Posts Tagged ‘Tom T. Hall’

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.

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Album Review: Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis: ‘Our Year’

May 27, 2014

Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

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Our Year

* * * * 1/2

Over the Christmas holiday last year, a friend asked how Texas country was different from Nashville country. I had to stop for a moment and finally came up with an answer – to me Texas country often has more of a back to basics sound, more roots based than the commercial sheen coming out of Music City.

So it always surprises me when Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis record their collaborative projects there, not Austin, where they live, and spend most of their time. Like last year’s Cheater’s GameOur Year maintains the Texas sound they’ve come to hone, down to the minimalist production and close harmonies.

Instead of a direct sequel, Our Year plays like a companion piece to Cheater’s Game – far shorter in length and less commercial in scope. The absence of production drives the record, giving the ten tracks a demo-like feel that leaves them sounding somewhat unfinished, but no less enjoyable or musically appealing.

No more is this apparent than on their cover of Tom T. Hall’s classic “Harper Valley PTA,” oft-covered in their live shows and the track that spearheaded this album. It opens with a lone acoustic guitar and doesn’t get much more rocklin’, save some dobro riffs, as it goes along. Willis’ strong vocal drives the song and works well to tell the story.

Robison and Willis bring a bluegrass flair to The Statler Brothers’ “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You,” and while they don’t add anything new to Vern Gosdin and Emmylou Harris’ “(Just Enough To Keep Me) Hanging On,” their version works just as well. A cover of T Bone Burnett’s “Shake Yourself Loose” is pure honky-tonk bliss and a stunning showcase for Willis vocally.

Like Cheater’s Game, Our Year isn’t all country covers. The pair keeps it in the family on “Departing Lousania,” a mandolin driven ballad written by Robison’s youngest sister Robyn Ludwick. Robison appropriately takes the lead, sticking in his wheelhouse of journey songs, and does a bang-up job of bringing the story to life.

The harmonica is out in full force on delightful rocker “Motor City Man,” penned by late Austin singer/songwriter Walter Hyatt. The track breathes some much-needed attitude into the album and gives Willis a chance to deliver a strong and confident vocal.

The title track, a Zombies song written by Chris White, is a staple of their annual Christmas show and features a lovely banjo-driven arrangement and the pair’s signature harmonies.

Robison contributed two of the strongest compositions found on Our Year. “Carousel,” is a glorious steel-front waltz co-written with Darden Smith that concerns the end of a relationship, where a couple has to “step off of the carousel and say goodbye.” “Anywhere But Here” is an ode to youthful innocence and a perfectly articulated number about the restlessness of growing up.

“Lonely For You” is a Willis original, co-written with Paul Kennerley. Willis may be one of the best honky-tonk balladeers recording music today, but she also shines on uptempo material like this, about a woman who’s still holding on to a relationship that’s already come to an end.

Often when an iconic collaborative pairing (the Trio, Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss) tries to record a follow-up record the sessions are either marred with drama or the project takes years to see the light of day. It’s even harder, just ask Patty Loveless or Alan Jackson, to follow-up an iconic work with something even half as good as the original.

With Our Year, Robison and Willis have succeeded splendidly on both fronts with an album tighter and even more fully realized than Cheater’s Game. They could’ve done without the Statler Brothers or Gosdin/Harris covers and thrown in two more Robison originals, but there’s no other way this project could be more perfect. Our Year is easily yet another of 2014’s spectacular releases.

Album Review – Joey + Rory – “His and Hers”

July 30, 2012

Joey + Rory

His and Hers

* * * * 1/2

When The Life of a Song launched the career of husband and wife duo Joey Martin and Rory Feek in 2009, it established a rarity – an artist using traditional country music as the basis for their sound, without a rock or pop element in sight. It also introduced Martin’s astonishing soprano, a crystal clear vision cut from the Dolly Parton / Emmylou Harris cloth all the while sounding uniquely herself.

A sophomore CD Album Number Two and Holiday collection A Farmhouse Christmas followed, but their new release His and Hers is the fullest picture of their individuality yet. Martin and Feek trade off lead vocals for the first time, but smartly avoid the pitfalls of sounding pieced together. And by sticking firmly to their traditional roots, Joey + Rory have made not only their most satisfying album, but also one of the most authentic recordings of the year.

It’s all too easy to knock His and Hers for sounding too retro. The exclusion of electric guitars and decision to record songs displaying actual depth will alienate it from the majority of mainstream listeners, while the ample steel guitar, flourishes of dobro, and touches of fiddle will make it essential listening for country music aficionados.

The strongest material on His and Hers comes when the songs aren’t bogged down with detours into comical situations. “Josephine,” a Feek original inspired by real life letters between a Civil War soldier and his wife leads the way in stunning fashion. Backed by an ear catching bluegrass-y mix of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and fiddle, Feek tells his story with striking poignancy, detailing the horrors of war in a way still relevant today.

Also touching is “The Bible and A Belt,” a tribute to two apparatuses used in raising a child. Another Feek original, he conveys the emotional story with an everyman quality that keeps it universal all the while sounding deeply personal. The soft mix of dobro, mandolin, and acoustic guitar frames the ballad beautifully, giving Feek the perfect bed to lay down his vocal.

Like Feek, Martin succeeds brilliantly in bringing her material to life. The emotional centerpiece of the album, Sandy Emory Lawrence’s “When I’m Gone” rests on Martin’s gentle vocal, the guiding force in drawing out the song’s emotional core. The story of a wife’s plea to her husband about life after she passes is a remainder that quality material is still being written and performed, a fact lost by any major recording label, no matter the genre.

Martin also breeds life into the title track, a full-circle story about a couple’s love and eventual parting of ways. Their knack for song selection is on full display here as what appears to be a simple love song unfolds into something quite different. But storyline aside, the beauty of this track is Gary Paczosa’s production, which lets the song build from Martin’s gorgeous a capella beginning to an instrumental bed of sliding steel and fiddle.

One can easily be forgiven for categorizing His and Hers as a somber album, as the standout tracks are darker than the usual radio fare. But the project has its share of lighter moments, too, although the results are a mixed bag.

The Kent Blazy and Leslie Satcher co-write “Let’s Pretend We Never Met,” a fast paced traditional honky-tonker complete with infectious steel, is the best at mixing the duo’s offbeat wit with their serious demeanor and stands as a fine showcase for Martin’s playful vocal abilities. Also excellent is “Love Your Man” a 90s country throwback on par with some of Patty Loveless’ best work.

“Someday When I Grow Up,” another Feek original, tries too hard to convey its tale of boyish leanings, all the while smartly avoiding detours into the frat boy lifestyle. While “Your Man Loves You Honey,” a Tom T. Hall penned tune he brought to #4 in 1977, fails to bring anything new to the song and feels more carbon copy than remake. Another oddity is “Waitin’ For Someone,” a Martin fronted tune about blind dating that’s technically fine, but lacks an added spark to make it stand out against the album’s strongest material.

His and Hers rebounds splendidly with the gorgeous “Cryin’ Smile,” a tender ballad showcasing the breadth of Feek’s uncomplicated yet powerful vocal style. Pure and simple, “Cryin’ Smile” is a heavenly piece of country music, harkening back to a day when melodies were uncluttered, and steel guitar extenuated real life storytelling.

The winning streak continues with “He’s A Cowboy,” another simple ballad showcasing the duo’s adeptness at making real country music sound effortless. The arrangement works in the song’s favor and slowly builds behind Martin’s tender (but tough) vocal. “Teaching Me How To Love You” works in much the same way, but uses a nice dose of fiddle and acoustic guitar as its backdrop.

His and Hers will likely be ranked among the top country albums of 2012, if only for Martin and Feek’s ability to stay true to the history of country music all the while pushing the genre forward in all the appropriate ways. They stay clear of clichés, and avoid any tendencies to overcomplicate matters, something I greatly appreciate. And unlike most duos, they’re vocally equal, each bringing a comfortable every person quality to their perspective songs.

Of the song selection, Martin says it best – “It has to be genuine, it has to be honest, it has to be sincere.” Who could ask for anything more?