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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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CONTEST RULES: To enter to win a copy of Riser signed by Dierks, simply leave a comment below with your favorite Dierks Bentley song or album, AND/OR your own opinions on Riser if you already have it (in other words, just leave a comment, and you’ll be entered). Make sure to include your REAL email address when prompted by the comment forum so we can contact you.
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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So here it is January 3rd, the day that we were promised that everything would be revealed of why a month ago today, Eric Church’s marketing arm decided to post a psychotic and irresponsible “teaser” video for his upcoming The Outsiders album that depicted a shadowy figure in gloves obsessively watching a video of Taylor Swift explaining on the CMA Awards how it was Eric Church’s arrogant and idiotic torpedoing of a opening spot on a Rascal Flatts tour that eventually led to Taylor getting her big break in country music.
The Eric Church video was so creepy and so ripe to be misunderstood, Saving Country Music posted an expletive-laden tirade and demanded the video be taken down. Eventually it was before a public outrage could be launched, and despite many Church fans proclaiming the video as payback to Taylor Swift for calling out Eric Church on the CMA Awards, (and that it was completely justified, because you know, Eric Church isn’t part of the “in” crowd and is an “outsider”) a subsequent video explained that Eric Church “adores Taylor,” making Church’s fans have to each their own asses, while Eric Church himself back paddled harder than the Oxford University rowing team in a 4.2 mile heat race on the River Thames.
The video that Eric Church inc. posted in place of their Taylor Swift stalker video urged us all to “stay on course” and that on January 3rd “all will be revealed to you.” And as always with these dumbass teaser videos, nothing was revealed, nothing makes sense, none of the disturbing imagery from the December 3rd video is now somehow justified just because Eric Church released a new song that has nothing to do with any of it. It’s all just a bunch of marketing that distracts from the music and leaves the gawking country music fan wanting and confused, while the fact that the whole run up to Eric’s The Outsiders album is such an obvious ripoff of Shooter Jennings and how he marketed his last album The Other Life goes horrifically under reported.
But there is a new single here that needs to be dealt with called “Give Me Back My Hometown.” The song is very, very trope-like, residing deeply within the well-worn grooves of the often called-upon American music theme of the forgotten hometown and heartland decay. Is it a laundry list song, or as some like to couch it, “bro-country?” No, no it’s not. Is it a country rap? Not even close. Is it an alternative to the trash that permeates the mainstream country music airwaves? Sure it is. But before we proclaim it is something more than just another song, let’s not allow ourselves to reduce our measure of what is good simply because Music Row has deftly extended the boundary of what is positively awful into previously uncharted territory.
At the same time it is not unfair to couch “Give Me Back My Hometown” as a respite from the rest of mainstream male country. And the reason this small town theme works so often is because it resonates in a fairly universal manner, especially amongst country music fans. But the boldness of “Give Me Back My Hometown” is in the musical approach to the song. Once again Eric Church reveals himself on the progressive edge of country sonically compared to his Bon Jovi-esque and country rapping counterparts, delivering a rhythmic, banjo-driven bed that is catchy without feeling cliche, and a melody that reveals Church’s adeptness at carrying feeling in his voice into an impressively-high register.
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. A similar observation can be made of Lady Antebellum’s recent single, the banjo and clap-driven “Compass.” 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. And though with his first two singles off The Outsiders Eric seems to be focusing more on music and less on capturing the muse behind the story he wants to convey, give him credit for being willing to trod outside of popular music’s current modes, or at least mainstream country’s.
1 1/4 of 2 guns up.
My first interfacing with the fiery, spunky singer-songwriter simply known as Tristen was at a Justin Townes Earle concert in May of 2012. I didn’t know her or her music from Adam, but there she was on stage, all 5 foot nothing in glittering green hot pants, kicking our collective asses with her songs that were so easy to befriend and so hard to forget. And like any opening artist hopes for, there I was the next day dropping coinage on her 2011 record Charlatans At The Garden Gate, and Googling the hell out of her to my little music nerdy heart’s content.
Tristen is nothing short of a creative powerhouse. She’s a Chicago native, a member of independent music’s hot east Nashville contingent, akin to an artist like Caitlin Rose for example, who happens to be friends with Caitlin and has shared bass players with her in the past. Tristen is also a perennial performer on the cool country roots program Music City Roots. If you squint really hard, and maybe listen very selectively to her music, you might be able to convince yourself that what Tristen has done in the past could be construed with the right amount of rhetoric and coercion as “country,” but really Tristen is simply a songwriter, who seems to have little regard for a genre-specific career path, if she doesn’t downright loathe the idea.
Tristen is not a hunter, she’s a gatherer, listening intently to any song or influence regardless of format or era, and eagerly mining the little nuggets of nostalgic, retro gold that allow the warmth of memories to flow freely from the inner mind of listeners to lovingly embellish a song. She then embeds this warmth into her completely original, modern-day compositions resulting in music that is both fresh and hauntingly familiar. The magic Tristen spins is really akin in spirit what a band like BR549, or some other country neo-traditionalist act might do by referring to the past in the modern-day context, but Tristen has the confidence, knowledge base, and insight to not discriminate based on traditional genre distinctions.
Her 2011 album Charlatans At The Garden Gate is like a big, rotund watermelon: it just keeps on giving, parceling out little treats, and there’s not a soft patch to be had. Songs like “Eager For Your Love” and “Doomsday” are just screaming to be scooped up by some big name and be made into mega hits, while tunes such as “Avalanche” and “Battle Of The Gods” may be a little more fey, but refer to Tristen’s competency in advanced composition. “Baby Drugs” is sinisterly crafted, speaking right at the heart of how the modern-day 20-something brooding male is just about worthless, and frustrating in the arms of driven females looking for fulfillment and only finding unmotivated, drooling pot hungry video game addicts for sexual partners. The song is also accompanied by a genius video.
But if Charlatans At The Garden Gate had a wart, it’s that it seemed to be a little bit lacking in the production department; like Tristen’s vision and creativity outpaced the budgetary restrictions and artistic resources at her dispose. That is not the case with her 2013 album that she Kickstarted and then released in October through Thirty Tigers called C A V E S. It is expansive, and more than adequately fleshed out, pulling from a very broad spectrum of both analog, digital, and human-generated sounds to make it her most complete and ambitious project yet.
At the very end of that Justin Townes Earle opening slot Tristen played back in 2012, she completely shifted gears for the final song in both style and presentation, pulling out a tune called “No One’s Gonna Know,” (whose subsequent video would also include the glittering green hot pants), accompanied by these somewhat choreographed, somewhat improvised hand gestures and such, prancing across stage, telling you beyond the song itself that this was something completely different—a gear had been shifted—and that is exactly what you get from Tristen with C A V E S.
Yes, here comes that evil, evil ‘P’ word that we all love to lambast at every turn, but what Tristen does different in C A V E S compared to other so-called “pop” albums is that the point of the album is not to be “popular” in the sense of attempting to appeal to the masses by instilling the music with ultra-catchy drek or inane lyrics. It is pop music because it is not country, and not particularly rock & roll. Is this a project, like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club’s Unentitled, or other “pop” albums that use pop elements just as much for their irony or to prove a point instead of, or just as much for their inherent catchiness? You could almost infer that from the lyrical hook of the song “No One’s Gonna Know” that goes, “The only way to climb to the top is stepping on heads, you’re better off dead.”
But really, even though it is completely fair to call C A V E S “pop”, it is just as fair to call it an electronic-infused retro rock album that refers to popular music’s past to do what Tristen has always does best: pull the warmth of recollection out of the music experience and pay it forward into the modern context. By referring to popular music’s pop legacy with certain little 80′s and early 90′s-era electronic accoutrements in C A V E S, she quite simply makes an album that is splendidly-addictive and overall fulfilling to listen to. Yet still at the heart of this album is real people playing real instruments, and singer-songwriter Tristen Gaspadarek expressing herself through words to help commiserate with the human condition.
As stoppy and starty as “No One’s Gonna Know” is in places, it is damn hard to resist. The multiple harmony lines and other such layering of “Easy Out” really draws you in hard and holds you. And “Gold Star” might be the best song Tristen is responsible for so far in her career (see below), hiding a lot of in-depth creativity and composition behind what may seem to be a fairly simple pop song on the surface. Beyond these first three songs, this country critic found the rest of C A V E S somewhat elusive, aside from “Monster” getting my toe tapping, but that is probably the way the natural order of things should be, and not necessarily a knock on the project.
And as a country critic, I can’t help but point out that having had to dutifully listen to Taylor Swift’s recent records, you hear many somewhat similar retro electronic references back to the 80′s and 90′s in Swift’s material as you do in Tristen’s, including in Swift’s recent Soundtrack single “Sweeter Than Fiction,” and in songs like “Starlight” or “Enchanted.” What does this mean? I think it means that an artist like Tristen could be considered on the cutting edge, and starkly relevant despite the retro flavoring.
Is C A V E S country? God no; not even close. So why is Saving Country Music covering it? Because Tristen still feels like a part of the overall independent country/ East Nashville family, and an artist like her is even more prone to slip through the musical cracks unfairly because of her non-genre specific style. If steadfast country fans want to give Tristen a try, I would strongly suggest they start with Charlatans At The Garden Gate, and then give C A V E S a sniff if you like what you hear.
And I can’t help but wonder if the non-roots direction of C A V E S is on purpose. If Tristen, surrounded by the stultifying mainstream country environment in Nashville isn’t flexing her little arms with this album to say, “Don’t box me in!” and what we’ll hear from Tristen next time will be in some completely different direction to keep her fans on her toes, then I’ll eat my hat. But in whatever direction Tristen goes, I’d almost guarantee it will be steeped in the past of music and refer heavily to memory-churning elements, and that it will also be inescapably good.
Charlatans At The Garden Gate – 4 1/2 of 5 Stars
C A V E S – 3 1/2 of 5 Stars (with the first 3 songs strongly recommended)
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In this the season of giving, can we all at least come together as one, regardless of sex, race, orientation, creed, religious, political or social status, or cultural background, and swallow our collective differences, hold hands in the common bond of humanity in a rising chorus of hosannas, and all universally decree that Brantley Gilbert is the biggest douche ass to ever suck air on planet Earth?
Such a gift from heaven it has been to not have Brantley terrorizing us with new music for a good long while. But apparently Brantley was just resting up, refining his putrid exploration into the very innermost reaches of human vanity and self-ingratiation to then unleash upon his trashy fans with the sweet residue of methamphetamine glistening on the edges of their inflamed nostrils, the purest form of raging narcissism ever witnessed in Western Civilization in the construct of his new diarrhetic single “Bottoms Up,” and it’s accompanying video.
Some may want to tell Brantley Gilbert to go fuck himself for putting out such an awful song, but in Brantley Gilbert’s self-centered world, truly fucking himself would be the fulfillment of his wildest dreams. The video for “Bottoms Up” starts with a bunch of submissive prohibition-era flapper girls doing all the heavy lifting—loading up crates of bootleg alcohol into Brantley’s motor carriage, while Brantley orders them around, flexing his back muscles and showing off his water pistols for the camera. Yes, what a gentleman. Then what ensues is the most self-absorbed 5 minutes one can witness this side of masturbating to oneself in a mirror.
Like many of it’s sonic peers originating from mainstream country music males right now, “Bottoms Up” offers absolutely no redeeming nutritional value to its listeners whatsoever. It simply beats its audience over the head with a servile sense of rabid shallowness and wanton materialistic consumerism conveyed with Nickelback stylings underlayed by a buried banjo track. Joey Moi eat your heart out. About the only thing “Bottoms Up” is good for is supplying the soundtrack to a 16-year-old’s first drinking escapade subsequently followed by throwing up in a Taco Bell parking lot.
At one point in the video, three women are surrounding Brantley, rubbing their hands all over him. But these girls aren’t copping a feel, their feverishly searching for Brantley’s beleaguered genitals that have taken the form of two acorns flanking a Vienna sausage that then fled up into his abdomen like a rodent scampering into its hole—the result of a tireless regimen of prolonged steroid abuse; hence the nonstop, headlong pursuit of this song and video to compensate and dramatically oversell Brantley’s manly prowess and masculine superiority.
One interesting part about this song and video is the premise is all based around alcohol and drinking. Brantley is cast as a bootleger and party Barron, but in real life he swore off the sauce over 2 years ago, or supposedly did. Hey, I commend Brantley’s sobriety if it’s still ongoing and applaud his discipline, but it really doesn’t lend to the sincerity of whatever muddled, mumble-speaking and Ebonics-inflected message Brantley is trying to convey in this “Bottoms Up” monstrosity. Brantley may have a brass knuckles handle for his microphone to show just how much of a hard knocker he is, but his preferred beverage is more akin to 2% milk than 90-proof moonshine.
The video ends with Brantley pulling up to his hideout, and despite him being such a badass that he could impregnate three women at the same time simply by starring at them from across the room, he fails to notice the sheriff’s car parked 15 yards away from his illegal still shack. I don’t want to come across as too sensitive or gratuitous by saying the video for “Bottoms Up” ends with a cop killing scene similar to something Ice-T would dream up circa 1990, but man, that is certainly what it looks like. Sure, this is all make-believe, but the murdering of Brantley Gilbert’s dignity in “Bottoms Up” is very, very real.
You didn’t bottom up Brantley, you bottomed out.
Two guns way down.
The reason an artist like Jamie Lynn Spears should be dealt with in a speculative manner when she announces she wants to pursue a country music career is because from the beginning, it will be more about her name than the music. As much as we look at country music’s very top fashion plate stars as unfairly sitting atop a pedestal without the proper dues paid, when you actually delve into many of their personal stories, it is rarely the case. The recent death of Outlaw country artist Wayne Mills illustrated this when it came out that Blake Shelton opened for Wayne while making his way up the ranks. Even Taylor Swift spent years playing radio tours and doing acoustic shows at biker bars before her big break.
But with Jamie, her name allows her to circumvent all of these impleasantries and go right to the level of opening slots on theater and arena tours, and mainstream radio consideration. If you want to draw a parallel to another recent “gone country” celebrity artist, a good one would be Jessica Simpson who shot right ahead of everyone else in line to play headline shows and be showcased on the Grand Ole Opry. But as we all know, even the historically pliable and gullible mainstream country music fan didn’t bite on Simpson, and because she had never spent time cultivating a fan base, she had no level to fall back to. If she couldn’t be playing in front of thousands of people and buy fuel for 3 tour buses, her career wasn’t feasible on any level.
Jamie Lynn Spears had two major choices she could make with what direction to go in the country realm. She could be one of these bellicose, bawdy, hard-edged, lighting-matches-off-of-shotgun-barrels-to-burn-the-trailer-of-your ex-boyfriend-down type artists, or she could join the new generation of progressive country women writing their own songs and reintegrating substance into the country genre. From the sound of her first single—though I caution very heavily that this is just one song—from the looks of things at the moment, Jamie Lynn has chosen the latter.
There still is a very long way to go here, and much more to be revealed. I still remain speculative of the platinum blonde hair and where Jamie Lynn’s heart truly lies, and how easy it would be for her to make the first single one that allows her to slide past the guard of the country music gatekeepers only to later spring a big pop surprise. But I’ll be damned if her first single “How Could I Want More” is not bad at all.
There’s really not much to add to what most people are parroting about this song already: “Not great, but hey, better than most of what you hear on radio, and definitely unexpected.” And why not make good music, and the music you want if you’re a woman in country music right now? Unless you have huge tits or your first name is Taylor, the fat cat good ol’ boys who control country radio aren’t going to play it anyway, so you might as well make something you’re proud of.
“How Could I Want More” is very on par with the Ashley Monroes and Kacey Musgraves of the moment. Tasteful, story-based, touching music with sensible roots elements like lilting steel guitar embedded in a song with a universal theme. It’s also interesting that in the video, Jamie Lynn is seen writing and musing on lyrics, illustrating that she doesn’t want to be known as just an entertainer, but an artist.
This all speaks yet again to how women right now are leading the way in country music, and how there are reasons to be positive overall about country music’s direction. Nobody saw this coming. Nobody. So I’m not the only one who needs to pick up a fork and dig deep into that can of crow, and I do so with a grin because the fact that a former Nickelodeon star turned 16-year-old teen celebrity mom has started off her “gone country” career making music that has us all nodding our heads in approval speaks to how far we have come, however awful Luke Bryan’s next tailgate single is.
Good on Jamie. Let’s just hope this is a sign of things to come, and not a Trojan Horse.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
When you first heard that Billie Joe Armstrong of the arena punk band Green Day and darling little lounge singer Norah Jones were teaming up to make an Everly Brothers tribute album of all things, you wondered if this was some drunken dare taken way too far. At the same time, there was something about the idea that seemed just insane enough to make some strange bit of sense.
Whatever you think this album is going to be, whatever you think in your little music brain it will sound like as you squint and try to envision Billie Joe, Norah Jones, and the Everly Brothers sharing the same 3-bedroom apartment, you’re probably wrong. For starters, you’re not going to get any of the noted Everly Brothers hits. No “Bye Bye Love,” no “Wake Up Little Susie,” no “Bird Dog,” “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” or other recognizable Everly Brothers standards. Foreverly is not a tribute album in the traditional sense, it is a reboot of a specific album, a reinterpretation of the 1958 Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, song by song, line by line, with virtually the same track list, ratcheting up the strange factor yet another notch.
What this results in of all things is a stripped-down, old-time, primitive country record, referring back to the Ralph Peer era in country music; very rootsy, with murder ballads and Gothic American textures, and traditional, folksy themes and compositions.
During the height of their success in 1958, brothers Phil and Don Everly decided to make what today might be considered a concept album, taking traditional songs the brothers were taught by their father and assembling them on one record. Though the brothers were known for taking country songs and giving them a rock and roll twist, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us was very traditional and straight laced. No big hits came from the album, but it was seen as very forward and innovative at the time. Call it the Everly Brothers’ contribution to the brewing folk revival in American music in the late 1950′s.
Enter Billy Joe Armstrong in 2013, who it might not be surprising to hear is an Everly Brothers fan because of what building blocks for rock and roll the Everlys were, but it’s a bit curious of how he got so endeared with this particular album, and then lassoed Norah Jones of all people to be a part of it. Apparently Billy Joe thought more attention deserved to be paid to Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, and feeling a female voice would be an easier fit for the close harmony style of the Everlys (and finding Norah through mutual friend Stevie Wonder), Forevely was born.
The focus of Foreverly is the close harmonies struck by Billie Joe and Norah, and the chemistry this harmonization conjures, giving classic tunes from the early chapters of the American songbook new vitality. In a sense, the music has little to do with the Everly Brothers aside from the duo being the vehicle for this particular collection of traditional tunes to be assembled, and how the vocals are arranged. The collection includes traditional songs like “Roving Gambler,” “Down In The Willow Garden,” and “Barbara Allen,” with only the final track, the traditional “Put My Little Shoes Away” adapted by the Everlys.
The production of Foreverly, just like its 50′s counterpart, is very subdued, accentuating the vocal performances and the primitive, and sometimes dark themes of these classic tunes. About the only difference between the Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us and Foreverly is the 55 years of recording technology that brings more clarity to the newer performances. But the instrumentation is mostly simple acoustic arrangements, piano, maybe some simple brush drums, with about the only exception on Foreverly being the track “Kentucky” where tasteful electric guitar makes an appearance in an arrangement that probably takes the most liberties compared to the Everlys’ original.
The more you study this project and the Everly Brothers’ original Songs That Daddy Taught Us, the more the music intrigues you. Though Norah Jones is given equal billing on the cover, this is Billie Joe’s baby from a behind-the-scenes standpoint.
Both Billie Joe and Norah sit in this weird reality of public sentiment as wildly-successful artists who are not pop in the normal sense, but have made successful careers instilling sensibilities in what is supposed to be music on the fringes of popularity. Simply their names will leave some on the sidelines of Foreverly, which really isn’t fair to either the artists or the music. Billie Joe Armstrong is seen as the ultimate sellout by hardcore punks, but when the Green Day album Kerplunk sold 500,000 copies on a tiny indie label in Oakland, the band have no choice but to enlist the services of the recording industry. Similarly, Norah Jones is discounted for her success, while the quality of her music gets lost in the shuffle.
Foreverly is one of these albums meant to be listened to for the appreciation of the artistry, subtly, and texture, and when approached in that manner, or in the manner of trying to ignite renewed interest in the Everly’s contributions to American music, it is a very successful endeavor. If approached as something to listen to while raging through your daily commute, it is going to comes across as dry and sleepy because there’s just not a lot of pep or spice in this album. But kudos to Billie Joe for putting such heart into this music, and Norah for blending so sublimely, and bringing a cool little piece of American music history back to life.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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To say that I had trepidation about this album heading into it is probably understated. I should have known better and just trusted the Cody Canada name and the weight that it carries, and had a little more faith that when he announced that he was putting out an acoustic live album with some covers and old songs and maybe a few new ones, that it wasn’t just going to be a stop gap like the shape some acoustic-only and live albums can take.
But it’s not like Cody Canada is on a big winning streak. Fellow songwriter and guitar player Seth James is leaving Cody’s current band The Departed at a time when the band seems to be struggling a little bit to get their feet under them, and you get the sense Canada is still trying to find his long-term place both sonically and logistically in the post Cross Canadian Ragweed world.
But this might also be one of the coolest things about Some Old, Some New, Maybe a Cover or Two—it feels like Canada taking a moment to reflect on his past, refocus on his roots, and ready himself for the future. This album is much more than just running through some old Ragweed material, a couple of Departed tunes, and a few of his favorite songs. There’s something unspoken between the tracks (in an album with a lot of speaking and stories) that makes you feel like you’re witnessing a catharsis of some kind, like Canada is working cobwebs out and exercising demons to set the table for where he’s going next. We very well may look back on this album as an important moment in the Cody Canada canon.
Acoustic and live albums naturally get relegated in an artists’ discography, fair or not, because it takes less effort to create them. But almost with that sense, Canada puts every effort into making each take on this album something special. At the same time, the ease and comfort level of this record is magnanimous and magnetic, like you’re sharing in the music with Canada instead of listening to a star on a stage.
Sometimes solo acoustic albums can feel a little thin and leave the ears wanting, but the sound on Some Old, Some New is full and crisp. One of my favorite moments in the album is being immersed in the low end Canada’s guitar emits during his cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” He leaves his lower strings open and ringing while working the melody with the upper ones, allowing deep resonant bass tones to engross the listener. For having such a loose theme, the song selection is pretty smart. Whether you’re a long-time Cody Canada fan, or someone looking for a good primer of his material as a place to start, Some Old, Some New is not a bad choice.
The stories and banter are what really take this album to the next level. You get Cody telling the story of how he met Jason Boland, and a recount of the moment that inspired the song “17.” You get the long version of the story behind the song “51 Pieces” about getting semi-busted in snowy Ohio (there’s a lot of marijuana talk on this album, incidentally). You get both of Canada’s sons Willie and Dierks on stage singing on “250,000 Things” and “Bluebonnets”; both songs that are written and inspired by the two boys respectively. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of the banter and bio that Some Old, Some New affords, including a monologue leading into the 2003 Ragweed hit “Constantly” where Canada says:
I think love songs should be celebrated and I think love songs should be written all the time. And I think all these people that are singing about beer and Jesus and roads and all that stuff, I think they need to stop doing that for a little bit and go fall in love for a little bit and grab a guitar and write about how much you love that person. And quit writing music about getting drunk. People get drunk when they’re sad or happy man, who gives a shit? I want to hear how much you love that broad. I want to fall in love with her.
Sure, banter and stories are not going to be as infectious as songs in the long run, but it gives Some Old, Some New a continuity and a mood that puts you right in the audience; something many live albums miss with their clean cuts between tracks. Banter makes up a great bit of this record, and you don’t need to be well-versed in Ragweed or Red Dirt lore to relate to it. There’s 19 total tracks on this record, captured at Third Coast Music in Port Aransas, TX, including two that reach over 11 minutes; a lot of material to say the least.
Some Old, Some New is an acoustic live record, but it’s not just another acoustic live record because Cody Canada is not just another artist. Dripping with charisma, it’s quizzical how he’s just royalty in Red Dirt and not the rest of country music until you realize that it is not this way because of injustice as much as Cody’s own choices. Cody Canada has always stood on priority and principle, putting family and friends and duty to the music first, and nowhere is this evidenced more than on this record.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up.
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Kellie Pickler’s 2012 album 100 Proof was like its own little country music revolution. Emanating from the unholy bowels of Sony Music Nashville, the album demonstrated Kellie snatching back creative control from the jaws of corporate music America to make the kind of record she wanted. The result was a critically-acclaimed, traditional, yet boldly forward and assertive offering that eventually landed on the tip of many music writer’s pens as the project that stood above all others in country music in 2012.
This also set the table for Kellie Pickler’s 2013 offering The Woman I Am to be one of the most anticipated releases this year. After Sony fumbled every opportunity to make 100 Proof the blockbuster it could have been in a gross example of boardroom malfeasance fit for a theme from ABC’s drama Nashville, Kellie and Sony Nashville separated, and she saddled up with the much smaller, but certainly capable and established Black River Entertainment for this new effort, far away from the trappings of her famous American Idol past, and much closer in inspiration and approach to the Outlaw legacy of country music than anyone could have ever anticipated from an American Idol alum.
Kellie, willing to focus less on the commercial flop of 100 Proof and more on its critical success, kept much of the same personnel and approach in place for The Woman I Am, including the same producer Frank Liddell. Similar to 100 Proof, The Woman I Am at times speaks very deeply from Pickler’s personal narrative. The opening track “A Little Bit Gypsy” starts the album out very strong, and similar to many of the songs on 100 Proof, it stays out of the well-worn ruts of easily-anticipated chord changes, instilling spice in the music and engaging the listener.
But as your tingling spider sense may have been telling you as you read the previous paragraph, there is a “but.” And the “but” is that a decent amount of the songwriting on The Woman I Am just doesn’t hold up to the standards Kellie Pickler set on her last record.
To start off, despite what the title of the album might infer, Kellie Pickler’s songwriting voice is somewhat buried on this project. Compared to 100 Proof where Kellie wrote or co-wrote 6 of the songs, including some of the album’s standout tracks, Kellie only has 3 co-writes on this one. What we get instead is a heavy dose of her husband, songwriter Kyle Jacobs. Overall the songwriting on The Woman I Am takes more of a professional, Nashville approach, instead of the personal one of the previous album, leaving behind that unique, signature, unpredictable flavor that made Kellie Pickler and 100 Proof such a high watermark.
Though it is the men of mainstream country music that receive the brunt of the criticism for using the same lyrical themes over and over, the women aren’t completely innocent from following songwriting formulas and falling back on crutch phrases. These revenge and “girl gone crazy” songs perpetuated by artists like Miranda Lambert, The Pistol Annies, and even Carrie Underwood where the heroine is getting back at the bad boyfriend by kicking ass and lighting stuff of fire may not be as tired as the tailgate songs, but we’re starting to get close. The Woman I Am has a couple of these songs, including the Chris Stapleton-written second track, surely slated for a single called “Ring For Sale,” and the three snaps in a ‘Z’ formation aspect of “No Cure For Crazy.” These songs are simply meant to convey attitude, and give female listeners the same dose of escapism a hellraisin’ mud song does for their male counterparts.
The Woman I Am just seems safe, like in the predictability of the songs “Closer To Nowhere” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” and though this may translate into commercial acceptance, it leaves the distinguished country music listener a little wanting. With 100 Proof the production was an excellent balance between traditional and progressive. The Woman I Am‘s production would probably be best described with a few exceptions as simply “mainstream safe.”
But it may not be fair to keep comparing The Woman I Am to 100 Proof, and the production may be more of a symptom of what the songwriters were giving Kellie and producer Frank Liddell to work with; not affording them those cool chord changes or unique themes that allow for a deeper exploration of sonic parameters, nor the inspiration from a truly original story.
Simply put, I wanted more Kellie Pickler on this album.
At the same time, The Woman I Am certainly has its moments, and starts and finishes off strong. “Little Bit Gypsy” and its progressive chord play harkens back to what made 100 Proof so cool. “Selma Drye” about Kellie Pickler’s great grandmother shows just how engaging Kellie Pickler can be when she gets deeply personal, and the songs is bolstered by a very fun, yet traditional and acoustic-driven approach. Though some of the lines of “I Forgive You” and “Where Did Your Love Go” are a little too saccharine for the deep message the songs try to convey, the messages prevail, making for standout songs. And though “Someone, Somewhere Tonight” seemed like a very curious pick for a lead single, it embodies a lot of depth and substance, and showcases Picker’s vocal strengths perfectly. Despite some of the weakness of the song matter, Kellie’s vocal performances are sensational throughout The Woman I Am.
Though The Woman I Am sort of dashes any hopes for Kellie Pickler as an artist that could crash the Music Row party from the inside out and foster a new spring of substance and roots in mainstream country music, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some good songs, and good music here. “Kellie Country” is still much better than mainstream country, and though it may be a stretch to label her an Outlaw, she is certainly a rebel, and continues to be a refreshing choice.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
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