Heaven Town gives the listener an additional five tracks. McGraw gives a tender vocal on the piano ballad turned overproduced social conscious track “Kids Today,” he turns the volume up to eleven on “I’m Feeling You,” mixes organic country with too much rock on “The View” and ventures into Lady Antebellum territory with “Black Jacket.” I wanted to love the Kid Rock assisted “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” but the lyric was embarrassingly juvenile and the production far too progressive for my tastes.

As a whole, Sundown Heaven Town is a mixed bag, with McGraw getting a few things right, but still taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. I was a rabid fan of his from 1996-2007, but as the trends in mainstream country have changed, and he along with them, I’ve lost interest. He’s nicely evened out with Sundown Heaven Town, though, with the McGraw of “Truck Yeah” thankfully not showing up here. While he does need a new, far less rockified sound, this is his best album since Let It Go, which is saying a lot these days.

Favorite Country Singles of 2013: 10-1

December 5, 2013

It was just a few months ago, I was in panic mode. How the heck am I supposed to compile and rank a list of favorite singles when the majority of country music, especially mainstream terrestrial radio country, left me numb? Hell, I don’t even have a can’t-live-without favorite single from 2013. I don’t know when the tide turned, but I was once again able to rank a list I’m very happy with. None of these were big hits (although #8 did chart top 15), but they were the artistic statements that should’ve ruled the airwaves. The genre would’ve been better off if they had.

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10. Bruises – Train Feat. Ashley Monroe 

Two high school classmates run into each other for the first time since graduation ten years ago. He marvels at her ability to retain her beauty after having two kids, while she’s glad to hear he’s finally left their suffocating small-town. Lovers or not, they’ll always be linked by their bruises – those moments in life resulting in a stumble on the path to enlightenment.

Hailing from San Francisco and making his mark in pop music, Train’s Pat Monahan is forgiven for recycling Phil Vassar’s “Carlene” just about word-for-word. This take on the tale stands out, though, because he gives voice to the female perspective through Monroe who turns in a buttery vocal that’s one of her finest moments she’s ever committed to record.

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9. Sober – Little Big Town 

The centerpiece of Tornado, “Sober” proves there’s life beyond Karen Fairchild whose position as the band’s lead singer has left little diversity in their radio offerings of late. Whether or not this turns into the hit it deserves to be, it’s good to see the criminally underrated Kimberly Schlapman given her due. She’s more then just a pretty face, and is finally able to prove that here.

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8. All Kinds of Kinds – Miranda Lambert

Lambert’s best single since “The House That Built Me” is Don Henry’s timeless ode to diversity that makes a strong statement without seeming preachy or political. These are the types of quality records that helps Lambert stand above her competition, schooling them on how to challenge the listener with substance while honing the artistic image that’s made them famous.

She howls, ‘When I stood up in Geometry and everybody stared at me as I tossed my test into the trash’ with the same bite she brings to her revenge anthems, but you feel the weight of maturity from an artist who isn’t afraid to grow in a market that rewards stagnation around every corner. Lambert is a fully modern country singer, but “All Kinds of Kinds” proves she isn’t done pulling new tricks out of her sleeve.

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7. Blue Ridge Mountain Song – Alan Jackson 

Leave it to Alan Jackson, three years after being blackballed by country radio, to release one of his greatest singles – an old fashioned testament to true love sprinkled with trademarks of the bluegrass tradition. He may move the story a little too quickly, in order to get to the twist towards the end, but he does everything else right. May this mark the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his career.

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6. Over When It’s Over – Eric Church 

With Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean facing deserving near-constant criticism for their shallow lyrics and douche bag behavior, their “Only Way I Know” counterpart Eric Church has been givin the space to forge his own path. Instead of rapping about trucks and dirt roads, he has consistently crafted original compositions that possess a decidedly rock edge, but are cut from the cloth of classic country (“The Outsiders” notwithstanding).

“Over When It’s Over” is a sparse reflection on a relationship gone sour, with both parties going their separate ways through a seething fog of regret. What the track lacks in production is compensated for in Church’s tour-de-force vocal conveying the perfect amounts of anger and sadness. It’s the best track from Chief, and while it could’ve used accents of pedal steel in its execution (and how cool would’ve been if Natalie Maines could’ve provided the backing vocals?) what we have is just enough to make it stand out from the pack.

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5. Stripes – Brandy Clark

Shane McAnally had the idea to write a song called “Orange” about a woman who stops short of killing her cheating husband because she doesn’t look good in the titular prison color. He brought the idea to Clark, stuck on the fact nothing rhymes with his clever hook. She turned it around saying “but everything rhymes with stripes.”

Their meeting of the minds resulted in a wickedly smart cheating song littered with originality and quirky turns of phrase (“there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion”) that reveal the underlying humor underscoring the uptempo numbers on 12 Stories. Clark’s ability to find comedy in some of life’s most despairing moments is one of her greatest skills as a songwriter.

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4. Blacktop – Alan Jackson

I was glad to see the blacktop, no more dust in my eyes” and with that Jackson lays down the gauntlet in opposition to bro-country with an act of striking civil disobedience. How refreshing is it that twenty-four years into his storied career Jackson still has something meaningful to contribute to the country music landscape?

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3. Elephant – Jason Isbell 

The mark of a great songwriter is their ability to take well-worn themes and make the listener feel like they’re hearing them for the first time. In an era saturated with an “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” mentality, where hair is replaced with “Skin” and women are “Tough,” Isbell is just trying to ignore the elephant in the room and let his woman enjoy what little life she has left – letting her get drunk and high, joke about her harsh reality, and sing although her voice is nearly gone.

He’s the truest of friends, there for her but not a burden. He just wants one night where they both forget the bitter truth staring them squarely in the face, an impossible proposition seeing as he’s an emotional wreck bursting at the seams, a levee that miraculously hasn’t breached. Never has the word “somehow” been packed with so much meaning.

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2. Hangin’ Up My Heart – Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell

The best track from Old Yellow Moon is this ripped from the 1970s traditional number penned by Crowell for Sissy Spacek’s lone early 1980s country album. The pair sound invigorated here, with a renewed freshness that showcases what the resulted album could’ve and ultimately should’ve been.

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1. Follow Your Arrow – Kacey Musgraves

The most important country single of 2013 is a gay-rights battle cry openly embracing a love who you love mentality in a genre where anything ‘gay’ is almost non-existent. Musgraves is a new age Loretta Lynn not afraid to speak her mind and be open towards her beliefs. Her boldness is refreshing and hopefully the seed that gives her fellow contemporaries the guts to bring substance to their music again.

Album Review – Brandy Clark – ’12 Stories’

October 21, 2013

Brandy Clark

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12 Stories

* * * * 1/2

If you’ve been paying attention to country music in 2013 there’s likely one name on the tip of your tongue – Brandy Clark. The buzz about the songwriter behind such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two” has been at fever pitch, and it’s easy to understand why with just one listen to her debut record.

Clark has stolen the Linda Ronstadt rulebook that Trisha Yearwood and company made famous in the 1990s, rewritten it, and crafted an album that borrows yet improves upon the past, all the while introducing an artist who is completely and uniquely herself. With12 Stories Clark has redrafted the textbook on how to evolve, and not change, the country genre.

At its core 12 Stories is an exercise in immaculate songwriting. Clark has an innate ability to take hefty subjects and morph them into delicious slices of black comedy, skewing the stories to forgo the ache in an effort to focus on creating little vignettes that play like some of the best episodes of television.

My favorite of these is “Hungover,” a Sara Evans-like co-write with Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon about a woman’s realization that her drunken man isn’t going to change. Also stunning is “The Day She Got Divorced,” a wonderfully addicting day-in-the-life about a woman’s itinerary the day her marriage officially ends. Reba had it onAll The Women I Am and it was my favorite track on that project three years ago.

“Strips,” the album’s lead single, is the new standard-bearer for cheating songs, with the woman declaring there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion as she ponders killing her husband, stopping only because I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes. Clark (along with McAnally and Matt Jenkins) has co-written one hell of a clever song, and while the premise is laid on a little thick it works surprisingly well.

“Crazy Women” was an excellent yet low-charting single for LeAnn Rimes (from Lady & Gentlemen), and Clark’s version is good, but lacks the punch of personality Rimes brought to her recording. In addition, “Get High,” the only song Clark wrote solo (and the oldest composition on the album) suffers from a weak hook (‘sometimes the only way to get by is to get high’) that leaves the chorus feeling underdeveloped.

What elevates 12 Stories into echelon of masterworks is the emotional depth Clark brings to the project. She elegantly weaves a series of ballads between the vignettes that rank among the finest moments on a country album this decade.

Weeds-inspired “Pray To Jesus” is a timeless anthem for the working poor that doesn’t stereotype or judge. It acts an affirmation that we’re just trying to better ourselves from within, because the fix doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s the lone socially conscious track on 12 Stories and currently the best song of its kind from this somewhat forgotten sub-genre.

“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a reflection on the pull between right and wrong framed around two married individuals about to cheat on their spouses. Clark is able to get inside the woman’s psyche (I don’t know what scares me most, the ride up, or the ride down) in way that’s both ordinary and extraordinary; exercising both arguments while letting the listener make their own conclusions. The simple beauty recalls Matraca Berg’s “Lying To The Moon.”

Clark and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” co-writer Mark Stephen Jones teamed up again on “Hold My Hand,” the story of a couple running into his alluring ex-lover, only to have his current love plead for definition in their relationship. Meanwhile “In Some Corner” spins another side of the “Last Call”/”Keep It To Yourself” drunken dialing saga that amazingly hasn’t been played out yet. It’s Clark’s turn to show her moment of weakness and she’s praying he doesn’t call, as she can’t refuse his advances.

The strongest track on 12 Stories comes at the end, with an all too common narrative about a woman who marries the mirror image of her always-absent father. “Just Like Him,” (co-written with Dillon and McAnally) beautifully hits upon the unspoken truth that people marry at the level of their self-esteem, thinking they’re only worth the same-gender role models (or lack thereof) they grew up around. The conviction Clark brings to this song is remarkable, showcasing her incredible knack at crafting tales purely from observances – her dad is the antithesis of this character.

In truth Clark brings that conviction to the entire project. As a child of the 90s, I came of age in the era when music such as this was the rule and not the exception, when artists were allowed to have real problems that were bigger then which truck was going to transport some beer keg to lake whatever down some dirt road littered with bikini-clad country girls.

It makes me sick that every record label in Nashville (even two that confessed to loving it) past on releasing 12 Stories but I’m glad an independent label in Texas picked it up. This is music that needs to be heard. I urge you to pick up a copy, as it’s well worth the money, and time spent listening. Clark is the most important singer/songwriter to come around in a long, long time and 12 Stories is the best album of its kind I’ve heard in many, many years.

A Separation of Church and State: How the Country Music Association mostly got their nominations right this year

September 20, 2013

as13-dateIn 2006, the Country Music Association sent Faith Hill a clear message when Carrie Underwood was awarded Female Vocalist of the Year, only two singles removed from winning American Idol. They were ushering in a changing of the guard that sent ripple effects through country’s core women, making way for new talent at the helm.

Underwood has received a similar message this year with Taylor Swift being nominated for Entertainer of the Year in her place. Swift may be a bigger celebrity with a broader reach, but Underwood’s no slouch – a sold out tour, four #1 singles, ambassadorship for country music, and she’s been hosting the ceremony going on five consecutive years. Heck she just took over Sunday Night Football theme song duties.

In recent history all the top solo female artists (Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, and Faith Hill) have been nominated and won (Hill lost to Dixie Chicks in 2000) while her contemporaries Swift has won twice and Miranda Lambert received her only nod to date in 2010. That Underwood is being snubbed yet again is one of the biggest injustices in the 47-year history of the award show. Underwood and Swift should be competing in the category together – they both have rightfully earned their place in the category.

Underwood aside, it’s nice to see the Country Music Association mostly get it right this year. The major theme of the nominations is artistic quality, as evidenced by Kacey Musgraves receiving six nominations, a move I didn’t see coming. She’s been building a lot of buzz this year but with little support from country radio, I hardly gave her a chance. Her nominations prove the CMA is still looking for quality contemporary music and actually care about maintaining at least one shred of dignity. They should’ve gone further and showered Ashley Monroe with praise, too, but her outsider-looking-in status likely left her a square peg in a round hole and she was deemed too Americana for this mostly mainstream affair.

There was once a time when you could count the number of females who’ve taken home Album of the Year on one hand. That list has grown in the past few years thanks to wins by Lee Ann Womack (2005), Taylor Swift (2008) and Miranda Lambert (2010). This year Blake Shelton stands alone as the only solo male artist in the category, proving that airplay on country radio isn’t the only factor in scoring a nomination.

I believe whole heartedly that you cannot deny an artist success once they’ve achieved it, no matter how much you may dislike the singer or their song. The world may cry foul over Florida Georgia Line and “Cruise,” but they clearly earned the Single of the Year, Musical Event of the Year, Duo Of The Year, and New Artist nods. The song is a behemoth and is clearly being rewarded as such. Swift’s showering of affection is more puzzling, since the success ofRed came in the pop market, but “Begin Again” and “Highway Don’t Care” did keep her relevant in her home genre this year.

Where the Country Music Association deserve the most credit is with the separation of church and state – if you notice, “Cruise” isn’t in the Song of the Year race nor is Here For The Good Times up for Album. In fact, none of the genre’s biggest names (Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean, or Shelton) have a Single or Song of the year nod, something I never thought I’d see. Absence by ‘bro-country’ powerhouses leaves the likes of “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Mama’s Broken Heart” to battle it out for the win.

It’s nice to see Nashville songwriters back in the Song of The Year race, too. Even more impressive is the CMA’s distinction in excellence, seeing that the best of commercial Nashville scored big, while the laundry list lovers are left to voyage down dirt roads with beer kegs, country girls, and pickup trucks. Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally are two of the best writers around right now and combined with Musgraves, they’re killer. What other writing team can claim two nominations in the same year?

In sizing up the New Artist competition, I was about to show my denial of a mass extinction, until I looked at the Billboard Airplay Chart and noticed “Parking Lot Party” in the top 10, on it’s way to becoming Lee Brice’s fourth consecutive number one. Like fellow nominee Kip Moore, he’s becoming a force for the future, and with his single “I Drive Your Truck” up for Song of the Year (Brice doesn’t have a writing credit on it), he has a better chance of winning than I gave him credit for initially. This is a very strong category, although Musgraves is the only nominee with proven artistic potential, a necessary ingredient for longevity.

I’ll have my predictions closer to the November 9 telecast, with a breakdown per category, and thoughts on each individual race. But overall the Country Music Association deserves credit for getting more right than wrong this year, mostly opting for artistic integrity over commercial viability.

Check out all the nominations here.     

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

images1

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 – 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.