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I’m not certain that the impact of Johnny Cash getting dropped from the CBS/Columbia record label that had been his home for nearly 30 years has ever been fully appreciated. It truly was the end of an era, or the beginning of one depending on how you want to look at it. It stimulated a young Marty Stuart (an understudy of Cash) to get int the face of Columbia executive, resulting in him eventually being ejected from the label. It made Merle Haggard tell Rick Blackburn, the man responsible for Cash’s firing, “You’re the son-of-a-bitch that sat at that desk over there and fired Johnny Cash. Let it go down in history that you’re the dumbest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met.” And it also meant that an entire, cohesive album from one of the most well-respected artists in the history of American music went unheard for 30 years after its original recording. This is the type of peril American music is put through at the hands of suits, that such a ridiculous, unintuitive aberration could transpire in the custody of one person’s art, especially the art of Johnny Cash.
Out Among The Stars is a difficult album to critique. Since it was originally crafted to be heard by the public some 30 years ago, with stylings and sensibilities more steeped in the country modes of that time, it’s hard to know how to calibrate your ear to this music. Compounding this problem is the information that some, or all of the tracks have been “fortified” by a team that included Marty Stuart, Buddy Miller and others to be more akin to what a modern ear might expect. Then you pile on top of all of that the fact that some of these songs like “She Used To Love Me A Lot” and “Out Among The Stars” have already wormed themselves into our brains with versions from other artists. It would not be fair to call Cash’s versions “cover” songs because of the way the timeline sits. They are simply Cash’s takes of contemporary tunes that were never heard because of the nature of this project. Nonetheless you can’t help but compare these “new” versions to the ones you’re more familiar with.
While you’re listening to Out Among The Stars, you almost feel like Marty McFly contemplating the strange space-time continuum this project puts you in, asking yourself, “Would the 1984 me like this? And do I like it now?” The mid 80′s was its own strange time in country music as well. Just listen to the introduction to Willie Nelson’s version of “Pancho & Lefty”. Johnny Cash amidst his recovery from drug addiction wasn’t the only one trying to find his compass; the entire genre of country was. The original Out Among The Stars sessions were produced by Billy Sherrill of all people—a producer known as one of the masterminds of the countrypolitan or Nashville Sound. As strange as it was for him to be working with Johnny Cash, at the same time he was working with wildman David Allan Coe, trying to revitalize Coe’s career as well. Billy Sherrill—one of the principles the Outlaws had risen up against—was now one of their brothers in arms. A strange time in country indeed.
Then you take the emotional quotient of simply being able to hear the legendary voice of Johnny Cash again in completely unheard, studio-quality content, and it’s hard to hold onto any and all objectivity. Even if Out Among The Stars was a verbatim recitation of the Nashville Metropolitan phone book circa 1984, this album is a gift from beyond that any sane country music fan would dare not stare too long in the mouth.
The reason that Out Among The Stars became “lost,” and Johnny Cash got dropped from Columbia is because nobody knew what to do with him, including Johnny himself. In some respects, the song material on this album is somewhat indicative of this searching for direction. It is sort of the take of two Johnnys—one introspective, dark, and even disturbed at times, and the other the more “aw-shucks” Arkansas boy. Musically, whether the fault of Sherill or the super-team assembled to deal with the recordings in the present day, is where Out Among The Stars shows cohesion and confidence. Though some of the songs might be more fit for the 80′s country listener, the music throughout is timeless.
The somewhat cornpone and timecasted song “If I Told You Who It Was” is where the album most shows off it’s 80′s stripes, but Cash’s versions of “Out Among The Stars” and “She Used To Love Me A Lot”, the melancholic “Call Your Mother,” to the downright sadistic “I Drove Her Out Of My Mind” are right in the mode of classic Johnny Cash whose willing to delve deep into the darker side of life. These are balanced by the sweet and simple approach of songs like “Tennessee” that expires in an uplifting chorus signature to Billy Sherrill’s touch, and the sweet duets with June Carter “Don’t You Think It’s Come” and “Baby Ride Easy”. The organ/piano combination, combined with the fairly sappy lyrics of “After All” might make it the album’s most forgettable track, while “Rock & Roll Shoes” and the cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” with Waylon Jennings check in as the album’s most fun tunes.
Johnny Cash left music, and left the world behind at the top of his game, having been revitalized and resurrected in the public consciousness as the result of his American Recordings era, leaving the crowd wanting more as all great entertainers do. Though Out Among The Stars may not reach the high critical acclaim Cash set for himself in the last era of his career, it is a more than worthy offering allowing the Man in Black to once again live among us in our hearts and imaginations, leaving the listener ruminating on the historic accomplishments of a man whose musical accomplishments will never be equaled.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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We hear it all the time. It pursues us throughout our daily lives. It seems to be one of the eternal lessons of life. Yet no matter how much we all believe in the message and take it into our hearts, it is amazing how easily we stray from taking time, slowing down, and appreciating the important things in life and living in the moment. Because no matter how much you tell yourself how paramount this is, there’s an endless world of priorities and distractions awaiting you on your phone, on your computer, and on your television. You can preach the virtues of slowing down all you want, but the best way to drive the message home is by example, and this is what the wise-minded, and golden-throated guru of classic country music Don Williams does on his new album Reflections.
The message wouldn’t have so much meaning behind it if it wasn’t so obvious Don Williams practices what he preaches. He had his day of moving and shaking in the music business (5 CMA Male Vocalist Trophies & seventeen #1′s to be exact), and when it was obvious that the industry had put him out to pasture, he didn’t shake his fists in anger or reconfigure his image to appeal to the younger generation. He was appreciative of the time he spent in the spotlight, and stepped back to rest on his laurels and re-evaluate his priorities. Even now that he’s re-ignited his career of sorts by releasing two albums in the last three years, it seems like he’s doing it only as a dabbler; to get the devil out of him so to speak, so that music doesn’t pursue him in his mind as he tries to relax and revel in his golden years.
This is the attitude and approach that Reflections is recorded with—slow and easy—like Don told his wife, “I’ll be back for supper,” and then went out for an afternoon to cut an album of songs that he believes in and lives by every day. Then as producers, engineers, and label people labored to get this record ready for release, it was the farthest thing from Don’s mind as he takes a late breakfast and heads out fishing.
Where Reflections outdoes his 2012 album And So It Goes is in the song selection. Don Williams can sing anything and make it gold, and one of his greatest assets is being able to sing a song that performed by any other artist would come across as sappy, and make it somewhat cool and more universally appealing. But there’s a little bit of swagger, a little bit of grit in some the songs of Reflections, not necessarily in the words, but just in the attitude. Selecting a song from Townes Van Zandt in “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”, and from Merle Haggard in “Sing Me Back Home” which refers to Merle’s stint in prison, gives this album some gravel, despite the otherwise smooth and subdued approach of the music. Yet these two famous covers still sit well within the theme of the album of appreciating the small things in life.
Reflections is much more than just the easy listening country it may appear to be on the surface. It’s an album with a message, and leads by example. Instead of whining about the state of country music, it does something about it.
The laid back, gentle-of-mind ease drips from this album like the sweetness of sun-drenched dew. Sometimes it’s simply implied, and other times it’s directly spoken, like in the appreciative and well-written “Working Man’s Son” or the song that ties the entire theme of Reflections together, “Back To The Simple Things.” Enough can’t be said either about the Townes cover “I’ll Be Here In The Morning”. Like when Willie and Merle took “Pancho & Lefty” to another level, Don Williams’ touch on this song immortalized it, and in a different time it would have been a super hit.
Reflections is the album we needed right here, right now. Not just from the perspective of saving country music, but the perspective of saving ourselves from the overwhelming onslaught of ensnaring technologies that rob the preciousness from life.
Two guns up.
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**Warning: Heavy Language**
Why are Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line standing in front of a big explosion? Because they’re fucking awesome, that’s why. And you probably don’t get that because you’re all old and shit and your pubes are probably gray and you think that country music should be Hank Williams played over and over again which is boring. Get over it. Country music has changed man, and there’s now redundant wallet chains, deep V-neck shirts with weird crap written on them, popped collars modeled with douchebag poses, and super awesome explosions for no reason. And we love it ’cause this is how we roll, yo!
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Like one of those stationary rides in the front of Wal-Mart for toddlers, “This Is How We Roll” makes a lot of noise, has a bunch of flashing lights, bumps up and down a little bit, but in the end, goes absolutely fucking nowhere. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers soundtrack has more sincerity, depth, and nutritional value than this explosion of diarrhea in country music’s bikini cut man briefs.
My first question about this song is why exactly is Luke Bryan on it aside from marketing? Exactly what value does he bring to this collaboration? The very first thing out of his sewer hole is, “We’re proud to be young,” which is ironic because the 37-year-old is wearing testosterone patches to help boost his “performance” so he can keep up with the kids two decades his junior on his most recent and increasingly age-inappropriate Spring Break album. Luke Bryan has descended into that creepy late 30′s uncle character sent with a group of 16-year-old girls to “chaperone” and spends the whole time working up the courage to ask his niece’s best friend to roleplay Miley Cyrus while the rest of the group heads down to the beach.
An environment of sexual perversion and sheer stupidity permeates “This Is How We Roll” and its respective video from stem to stern, including a scene near the start of the video with a dollop of hussies having consensual sex with a Kenworth. I sure hope these chicks have their Tetanus records in order. And then of course we have Tweedledee and Tweedledum from Florida Georgia Line riding on top of the semi like Teen Wolf, with the same display of doltishness and disconnect with self-awareness many mid 80′s movies like Teen Wolf were horrifically beset with.
And are the “words” to this “song” for serious? It sounds like the babbling of a toddler with its tongue cut out, or Buckwheat trying to order Thai food while fighting through the lingering paralysis of a massive stroke.
Yeah holla at yo boy if you need a ride
If you roll with me yeah you know we rollin’ high
Up on them 37 Nittos, windows tinted hard to see though
How fresh my baby is in the shotgun seat oh
Them kisses are for me though, automatic like a free throw
This life I live it might not be for you but it’s for me though
And is anybody else bothered by watching people hanging out in the back of a moving semi? Does it seem like fun to anyone to be locked in a cargo hold with no window to the outside world, especially with a bunch of douchebags running motorcycles inside and other dumb shit? How many smuggled immigrants have been sweated to their death or suffocated in similar scenarios? I’d hate to see them take their rolling party through the same border checkpoint in Sierra Blanca, TX that busted Willie and Snoop while singing about “you know we rollin’ high” and watch the jack boots down there sodomize the whole lot of them with government issued toilet plungers in a tireless search for contraband.
And poor Brian Kelley, the Doogie Houser looking dude from Florida Georgia Line. Once again he’s more buried in the mix than Hoffa, offering no real contribution to the band aside from helping with the head count to qualify them for the CMA and ACM’s “Duo of the Year” awards. But that doesn’t stop him from showcasing how bad he is at lip syncing while sporting a doltish grin and no-soul-having wannabee hip-hop gesticulations. Let’s face it, Florida Georgia Line is Tyler Hubbard. Brian Kelley is just in charge of holding Hubbard’s penis pump.
Then finally to make up for the lack of any true machismo or talent emanating from Florida Georgia Bryan whatsoever, they send the troika out to a motorcycle track to stand there and look awesome while explosions go off and people who actually have skill do tricks for the camera that the pairing can try and take credit for by proxy.
The worst “country” song ever? I don’t think so, partly because this is just par for the course from Florida Georgia Line, while other sellouts like Jason Aldean and Tim McGraw hypothetically know better. Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley are such tenderfoots, they think classic country is Shania Twain. Still I think this song is positively shitty enough to be a colossal super hit. I predict huge things for this song, and anyone with half a brain or a full compliment of testicles to be pursued by its permeation of American culture for months to come.
Two guns way down!
Oh Kevin Fowler, what are we going to do with you?
If anyone rolled up to this article, saw Kevin Fowler’s name, and without reading another word navigated down to the comments section to elucidate just what a cheese dick he is and how much they hate his face, I couldn’t blame them. Not that the guy doesn’t deserve kudos when considering his entire body of work and what he’s done on and off the stage to help the entirety of the “Texas scene” get its feet under it, but the guy has the propensity to put out some of the most plastic banana bullshit songs you can imagine, and during pretty much the entirety of his career, this has been the material out in front, defining who Kevin Fowler is. Remember when he was running around with women’s underwear on his head, singing a country rap song with Colt Ford? I rest my case.
Let’s face it, Kevin Fowler is kind of a shallow, good-timing dude. Fun at parties, but he’s not going to go all Jason Isbell on your ass and get you crying over an emotionally-charged Cancer song. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with that either, nor do songs like “Hip Hop In A Honky Tonk” or “Pound Sign” necessarily portray his entire body of work fairly.
But here he is doing himself no favors, and lending all sorts of fuel to the bonfires of his detractors by putting out an album with a wild-ass, caricaturist cover, a caricaturist title track, complete with an intro by Earl Dibbles Jr. doing his “crack a cold one” bit, and right off the bat you feel like you’re beholding the Disney version of Texas country.
When I first surveyed this album, you have no idea how much I was licking my chops to use it as the sacrificial lamb in my want to expound on how Texas country can many times be just as bad as Music Row, and in fact seems to be trending more in that direction every year. But I’ll be damned if Kevin Fowler didn’t instill enough redeeming songs and redeeming qualities to this album to where I’d feel like a bully doing anything but saying the good probably outweighs the bad.
To begin with, this is a country record. And when I say country, I mean it is positively drenched in pedal steel, with fiddle and twangy guitar right out front throughout the album, with not really any of the rock-driven sound that at times has defined Fowler’s career. From a music standpoint, and even with some of the songwriting, How Country Are Ya? is pretty smack dab in sort of that early 90′s Alan Jackson, hard country sound with a propensity for a few silly songs and an upbeat kick. Maybe Kevin Fowler is benefiting from mainstream country moving so far away from the traditional sound that his country rock flavor now feels more like authentic honky tonk, but even then I think this is a pretty purely country record through and through.
And I’ll be damned if there isn’t some pretty damn good songs here too. The tracks are quick and catchy. It’s almost like a punk album in the way the songs just seem to fly by. “Before Someone Gets Hurt,” “If I Could Make A Livin’ Drinkin’” and “Girls I Go With,” these are pretty good songs. Like Kevin Fowler says himself in the track “Panhandle Poorboy,” he’s just sort of a simple guy from the Texas plains, and I’m not sure if his lack of a deep poetic brain muscles is something we should let get in the way of enjoying the music. How Country Are Ya? even has an instrumental; the very fun “Mousturdonus”.
At the same time, there’s some real stinkers here, especially to start you off. It’s not that How Country Are Ya? is laundry list or “bro country” per se, it’s that Kevin Fowler makes his own little universe of redundancies and clichés with the sheer amount of drinking songs he does on this album and along his entire body of work. This is unfortunate because taken alone, songs like “If I Could Make A Livin’ Drinkin’” and “Whiskey and I” are really pretty good. He also has a propensity to really rehash tired country themes like “Habit I Can’t Break” comparing quitting cigarettes to quitting a girl; this has got to have been done 100 times by now, or the blatantly obvious “Borracho Grande.” “These day José Cuervo, he’s my only amigo…” Yeah, okay Kevin, could have left this one on the cutting house floor, despite the music for the song being pretty cool.
I wanted to hate this album, and I didn’t. And for a guy that once put Fowler on a “blacklist” (whatever that means) for collaborating with Colt Ford, I guess that’s saying something positive about this album even beyond the specific praises about the country instrumentation and some of the songs. At the sake of sounding blatantly obvious, Fowler could really benefit from reeling in all the bits and and drinking songs, but guess what, that’s him. He’s a wise ass. And where his last album was made with the enemy in Average Joe’s Entertainment (Colt Ford’s label), this one is on his own label. Hidden behind all the antics might be a retrenching of sorts for Fowler on this album, and though you may not like all the results, you can’t fault the man for being himself.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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Call them the underground roots house band or the underground roots All-Star Band, either way the super couple of fiddle player Liz Sloan, and upright bass player (and banjo player, apparently) Jared McGovern have comprised, and do comprise the backbone of so many hard-working, road-weary roots bands, it’s a wonder they have any time to breathe, let alone record their own album. But here they are dubbing themselves the Urban Pioneers and releasing Addicted to the Road: a primitive, rootsy, Appalachian-style record showcasing a lot of heart, all original songs, and surprising skill in songwriting from two players who are mostly known as sidemen.
Jared and Liz first met the day before Halloween in 2010 right before a gig with country music wild man Bob Wayne at Austin, TX’s infamous Hole in the Wall venue. Liz Sloan was already touring with Bob, and Jared McGovern saddled up with the outfit that night, and the rest is history. For a good while they stared at the back of Bob Wayne nearly every evening, criss crossing the country many times, and dashing over to Europe, while in between shows working with other bands like Filthy Still, sitting in on recording sessions with a slew of other outfits, and eventually amicably parting ways with Bob and becoming badasses in the world-class Broken Band that backs former Saving Country Music Artist of the Year Jayke Orvis.
When I first heard about the Urban Pioneers, I was a little worried. Sometimes when sidemen decide to slide over to stage center, it can be a little rough. Not that McGovern and Sloan showed chinks in their armor; in fact it’s quite the contrary. The latest evolution of Jayke Orvis’s Broken Band is one of the most premium displays of string band talent out there right now, pushing the respective players to perfect themselves beyond the natural-given skill sets in an awesome display of spellbinding adeptness. But can these two really sing and write their own songs and hold an audience by themselves? The answer conveyed through Addicted to the Road is “Yes”.
The key to the success of the Urban Pioneers project was their decision to take it in a primitive, old time country direction. It is perfect for the skills that Jared McGovern and Liz Sloan bring to the table, is complimentary of their strengths and weaknesses, while giving them the ability to mostly re-create what you hear on the album in the live context. The singing on this album isn’t perfect; it’s lacking a little bit of confidence with some of the songs. And while that confidence will come with time, the simple approach to the singing on the album actually fits the Appalachian style of being just a couple of pickers on a back porch playing home spun tunes, not really resulting in a detriment to the album, but bolstering its authenticity.
Addicted to the Road has some really great tunes that fit very well in the old time style with cadence, theme, and perspective. This is Ralph Peer type stuff, really clever and informed in how they choose their words, honoring the era of the music so the lyrics and musical style coincide. Some of the songs near the end get a little thin, but “Apparition In The Fog,” “Autumn Time,” “Ain’t Gonna Work,” “Izzy’s Song,” “Liz’s Reel” and others are excellent little compositions written sincerely and arranged well.
There’s a lot of Hackensaw Boys and Foghorn Stringband in the Urban Pioneers approach: authentic, energetic, while resisting the urge to pass completely into the punk roots realm. There’s also a cool change-of-pace in the song “Broken Down” that features James Hunnicutt on electric guitar, and more of a Dave Dudley, hard country sound. Not a perfect project, but an excellent start, very fun to listen to, and makes me really look forward to what the Urban Pioneers might cook up in the future.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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The Urban Pioneers are currently on tour. Cover by Lou Shields.
You wouldn’t traditionally think of Oklahoma as a proving ground for cowpunk. As the home to some of the wealthiest names country music can boast like Toby Keith, Garth Brooks, and Mr. & Mrs. Blake Shelton, all sharing the same dirt with many of the founding members and freshest names in the Red Dirt/ Texas country scene like Jason Boland and the Turnpike Troubadours, it’s hard to see where there would be the space for a bunch of loud-playing, punk-inspired hillbillies to get a word in edgewise.
But then again, Red Eye Gravy is not your prototypical cowpunk band. Sure, their sound in places builds out from a high-energy, hard country mindset with the train beat being slapped out in the background, but many of Red Eye Gravy’s songs veer toward the traditional side of country and stay there, while others show they type of depth of songwriting and composition usually reserved for the Americana tag. In the end what you get with Red Eye Gravy is a little bit of all the good stuff and in just the right measure, similar to the homemade concoction that constitutes the band’s name, famous for combining country ham drippings and coffee to smother your favorite Southern food in comfort.
Though I wouldn’t go far as to characterize Red Eye Gravy’s new album Dust Bowl Hangover as conceptualized, there’s certainly a thread and a message throughout this project, very much inspired by the band’s Oklahoma surroundings and the history thereof, painting a very ominous and bleak picture for the plight of the poor man from the dusty plains, both of yesterday and today. Destitution and heartbreak are the theme of Dust Bowl Hangover, however the music itself is a very enjoyable experience, with great melodies, catchy hooks, smart and engaging arrangements, and a remarkable amount of spice and variety in the instrumentation to really elevate this album to something much higher than the band’s humble, undiscovered status.
There’s a surprise around nearly every corner of Dust Bowl Hangover. “Hard Livin’ (Comes Easy To Me)” is one of the best country music songs I’ve heard all year so far. The subdued artistry and songwriting efforts of songs like “Take Me Back” and “Pistol” counterbalance the balls-out attitude of cowpunk rockers like “I Wanna Go Home” and “Swingin’ From A Rope.” “Never Thought It Could Be” taps into an excellent melody while a unexpected, muted trumpet takes it to the next level of taste and artistry. Then the very next song “Oklahoma Girls” is an offbeat, foul-mouthed hillbilly elbow swinger featuring some awfully impressive Oklahoma yodeling very few could pull off with such authenticity and skill.
The greatest virtue of Dust Bowl Hangover is that if I was trying to lure an Americana listener into this album, I could pick out a couple of songs that would immediately speak to them. Same could be said for the cowpunk/hellbilly crowd, or for the folks whose hankering is for Texas country. Some of the heavy language here and there, or the stark variety might turn some people off or make Dust Bowl Hangover one to be picked through instead of enjoyed cover to cover, but there truly is something here for everyone, and in multiple servings. The 16 songs may have been a little too much (though the first and last tracks serve as an intro and outtro), and maybe a weaker song like “Give Down The Country” that somewhat failed to meet its objective could have been left on the sidelines and the album condensed down to be even more potent. But I fail to find the passion for many gripes about this effort, and Dust Bowl Hangover comes highly recommended.
Two Guns Up.
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Red Eye Gravy is featured on the latest episode of the “Old Soul Radio Show”.
Upon occasion I get salutations from Saving Country Music readers singing my praises for turning them onto one such band or another. A great artist or band can make me look like some kind of damn genius when really I did little more than drop a name. It’s the artists that deserve the credit, and the only genius on my part is simply taking the time to pay attention, and knowing where to look.
At the risk of giving away one of my trade secrets, one of the most surefire resources for discovering great music over the years has been the annual gathering at the Pickathon Festival outside of Portland every summer. That is where I was first wowed by Lake Street Dive going on two years ago now in a performance I later recapped as resulting in “the biggest ovation I think I have ever seen for a live performance, possibly ever. I was afraid the floor was going to cave in.”
Lake Street Dive was invited to return to Pickathon this last year as well, but not as the unknown from the east coast that curious music fans were looking forward to catch a glimpse of, but a band that was on the brink of blowing up, and during this year’s festival Lake Street Dive specifically mentioned how their crazy ride had begun on those Pickathon grounds one year before. Now they’ve released one of the most anticipated records in 2014, and their name recently found its way onto the cover of Rolling Stone as “This year’s best new band.”
Lake Street Dive is a neotraditional, throwback group that blends elements of jazz, roots, Motown, and other smoke-filled, bluesy and soulful influences that both awaken the spirit in classic American music while still cleverly residing within its own little niche of the current zeitgeist.
You can’t talk Lake Street Dive without first talking about their leader, one Rachael Price—the stunning New England Conservatory product that started her life’s journey in Nashville’s principal suburb of Hendersonville, and whose name deserves to be mentioned in the exclusive company of contemporary music’s leading ladies worthy of praise for both artistic talent and intangible presence that makes ordinary humans into masters of awakening hearts. Price has the voice of a Staple Singer in the visage of a movie star, and she breaks hearts with the ease invading hordes pillage counties.
But there’s a reason this band isn’t called Rachael Price and the something something’s. Unlike a band like The Alabama Shakes fronted by the big personality of Brittney Howard, Lake Street Dive doesn’t endear themselves to you from their underdog status. Guitar/ trumpet player Mike Olson, bass player Bridget Kearney, and drummer Mike Calabrese all are grand aficionados at their own respective disciplines (in fact I might name Bridget Kearney as one of the best bass players out there right now), and they all aid Rachael Price with splendid and effortless harmony vocals.
Aside from the style of Lake Street Dive which is so immediately inviting to culture thirsty ears looking for music that marks that nexus between substance and pleasurable escape, their music has this wonderful, natural way of achieving excellent arcs in both the story and music that in the space of a three or four minutes have you buying into the characters, cheering or mourning for them, while the music peaks and craters in uncanny parallels with the stirring narratives.
I won’t lie, I was a little worried when I heard Bad Self Portraits was going to be an album featuring only original material from the band. Not that I doubted this four-piece could pull it off, but they do such splendid, unique covers like the five featured on their 2012 EP Fun Machine. I appreciate that it’s time for Lake Street Dive to stand on their own two feet, but it’s also important to feature their best material, original or cover, especially now that the world is watching to see if this is truly the year’s “best new band.” And I’ll be damned if there’s not one song on Bad Self Portraits to second guess. They set the bar high for themselves, clear the mark, and stick the landing.
Bad Self Portraits has songs on it many others will be covering on their own in due course, including maybe some of the style setters that influenced the band’s sound. Their key is peering beyond the surface of classic popular music to the bones beneath, to borrow and refer to, but not steal, and then build their own signature sound around that framework to make something both modern, classic, and timeless.
And something else they deserve kudos for is not including the usual hipster pretentiousness or irony in this project or their show, which is so indicative and almost expected from so many young, left-of-country bands these days. But I have to say, the one big second guess I have on this album is the production on the song “Bobby Tanqueray”, which on it’s own is a marvelous, instant classic of a song, but was sullied by an unfortunate, crunchy guitar tone that doesn’t fit the time or mood of the song, and some overly-loud overdub work that didn’t pan out like one would envision for this song when hearing it live. The song is so good it endures, but this was not the song to saddle with silly studio wankery. The song “Seventeen” also fell a little short, despite a solid premise and performance.
The success and interest in Lake Street Dive means the looking back in music to times when music carried more meaning is still in full swing and continues to nip at the fringes of popular consciousness. Lake Street Dive is a classy, smart, yet accessible and fun band that will help instill a new measure of substance in American music at a time when it is most needed.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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For details on how to win a signed copy of Riser, please see below.
When it comes to mainstream country, there’s not many good guys left. They’ve either been aged out, shuffled along, they sold out to stay hip, or they’ve been otherwise marginalized to where you don’t hear about them anymore. And there doesn’t seem to be very many new good guys in the pipeline to replenish the ones we’ve lost, while the promising ones tend to turn to the dark side more often than not.
And then there’s Dierks Bentley.
Sure, if you sign on as a Dierks Bentley fan, you’re going to have to endure some lumps. He’s going to put out a few radio singles per project that are likely to make you wince, and he’s going to get caught with his baseball cap pulled backwards, rubbing elbows with the new school country crowd at award shows and such. But you’re willing to let that stuff slide because Dierks is one of the very last mainstream country males that consistently offers any type of balance and depth to the country music mainstream format.
And no, Dierks is not one of these artists where you tell yourself he’s good just because he’s not as bad as everyone else. On virtually every project, there’s going to be songs that would pass for offerings of artistic substance even under the nose of the hoity toity Americana crowd. He’s also done projects like 2010′s bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge that earned him additional brownie points with discerning music fans, while his off-the-stage persona is one of the few things in country music that a positive consensus can be built around.
Even the radio hit singles he does release aren’t going to be anywhere near the level of the genre’s worst offenses, and he’s never gone in the direction of releasing country rap or heavily-digitized EDM-inspired awfulness for his fans to fight through. Even if you don’t like Dierk’s music, it’s hard to not finger him as one of the few dudes left on country radio country that has been able to hold on to his true self.
Dierks Bentley’s Riser is an inspired, rising effort from stem to stern, with sweeping compositions that generally convey this uplifting, airy and expansive condition, despite a sorrowful and reflective tone beneath the surface. At the risk of sounding cliché, Riser was cut during an emotional time, bookened by the death of Dierks’ father, and the birth of his son, and this type of environment created a work that was somehow both secondary, yet keenly focused. He brought his personal life with him to the studio, and it is reflected even in some of the more commercial material, in a drive to make a project bigger than himself.
Unfortunately though, as you can expect from a Dierks release, a few of the songs didn’t get the memo, namely the silly “Drunk On A Plane” that probably won’t even be well suited for radio, and the very checklist happy “Sounds of Summer”. “Pretty Girls” and “Back Porch” are also somewhat unfortunate, and I can’t be the only one that noticed the similarities between the album’s first single “Bourbon in Kentucky” and Tom Petty’s “Two Gunslingers”. But once you sweep those things aside (I actually think Bourbon in Kentucky is quite strong despite the similarity), you have a pretty accessible and substantive mainstream progressive country project, setting the bar high for his contemporaries.
“Bourbon in Kentucky” with vocal contributions from Kacey Musgraves is an aching, tension-filled, finely-tooled song that successfully conveys its desired sense of heartbreak in a way that is both accessible and smart. “Say You Do,” “I Hold On,” “Here On Earth,” and “Hurt Somebody” are all high quality Riser offerings, all showing an elevated game from Dierks compared to his country male counterparts. “Damn These Dreams” is the album’s lone subdued moment, and the sea change works well in relating a story that comes across as very personal to Dierks. And the title track, though the lyrics are a little gimmicky at moments, is saved by the smart production; something that graces this project throughout.
Is Riser good ol’ country music done the right way? Of course not. This is a country-inspired rock album. But it is a good one nonetheless that is well-made, inspired, heartfelt, and worth a Hamilton or heavy rotation from your streaming service of choice if you know what you’re getting in to.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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Mammas don’t let your babies grow up to be Lydia Loveless.
Not that Lydia’s parental units have anything to be ashamed of, but the type of unhinged, binge-fueled and bawdy rhetoric Lydia Loveless imbibes in is probably not something any parent has in mind for their little princess while she’s having tea parties at a knee high tables with Queen Piggy and Mr. Frog. Lydia Loveless isn’t just empowered, she’s uninhibited. Subtly and coyness are shades she rarely paints in. Instead she opens her mouth and the truth comes out unfettered, refreshingly honest, and many times, R-rated, revealing her sinful tendencies and struggles with self-admitted inadequacies that sometimes veer her towards self-destructive behavior.
Lydia wet our whistles for new music with an EP released late last year called Boy Crazy. Where that project was a fairly lighthearted, hair-twirling affair with a bright yellow cover and devil-may-care attitude, her latest album and second LP from Bloodshot Records Somewhere Else is decidedly a more dark project with moments of real depth not seen before in Lydia’s young career.
The describers for Lydia’s sound out there are all over the place, from a cowpunk princess to an alt-country savant, but I’ve always thought of Lydia solidly in the realm of a garage-like power pop band with many of the earmarks thereof: economical guitar work, potent melodies, and a punk-like attitude that doesn’t sacrifice the prettiness of the music. Despite where you may see the appeal of Lydia’s music reside, you have to search for the country elements.
The one problem with Somewhere Else is that the instrumentation lacks a bit of imagination and diversity, specifically in the guitar work when looking at the project as a whole. It’s just a lot of strumming of chords, calling on many of the same tones throughout the album in songs that seem to hover mostly around the same keys. No specific songs is worth chastising; in fact on their own they each work just fine, and its more a problem of composition than a knock on the band itself. But altogether, the songs tend to bleed into each other and into the songs of the previous EP.
Those specific concerns aside, Lydia Loveless shows great maturity, depth, and diversity in her songwriting that really shines through whatever shortcomings, and makes Somewhere Else a project certainly worthy of your ears.
“Verlaine Shot Rimbaud” about the two famous decadent era poets and their torrid relationship juxtaposed into the complications of a modern relationship is a brilliant little piece of writing. “Everything’s Gone” is Lydia’s crowning achievement thus far in her career, showing remarkable insight, and delivering a vocal performance that fills as much emotion as humanly possible into the vessel of a story—any more and it would fall apart under its own weight. Both these songs also offer exceptions to the musical diversity issues.
“Wine Lips” is also an enjoyable little tune, and really all of Somewhere Else‘s offerings are embedded with smart little turns and juicy melodies that earworm themselves quite deep. I just wish there wasn’t such a gulf between where Lydia’s writing is, and the sonic palette that she’s pulling from to clothe her tunes. At the same time the young Ohioan is only 23-years-old. She’s got a whole lifetime of music to create, and if Somewhere Else is any indication, it’s going to be productive, fulfilling, and enjoyable.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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At any point in the greater country music realm, there’s going to be that one artist that sets the cutting edge for artistic expression and critical merit to where a consensus surrounds them as someone other artists should measure themselves against. They make critics swoon and cultured music fans nod with approval, as NPR, American Songwriter, and other such outlets regale them with the highest accolades, no matter how much their music may remain elusive from the mainstream perspective.
Texas native and current Nashvillian Robert Ellis is certainly a candidate to take that critical acclaim baton from Jason Isbell and run with it as an artist who seems to effortlessly deliver songs with cutting emotional moments in an awe-inspiring display of deft creativity. His much-anticipated new album Lights From The Chemical Plant is full of those instances that give you shivers from their bold illustration of wit and self awareness. There’s this sort of graceful command to his songwriting, a confidence beyond his 25 years, to where even when he turns a phrase that you can anticipate or that feels tired, he’ll throw a little hitch in the timing almost as to announce to the listener it’s cliche, in turn erasing the banality of the moment.
The last album from Robert Ellis, 2011′s Photographs, started out as a mostly-acoustic work that trended toward a downright honky tonk sound by the end, and won him deserved critical praise. The Lights From The Chemical Plant, though certainly with its country moments, is overall more of a classic pop album, referring to influences like a post-Garfunkel Paul Simon and James Taylor. The first song on the album “TV Song” is very much out of the Randy Newman playbook, full of irony, but graced with such a loving perspective for its object of ire, you can’t help but be awed by the intellectual skill such a song displays.
“Hipster” is an often-overused and ill-defined term for people to describe others that they generally don’t understand and that happen to be young, and many times white. As time marches on, hipsters seem to be standing out less, and the term generally tends to just represent young artistic-minded white people in general who rely on elements such as exclusiveness and irony to define their cultural attributes. Their perspective is steeped in a whole new set of parameters compared to the multiple generations of slightly older to much older music listeners from many past generations whose musical understanding is centered around structured ideas of eras, genres, and generational gaps.
Many 25-year-olds don’t hate their parents, and never did. There’s not that inherent sense of emptiness and despair, but a sense of quiet celebration. With The Lights From The Chemical Plant, Ellis celebrates the other side of his musical upbringing, that likely wasn’t presented to him as being in conflict with his country roots, but in concert with them. However, much of the current Robert Ellis sound still emanates from the acoustic guitar and pedal steel. The de facto title track “Chemical Plant” is a sweeping, rising, memory-inducing song, very much bemoaning the march of progress and time no different than more accessible country music fare might, just conveyed in a much more intelligent way.
“Steady As The Rising Sun” takes a dedicated look in the liner notes to convince one it was not indeed written by James Taylor, while Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” is a little more obvious as a cover. There are a few very long songs on this album, and at times it becomes somewhat of a problem. The 6 1/2-minute “Bottle of Wine” does a good job capturing a sullen, Tom Waits-esque mood, but the tone of the piano seems a little to resonant and bright, and the song just goes on a little too long to maintain the mood or story. “Houston” is one of the album’s best at highlighting Robert’s strength of songwriting, but the fusion jazz-like ending gets buried somewhat, despite its functionality at offering something different and spicy for the album.
The 7-minute “Tour Song” however could probably go on even longer in the way Ellis weaves a masterful web of language clearly told from his own, heartfelt perspective. “Pride” and “Only Lies” work very well in a way that is unique and new, but that also refers back to the classic mode of 70′s songwriter material. “Sing Along” is the up-tempo, and most-decidedly country song on the album, though it’s counter-religious message might ruffle its core sonic audience. Appeal for “Good Intentions” will be much more universal. In an album with a fiercely artistic bent, this song is rousing and infectious without compromising it’s substance and creativity.
The “Not For Everyone” stamp should be slapped in red letters across the cover of this album, especially for people who consider themselves more country fans than Americana or singer-songwriter fans. But Robert Ellis has done superlative work, and will be graced by the singing praises of critics and cultured roots fans that will likely last all the way until they compile their end-of-year lists.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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Let me begin by saying that I don’t want to write this review. If I had my druthers I would just ignore this album, and focus on something else. But in the face of an absolute onslaught of requests, I will give my personal opinion unfettered and unabridged. I’ll also preface this business by saying that if you like or love this album, that’s all that matters, and my opinion or anyone elses should not sway you from your enjoyment of this music.
Also, before anyone says that it doesn’t matter what kind of album Eric Church released, I would write a negative review for it because of some predisposed bias, or because I do not like the guy on a personal level, go read this review, this review, this review, this review, and take into consideration that his last album Chief was my choice of the albums nominated to be the winner during the last cycle of both the CMA and ACM Awards.
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To put it bluntly, as an album, Eric Church’s The Outsiders is garbage. Does that mean there’s no good songs on it? No, there are some good songs on it, and a few good moments in otherwise not good songs. But as an album, The Outsiders is an absolute, colossal failure of process. It is a muddy mess, with no compass, direction, theme, groove, cohesiveness, or underlying thread connecting the disjointed, ill-conceived and poorly-executed song ideas simply meant to show of how different Eric Church is with no other underlying message or originality of either concept or story. Simply put, The Outsiders is a face plant of the creative process, posing to be “artistic”.
Eric Church is reported to have written a whopping 121 songs for the album before he hit the studio. And judging by the result, I believe him, and wouldn’t be surprised if he’s selling that number short. Apparently we’re supposed to be impressed that 121 songs were vetted for this album, but it speaks to songwriting by formula as opposed to inspiration, and is one of the reasons for the flat, uninspired, and unoriginal result when looking past the histrionics this album contains.
The Outsiders is an exercise of finding the biggest wall available and throwing a disparate hodgepodge of disconnected ideas and undisciplined influences against it to see what sticks. As much as we were sold from the very beginning of this album release that everything would resolve and make sense once we heard the entire project in context, the individual songs released before this album make even less sense now, and the songs as a whole resolve to a sum lesser than their individual parts.
But you won’t hear this from the vast majority of critics. They can’t shut the hell up about how brilliant this album is simply because it isn’t country rap, and it’s not “bro-country” (and UNAPPROVED savingcountrymusic.com term).
First off, I refuse to give into addition by subtraction and give undue credit to music simply because it isn’t as shitty as something else. Is The Outsiders better than Chase Rice, Cole Swindell, or whatever the flavor on the moment in pop country is? Maybe, though at least these guys have some idea of direction. But that doesn’t automatically make Eric Church and The Outsiders “good”. I wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that music should be judged against it’s peers, but Eric Church’s peers as a reigning Album of the Year winner aren’t Tyler Farr, and Dan + Shay, they’re George Strait and Taylor Swift, and these artists have a theme, a sound, and a direction.
The high-reaching superlatives I have seen attributed to this album from noteworthy and credible sources is nothing short of disturbing, and even at times dangerous. Each to their own opinion, and we can agree to disagree, but when NPR says, “Eric Church is working on a level that few other country artists of his generation can touch,” this speaks to the continued discounting of the leadership the women of country music, and the men of Americana and independent country are displaying. I couldn’t disagree with NPR’s sentiment any more, especially seeing how The Outsiders really isn’t a country album, at all. There’s one track you could call country. Otherwise it is purely rock, and this misappropriation of the “country” term is yet another offense disqualifying this album from being something that should be considered “bold” or “epic”.
One of the biggest proselytizers for this album has been Eric Church himself. “It’s a very polarizing song,” Eric said about “The Outsiders” title track to The New York Times. “Half the people hated it, half thought it was the greatest thing they ever heard. But I think that wide range of opinions means you made something artistic, you actually made art.”
Oh, so if you start off with a Waylon phase guitar, lead into a heavy metal song, then speed bump the groove with a couple of interjected Pork Soda prog rock bass guitar solos, add a little pseudo-rapping, and people discredit it for being too busy and lacking direction, that’s how you know it’s “artistic”?
The whole point of this album seems to be to set up Eric Church as this forward-thinking force in country music. But just because you take a bunch of ill-fitting parts and slap them together—as Eric does in numerous songs, and with the overall song selection itself—doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being “artistic.” It’s like people who want to be known as “weird” might dye their hair strange colors, get strange piercings or tattoos, or wear shocking clothing. But this is all superficial. The question is, is this something that is truly groundbreaking, or has it never been done before because it’s ill-advised and doesn’t work?
I don’t even know if the music on this album matters. Eric Church has put his back into cultivating this “Outsider” persona, and the music just seems to be a vehicle to the cultural identity he wants to convey, and his fans want to identify with. The music is almost an inconvenience to Eric Church. As he’s said many times, he hates writing songs. Aside from a few songs that seem to come from the heart, The Outsiders is formulaic themes and sonic trickery. For a song to connect with an individual, it music convey a deep, human feeling. Are you telling me that Eric Church had 121 deep, original human feelings since his last release that he was able to translate into song? The human inspiration on this album was spread so thin across so much material, it was almost completely lost once these tracks were being zapped onto compact disk.
And back to the point of praising The Outsiders for not being “bro-country” or country rap, I’m not sure if those people’s review copies are missing tracks, but I am hearing both these elements, as well as EDM electronic wankery make an appearance on the album. Is it to the degree of some of Eric Church’s mainstream male counterparts? No, but the song “Cold One” is a total bro-country beer song, and “That’s Damn Rock & Roll” features multiple stanzas of rapping. You listen to a song like “Talladega,” and it’s straight up pop country. Leadership? Boldness? The songs that could be accidentally identified with having these qualities are the album’s worst tracks because they’re simply a bunch of ill-fitting parts slapped together.
There are some decent songs on The Outsiders though. But to grade the album fairly, you have to break it down to the individual songs. The songs themselves are too disjointed to critique collectively. As for the album itself, I would give it:
1 1/2 of 2 guns DOWN.
Individual Song Reviews
1. “The Outsiders”
Beyond my original review for this song, I’d like to point out how we were told some of the strangeness of the music and message of this song would all resolve and make sense when put in the context of the entire album. Of course, as always with theses promises, this wasn’t the case whatsoever. In the context of the album, this song comes across as even more ill-advised. There really was no “Outsiders” theme holding the work together.
“The Outsiders” is an attempt to write and produce a song by aggregating popular sonic elements and trying to squeeze them together instead of simply drawing a story and three chords from inspiration. The result is a Frankenstein-like monster; a colossus of corporate music that threatens to kill its makers. Though this type of machination might be acceptable, or even appreciated in some outer fringes of the metal world, in the country music format it’s downright laughable. (read full review)
Two guns down.
2. A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young
One of the recurring themes of The Outsiders is that “sounds familiar” feel. Eric seems to always shine in the stripped-down format. His pretentiousness is what keeps most from his music, and in his unguarded moments is when he draws you in. And so even though “A Man Who Was Gonna Die Young” is a song that has been done many, many times, this is one of the albums better tracks.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
3. Cold One
For the people proselytizing that The Outsiders as the anti “bro-country” epic, this song is a problem. It’s not your typical laundry list, dirt road and tailgate song, but it’s pretty close, with its premise beginning and ending with beer. Though it’s arguably the most country track on the album, there’s some pop and rock elements here, like the harsh, purposely-ugly guitar part meant to mimic the blurred mind of a beer binge, and the record skipping near the end that refers to the new school, EDM influence creeping into the country format. These things aren’t Eric Church leading, they’re Eric Church following. Yes, the sped up bridge in the middle of the song is pretty fun, but again is a borrowed, often-called upon element. The story is nothing special, though the wit of the “Cold One” double meaning is appreciated. Not bad, but not as good as some will sense at first listen.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
4. Roller Coaster Ride
Folks, this isn’t a pop country song, this is a pop song pure and simple. From the storyline, to the sonic elements, this song was built to be the soundtrack to a future Lexus commercial. Church’s “artistic” touch is to add an unfortunate synthesized sound bed that comes streaking in and out throughout the song. Picture yourself as Atreyu riding on the back of the Luck Dragon through the wispy clouds of Fantasia. Church fans may fall in love with this song, but hey, that’s the allure of pop music; it’s instantly catchy in lieu of delivering long-term substance. I guess Church thinks he makes up for at all at the end when his synthesized sounds turn sinister. Laughable.
Two guns down.
Ha! This song has been done a million and one times, and yet again for all the “epic” and “artistic” praise this album has received, here is another placid and predictable, straightforward pop country tune. It’s a nostalgic, reminiscent song built mostly around the power of the word “Talladega”, but there’s a decent sense of story here, and the song works, mostly because Church resists the urge to add some ill-advised guitar solo or electronic interjections like he does on other tunes. He should see if Rascal Flatts wants to cut this on their next record.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
6. Broke Record
Listening to the song was one of numerous times I kept picturing Sheryl Crow circa late 90′s when listening to this album. This is a catchy little rhythm-based tune that adeptly slides its fun lyrics in between the starts and stops and gets your foot tapping just fine. Aside from a very short moment heading into the bridge and a pretty good acoustic guitar solo, this is a silly little roots pop song that is harmless, but certainly nothing special; quick to grab your attention, but soon to be forgotten.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
7. Like A Wrecking Ball
Not bad at all. Could have done with a little less reverb on Eric’s vocal signal, but this is one of the few songs on the album that seems to come from a personal, inspired story from Eric Church himself instead of an easy-to-fall-back-on trope of modern popular music. At the same time, there’s really nothing special here. For once, some of Eric’s studio wizardry may have helped give this song a little something to make it memorable. Like virtually every song on the album, there’s nothing country about it whatsoever. But it works I guess.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
8. That’s Damn Rock & Roll
It was at this point in the album when I wondered why the hell I was even listening to this. What type of aberration of the term “country ” allowed this album, and this song to come into my life where I would be forced to give my opinion on it?
Between the Duran Duran tone of the electric guitar, rapping, the Annie Lennox banshee screams (which by the way, in the appropriate context would be awesome), and the general bellicose grandstanding about the format Eric Church wish he was in instead of the industry that is promoting his music, this song is ill-conceived on just about every single level. Some of the lyrics and the sentiment behind the song will get some people’s blood pumping, but this is all a derivative of pushing sonic buttons and pandering to constituencies instead of some original expression or the delivery of any true substance.
This is out generation’s “We Built This City” from Starship. Marconi plays the Mamba.
Two guns down.
9. Dark Side
Finally everything comes together. Where the rest of the album generally takes the form of ill-fitting parts, with Church matching up audio features that he wants to play with, with songs and themes that they have no business being in, here a progressive, stripped-back, and tasteful approach is the perfect texture for the story that you can tell has a truly personal meaning to Eric. This song is nothing short of excellent.
Two guns up.
10. Devil, Devil (Prelude: Princess of Darkness)
Pure marketing and pandering to Eric Church’s Outlaw/Outsider manufactured image with no redeeming value. A farce. Bullshit. An insult to the intelligence of every listener.
Two guns way down.
11. Give Me Back My Hometown
To the mainstream country ear, “Give Me Back My Hometown” must sound nothing short of foreign and refreshing. But to an ear with a more wide sense of perspective, especially when the heavy bass drum beat and hand claps kick in about 1/3′rd of the way through the song, a strong, pungent Lumineers influence reveals itself quite obviously…Once again we see a symptom of Music Row being 18 months behind the relevancy arch, and just now catching up with what was cool last year, despite feeling cutting-edge within the format….All those observations aside though, simply based off of the ear test, “Give Me Back My Hometown” is not bad. The song works. (read full review)
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
12. The Joint
I don’t know. A stupid amalgam of sound to let you know how awesome and creative Eric Church is.
One gun up, one gun down.
Early Morning Shakes is the 3rd record from the Texas music scene’s Southern rock contingent known as Whiskey Myers. No, Whiskey Myers isn’t the name of the front man, just the collective persona of five guys from the greater Palestine, TX area, helmed by singer and principal songwriter Cody Cannon. The band put out their first album in 2008 and have since become one of Southern rock’s most emboldened and energetic torch bearers, tearing it up across the country to packed houses of both country and rock fans.
Coming off the surprising success of their second album, 2011′s Firewater that debuted at #26 on the Billboard country charts, Whiskey Myers saddled up with producer Dave Cobb—the man who was behind three very successful albums in 2013: Sturgill Simpson’s High Top Mountain, Jason Isbell’s Southeastern, and Lindi Ortega’s Tin Star. Cobb’s reputation of bringing a signature touch to music that straddles the line between rock and country made him a perfect fit for the project. The result was many great, original song concepts being fleshed out with smart and tasteful production elements, adept guitar-driven instrumentation, and despite some ostentatious moments, a sincere and fun album that sets the standard high for all Southern rockers in 2014.
Southern rock has been in such a state of flux for years now, it’s hard to know where to place it on the relevancy arch on a given day. Its modes have been somewhat borrowed by mainstream country, yet as rock itself continues to amble directionless, Southern rock is one of the last bastions of pure, electric guitar-based music that’s not blaring metal, or eepish, hipster pretentiousness. Calling yourself “Southern rock” affords you a lot of latitude: You can build a song around a riff and not a lyric and not ruffle any feathers like you might in country, or play a straight up country song and still reside within Southern rock sensibilities. You can even add some soul elements like backup singers as Whiskey Myers does here and separate yourself even further from the increasingly-automated sounds of modern music.
Early Morning Shakes is bold and expansive for a 12-song project. There’s a lot going on in these songs, without any of the compositions coming across as especially busy. Songs like “Early Morning Shakes”, “Where The Sun Don’t Shine”, and “Time Off For Bad Behavior” are each built from a good premise, and fleshed out with excellent guitar work by Cody Tate and John Jeffers. So often these days Southern rock guitar can get wanky and self-absorbed. Whiskey Myers may trend slightly that way in certain places, but overall the band’s guitar battery does a good job of waiting for the battle to come to them, and landing their shots when the time is right and in a manner that showcases both their prowess and their taste.
The band takes some chances on this record, and generally they nail the landings like with the final song “Colloquy” that tries to evoke the emotional epic, and dutifully succeeds. There is depth here beyond the riff-driven nature of the songs, like in “Reckoning” or “Wild Baby Shake Me,” which starts off as a rump shaker, but then develops into so much more.
But the real star of the show are the pipes of Cody Cannon. The guy’s voice is built for Southern rock. Without a hint of fake inflections or put-on’s, he sings effortlessly and straight from the heart, growling and confident when he needs to be, and willing to express emotion and vulnerability when it’s called for.
One small concern would be some of the chest-puffing present on this album in a song like “Headstone.” There are a few of these self-indulgent moments on the album, but these may disappear from the Whiskey Myers repertoire over time, and already seem diminished from their previous albums. The second song on the album called “Hard Row To Hoe” is just way too similar to Zepplin’s “Heartbreaker” to work, which is strange from a project that otherwise is fairly remarkable at avoiding the well-worn ruts and striking an original path.
The crunchy slide guitar, rising steel, and good songwriting of “Dogwood” make it one of the album’s best songs, and one of the album’s decidedly country selections. The sensible “Shelter From The Rain” is another good country-inspired, story-based song worth a deeper listen. Include the aforementioned “Colloquy” and there’s a good amount here for listeners who are country fans first, and Southern rock appreciators second.
With Early Morning Shakes, the now well-seasoned Whiskey Myers crew affirms themselves as one of the preeminent bands in Texas music and beyond.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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The distinctive, woody tone of a small-bodied, nylon string guitar draws you into a new single from country music powerhouse Miranda Lambert—presumably the first song from the much-anticipated new album, creating a heightened interest around the offering than would regularly greet a new single.
The title “Automatic” might get some revved up for an old-school woman-scorned revenge song that was the signature of Miranda’s early career, hoping weaponry will be brandished or tires will screech while a foreboding cigarette cherry glows from the shadows. But instead Miranda delivers a cool-headed, warm, reflective, nostalgic piece, very much in the sentimental realm of country music’s remorseful view of the changing times, waxing tropishly, but effectively on what we’ve given up as progress and priority has marched on.
Written by Miranda, frequent collaborator Natalie Hemby, and The Voice contestant Nicolle Galyon, the song refers back to outmoded artifacts of life like pay phones, Polaroids, and postage stamps, while not being patently about these items themselves like so many of the laundry list offerings from country music’s opposite sex, but the sentimental reflection on these bygone mementos as markers of a dying past, a wayward present, and a gloomy future, glued together by the weighty line, “‘Cause when everything is handed to you, it’s only worth as much as the time put in.”
“Automatic” starts with the earthy, rhythmic strumming of a single guitar accompanied by a bass drum, then additional rhythm is added during the second verse; a sort of crunchy boom-clack sounding back-layered track that could either be digitally generated, or real tones rendered through some vintage filtering, giving “Automatic” a little modern-day relevancy while not leaning on the rhythm to make up for lyrical shortcomings.
Strings float in—again, somewhat ambiguously derived from woods and wires, or ones and zeros—but effective in getting the song to crescendo consistently throughout, while smart chord selection helps breed the desired, nostalgic mood. The chorus rises, but in a tempered, tasteful manner, and is effective at highlighting the signature tones of Miranda’s award-winning voice.
Why “Automatic” is so important is because we wait to see how the women of country are going to handle the continued march toward idiocy the men of country continue to illustrate, and as the lead feline, Miranda sets the pace. “Automatic” is somewhat safe country pop, but the sentimentality it is able to evoke is very real.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
The fried chicken-eating, truck-wrestling, twisted metal, wild-assed, guitar-plucking, gray-whiskered, screaming and shouting, foot stomping “Dirty ‘Ol One Man Band” known as Scott H. Biram is back with a brand new album called Nothin’ But Blood from Bloodshot Records, and it’s a shoot-a-belt-of-whiskey and run-buck-wild-in-the-woods kind of good time, followed by the old-school repentance and cool-minded reflections of a Sunday morning. It’s all porch picking and domestic disputes, flashing cop lights and shack shows deep in the woods. Bury your no good woman with a shovel, and then sing a gospel song as the human soul pinballs between good and evil in the ever-restless struggle of a man baptized in the blood of his own sins.
Biram stands (well maybe innebriatingly-swaying) at the apex of artists that roll their punk influences in a dirty, spicy rub of Clarksdale, Mississippi blues, marinate them in a jerk of genuine Hill Country muddy water, and cook them over burning planks from the dilapidated shacks of what blues music once was. Add a little Texas twang, and what you have is something your cardiologist may not recommend for a heart healthy diet, but it’s one hell of a good time.
With a Scott H. Biram album, you know what you’re going to get. The Grammy Awards may not come calling, but he’s not going to lay an egg on your ass. The album starts off arguably with its best track, the foreboding “Slow and Easy” with its booming bass accentuations and grooving, moody sound. Nothin’ But Blood has some good singer-songwriter moments, like the sharply-written “Never Comin’ Home,” and though I want to question how much a soldier would want to return to the Far East because of the quality of their reefer, the sentiment of “Nam Weed” is still palpable.
Though the sub-genre most associated with Scott Biram is the punk blues showcased best in the rousing track “Only Whiskey,” Nothin’ But Blood‘s most hardcore moments almost trend more toward metal, like with the serrated edges of “Church Point Girls,” and the mostly-instrumental “Around The Bend” that also highlights Biram’s chicken-picking skills and his prowess as a tone monster. These tracks are almost like the death metal of dirty blues, with “Around The Bend” vying for the title as the album’s most bold, creative track.
There are many ghosts living underneath the skin of Scott H. Biram, and his ability to inhabit the many different souls of man in both his voice and style, and shape shift deftly between them from track to track, has always been a point of awe. But all the madness captured on Nothin’ But Blood is later absolved in three consecutive gospel tunes to finish the work off: “Amazing Grace,” “When I Die,” and “John The Revelator.”
Though there’s not really any scabs to pick at on Nothin’ But Blood aside from a few wonky moments in the timing that tends to be one of the signatures of a Biram recording, here some 11 albums into his career, a sameness has creeped into his music and the approach to where there’s nothing specifically wrong, but it may leave some long-term listeners wondering what else he’s got. Though every record is solid and consistent, it may be a little too consistent to keep certain ears attentive.
When looking at some of Biram’s contemporaries like Charlie Parr, who just put out an exclusively-instrumental and improvised album called Hollandale, or Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band that arguably put out his career’s best recently with Between The Ditches, and Possessed By Paul James who despite a similar solo approach to Biram was able to step it up with his last record There Will Be Nights When I’m Lonely, there has been an evolution—a slow progress if not a sea change that allows the artist’s career and catalog to remain spicy. Though there are some new wrinkles here and there on Nothin’ But Blood, it still begs the question, where does Scott Biram go next?
But reinventing yourself can be a tricky business, and it is where a lot of music careers have gone down in flames. Maintaining a high level of quality for 15 years and over 11 releases is hard enough. But that’s what Scott H. Biram has risen out of a bloody river to accomplish with Nothin’ But Blood.
Good album cover, by the way.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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The great American folk singing legend and banjo player Pete Seeger passed away on January 27th, leaving the rest of us behind to ponder our slowly-diminishing roster of living folk musicians with truly original voices that will outlast their own lifetimes and beyond, while the hungry ear searches in vain through both the overwhelming crush of recorded material, and a veritable vacuum of anything that isn’t a derivative of something that came before, to hopefully discover a piece of recorded music that touches the heart in a truly original manner.
All but appropriate then that on the very next day, January 28th, one of our generation’s most venerable folk musicians, Duluth, Minnesota’s Charlie Parr released his 12th full-length album, and one that arguably mark’s the artist’s most bold, and most ambitious undertaking yet, not just of his career, but of the careers of many of his peers. It is called Hollandale, and it is a leap beyond measure, with no regard for the firmness of the landing. It is an act of both faith and improvisation, but bound and directed by the unspoken communion between a master musician and his instrument, immersed in the inspirational atmosphere that permeates an artist as he submits himself wholly to the musical experience and allows it to breathe through him.
Hollandale is like nothing you’ve heard, from Charlie Parr or anyone else, at least not like anything you’ve heard for a very, very long time, and with this amount of body and clarity behind the recording itself. Whatever you were expecting from this album, you are probably wrong, and in its stead you get an in-depth exploration into what it means to be alive, to be human, to feel pain and to yearn and reflect, without a single word being spoken on the entire work.
With his custom, unique tunings played on a resonator, Charlie Parr delivers a sound that is both full, and ambitiously stripped-down to the very root of primitive American music. It is bursting with colorful narratives, original characters, and auspicious wisdom without including a bit of grammar. And most importantly, Hollandale is a journey. It takes you places; wherever you want to go.
Hollandale consists of only 5 tracks, including a two-part movement that has the same name of Parr’s last album, “I Dreamed I Saw Paul Bunyan Last Night”. It also includes a 4 ½-minute collaboration with Alan Sparhawk of the Duluth band Low. But all told the album still delivers a stellar, 40-minute musical experience. This album is also exquisitely recorded, mixed, and mastered. The production is as much of an important component to the project as Charlie’s slide and his signature tunings in taking the record to a high level of critical recorded works. Hollandale was specifically engineered for vinyl, but even in the CD and streaming formats, the liveliness and warmth of the recording isn’t just an enhancement of the Hollandale experience, it is a seminal part of it.
Hollandale is a victorious moment for Charlie Parr, and shouldn’t just make it into your home’s music collection, but is one of those works you could hear being secured in the Smithsonian’s archives of important American instrumental music works. Charlie Parr has set the bar of creativity and originality that all folk, blues, and country musicians will be measured against throughout 2014 and beyond, and did what every musician would love to do 12 releases into their musical journey: make an impact larger than themselves.
Two guns up.
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It may not be possible to give The Reverent Horton Heat enough credit for his contributions to revitalizing the roots of American music. But since he never reached the mainstream level of success like a Brian Setzer for example, he never seems to get his proper due. To his loyal fans though, Jim Heath is nothing short of a guitar god (with his own signature Gretsch model to prove it). He’s arguably the biggest and most-influential name in modern day rockabilly/psychobilly music, was one of the first to expose the parallels between rockabilly, country, and punk, and deserves a pat on the back for bringing out opening bands like Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, Reverend Peyton’s Big Damn Band, Hank3, and The Goddamn Gallows just to name a few.
The 90′s is when The Reverend Horton Heat established himself at the forefront of the independent roots world. Out of the gate with the band’s debut album Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em, they proved they were somehow cooler than the punks, and better players to boot, and as authentic as the honky-tonkers. Then when the swing era came in the late 90′s, The Rev was once again ahead of the curve, releasing It’s Martini Time in the middle of 1996 right before the revival took stride. The Rev’s most well-rounded album might have been 2000′s Spend A Night In The Box. Already established as an influential force in both the guitar, punk, and rockabilly worlds, Jim Heath showed he could also be a noteworthy songwriter with tracks like “It Hurts Your Daddy Bad” and the countrified “The Bedroom Again.”
But the 2000′s found The Reverend Horton Heat somewhat adrift directionally, despite reaching new heights in both touring and popularity. The Rev was finally gaining some recognition, bolstered by a prominent appearance of the signature song “Psychobilly Freakout” in the wildly-popular video game Guitar Hero. But maybe the money usurped some of the muster for the music, and studio offerings like 2002′s Lucky 7 and 2004′s Revival felt a little forced despite a few notable moments, like the music wasn’t flowing, and they were trying to reach for the magic they had captured the decade before by just trying to play fast and hard.
Long-time drummer Scott Churilla left the band in 2006, replaced by Paul Simmons formerly of The Supersuckers. Jim Heath started a side project featuring blues, jazz, and rock standards called Reverend Organdrum that was considerably more sedated than the Horton Heat experience, leaving some to wonder if the days of stage leaps off of Jimbo’s upright bass were over. Hey, our favorite rockers all have to age at some point. Crowds went from moshing punks to blue collars and teenagers who knew The Rev through Guitar Hero first.
So here it is in 2014, and though Horton Heat has already established himself as the King of Psychobilly and a god of the rockabilly world, there’s the sense that the music needed a new start. But if you venture too far away from the established sound, you solicit sideways looks from your core audience, similar to how if you keep on serving up the same sounds, the routine could become stale.
Helping to shake things up, Scott Churilla has resurfaced on drums, and instead of overthinking it, The Rev seems to just lay back with the band’s most notorious lineup, and tap into the magic that has made The Reverend Horton Heat one of the most entertaining roots bands in the last quarter century.
The new album Rev makes use of the dual meaning of the ‘rev’ term, and is a pedal down, screaming-tires good time from the start to the finish line. The album begins with two songs that seamlessly segway into each other—”Victory Lap” and “Smell of Gasoline”—in that way The Rev has been known for over the years, harkening back to that badass moment at the beginning of 1994′s Liquor In The Front that began with “Big Sky” and “Baddest of the Bad” back to back.
Though the band is well in their groove here, long-time Horton Heat listeners will recognize they go to some of the same wells they’ve been to in the past a few times in the album. Songs like “Zombie Dumb,” “Schizoid,” and the first single “Let Me Teach You How To Eat” seem to take older song concepts and just shake around the riffs and lyrics a bit. Rev also doesn’t afford you any of those cool, gear-shifting stripped-down countrified songs like “Bales of Cocaine” or “The Bedroom Again” that gave some of the classic Horton Heat albums that extra flavor.
But what Rev does have is an infectiousness and vitality that was missing in some of their more recent offerings. Though “Never Gonna Stop It” doesn’t give much lyrically, this is Horton Heat finding the infectious pocket of his sound. “My Hat” is a is a fun, quick little tune, and “Longest Gonest Man” shows off the capable lyricist we know Jim Heath can be.
Rev is probably not the place to start for someone who’s never heard The Reverend Horton Heat before; I would fall back on Smoke ‘Em If You Got ‘Em or Spend A Night In The Box. But it is a solid, entertaining offering nonetheless, an improvement from some of the other recent projects, and will serve the dedicated Reverend Horton Heat fan quite well.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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If you were asked to populate a list of current country music artists that with no frills and no variations lay down country music as country music was meant to be, Jason Eady would very have to be at or near the top of your list. And if you found yourself beset on all sides by ravenous legions of flesh-eating pop country music fans whose only bane was the authentic sound of true country music being blared in their general direction, Daylight & Dark just might be your ideal go to to win your ultimate escape.
As a followup to Jason Eady’s 2012, critically-acclaimed country offering AM Country Heaven, here comes a new one that picks up right where the old one left off, unflinchingly immersed in the traditions of country music, taking aim and hitting the bulls-eye at the heart of what country music truly is.
But despite the joys of AM Country Heaven, one of the one concerns I had with the record when reading back through my review was that it was a little too straightforward and mellow, with not enough variation or color to hold everyone’s attention. When talking with Eady recently, he said about this new album, “It’s a little more on the mellow side I think than ‘AM Country Heaven,’ not quite as honky tonk…” and I almost winced. Even more mellow? Eady continued, “To me the two styles of country music that I like the most are that barroom sound, and also the more Vern Gosdin, Don Williams, mellow side of it. And this one definitely leans that way.”
But the mellowness is not a burden on Daylight & Dark, it is where Jason Eady improved from his previous work. Where AM Country Heaven relied somewhat on the sheer countryness of the music, and the contrast that created compared to Eady’s previous musical direction, Daylight & Dark delves deeper into composition, poetry, and a linear story, stripping the music back even more to expose the soul and inspiration behind it.
Don’t go thinking there isn’t any good times or foot tapping on Daylight & Dark thought. Boiled down, this is every bit of a classic country drinking album, soaked in alcohol from stem to stern. It just takes a honest look at both sides of the drinking equation—the good times, and the consequences, and a life that bounces in between them searching for equilibrium.
Daylight & Dark finds Jason Eady paired up with his fiance Courtney Patton, who fans of his live show will be quite familiar with. Patton co-wrote three of the album’s tracks, and lends vocals on just about all of them, including the duet “We Might Just Miss Each Other.” “When we went into the studio, we had been singing those songs together for a year,” Eady explains. “Those parts grow over a long period of time, and makes it sound more natural.”
Two other famous names lend their talents to the lively track “A Memory Now” when Hayes Carll and Even Felker of the Turnpike Troubadours stop by the studio. Daylight & Dark is very much a Texoma effort, with geography being a player to the overall story and in songs like “OK Whiskey” about the scourge of Oklahoma’s government-mandated 3/2 diluted brew, and its followup “The Other Side Of Abilene.”
Where Jason Eady finds his sweet spot on the album is in these exquisite, understated, Don Williams-like songs that slow it so far down and strip it so far back that the raw manna of the music is exposed in all its pure, supple wonder. “Liars & Fools” is so tasteful and warm, and so referential to memory, it’s like crawling into a little country music womb. “Daylight & Dark” also captures this classic country warmth despite a little more tempo behind it. And then somehow Jason outdoes himself again, stripping it back even further in the sparse “Whiskey & You” that doesn’t leave a dry eye within earshot.
Sure, when you get this deep into the essence of true country music, you’re going to leave some folks behind. But Daylight & Dark isn’t for them, it’s for the folks that were left behind by what they now call country music many years ago.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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It can be easy to overlook just what kind of impact Rosanne Cash has had on American music over the years. She seems to always be overshadowed by her father, by other famous sons and daughters of country legends, measured against them, and dogged by preceding labels that don’t always allow her to be judged on her own merit, while her musical accomplishments veer towards being somewhat misunderstood because she’s not always been nestled smack dab in the country realm as people want, expect, or anticipate.
Awareness of Rosanne in the public realm has also waned here recently because it’s been a full eight years since she put out an album of original material, and five years since she released The List—an interpretation of 12 classic country songs referred to her by her father. But Rosanne’s critical and commercial accomplishments are far more than complimentary, they define a very successful career: Eleven #1 country singles, twenty-one Top 40 singles, and thirteen Grammy nominations is nothing to sniff at, and ultimately might at least get her mentions as a potential Hall of Fame inductee.
The River & The Thread is an album that was worth waiting for. Produced and co-written with Rosanne’s husband, accomplished musician John Leventhal, this album is exhaustive, thematic, all-encompassing, and compromises nothing when it comes to desiring the highest degree of quality in songwriting and production.
The style of The River & The Thread refers very heavily to the current Americana approach, and will slide very nicely as bumper music between Terry Gross stories on NPR, and into the Americana Music Association selections come May. It has that slickness, that sophistication, that almost urbanity and upper-crust appeal despite the sometimes dirty, Southern themes the record is laced with. That “white people’s blues” sound is stamped in this album indelibly, and though this will make NPR/Americana crowd lick their lips, country listeners may wish that a little more grit was rubbed into this album beyond the words.
The beauty of this album is how it conveys with such reverence the spirit of the river region, with Rosanne’s birthplace of Memphis very much the fulcrum. The River & The Thread doesn’t discriminate in its description of human lives and the landscape in which they live amongst. They are all bound together into this universal body, connected by a cohesive filament sewn into the fabric of every life, artifact, and element, which in turn constitutes a tapestry that unfurls out like a linear story. The River & The Thread is the soundtrack to that story.
“Modern Blue” is the song on the album that will draw most folks in with its delicious, guitar-driven melody, but songs like “A Feather’s Not A Bird” and “World Of Strange Design” are the songwriting standouts in how they relay the unique, curious, and sometimes contradicting aspects on Southern life. “Night School” is the buried little masterpiece, with it’s sparse, almost early Tom Wait’s-esque atmosphere and excellent composition, both lyrically and sonically.
The River & The Thread is embossed by an impressive barn of players and harmony singers, including Rodney Crowell, Kris Kristofferson, Tony Joe White, Allison Moorer, John Prine, Derek Trucks, and John Paul White from The Civil Wars; not just adding a cast of celebrity names to help spread interest in this record, but endowing it with the honor and lineage these names bring that very much speaks to the thematic vision this album is approached with.
The concerns about the slickness, almost trending towards predictability in the production of this album are certainly here, especially during its first few listens. But in the end, the songwriting and overall effort are weighty enough to erode these worries and reveal a gem that should be the talk of the Americana world in 2014.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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What kind of fresh hell has Tim McGraw unearthed here? Apparently the once high-flying country star has been inadvertently inoculating himself with inebriating bronzer agents from his incessant chemical tan treatments that have now seeped into his blood stream. And combined with an undiagnosed eating disorder that has rendered McGraw’s figure to that of a 55-year-old Venice beach female body builder succumbing to a lifetime of melanoma, Tim has robbed precious nutrients from his gray matter, stupefying him into such an absolute scientifically-infallible vacuum and void of self-awareness that physicists want to employ it to see if it is the ultimate key to tabletop fusion. “Lookin’ For That Girl” isn’t a cry for relevancy, it is a barbaric yawp, a banshee scream, a cacophonous ode to the onset of monoculture and wholesale mediocrity.
The lyrics of “Lookin’ For That Girl” read like a “How To” manual to date rape, which is similar to how this song maliciously violates your earholes with such unwanted and violently barbed penetrations that you find yourself overwhelmed with such desperate loathing for your situation you pray for nothing less than the sweet release of death itself.That girl, she’s a party all nighter A little Funky Cold Medina, little strawberry winer That girl, She’s a love gunslinger Neon Jager-bomb country okie singer That girl she’s a sugar sweet drive by Hold my dreams in her blue jeans, oh my Yellow hammer south Georgia Mississippi chick Trick cherry wine, Louisiana lipstick
Though this song is supposed to be urban and hip, it comes across as the cries of an introverted internet masturbator who never matured past a middle school mentality. Funky Cold Medina? “Hold my dream in her blue jeans, oh my!” are you fucking kidding me? This song makes me hate sex, and is simply a smattering of ultra-stereotypical urbanisms chased by countryisms trying to apologize for itself and accomplish the widest possible splash zone of victimhood with its catchy pap like when a hippo turns his hind quarters towards the herd and scats the hell out of anything and everything aided by a helicoptering tail.
The icing on this urine-drenched urinal cake topped with cigarette butts, spent gum, and used inside-out prophylactics oozing their venereal slurry out on the diarrhea-infested floor is the fact that through the entire drum machine-driven song Tim McGraw is singing through an Auto-tune filter turned to 11. T-Pain, eat your top hat-wearing heart out. I’ve been saying for years now that Tim McGraw is more machine than man, but not even I could have predicted this unmitigated rejection and headlong flight from anything analog or authentic. Hell, why do we even need a human to sing this fucking song? We should just have one of those iRobot floor cleaners sing it. At least that way it would be on hand to swab up the hurl this monstrosity will invariably evoke from enlightened music listener’s disgruntled guts. And like an iRobot incidentally, “Lookin’ For That Girl” will also freak the everliving shit out of your dog.
What made Tim McGraw one of the greatest country music performers for a generation wasn’t his singing necessarily, though he’s a gifted and inspired vocalist without question. It wasn’t his songwriting. And it wasn’t his unique or creative approach to performance. It’s that Tim McGraw could somehow out of the massive crush of song material every artist must sift through, select the very best compositions that would invariably become the soundtrack to so many people’s poignant, life-changing moments. “Don’t Take The Girl,” “Live Like You Were Dying”—these songs inspired millions, and spoke straight to the heart of people looking for meaning and solace in the desperate throes of human emotional frailty. And now we get “Truck Yeah,” and “Lookin’ For That Girl” that makes a two-time Country Music Association Male Vocalist of the Year sound like Stephen Hawking reciting middle school sex ramblings.
The worst country song ever? I’d add the addendum that since there’s really nothing here that is even remotely close to “country”, ingratiating it by calling it the worst “country” song might be inadvertent flattery. And also, we are so early in 2014, this may be an unfortunate signifier of where we’re headed and could be toppled at any moment. But except for these qualifying points, sure, let’s sleep on the idea for a little bit, but I won’t put my dukes up against anyone who would assert that Tim McGraw’s “Lookin’ For That Girl” is the worst song in the history of country music.
You’re 46-years-fucking-old Tim McGraw.
Two guns way down!
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Between 1981 and 1984, Johnny Cash recorded an album with the legendary Hall of Fame producer Billy Sherrill called Out Among The Stars that was subsequently shelved by Columbia Records and lost to the world until the masters were recently discovered during a search for archival Cash material. The album in its entirety is scheduled to be released on March 25th, and ahead of the release we have a chance to hear the song “She Used To Love Me A Lot,” written by Dennis Morgan, Charles Quillen, and Kye Fleming.
Learned country fans will recognize “She Used To Love Me A Lot” as a David Allan Coe single released in early December of 1984 off his album Darlin’ Darlin’. That version of the song also emanated from Columbia Records, with Billy Sherrill as producer, though it’s probably not fair to call Cash’s version a cover of David Allan Coe because Cash’s version was very likely recorded first.
In the mid 80′s, David Allan Coe was experiencing a resurgence of interest in his career, and Darlin’ Darlin’ was a strange project for him, heavily produced in the Billy Sherrill style, and consisting mostly of songs written by others. Sherrill’s approach with Coe was to showcase his often-overlooked vocal prowess through the selection of compositions, and Coe’s version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” lives up to that charge, with a stellar vocal performance that communicates a great sense of pain through the song’s structure and the dark, minor chords, overriding any concerns about the heavy production hand Sherrill employed. The song eventually reached #11 on the Billboard country charts.
If Out Among The Stars had been released in its time, David Allan Coe many have never cut “She Used To Love Me A Lot,” and it would be Cash’s version that all others would be measured against. But instead it is Coe who defines the established expectations and prejudices our ears cling to when we become comfortable with a version of a song.
Cash’s interpretation is certainly a more earthy, acoustic, and grounded take, driven by a fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a spirited mandolin handled by a young Marty Stuart, with the drums completely spared for some light percussion. Coe’s version hinged more on a thumping, Outlaw-esque bass drum beat and driving electric bass guitar, with the acoustic guitar along for the ride and drums filling the chorus. Coe is also more active in the verses with his cadence and range, where Cash seems to focus more on the conveyance of the story.
There’s the potential that some parts of the Cash recording were “fortified” after the fact, as archivists have said happened in a respectful manner as this album was being brought back to life. But the production and approach to “She Used To Love Me A Lot” is both tasteful and timeless; not striking the ear as indicative of any era as sometimes can be the concern with archive recordings.
Johnny Cash is blessed like few others with a warmly familiar timbre to his voice making anything he touches sound like mastery. To be afforded any new music from Cash a decade-plus after his death feels like a blessing in itself and best not heavily scrutinized. Nonetheless, even with a critical ear, there’s little to not love with this song.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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