Browsing articles tagged with " Review"
Jun
11

First Aid Kit’s “Stay Gold” Delivers a Soaring Performance

June 11, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  11 Comments

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Like the moan of the steel guitar or the cut of the banjo tone, there is just something about the precision and flow of sister harmonies that awaken something in the human spirit that is uncanny, and characteristic of the highest reaches of audio diversion. Considering the long and noble lineage of close sister harmonies, marked on its path by such noteworthy names as The Carter Family, The Kossoy Sisters, and up to today with The Quebe’s and The Secret Sisters, the Swedish sister pairing of Johanna and Klara Söderberg, traveling under the band name First Aid Kit, must certainly be considered right at the very top of esteemed acolytes of this storied discipline.

The occasion of their 3rd studio release called Stay Gold sees the duo rewarded the distinction of having a major label in Columbia Records behind their pursuits; something that is strange for a act with such weight, but not unexpected when you consider that in their home country of Sweden, they are the equivalent of pop stars. However First Aid Kit wields the English language with surprising expertise and purpose, and does so in a folk and roots style that is hauntingly classic and indicative of a time only ghosts can remember. The Söderberg sisters aren’t foreign, they are other worldly, and reach into the hearts of anyone who finds the beauty in folk and primitive country, no matter what borders define their homeland.

first-aid-kit-stay-goldStay Gold captures First Aid Kit fearlessly unburdening their fears, confiding in the listener very personal matters of self-doubt and worry that are exacerbated by a world of constant change, endless travel, and the inherent travails of navigating life as a young woman amongst prying eyes and directionless paths. The honesty in the songwriting, and the sentiment that bleeds over demarcation lines of gender or situation to find sympathetic ears with most who have the patience and disposition to listen make Stay Gold a songwriting feat before any discussion is broached about the music itself.

And when talking about the music, Johanna and Klara Söderberg put on a melody-crafting clinic, endowing Stay Gold with one rich, fulfilling composition after another full of soaring, frothy vocal exhibitions that run circles around the modern age’s garden variety mainstream singers. One of the reasons First Aid Kit can concoct such astounding melodies and match them so well with story is because their range and adeptness allows them a vocal pasture much wider that most have access to.

Story and melody is then complimented by orchestration that no matter what is happening, is so splendidly and tastefully set in the background, your attention is never stirred from where it should be centered: these two spellbinding sisters. Where their last album The Lion’s Roar looked to compliment their desire to travel as a 3-piece, First Aid Kit and producer Mike Mogis pull out all the stops for Stay Gold, with a full compliment of instrumentation including steel guitar and strings, and even a 13-piece orchestra that lays behind a virtual fog bank, floating in and out of the background, aiding these songs’ natural yearning to take to wing and deliver to the listener the higher reaches of what a musical experience can offer.

first-aid-kitAnd despite all of the ethereal shades of Stay Gold, it has some splendidly grounded and playful moments that keep it from taking itself too seriously; maybe even a little bit too grounded when the sisters unexpectedly sing about about how “shit gets fucked up” in the song “Master Pretender”, or yell in a shrill moment “STRAIGHT TO HELL!” on “Heaven Knows.” The “Waitress Song” throws you a fun little curve ball too, and despite its trope-like beginning, it slowly reveals the depth indicative of all First Aid Kit material.

Concerns about Stay Gold would be that at times, whether the fault of writing or cadence, this sister duo will try to try to include too many words in a small space. It caught your ear at a spot on the title track of their last album, and it does here in the first song “My Silver Lining” with “I don’t know if I’m scared of dying, but I’m scared of living too fast, too slow.” The beat and background music of a couple of the songs, including “Master Pretender” seem to unsheathe the moody pall normally cast over their music, to an almost Paul Simon-like tribal joy that while not poor by any measure, seems a slight shade inappropriate. Also the song “Heaven Knows”, though probably being the most country-style song on the album, seemed slightly too judgmental in the lyricism.

This is a folk project first, but listeners who will be able to map the parallels between The Carter Family, The Louvin Brothers, and other important country bands will find great joy in this album.

With Stay Gold, First Aid Kit doesn’t just squeeze some Neosporin and slap a band-aid on the wound of bad music, they offer a holistic tincture that heals prolonged ailments and others you never knew you had. Consider it right beside the other high water marks so far in 2014.

Two guns up!

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Jun
8

Zoe Muth’s “World of Strangers” Should Make Her a Familiar Name

June 8, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  8 Comments

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Take a Pacific Northwest songwriting gem and refine her with the finest of care by some of Austin, TX’s best master craftsmen, and the result is the 3rd and defining studio album from Seattle-based songbird Zoe Muth called World of Strangers. Backed by her touring band The Lost High Rollers on her two previous releases, Zoe ratcheted up the game with the new album by retaining the services of well-respected producer, engineer, and bass player George Reiff, known as one of the masterminds behind successful projects from The Band of Heathens, Ray Wylie Hubbard, and many more. This pairing proves prosperous on World of Strangers, delivering an album that is both genuine to Muth’s creative spark, yet enhanced by the the respectful and well-versed ear of someone who knows how to endear those original expressions to an appetent audience.

zoe-muth-003They call Zoe Muth the “Emmylou Harris of Seattle”. Then maybe Emmylou Harris is the Zoe Muth of the rest of the world. Either way, Emmylou is fair company for comparison to Muth as a way to express the measures of country, folk, and Americana Muth purposes for her music, and for the positive, and sometimes haunting way the music resonates with an audience. Ranging from downright alcohol-soaked honky-tonk to spatial spiderwebs of subtly and string sections, Zoe Muth and World of Strangers dazzle with range and adeptness at capturing the mood present at the genesis of a song.

Joining Zoe Muth and George Reiff in this journey were other notable Austin names such as Brad Rice (Sun Volt, others) and Bruce Robison, and whatever the songs of World of Strangers called for, it was procured in the manner of piano, strings, or accordion, giving the album incredible spice beyond the savory nature of Muth’s unembellished compositions.

Many of these new songs had been in my head for a long time, and I needed a change of scenery and sound to let them find their way out,” says Zoe about the album. “This was a whole new studio experience for me, more experimental. We agreed from the start that we wanted something different, more ethereal, but George took these songs in a direction I wasn’t expecting. It worked so well because we have so many common influences. It was really exciting, how the musicians would jump from one idea to another without hesitation. We were able to capture all the emotion you hear in the songs because the band could get them down in just a few takes. I knew this was why I had come to Austin.”

zoe-muth-world-of-strangersLike the faces of children, each song on World of Strangers has something hard not to be endeared to. The faraway cry of the steel guitar on the opening number “A Little Piece of History”, the empathetic character at the heart of “Mama Needs A Margarita”, the aching in “Annabelle”, the timelessness of “Waltz of the Wayward Wind”, and the story so easy to relate to in “What Did You Come Back Here For?”

World of Strangers does not grab you by the gruff and make you listen, it’s a creeper that burrows itself into your bones. It’s not a flood that comes crashing in with waves, it’s the one that rises unexpectedly until you’re knee deep. A similar action accompanies Zoe’s voice—not flashy or even necessarily distinguishing, but slowly infectious and warm. The high artistry may be too aloof in moments for the red meat crowd, but World of Strangers still has something for anyone who labels themselves a roots fan.

No offense to Zoe Muth’s touring band that does a valiant job backing her up on a nightly basis, but the decision to go big with World of Strangers resulted in an album that should make her a familiar name throughout the roots world.

Two guns up.

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Jun
4

Jake Owen’s “Beachin’” (Review & Semi-Rant)

June 4, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  71 Comments

jake-owen-beachinJake Owen, my man. You know I love you for calling out country that’s all about “fuckin’ cups and Bacardi and stuff like that” and giving my man Tony Martinez a big break on your “Days of Gold” tour. But “Beachin’”? Really?

What’s going on here folks is now that Kenny Chesney has been put out to pasture by the country music powers that be, somebody has to step up and fill the void for swaying, stupid, sand between the toes sonnets of suburban escapism for 40-something women with skin Cancer on their shoulders to hold their Corona Lights high in the air to and scream “Whoooo!” while breathing in the smoke of their Home Depot citronella tiki torches. Kenny Chesney ruled this territory for years after kissing the rings of the Godfather Jimmy Buffett who then bestowed to Chesney the scepter of shitty beach songs which Chesney presided over for a good ten years. Now Jake Owen and others are stepping up to fill this void of what apparently is a must-have staple of the American country music radio dial.

As much as hearing even the opening stanza of a corporate country beach song can make a distinguishing music listener pucker harder than trying to down a cheap Mexican beer without lime or salt, Jake Owen and “Beachin’” makes this exercise even more excruciating by featuring him rapping, yes, rapping the verses … yo yo. And to this end, Owen delivers what has to be the worst white boy rap performance that has ever been proffered to human beings for public consumption that isn’t meant to be taken as ironic. I guess his voice is supposed to be all low and sexy, but the ultra-monotone and lifeless pitch makess Charlie Brown’s teacher sound like Loretta Lynn.

jake-owen-beachin-2And of course as one could anticipate, this song doesn’t really go anywhere. Is the term “Beachin’” supposed to be a lyrical hook that delivers some sort of payoff? Because it’s about as unfulfilling as Daytona Beach when you’re dreaming of Cancún. How did this thing crack the Top 5 on the country charts? About the only redeeming feature of “Beachin’” is the butt of the leading lady in the video. And guess who’s the producing mastermind behind “Beachin’”? Joey Moi, the architect of Nickelback and Florida Georgia Line.

I still don’t know what happened to Jake Owen’s other single “Days Of Gold”. It was pretty much terrible too, but at least it moved, had a rhythm, and was written by The Cadillac Three. There was something redeemable there beyond it being obvious bro-country pap, but somehow that one stalled at #19 on Billboard and was abandoned by his label, and this drivel is the one to become Jake’s big hit.

Come on Jake, leave the rapping to Kanye, the beach to The Beach Boys, and practice what you preach about delivering more substance to radio.

Two guns down.

Possible conclusions of the above video:

1) All a wet dream.

2) Girl gets mangled in a horrible car accident, resulting in an ultra-sappy love song.

3) Jake’s label doesn’t pony up to produce the next video because of budget cuts from the parent company.

Jun
3

Album Review – Miranda Lambert’s “Platinum”

June 3, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  47 Comments

miranda-lambert-platinumAs sad as it is to turn on the radio and hear what country music has become, it is even more sad to zoom out in your mind to a broader perspective and understand that what we’re hearing in mainstream country now is what will define country music for a generation: laundry list songs perpetrated by pretty boy entertainers, pock marked by rap phrases and EDM elements. Right next to the post-war rise of the Grand Ole Opry and Hank Williams, the bluegrass age, Countrypolitan, the Outlaw era, and the Class of ’89 will be this most unfortunate epoch of country music’s storied history that will have to be explained to future generations as either a dark age, or where the story of true country music ends.

The exception though, the counterpoint will be the females of the genre that did their best to offer an alternative, and leading them all in prominence is The Pink Pistol, Miranda Lambert. With four consecutive CMA’s for Female Vocalist under her belt and counting, she is the feminine face of country music for this current era. Few have been able to nip at the heels of the bros on the charts and in tour stats like Miranda, save for Taylor Swift who has become a consensus for the generation’s crossover success instead of a true, country-centric entertainer.

Miranda Lambert’s career arc up to this point sketched out a gradual softening of her edgy, “light shit on fire in scorn” style that won her praise for her candidness, strength, and countrified nature earlier in her career. This trend tends to be the destiny of most any artist if they want to continue to ascend the country ladder instead of stall, and by Miranda’s last album, the aptly-titled Four The Record, she had all but abandoned much of the rough-hewn style that was her original signature. Her new record Platinum, though maybe not violent or vengeful, certainly is edgy, and may not be ill-equipped to carry the marker of being called a retrenching of her early style, at least in ardent nature of some of the subject matter.

It seems when modern country artists attain the highest reaches of the genre, albums tend to not carry any underlying themes, but are simply aggregation points of singles and album cuts. And since “synergies” must be optimized for releasing singles and for tour considerations, the track lists are stretched out to 16 or so songs to compensate for the multi-year gaps in releases. This makes commenting on the albums as a whole as if they are an attempt to summarize an artist’s life or their current creative expression in a given period, instead of just a collection of songs meant to fulfill expectations of targeted demographics, a little bit silly.

On cue, Platinum really doesn’t have any root or theme. You may hope for one, or think that the one word title might allude to delving into some exploration of the human condition, sort of like what Taylor Swift did with Red—using the color as a jumping off point to expound on the virility of human emotion. Instead Miranda’s “Platinum” title track is simply about the hue of a hairstyle, and the color she hopes this album achieves from the RIAA—superfluous, materialistic, shallow things that don’t really hold any deeper meaning. Unfortunately, there’s no “Over You”.

Along with blond hair, which is referenced on this album numerous times, alcohol is mentioned in most of the tracks, including what may look like the title of a gospel-inspired song, “Another Sunday In The South”. Even before this album was released, some wondered how so much salty language ended up on the track list, including “Old Shit” and “Gravity Is A Bitch”, which for all intents and purposes, constitute two of the four “traditional” country tracks the project boasts. Yeah, doubtful you’ll be sending either of these to the old folks back home for their listening pleasure. The 3rd traditional country track, the Western Swing tune “All That’s Left” recorded with The Time Jumpers, is done so straight-laced, you might as well be listening to Asleep At The Wheel. But it is thrown into the middle of the track list almost like a token gesture to the red meat country crowd, like a penance for the album’s ill language and some of its sonic misdeeds.

Though you may think the song “Smokin’ & Drinkin’” that Miranda performs with Little Big Town would be one of Platinum‘s hellraisers, it actually comes across as the country equivalent of yacht rock, with softened edges and an 80′s adult contemporary string bed. When Miranda’s vocal track starts, bolstered by stacked harmonies from the Little Big Town team indicative of Bee Gee’s-style “How Deep Is Your Love” range proximity, it was a laugh out loud moment for this listener, exacting an animatronic effect upon Miranda’s voice fit for a Tron soundtrack.

“Little Red Wagon” is all attitude and immature histrionics, though I’m sure some females will get a kick out of it. Similar to the Carrie Underwood collaboration “Somethin’ Bad” (read full review), it feels like a feudal attempt to joust with bro-country by bringing the level of discourse down to their banal latitudes.

“Priscilla” finds one of Platinum‘s few personal moments for Miranda, but like “Bathroom Sink” which devolves into Miranda channeling Lita Ford, the song feels more like a vehicle to vent and reference mundane everyday moods and artifacts without any real story or message being conveyed beyond complaint.

“Babies Making Babies” is Miranda’s version of the Kacey Musgraves small town disillusion thread, and though Lambert’s overly-inflected drawl tends to hold this song back, it is deftly written and fairly country, making for one of the album’s better tracks. “Holding Onto You” gives Platinum one of its few understated moments; refreshingly sedated with an inviting, Motown feel, while “Hard Staying Sober” is the album’s “three chords and the truth” moment with bold steel guitar and Miranda’s sweet vocal spot being found where her alluring Southern drawl is present, but not hyped. By the time the song goes double time, you’re checking to see if anyone’s looking and cutting a rug in your living room.

Along with “Hard Staying Sober”, the album’s first single “Automatic” is another rich takeaway (read full review), reminiscent in a more warm and positive way despite the by-gone forlornness of the theme, with the tasteful chords pulling at your emotions.

Platinum commits some sins that are unfortunate, but not at all unexpected from the genre’s top female artist, but then atones for them with other worthy offerings until overall the scales are tipped slightly to the good. You’re never going to get the bold strike, the heavily-thematic sonic or lyrical opus you want from an artist like this, which would be the only way to truly engage the adverse forces in country music and attempt to wrangle control from their grips. So you just hope to get more good than bad, and that is what Platinum delivers.

Big Takeaway Tracks:

  • “Automatic”
  • “Hard Staying Sober”
  • “All That’s Left (with The Time Jumpers)”

Big Throwaway Tracks:

  • “Little Red Wagon”
  • “Smokin’ & Drinkin’ (with Little Big Town)”
  • Somethin’ Bad About To Happen (with Carrie Underwood)
  • “Platinum”

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

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The Good:

The Bad:

Jun
1

John Fullbright Sets a High Bar with New “Songs” Album

June 1, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  12 Comments

john-fullbrightPhoto: Vicki Farmer

If you see someone roll up in a rig with Oklahoma license plates claiming to be a songwriter, you’d be smart to pay a little bit closer attention these days. From country artists like Evan Felker and The Turnpike Troubadours, to more Americana stuff from artists like John Moreland and Parker Milsap, Oklahoma is spitting out songwriters at a rate that has the rest of the country on high alert and working double hard to match their output. Something in the water, something in the soil, or something in the lineage of a state that birthed Woody Guthrie, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jason Boland, and many more—whatever the chemistry is, Oklahoma is hatching one landmark songwriter after another. And not one songwriter in Oklahoma or anywhere else may loom as large at the moment as the fresh-faced farm boy originally from Bearden, Oklahoma named John Fullbright.

As the lives of most songwriters go, John Fullbright has lived a charmed one for sure. His debut studio release, 2012′s From The Ground Up found its way to the very highest reaches of industry accolades when it was nominated for Best Americana Album at the 55th Grammy Awards, and he seemed to be quickly and inexplicably, but deservedly anointed as a songwriting golden boy right out of the gate. This is great for a songwriter, right? Get all the momentum behind your back, get the industry recognizing your contributions, and get where you can put food on the table plying your craft and begin to set yourself up on a path to comfort.

Or is this a favorable destiny for a songwriter? The romantic notion of what makes great songwriting is a scene of poverty and self-loathing, depression and sometimes addiction; someone who can’t seem to come to grips with the world they live in, letting their pain express itself in soul-stirring poetry that discerning ears yearn for. They must endure, so we can enjoy, and to that end many songwriters seem to perpetually sew conundrums for themselves and makes shambles of their personal lives so they can find the next vein of inspiration; the whole Van Gogh cutting off his ear archetype.

john-fullbright-songsJohn Fullbright however doesn’t adhere to these notions in his new album simply entitled Songs, he challenges them. You could tell from Fullbright’s first album that his writing style works more from method instead of madness. It wasn’t as much the wit or the rawness that gave his writing an indelible hold on the listener, it was his ability to weave stories and deliver insight in both a poetic, and a refreshingly-understated way.

Songs finds John Fullbright talking shop about songwriting rather candidly and deftly, questioning the entire notion of where inspiration comes from, and toying with the rules and methodology that govern the craft. It starts off with the first song “Happy”, catching Fullbright wondering “Every time I try to write a song, it seems to start where we left off … And tell me what’s so bad about happy?” In the center of the album is the brilliant “Write A Song”, where Fullbright is able to enact the same effect of setting up two mirrors on opposing walls where you see infinite reflections, only he does it with words while still conveying a deep life moral. “Write A Song” song captures Fullbright at the apex of his gifts, and may be marked down as one of the best song contributions of the year. And then he ends the album with “Very First Time,” proclaiming, “I feel alright, for the very first time”; tying in with the first song “Happy”, and giving this album a cohesive theme and thread whose overall result is the shattering of the notion that songwriting and suffering are inseparable.

For a 26-year-old who must feel the pressure of fulfilling the expectations his first album set, Fullbright is positively fearless in Songs. And in between the first, middle and last song of this album that sketch the moral arc of his intended message, he entertains with wistful mentions of love, and extended bouts of storytelling, built just as much upon piano and organ tone as it is guitar, and with generally sparse, but always ample and appropriate musical arrangements that achieve the goal of highlighting the words and little else.

This is a songwriter’s album, and songwriters and people who study the craft and have patient, attentive ears will be singing the praises of this album for the rest of the year and beyond. The general population though may find it too broody and melancholic, and may find Fullbright’s voice nondescript, while still recognizing the craft illustrated and the mood set. There’s moments in this album where you can’t help thinking of Tom Waits, especially when keys are the centerpiece, or Mickey Newbury with all the extended spatial moments, and even Bob Dylan with all the self-aware and referential elements in the writing. Songs and John Fullbright are worthy of being referred to in this company, and not just from the writing itself, but from creating songs that unearth fountains of emotion like few others from the marriage of words and song.

With Songs, John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014.

Two guns up.

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May
30

Dolly Parton’s Song “Home” Should Be on the Radio

May 30, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  18 Comments

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Yeah, we say it all the time. “Seriously, this song should be on the radio!”

But seriously, this song should be on the radio.

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Ever since Dolly Parton announced what became her 42nd album called Blue Smoke, there’s been a sense this is not just some perfunctory release from an older artist, but something that Dolly really wanted to do right; not necessarily a retrenching, but something that special care has been taken towards to let the album live its natural life and not be limited by a lack of attention or love. She planned a world tour out in advance to run parallel with this album, and has seemed to pull out all the stops in making sure Blue Smoke is not just another lazy release from a legacy artist.

dolly-parton-blue-smokeCritics have been smiling on Blue Smoke left and right for finding a sensible balance between traditional and contemporary, earthy and entertaining. And that pragmatic, yet still indelibly Dolly approach is what endears the song “Home” to what is becoming a growing crowd.

Released as Blue Smoke‘s first live video, “Home” starts off with that deep, underpinned beat that while may not generated by a drum machine, is ambiguous enough to be mistaken as such. Complimented by an overlayed banjo track, these are the calling cards in 2014 for the intro to any radio-relevant country song. Rock-toned guitar then rolls in, announcing that this will not be one of the album’s traditional numbers, but a solidly country pop arrangement that aspires for a wide audience.

Nevertheless, “Home” reveals sincerity, and an authentic sentiment in the writing, told in a story very true to Dolly, however well-trodden it has been in her 60-year career. The structure of the song rises and swoons, with unintuitive, yet inviting turns, while Dolly’s voice is flawless, hitting the high notes as clean as when she was harmonizing with Porter Wagoner, with her little heartfelt warble as present as ever in the softer moments.

“Home” is certainly not a critical cut from Blue Smoke, but one that for the life of me I can’t find one reason to think it couldn’t live quite nicely on today’s country radio. The video is silly, but it’s also sincerely Dolly. There is a lot here that is very hard not to love. It may not be a country version of “Kokomo” that champions some historic popular music chart re-entry, but Sony should pony up the promo funds and see if they can’t get Dolly to crack the Top 20. Because if they did, she would.

Written by Dolly and Kent Wells.

1 1/2 of 2 guns up.

May
27

Live Review – Red Fest 2014

May 27, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  12 Comments

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Redneck comedian Jeff Foxworthy wanted to start his own festival, and that was the germination of the idea that bloomed into the inaugural Red Fest held Memorial Day weekend just south and east of Austin, TX at the Circuit of the Americas speedway—the only F1 racetrack in the United States. The sprawling complex built in 2012 includes a 3.4-mile, 20-turn racetrack with multiple grandstands and buildings, including a 14,000-capacity music amphitheater and 251-foot observation tower. This became the scene for the multi-faceted festival catering to country music-minded people of mostly the mainstream perspective, but with quite a few independent and up-and-coming bands and artists thrown into the lineup for good measure.

As new huge corporate festivals come online all across the country, Jeff Foxworthy’s idea was to make Red Fest more of a culturally-immersive experience to separate himself from the competition. Along with himself, he brought on Larry The Cable Guy, and the Duck Dynasty folks to give Red Fest a comedic wrinkle. Then strewn out across nine different areas surrounding the speedway, you could find a varied array of different activities, including an archery range, go-karts and racing simulators, dodgeball and volleyball courts, horseshoes and cornhole pits, a fully-complimented carnival midway, mechanical bulls, a military village housing charity booths and boot campaigns, and that’s just getting started. Even the most dedicated patron would have needed all three days of Red Fest to see and experience it all.

Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory

Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory in the Smoke of the Natty Light Stage

As for the music, the Red Fest lineup was built on good intentions. Big names like Florida Georgia Line, Tim McGraw, Kellie Pickler, and Lynyrd Skynyrd were billed alongside lesser-known bands from the local and national landscape like Hellbound Glory, The Whiskey Sisters, and Bri Bagwell. Think of it like the model the Stagecoach Festival in California has been using for the last few years: instead of segregating independent and mainstream music, integrating it. Yet at its heart, Red Fest was still very much a mainstream, corporate festival, built to cull every last dollar from super-consumer fans who pride themselves in working hard and spending hard.

Though asking $10 for a CD these days is apparently considered too much by many, the market can bear $4.00 for a bottle of water, $7.00 for a domestic beer, and $20.00 for parking, despite the Red Fest grounds being amongst vast tracks of Texas land with absolutely no premium on space. Ticket prices and booking fees, not album sales, are now what keeps the music industry’s coffers flush, so the entire festival experience is an exercise in wringing the consumer out of as much money as possible. Luckily, Red Fest patrons were blessed with pretty good weather over the weekend, so copious amounts egregiously-priced libations were not absolutely necessary (though many elected to over-hydrate anyway), and despite a few minor intermittent showers causing some to scurry for cover, clouds and cooling breezes kept temperatures very reasonable compared to how hot or stormy central Texas can be at the end of May.

When Red Fest let 6,000 free tickets go to military service members, it wasn’t just a sincere token of good will, it was a sign that the fest was going undersold, and they needed to get butts through the gates. Aside from the upper lawn of the amphitheater bowl, and the entire amphitheater area when the headliners like Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line took the stage, the crowd all weekend felt a little thin. The grounds either needed to be more compact, or have more people to fill them. The 1/4 mile trek from the heart of the fest to the other two stages was a little bit too much for your average patron to endure. So generally speaking, they didn’t explore the extremities of the fest unless it was for one of its extra-curricular features, or a band that they really wanted to see and already knew about, like Parmalee, Colt Ford, or Texas country star Granger Smith. Meanwhile worthy acts like The Derailers and The Whiskey Sisters from Austin, or out-of-towners like Hellbound Glory and Sundy Best played to thin crowds made up mostly of people who already knew about them, rendering the idea of turning new fans on to a different sound somewhat unfulfilled.

red-fest-2014-towerNonetheless, some great music transpired at Red Fest, and not just for those that made an attempt to seek it out on the smaller stages. Kellie Pickler put on a great set, reprising many of her most popular songs, and playing some classics, including Loretta’s “You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)” and “White Lightning” for the large audience. The two-piece Sundy Best on the Natty Light side stage performed an extended medley of 80′s and 90′s pop tunes that included Fresh Price, the song “O.P.P.”, and The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”. The rest of the set showcased their own songwriting, vacillating between fun-loving and sincere. Sundy Best needs to make up their mind if they want to be a party band, or a singer-songwriter showcase, but they’re hard not to like. Granger Smith proved that even the Texas country scene is capable of producing laundry list schock, despite how much of a guilty pleasure Earl Dibbles Jr. might be.

The Whiskey Sisters on the smallest Redfest Showcase stage converted from an Airstream trailer showed why they’re one of the best bands in Austin to see live, and Hellbound Glory put on a rowdy set, almost as if they were looking to define the extreme of the proceedings. Compare this with Florida Georgia Line, who when they took the main stage to close the fest out Sunday Night, felt like a force of homogenizing nature. Right before their set, rap music blared over the mains, with legions of self-proclaimed rednecks swinging their hands in urban gesticulations and singing along. Then the duo walked out to Imagine Dragons’ “Radioactive”, illustrating the blurred genre lines of the whole experience. Love them or hate them, Florida Georgia Line has without question captured (or capitulated) the current mainstream sound, and it’s infectiousness is so undeniable, it is a downright scary notion to stomach for the critical minority.

The commitment by Jeff Foxworthy to make Red Fest an annual event seems unwavering, despite it being somewhat foreign to the indigenous music culture in and around Austin, TX. Many patrons likely drove in from the San Antonio and Houston areas to the fest, and you saw more Aggie maroon than UT orange per capita throughout the weekend. The branding of the event called it “A New Memorial Day Tradition,” and they already are getting ready to do pre-sales for next year. Despite the first year hiccups of having the site too spread out, and prices for things more tailored to the upper-crust F1 racing crowd as opposed to a redneck festival, it went off without a hitch. Hopefully next year Red Fest continues to book bands worthy of a wider audience, and also does a better job of getting that audience in front of them.

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Red Fest Amphitheater:

Red Fest Amphitheater

Kellie Pickler on the Main Stage

The Whiskey Sisters:

The Whiskey Sisters

Sundy Best:

Sundy Best

Hellbound Glory:

Hellbound Glory

May
25

Review – Ags Connolly’s “How About Now”

May 25, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  9 Comments

No matter how much they attempt to exile the spirit of true country music, no matter how much it is scattered to the four winds, or denied shelter by the gatekeepers of mainstream music, it will always find a home and a harbor in the hearts of real country fans, no matter who they are, or where they dwell. It may be people from the American South, born and raised in the same dirt that the sound originated from. It may be in Westerners, who carried the sound with them when they sought better fortunes. It could be Northerners, or rural dwellers across the country who find camaraderie with the sentiment of a country song. Or it could even be non-Americans who spend their whole lives feeling lost and looking for their true identity before finding a home in the songs of the South.

So that leads us across the pond, to Europe, and specifically the British Isles, where so many of the sounds that went into creating the foundations of old time and bluegrass, and eventually country music originated. As many of the embattled artists still making real country music will tell you, Europe has become a bastion of support from the number of people who still believe in the traditional modes of American country music compared to the numbers of people in the States per capita. One such person is Oxforshire’s Ags Connolly, a country music fan turned singing and songwriting aficionado.

ags-connolly-how-about-nowAs he says in the song “I Saw James Hand”, “If I didn’t know I was country, then that made up my mind. When I saw James Hand, in London first time,” Such a sentiment speaks to the warmth that can fill the soul when you find something you connect with so humanly—something we’ve all experienced at some point, even when that something has been sitting under our noses our entire lives.

After studying and listening to country music for years, including a few forays over to the United States to see James Hand on his home soil, and even share the stage with Dale Watson at Austin’s famed Continental Club, Ags drew up the confidence to release his debut album How About Now. Unlike some of his British and European country-playing brethren, Ags doesn’t attempt to hide his foreign lineage, or ape country from a foreign perspective. Instead of talking about bars and beers, he talks about pubs and pints. And this type of “singing what you know about” approach makes this album something that is not just country, but that’s authentic in its perspective and approach.

Ags Connolly also doesn’t try to affectate the Southern drawl, but you can tell he’s studied styles and cadences of the country sound, and re-creates them while still staying very much within himself. Same can be said for the music on How About Now—very tasteful and selective, with strong country elements in places, while still trying to strike a unique sound for Ags alone, including a guitar solo on the song “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore” that speaks to they study of not just traditional country, but how to instill progressive elements into it with taste.

How About Now gets better with every song, starting off with a protest ballad called “When Country Was Proud”. On a few of the first songs, Connolly feels like he may be stretching to convey his premise, but then with songs like “Get Out Of My Mind”, “I Hoped She Wouldn’t Be Here”, and the last two tracks “She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore and “How About Now”, he really finds his country music groove of telling a story that everyone has lived and can relate to, though few have been able to communicate in song before.

There may still be a confidence and an awareness that Ags needs to find within himself to have his music reach its full breadth, but How About Now is better than a good start. This album also may find special appeal to other British natives and Europeans from the familiarity of perspective, enhanced by a well-versed country experience (and so it’s been said, Connolly has adopted Dale Watson’s post-country term “Ameripolitan” for his music).

Drop all the qualifiers, discounts, and rhetoric about origin, Ags Connolly deserves to be considered right beside his Stateside counterparts as one of the carriers of the country music holy ghost whose carefully-crafted songs can speak to the human heart universally, irrespective of borders.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Listen to How About Now from Ags Connolly

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May
18

Review – Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood’s “Somethin’ Bad”

May 18, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  109 Comments

carrie-underwood-miranda-lambert-something-bad“I got a real good feeling something bad’s about to happen” is the lyrical hook of Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood’s much-anticipated duet “Something Bad” which is set to appear on Miranda’s new album Platinum, and was just released as a single. And when the duo debuted the song on the 2014 Billboard Music Awards Sunday night, something bad did happen.

Much talk and hand-wringing had preceded this collaboration in the weeks after it was announced, and in the weeks leading up to its debut on the Billboard Awards. But the performance had many fans of both artists wondering just what the hell they were seeing and hearing transpire on the MGM Stage in Las Vegas. Ahead of the performance, some were calling this collaboration historic, legendary, and overdue. The idea was that the current dominant style of music known as “bro-country” had so corrupted country music’s airwaves and relegated virtually all country female performers to a lower class, it needed an antidote, a power-packed one-two punch of country music female stardom that could show the boys that the women of country mean business. But instead we got flailing hair, screamed lyrics, and a loss of melody that made the song and performance smack of some 80′s era mashup between Aerosmith and Joan Jett.

Miranda Lambert & Carrie Underwood to Battle Bro-Country with “Something Bad”

In lieu of the duo battling bro-country with the brawn of their sheer star talent and doing what they do best, which is wowing audiences with singing prowess and powerful lyricism, Carrie and Miranda stole plays straight out of the bro-country coloring book and descended into vapid and story-less rhythmic superfluousness complete with unnecessary gesticulations and other showy nonsense that illustrated how amateurish and under-practiced they are at being really bad.

miranda-lamber-carrie-underwood-001“Something Bad” is buoyed by a fun-enough and catchy “wo-ow-ow” chant that garnered some sympathy clapping from the Billboard Awards crowd and will certainly earn the studio version a few fans, but the machine-gun, pseudo-rapped Aerosmith-esque verses were anemic from their lack of substantive material. The song has a goodly amount of awkward, empty space in the middle of it for some reason, and even if all the elegance hadn’t been drained from the vocals, the key chosen and the style of the song in no way complimented either lady’s natural strengths, and made the tone and character of their performances virtually interchangeable.

With “Something Bad” it is a scenario where two big sums equal something much less than their individual parts. In fact the song offers the scary prospect that in the face of continued low-performing results from country music’s women, they will be forced to not only cross genres like is done in this rock-like and rap-like mono-genre mess, but also cross chromosome lines and start having to ape the boy’s adolescent behavior to buy attention. “Something Bad” felt like when the sweet girl next door tries to play the slut to land her beau, and smears the lipstick and stumbles in her high heels. Sure, Carrie and Miranda looked ravishing, but it was hiding a really, really bad hair day.

The studio version reveals a little more production value, but just about the same level of disappointment.

You’ll get ‘em next time girls. But this one was more rough than a peanut patty goober side up.

1 3/4 of 2 guns down.

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May
17

Matt Woods Goes Beyond ‘Deadman’s Blues’ w/ New Album

May 17, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  19 Comments

matt-woods

Back in October of 2013, Knoxville, Tennessee’s Matt Woods came out of the wild blue yonder and blew us all away when he released a single and video for what has since become his landmark song “Deadman’s Blues”. Few have ever landed such an emotional wallop to the gut like Matt Woods did with that one offering. It went on to be named Saving Country Music’s Song of the Year in 2013, and received similar praise from other attentive periodicals.

Matt Woods did what every songwriter yearns to do whenever they put pen to paper: make a deep, emotional connection with the rest of the world. But “Deadman’s Blues” was just one song. Would he, could he match it? After “Deadman’s Blues”, I almost didn’t want to know. I hate to admit it, but even though Matt Woods had been a productive artist and released multiple albums before the 3-song vinyl that “Deadman’s Blues” was a part of, I’d never partaken in his music any deeper. And for me, it seemed better to allow that song and Matt Woods to loom large for as long as possible, and not risk eroding the magic of “Deadman’s Blues” by discovering diminishing returns from rifling through his back catalog, whether that would have been the result or not. The song and video have been such a handy go-to when looking for a douse of inspiration in the middle of a given day, no sense in testing fate. So I’d wait for a more deeper Matt Woods exploration once his new album hit with “Deadman’s Blues” as the anchor.

And while we’re exercising full disclosure, I was honestly a little concerned that maybe Matt Woods wouldn’t resonate beyond the one song. I thought he may not be country enough for some reason. Matt Woods has a lot of Austin Lucas and Two Cow Garage in him—two excellent outfits, but two that trend more rock, with country and roots mixed in. And like Lucas and Two Cow, Woods works in realism more so than poetry, wrenching at your heart with real-life stories that subordinate subtly and symbolism. Would a deeper listen to Matt Woods reveal a style that was emotionally-driven roots rock with steel guitar dubbed over that I could only partially get behind?

matt-woods-with-love-from-brushy-mountainAnd that brings us to the matter of his brand new album With Love From Brushy Mountain. It only took two songs in to show how silly my concerns were that this would not be country enough, and the entire album worked to reveal that when it comes to Matt Woods and “Deadman’s Blues”, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Brushy Mountain is as complete of a country album as you will find, with excellent songwriting throughout, a great sound that is country at heart, but with sprouts of rock & roll that endow the project with spice and originality, and there’s something for every mood here. In other words, it lived up to the expectations of “Deadman’s Blues”, and even adds a few more exceptional song offerings that downright rival that song’s indelible impact.

The album starts off with two waltz beat songs, including the superbly-written “West Texas Wind” which talks about contracting rambling fever from classic old songs and living it down the rest of your life. “Snack Bar Mary and the Tin Pin Priest” shows off Matt’s storytelling side, and his ability to evoke setting in his songs. “Drinking To Forget” is more of the classic country drinking song, while another waltz, “Tiny Anchors” will creep up on you as one of the albums best tracks after seeming a little too simple during the first few listens. “Real Hard Times” is the album’s fun song, taking a up-tempo, swing approach.

I know what you’re thinking though: none of this fare sounds like something that would rival “Deadman’s Blues”. The music on With Love From Brushy Mountain is arranged strongly throughout, and some female harmony vocals really take this album to the next level as far as instrumentation and production. But what really sets Matt Woods apart—what allowed “Deadman’s Blues” to resonate so deeply—is Matt’s ability to inebriate his vocals with such authentic emotion, yet deliver them with such conviction and effortlessness. He conjures up these moments where he’s downright screaming, with the bare patches on the top of his cheeks blistering red, and his huge beard and long hair shaking frantically, stricken by the same emotion that inspired the song. It’s terrible and beautiful all at the same time, and the commiseration he can churn in the listener during these moments is virtually unparalleled.

The last three songs of this album, “Lucero Song”, “Liberty Bell”, and the “bonus” track “80 Miles An Hour” feature these definable Matt Woods moments, as well as the same heart-wrenching songwriting “Deadman’s Blues” achieved. You could even calls these songs sequels or segues to “Deadman’s”, like the memorable narrative lives on through these final tracks.

So that solves that: Matt Woods is no fluke, no one trick pony. Not even close. He’s a force of songwriting nature who can match his stories with inspired performances.

With Love From Brushy Mountain comes recommended.

Two guns up.

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Purchase With Love From Brushy Mountain From Matt Woods

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May
13

Leroy Virgil of Hellbound Glory Talks “LV” EP & More

May 13, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  16 Comments

hellbound10 copy

Reno’s Hellbound Glory has just released a new 5-song EP called LV, named for the initials of lead singer and songwriter Leroy Virgil. The album was recorded in and partially inspired by Leroy’s hometown of Aberdeen, Washington, and marks the first new music from Leroy and Hellbound Glory in nearly three years.

On the occasion of the new release I gave Leroy a call and spoke to him about the new EP, another EP he has coming out July 3rd called Folk Hero, and what opening for Kid Rock on an arena tour did for his career.

“It’s about a hour-and-a-half outside of Reno on the Gardnerville side, through Gardnerville, then you take 88 up into the mountains,” Leroy tells me about the place he’s living now ouside of Reno. “Just a little town, out kinda in the middle of nowhere. I’ve got a really great view. Hardly anyone lives around me. Just a really secluded little place out in the woods, which is cool by me. I’ve lived up here for about a year.

“Obviously I spend a lot of time out on the road. But my wife and I moved up here to be closer to her family. Just wanted a place where my kid could play out in the woods. The area we can afford to live in Reno was getting a little bit rough. So this was good for the family. My boy is great. He’s a big boy. He knows my music, loves music in general. He’s my biggest fan, and I’m his biggest fan too. Since he’s been born I’ve been stealing material from him.”

Tell us about this new EP you’ve got out, LV.

Last Halloween I wrote this song called “Streets of Aberdeen”. It literally took me like a half hour to put it all together. I wrote it, and later that night I posted it on the internet to share it, and as I started playing it more, I thought, “this has some potential.” I got a hold of an old friend of mine back in Aberdeen that I used to record with when I was a teenager who has a studio there. I just said, “Hey, would you be interested in hitting the studio together?” He’d been out of commission for a while, but he got it all set up. If you’ve heard the song, the storyline’s about an infamous murderer back there in Aberdeen. And the place I recorded it—and this is completely random, none of this was on purpose—but the actual studio is an old union building where Billy Gohl murdered all these people at. That just happens to be where the studio happens to be. So I wrote this song, and I kind of knew in the back of my mind that the studio was in the same place, but the song is about it, and it’s recorded right there. I don’t know, I just thought it was something kind of cool. I’d always heard the story when I was a kid and it was stuck in my brain. It makes for a good story at the very least.

hellbound-glory-lvThe EP is all tape, all analog studio, and he hadn’t been recording for about ten years or so. So it’s old tape equipment before they started using Pro Tools and stuff. There’s no computers in the whole entire office. And I went there and did a couple of songs with Adam whose playing bass for me, and Marty Chandler who plays guitar for the Supersuckers. They play on a few of the songs, and then the rest of the songs I just did by myself as kind of a one man band.

The “Streets of Aberdeen” song, I tried to get it recorded for a couple of sessions, and it just wasn’t coming together. It got to be one of the last days, and I knew Bryan [the engineer] had to head off to some dance thing for his wife. It got to about four o’clock and he had to be gone by five, so I just tuned the guitar down and started strumming something and I came up with this chord. And after a bunch of tries earlier, I found the right chord, I found the right tempo, and I recorded everything on the song in about an hour.

Tell us about your history with Aberdeen. Hellboud Glory is so synonymous with Reno, but I know that’s the area you’re from.

My mom moved to Aberdeen when I was about three. She met my step dad out there and I lived out there for the most part, with the exception of a couple months here and there when I would visit my real father who lived in Sun Valley, right outside of Reno. So I bounced back and forth between the two places quite a bit. At about 21, I decided to move out of Aberdeen because I wanted to go to Reno to become a big star (laughing). That’s a joke. Nobody moves to Reno to become a big star. But I moved to Reno to pursue music a little bit, and to get to know my dad. But yeah, I grew up in Aberdeen. I grew up on an oyster farm just outside of town, but I also spent a lot of time hanging out in the downtown area with street kids.

And Aberdeen is a strange town because I don’t know that traditionally you would call it a music town, but there’s all this musical history swirling around the area out there.

Metal Church is from out there, which actually Brian Smith who recorded this EP has some ties to. The Melvins are from out there. And of course Nirvana and Kurt Cobain are from Aberdeen as well. There’s definitely something in the water out there I’d say.

So why release a 5-song EP now instead of a full album a later? Do you consider this somewhat of a concept album because it’s so tied to this location?

There would be more songs if I had more songs that I’d recorded. I’ve got to say that LV is the first thing I’ve put out where I’m happy with every single one of the songs. The versions are definitive versions of these songs. Some of the past projects, I’d put twelve songs on it and there would be three or four songs where it was a good song, but I just wasn’t quite happy with the way it turned out, but I put it on there just because I wanted to get the song out. This was the first time I didn’t make concessions to time or anything.

I’ve got another 5-song EP in the can that I’ll be putting out July 3rd. It’s going to be called Folk Hero. It’s going to be a political album. A lot of the songs people have probably heard and there’s a couple of cover songs. It’s more electric than the stuff I have doing with the Aberdeen sessions. It’s a little bit more like what our live show is going to be like. It was recorded out in Detroit.

The “LV” of the EP is for your initials. How much is this LV EP Hellbound Glory, and how much of it is it Leroy Virgil?

I started Hellbound Glory more than ten years ago back in Reno. Hellbound Glory has always been my thing. It’s always been less of a band, and more of a gang. People come and people go, and people come back. Because I recorded this EP back in Aberdeen, and I recorded a lot of it by myself, it is a little bit more of a pure expression of just me. I really put a lot of myself onto the tape with it. Just trying to capture more where I’m from as opposed to where the band is from.

Have you thought about just going under the Leroy Virgil name?

I’ve actually considered it a lot. We’ve talked about it, but there’s so much momentum going with Hellbound Glory and I’ve got so many years of work into it. Within a week or two of moving to Reno, I’d written the song and turned it into a band name. So it’s been something I’m stuck with. Part of me would like a change. But it’s a great band name when you think about it. It’s good and evil, heaven and hell. As I’ve changed lineups, I’ve always called the band something different. For a while we were the Excavators, for a while I was calling it the Damaged Good Ol’ Boys, for a while to was the Damn Seagulls, so it’s always kind of changing up for me. I could see a day when it is called Leroy & Hellbound Glory, or whatever. I have no shortage of good band names. I want people to connect with the songs rather than the band name.

Every time I bring up Hellbound Glory, people ask me what’s going on with those Shooter Jennings sessions that you did out in Nashville. Is it coming in the future, is it sort of in limbo?

You know, I’d say it will probably be out someday. To be honest with you, I didn’t really bring it to the recording sessions. A lot of the songs I hadn’t finished yet, I don’t think. And we were just really limited on time. I’ve heard them, and Shooter did a great job, it was just I didn’t do that great of a job. We drove three days and showed up at noon and started playing. We really partied pretty hard. And you know, I don’t regret doing it because it made the songs better. But I just wasn’t too stoked about what got laid to tape. I love Shooter to death and I wish it would have worked out, but the songs weren’t done yet. There were lyrics on it that were half cooked. I didn’t sing all that great. But I’m looking forward to working with Shooter again. We’ve actually talked about getting back into this studio in Aberdeen.

How much does it concern you that you have songs out there that you’ve created, and maybe you get tired of them, or maybe you’re working on them, and that maybe they’ll get lost?

I’m not afraid of that at all. I like my songs. I’ve got five new ones that I’m polishing up right now. For me, I don’t want to force it in the studio. All of those songs I recorded with Shooter, they’re not off the table. I’m not going to put them out until I’ve got the right groove for them. I’m going to keep on trying. I’m always working on them. I’m still planning to get them out because I like them. I think they’re great songs.

What kind of impact did the Kid Rock tour have on your career?

It put me on stage in front of a bunch of people, and I learned a whole shitload just being around the guy. I don’t know. My life has completely changed since I went on that tour. People may not be able to see it. We’re not selling out big places or nothing. But I’ve got a nice new van, recording in a nice studio. I’ve got a really good booking agent. I don’t know. Every interaction I had with Kid Rock, I learned something. He didn’t make me an overnight sensation, but he definitely put me on the radar.

Preview & Purchase Tracks to Hellbound Glory’s LV

May
13

Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”

May 13, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  127 Comments

sturgill-simpson-banner

I hate writing reviews like this. So I’m supposed to sit here and peck out a bunch of words to convince you to buy this damn thing? … an album many people are calling a “masterpiece” and the “best album in years”? The only person’s opinion about Metamodern Sounds in Country Music that truly matters is Sturgill Simpson’s papaw—the guy that introduces this album at the beginning of the first track. And by all accounts, he’s beaming about it. And so that’s all you really need to know. If more country artists used their grandparents as barometers on quality, I could probably board this URL up and do something that actually pays.

Just go and buy this record already. I really don’t have much else else to add, except to say that all these people reciting that Sturgill is like a modern Waylon Jennings aren’t listening beyond shallow observances based on his voice. And yes, lizard aliens and LSD are loosely mentioned in first song “Turtles All The Way Down”, and maybe similar cosmic themes are touched on here and there. But I don’t feel comfortable calling Metamodern Sounds a concept album. Sturgill actually touches on a wide variety of subjects during these ten tracks. “Long White Line” is very much a traditional country traveling song, though there may be some deeper underlying themes present there. And “Pan Bowl” is a very personal account of Sturgill’s hometown. Metamodern Sounds isn’t “out there,” it’s right where it’s supposed to be.

And to all these people saying that this album is one of the best they’ve heard in years, I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with you, but I still hear much room for improvement. Then again, I’ve also seen Sturgill’s talents on full display. Even Sturgill says in the song “Life of Sin”, “And the boys and me are still working on the sound.” Sturgill is just now starting to hit is stride people, trust me. I’m half convinced half the things he does are just to screw with all of us. Once you realize that, then you really begin to unlock the true wisdom and enjoyment in his music. And before you go saying this is one of the best country records ever, understand Sturgill will likely have many more to come.

sturgill-simpson-metamodern-sounds-in-country-musicOr hopefully he will. Just five weeks ago, I got a smattering of emails from a group of attendees at a Sturgill concert that said he’d announced on stage that he was quitting music. Game over. Something about having a baby on the way and needing to “do the right thing” and contemplating moving back out West to work for the railroad again. Everyone said the show was great, but that Sturgill was moody, and left without shaking any hands. The next day Sturgill was on the radio in Kentucky for a lengthy interview, and I listened in intently, a draft of “Sturgill Simpson Quits Music” already in the works. And of course, he mentioned not a word along those lines. A couple of days later, NPR is premiering his video for “Turtles All The Way Down”, and next thing you know you can’t launch a web browser without seeing his name somewhere. Signal the all clear. Maybe it was just Sturgill’s way of getting us to not pay so much attention.

There are a few things that bother me with this album. Though the live approach of cutting the record in a few days with the band all together makes for a good feel for your recordings, I could have also seen splurging just a little bit to procure better backing vocals for the chorus in “A Little Light” and for the harmony line on the hidden track “Pan Bowl”. And here we go again with an album that has this tape hiss hampering the clarity of the recording throughout. Yes I get it, this hiss is the side effect of the “warmth” you get from a non-digital approach, and you’d rather deal with it than the alternative: a dead sound. But we’re making lots of albums that I’m afraid the future will look back on and wonder why we purposely made sound bad. There’s a balance here between analog and clarity that is being missed by some of the best albums being put out today. When Sturgill’s voice soars when he takes a chorus to his highest register, I just want to hear it without it getting corroded. Sure maybe it’s wishful thinking to even entertain this train of thought, but commercial radio will never get behind that hissey, “classic” sound.

“It Ain’t All Flowers” is the song on this album you’re going to either love or hate. Though some may think they hear turntable action and wonder if Sturgill has gone all hip-hop on us, the effects are more the result of tape playback and other audio hijinks. Not to level an accusation of predictability at Sturgill, but second albums from artists tend to include a stretching of boundaries so that they don’t become boxed into any sound that they then must be beholden to for the rest of their career. I don’t have a problem personally with “It Ain’t All Flowers”, though it does stretch out a little too long to where it begins to feel a little self-indulgent. I’ve also experienced this song live (at least I think it was this one), and it blew the doors off of the version that made it onto this recording.

Another polarizing decision for some will be the inclusion of 80′s one hit wonder When In Rome’s song “The Promise”. This is Sturgill teaching us all a lesson, and one we should heed. Every great song has a missive that resonates universally, and genres are just the clothing that make those missives more compatible to our familiarities. Sturgill and his band do more justice to this song than the original does.

sturgill-simpson-001With Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson doesn’t just capture our ears, he captures our imaginations. However misguided the notion is, most every disenfranchised country music fan harbors the idea that at some point some true country artist is going to come along that is so good, it is going to tip the scales back in the right direction. What Metamodern Sounds does is it gives the true country music listener hope beyond the happiness the music conveys. It resolves that ever-present conflict between sticking to the traditional sound, but progressing forward.

Sturgill Simpson’s first album High Top Mountain was just establishing the baseline. He was half bored with it himself by the time it was released. I was disheartened when I heard the rumors that Sturgill Simpson might be quitting music, but I wasn’t surprised. I remember sitting in a packed church cathedral in downtown Austin in March as part of Sturgill’s official SXSW showcase. It was completely quiet during and in between songs aside for the roaring applause right after each song, and after watching Sturgill play the first half dozen songs of the set, I truly wondered to myself, “Do I even like country music?” I don’t know for sure, but I have a feeling Sturgill Simpson was wondering the same thing. Then he started to play some of the songs from Metamodern Sounds, and the answer became emphatically, “Yes!”

We’re just going to have to accept that Sturgill Simpson is a weird one: moody, dark, yet slowly trending toward some version of eternal optimism and happiness even the most cheerful and balanced among us will likely never achieve. “A picture’s worth 1,000 words, but a word ain’t worth a dime,” is what Sturgill says in one of the best-written songs on the album called “Voices”, and I can’t help but feel the barb of that song is pointed at people like me that start of by telling you they have nothing to say, and eight paragraphs later, still don’t feel like they’ve given you a proper summation of their thoughts.

It’s not time yet to be making comparisons to Red Headed Stranger, or even to Phases & Stages. These are things only time and history can decide. Yet Metamodern Sounds in Country Music hasn’t even been out for a full day, and it has already reached that critical mass state any independent release can, where no matter where you turn, you find people singing its praises. Where does Metamodern Sounds, Sturgill Simpson, and country music go from here? We’ll have to see. But right now, right at this very moment, not some famous son, not some Americana artist you have to squint at to construe as country, but Sturgill Simpson, and Sturgill Simpson alone, defines the pinnacle, and what is relevant in the here and now of independent country music.  And he’s done it from the sheer strength of this album.

Two guns up.

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May
10

Review – Willie Watson’s “Folk Singer Vol. 1″

May 10, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  23 Comments

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On paper, nothing about this album should work. You can’t take one guy, and one guy only, no overdubs or band, just acoustic instruments and a cued mic and call it good. Not to mention that this is an album entirely consisting of covers and traditionals. So yeah, this isn’t Billy Bragg or Charlie Parr. I’m sorry, but that’s just not enough to hold the listener’s ear for an entire album. Or is it?

The key here is that one guy, and that one guy only is the one and only Willie Watson. One of the founding members of Old Crow Medicine Show who left the formidable throwback outfit back in 2011, Willie Watson has re-emerged with a new album and a very, very old approach to country and folk music.

Old Crow has always done very well to make sure they portray themselves as just a gaggle of guys with no real frontman or formalized positions in the band. Nonetheless, fellow founders Ketch Secor and Critter Fuqua, and maybe to an extent the later edition, Gill Landry, have always been the outfit’s most out-front members. Willie Watson was always the guy that blended best in the background, and that’s not meant as an insult, but more of an illustration of his somewhat selfless, straightforward, no nonsense approach to music. As Old Crow would descend into silliness all around him, with a strong jaw and sense of purpose, Willie would be the rock holding the entire thing together, holding steady on the acoustic guitar, acting as the guidepost for the band’s tempo and harmonies. And then when it was his turn to lead a song, it would be the more sensible traditional that kept the group grounded in its original, founding spirit.

So here he is now striking out by himself, somewhat uncharacteristic, but at the same time holding uncompromisingly to what he is as a musician. To become a solo artist, Willie Watson didn’t decide to create a more sensible approach, or learn how to be more personable and well-rounded as an entertainer. Instead he drew even further inward, took what he did and boiled it down even further to the kernel of his creative genius where he’s channeling with almost ghostly authenticity the very folk singers, country troubadours, and blues men he seeks to resurrect through his music. Stern faced and focused, he comes out and sings with such a fierceness, dedication and heart to the emotions and humanity behind the stories he’s singing about, I’ll be damned if Willie Watson doesn’t come across more like Woody Guthrie than Woody Guthrie.

willie-watson-folk-singer-vol-1Then you take the songs he’s chosen. The name of this album is Folk Singer Vol. 1 for crying out loud, and it starts off with the well-familiar “Midnight Special”. Everything about Willie Watson’s approach is so dry, you expect it to fall flat on its face as a form of entertainment. But that’s what’s so cool about it—it’s counter-intuitiveness that is also exactly what you would expect from Willie Watson solo, only even more so. There’s such a dedication that is behind this approach he’s chosen that it steals your attention and conveys an intimacy that alludes most music.

And though all of these songs have been heard by the world before, Willie Watson takes the old folk singer approach of making each composition his own by changing up the words while keeping the root composition the same. This isn’t Willie Watson contemporizing or re-writing these songs. This is Willie taking the orthodox, traditional approach of the folk singer to take what his predecessors have done and add his own spin. This is how many of these songs were formed in the first place, and Watson just carries forward that heritage. So even though this is a new album of old songs, there’s a good measure of originality gracing this project.

Willie Watson can downright mesmerize, and he shouldn’t be discounted as a singer and performer just because there’s nothing flashy to his craft. On the song “Mexican Cowboy”, he evokes some singing moments that many pop singers wish they could re-create, while the guile and sense of character illustrated in “Keep It Clean” is spellbinding.

Folk Singer Vol. 1 was produced by David Rawlings, known for his work with Old Crow Medicine Show early on, as well as Gillian Welch and his own solo stuff, but I’m not sure what his useful purpose was for this record aside from staying the hell out of Willie Watson’s way. And refreshingly, Willie and Rawlings didn’t decide to try and get all retro in the recording process and make a foggy album by using antiquated gear. It’s a classic sound, but clear and present. The cover choice of this album is very debatable though. The image of Willie Watson with his steel jaw and wide-brimmed hat is so powerful to the conveyance of his songs, it’s a shame that they showed him here missing his lid and smoking a pipe that doesn’t seem to even fit in the same mood, in sunglasses, and setting a capo on his guitar.

Simply the limitation of how many people’s attention can be held by one person playing old songs makes Folk Singer Vol. 1 hard to recommend vehemently to the wide public. But beyond the limiting approach, it’s hard to find fault or flaw in Willie’s invocation of classics from America’s songbook.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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May
8

Album Review – Nikki Lane’s “All Or Nothin’”

May 8, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  20 Comments

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What do the little girls do that grow up as distant strangers to their own time? Like homesick aliens they gather around artifacts of the past to attempt to cling to something familiar; mementos of a world gone by from which to draw some sanity to face the mad, mad modern world they’re immersed in. Greenville, South Carolina native Nikki Lane is one of these such refugees who made her way to Nashville, TN to try and find some kindred folks who felt more familiar living in the past. She took to foraging for vintage clothing artifacts throughout the city—castoffs from a world modernizing to fast for its own good—and assembling them in a little stall in a vintage store in East Nashville she calls High Class Hillbilly. It was there that by happenstance she bumped into a gentleman by the name of Dan Auerbach—famous for many things, but mostly as one half of the rock duo The Black Keys. Next thing you know, a plan is hatched, and an album called All or Nothin’ is being offered to the world for its listening edification.

Nikki Lane’s sound has always been somewhat hard to define. Her first album, 2011′s Walk of Shame was a rocking little number, just as much B-52′s as Buck Owens, and was country in the same way Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made For Walking” is, with a dollish, throwback saunter to her style. Nikki traveled around with another female singer for a while, and made quite a bit of noise in the independent music realm, even if nobody really knew exactly what to call it. Ahead of this new release, Rolling Stone decided to strike out on a limb and proclaim her an “Outlaw Country Singer” right there in the title of the damn piece. That seems like a lot to live up to for a little lady from Greenville, and not a little to quantify seeing how that “Outlaw” term has been so ballyhooed and bastardized by anybody and everybody recently. Lane’s self-analysis seemed a little more sedated and on point when she told Paste recently,

Country, it’s presented as real people singing real songs to real people. It’s not. There’s literally like 30 people behind every decision that’s made in that entire industry. The thing I love about this alt country, or Americana, whatever this world is that me and all my buddies have gotten lumped into, it’s a bunch of characters writing songs. Just as Gary Briggs from New West says, we’re ‘living’ our songs. We wrote them about real shit that happened to us. No hypotheticals.

nikki-lane-all-or-nothinSo there you go. That’s the spirit with which you should approach All or Nothin’, because that’s the spirit Nikki Lane approached it with: lay it all on the line and tell some true stories. And getting the truth out of Nikki Lane isn’t something that needs to be coaxed. Whether it’s the surprising, if not shocking honesty of sinful behavior coming from a female voice evidenced in the songs “Right Time” and “Sleep With A Stranger”, or the vulnerability presented in “Good Man” or “Out Of My Mind”, you don’t have to squint to see that these songs are the truth through Nikki Lane’s eyes.

Nikki and Dan Auerbach made the decision to go the “all or nothin’” route with recording this album using vintage gear, and this imbibes All or Nothin’ with that classic, far away, and in places, fuzzy feel. More and more we’re seeing this album-wide technique pop up, especially from big name producers like Auerbach, T Bone Burnett, and Jack White, but it begs the question of whether a more balanced approach—one that finds the sweet spot of striking a warm, vintage feel, but one that doesn’t carry such a filmy layer that’s placed between the music and the listener—would be a better fit. On All or Nothin’, both that vintage feel, and that filmy layer are certainly present, the latter more prevalent in some places than others, like the last song “Want My Heart Back” where Nikki’s voice is just so hard to hear the approach arguably hurts more than helps.

Nikki Lane’s songwriting is where the strength of her music lies. She’s flattered by the gift of a grand perspective in how to tell stories about human struggles in an engaging way, and match them up with melodies that are appropriate, rich, and addictive. Add on top of that country elements like steel guitar, along with some classic pop elements like organ, and you have a blend of influences brought to what at the heart are mostly rock & roll songs. Though Lane will veer off that path in places, like the title track, which is very much a Motown soul song the way it is arranged, or “Loves On Fire”, a duet with Dan Auerbach, which is very much a country song, so much so one may say the verse structure is somewhat recycled from the old bluegrass tune “Rocky Top”.

nikki-lane-sxsw-2014Her voice however is where you’ll either fall in love with Nikki Lane and this album, or find the magic elusive. Her natural Carolina, Southern dollish tone makes up for a somewhat limited range and power, and a subtle smokiness to the edges of her tone makes it that much more alluring. Depending on the setting, Lane’s singing can strike at your empathetic nature, like in the emptiness at the beginning of “You Can’t Talk To Me Like That” where it steals your heart, or in another very country tune “Out Of My Mind” where when the music falls out, her voice feels somewhat naked, even forced.

Most notably about All or Nothin’, Nikki Lane and Dan Auerbach team up to make some very strong independent music “hits” for lack of better terminology. “Right Time” and “I Don’t Care” are definitely those wide-ranging songs that could end up having the world humming after hearing them in a clothing commercial, without selling out their independent, authentic spirit.

Nikki Lane isn’t like many of the young, confident, defiant women of the female roots world. You get the sense she’s more of a beautiful train wreck—seesawing from one debilitating set of emotions to another, but always doing her best to translate and capture those emotions in songs to share with the rest of the world in a way that makes us both sympathize and share in those experiences, embellishing the rich textures of being alive.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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May
7

Jerrod Niemann’s “Donkey” (Review & Rant)

May 7, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Down with Pop Country  //  133 Comments

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Warning: Language

Country is the only genre of music on planet Earth where the midlife crises of its artists play out on the airwaves and populate the very top of the charts, effecting the sonic path of the entire format for all the world to unbearably behold. And right now, Jerrod Niemann is doing the country music equivalent of blowing his retirement kitty on a red Lamborghini, and showing an unhealthy, creepy interest in his daughter’s hot best friend’s after school extra-curricular activities.

To call Jerrod Niemann an “ass” isn’t even hyperbole at this point. He isn’t spreading his arms wide in a submissive pose and pandering to Music Row to do their worst with him—be damned whatever destruction it might do to his legacy or long-term perception—Niemann’s precarious position at the moment much more resembles the compromising and unsavory posture of the poor bastard that graced the original cover of Pantera’s album Far Beyond Driven. Jerrod Niemann in 2014 might as well be like that fictional, computer-generated pop star in Japan: soulless, inhuman, and completely void of free will, relegated to a malleable piece of pop country EDM silly putty for marketing pricks to digitally program and have do their bidding without any fear of human will hindering the money making process or harboring any resentment or conscience. Jerrod Niemann is nothing more than a puppet, and the iron hands of the recording industry are confidently ensconced in his orifice whose colloquial name is an alternative to the title of his new single, “Donkey”.

Don’t fall for the ruse that just because Jerrod Niemann admits that this song is stupid that it somehow absolves it of all of the inexcusable, heinous sins it commits. Forgo all of the superfluous banjo on this track, Niemann’s cadence on “Donkey” evokes hellish nightmares of a cross between a castrated Right Said Fred and whoever the fuck sang that omnipresent mid 90′s ear worm “How Bizzare”. The line “They all walk funny when they’re done riding you know who,” singularly sets back country music 50 years, and would turn Loretta Lynn into stone like Medusa’s gaze if it ever graced her sainted ears. Our Lord Jesus Christ should resurrect Waylon for the exclusive purpose of shoving one of his Flying “W”‘s straight up old Niemann’s keister to see what kind of gait his pathetic ass would sport afterwards.

The jargon and inspiration for “Donkey” comes directly from the uncultured mouths of mid-pubescent 14-year-old boys with hard on’s, and any man who ever utters the term “honkey tonkey” in his entire existence should be banished from ever feeling the touch of another woman till the end of eternity, or certainly from mentioning the immaculate George Jones or his riding lawnmover in their stupid songs. And Niemann shows just how “country” his designer drug, upper crust dance beats are when he reveals that he thinks the term “donkey” and “mule” are interchangeable.

“Donkey” is an uprovocated ass raping of the ears, and if any Niemannites come here preaching to me the virtues of this song because “country music must evolve,” I will personally take a pair of donkey balls and use them to tea bag each and every one of their bedroom pillows when they’re not looking. “Donkey” isn’t just bad, it defines the catastrophic trainwrecking of the entire human evolutionary timeline. 800,000 years of homo sapien progress brought to a screeching halt because one pudgy douchebag wants an arena-sized “country” career before his pubes turn gray. “Donkey” is a harbinger for a dark age for arts, entertainment, and intelligence that humankind is on the precipice of plummeting headlong into.

The worst song ever? I’m tired to doling out this distinction only to have to offer a revision every six weeks when some other pop country asshole finds a new gradient for rock bottom, but Jerrod Niemann’s EDM-encrusted, braying ass certainly deserves to be in the discussion for that most disgraceful of honors.

Two guns way down!

Apr
23

The Secret Sisters Shine Through In “Put Your Needle Down”

April 23, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  15 Comments

the-secret-sisters-put-your-needle-downProduced by T Bone Burnett, the new Secret Sisters album called Put Your Needle Down—the sister duo’s first record in nearly four years—was produced by T Bone Burnett. T Bone Burnett produced this sophomore effort, and lending his efforts in a production role was T Bone Burnett. T Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett, T Bone Burnett.

Did I mention that T Bone Burnett produced this album? Okay good. Because apparently that’s a more important point than who this album is by and what it’s titled, and T Bone’s name must precede this information in any copy or conversation.

It’s not that T Bone Burnett isn’t an accomplished and successful producer. I mean hell, you can’t stick your nose anywhere in the Americana realm without finding apostles of T Bone telling you how brilliant he is. The problem though is the hype around his work has become so pervasive, I’m afraid he’s begun to believe it himself, and uses it as justification to employ an extremely heavy hand in his producer capacity, relegating the artists he works with as secondary, if not arbitrary to furthering the weight behind his own name. Or at least, that’s the way it sounds.

No doubt T Bone Burnett is a towering man of music. There’s no denying his record. But that doesn’t give him the right, or make it right to overhaul, supplant, or bury the God-given sound, style, and talent the artists he works for are born with. People can come to T-Bone’s defense and say that this is the fate these artists chose when they signed up to work with him, but it still doesn’t erase the fact that the role of a producer is supposed to be one of a subordinate. Yes, the producer should guide and mentor, but the best producers in the business do not reshape artists into their own appointed image, they coax the best attributes already alive in artists out into the open to be captured in the recorded context. Inexplicably, with The Secret Sisters and Put Your Needle Down, T Bone Burnett does both.

This album shouldn’t be characterized as The Secret Sisters with T Bone Burnett. It should be couched as The Secret Sisters versus T Bone Burnett. Such an over-produced wall of serrated sounds punishes the ear throughout this album, it’s like trying to view the Eiffel Tower through a plague of locusts: You know there’s something very pretty and breathtaking there, but you have to fight with flailing arms to see, and you’re rarely allowed to relax and bask in its beauty.

T Bone Burnett’s production doesn’t seem to have any sense or respect for the time and place The Secret Sisters’ music naturally evokes; their music seems only the canvas for T Bone to do his worst. After the very first song, I was already tired of the ever-present tambourine on this album, which permeates this record deeper than a sheepdog’s flea dip. The tambourine rattles inside your skull like a ricocheting bullet; steadfast and unrelenting. I couldn’t get the iconic image of Will Ferrell banging on a cowbell from that famous Saturday Night Live skit out of my head, but replaced by a round, jingle-filled adult-sized death rattle. Mucky, incongruent moans of excessively chorus-inflected guitar tones burden this work like the apparitions that keep you in slow motion as you’re being pursued in a nightmare by an apex predator.

Am I being a teeny bit harsh here maybe? Is some deep-seated, unnecessary hatred for all things T Bone shining through and compromising my integrity? Perhaps, but I’ll tell you, despite the monstrosity T Bone constructed though his work on this album, I love Put Your Needle Down. I think this album is great—one captivating song after another. Why? Because no different than how the primitive artists of country had to fight through poor production situations when they were making the very first country albums, or in the 60′s when Music Row producers couldn’t resist adding strings and choruses to every damn song, or in the 80′s when everyone decided the best thing to do was get into the keyboard business and over-modulate the hell out of the drum signals, good songs, and good artists will always shine through. And that’s what The Secret Sisters are, and that’s what The Secret Sisters did on Put Your Needle Down.

the-secret-sistersAnd if we’re going to smear T Bone with such colorful language, we also have to give him credit. Whether it was by accident, on purpose, or despite his best efforts, on Put Your Needle Down, the sheer, untouched genius of The Secret Sisters was unearthed in all of its dazzling beauty, and captured so splendidly despite the production woes, that you could fall under it’s spell even if you had to listen through an A-bomb blast.

Sisters Laura and Lydia Rogers were born and raised in one of the holy lands of American music: Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Fertilized with music from George Jones, Merle Haggard, and Doc Watson, and singing in a church that had no instruments, their Southern harmonies were born with such a purity that can only be found in sister siblings. When The Secret Sisters harmonize, it is the sound a pining heart makes, or the sound emitted when a crack cleaves the soul. Or it’s the salve that mends the heart and soul, depending on the theme of the story their soaring voices carry.

Their first, self-titled album from 2010 was a selection of classic country-style songs and was produced by Dave Cobb–famous for working recently with both Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson on their critically-acclaimed albums—with T Bone Burnett breathing down Cobb’s neck as an “executive producer.” The Secret Sisters debut captured them in their most native environment, and in a sincere, country offering. No, my defacing of T Bone’s effort has nothing to do with him taking this album in a non-country direction; it’s that he didn’t respect the natural sound of The Secret Sisters. He could have added some rock or progressive sounds here and there, but the production effort of Put Your Needle Down was a complete whitewashing. And get this: I’m so dug in on this stance, I don’t even care if The Secret Sisters disagree.

But damn if I don’t love virtually everything The Secret Sisters themselves do on this album. Put Your Needle Down differs, and his enhanced from their first album by featuring mostly original songs. The pain and desperation captured in their performances on tracks like “Iuka” and “The Pocket Knife” evoke the plight inherent in the female condition when it’s torn and tested by the villainous priorities of men. The heights reached in the chorus of the 50′s-ish do woppy “Black And Blue” with the sisters harmonies dancing and twirling in such synchronicity, like smoke-trailed acrobats rising eloquently and unresponsive to gravity until it is impossible to discern them apart in formation, is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

One respite from T Bone the Terrible’s reign is on the subdued and simple “Lonely Island”, which if recorded 50 years ago, would be a standard of the country music song book today. It is simply a masterpiece.

And as jarring and inappropriate as the production of this album is, you even get to a point where you’re okay with it, if for no other reasons than refusing to let it ruin what was going on here beneath the layers and layers of over-production, and the fogginess that besets this album—sometimes a symptom of when a project’s mixes have been reworked too many times, especially when they are recorded on 2-inch tape to capture the “warmth” that Audiophiles love to preach about. And yes, I understand what T Bone was trying to do here: he was trying to take something classic and pure, and make it hip and progressive to appeal to a wider audience. On paper, there’s nothing wrong with that. But from a production standpoint, it didn’t work. T Bone was not the right one to try this feat with this particular project.

And why did it take nearly 1 1/2 years for this album to get to our ears? It was recorded in December of 2012, and January of 2013. I think there’s a story there in itself, if only to answer why two young women with the wind behind their backs from their first album had to wait so long for a second release.

But I’ll be damned, I really, really enjoy this album overall. Simply put, The Secret Sisters are the best female duo out there right now, and Put Your Needle Down comes highly recommended….with the obvious production caveat.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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Apr
21

Martina McBride Does What She Wants with “Everlasting”

April 21, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  63 Comments

martina-mcbride-everlastingWith Martina McBride at the crossroads that every big country music superstar knows they must ultimately face at some point in their career, where their radio relevancy is slipping through their fingers and the industry is slowly relegating them to the ranks of legacy acts, Martina does something very, very curious: she releases an album solely consisting of soul and R&B standards.

It was only a few years ago when Martina McBride was one the names on the list of nominees for the ACM and CMA Female Vocalist of the Year on a perennial basis. When her name slipped from those lists, that is when we entered this almost comical round-robin era we’re currently in, exemplified by shoehorning names into that fifth spot like Kelly Clarkson who isn’t country, Sheryl Crow who just recently turned country, and Kacey Musgraves before she even had released her first major album. After winning the CMA Female Vocalist three consecutive years between 2002 and 2004, if they could in any way justify McBride’s name being on a nominations list, it would be. Hell, it seems like just yesterday she was performing her big sentimental Cancer hit “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” on the CMA Awards. Now she seems like refugee of the country music industry.

This isn’t the first time Martina has done an album of standards. 2005′s Timeless featured McBride performing 18 classic country songs. Martina’s last album, 2011′s Eleven was championed by the Scott Borchetta imprint Republic Nashville. Borchetta has made a mint picking off aging talent from other labels, including Tim McGraw and Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood, and Rascal Flatts. However Everlasting was released through Kobalt Music Services, which by looking at their roster, specializes in being a safety net for aging talent and boasts about allowing artists to retain their rights. That’s all well and good, but it leaves Martina without the mainstream industry she’s enjoyed for nearly 20 years. Martina’s name still held enough strength to see Everlasting debut at #1 on the country charts, but with only an anemic 21,000 albums sold. I remember when Toby Keith once won the dubious distinction of having the lowest-selling #1 ever when his 2010 offering Bullets In The Gun sold 71,000 copies. My, how the times have changed.

Country music needs Martina McBride—or at least it did need her. With the showing of women in country in nothing short of a crisis, and Martina still possessing one of the most powerful female voices the genre has ever witnessed, it would have been nice for her first album in three years to be a retrenching; to bring some worthy singles to the table to at least challenge country radio’s male-dominated oligarchy to consider them. You can’t fault Martina for doing what she wants to do, though. Pardon me for mentioning a lady’s age, but she’s 47-years-old now and has been playing the game for many years. If Everlasting is the album she wanted to make, then that’s all the justification anyone should need. “You have to follow your instinct and your creative voice, and my creative voice was saying, ‘This is what you need to do at this time,’” Martina says. Though it may have been nice to see Martina challenge country’s ageism and sexism with a serious country offering, it just wasn’t in the cards.

What was in the cards was recruiting noteworthy producer Don Was, and working through a fairly recognizable list of Motown-style hits, including “If You Don’t Know Me By Now”, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted”, and Van Morrison’s much-covered “Wild Night”. What’s there to hate about these songs? Not much. Don Was brings in horn sections to bolster the recordings, and Martina of course nails every damn performance. The record is very cohesive, made to listen to from cover to cover. But they played it very safe here with these songs; very down-the-middle. No risks were taken, no “interpretations” or true liberties were made with the songs. They’re simply Martina’s versions.

There’s a lot of reasons one could find to hate on this album. Why did Martina abandon country? I’m not sure she has for more than just this album, so this may not be a fair accusation to make. Why did Martina not put out an album of original music? Maybe because she’s finally free to do what she wants, and she didn’t want to. Why couldn’t she at least given these songs some sort of a country twist? That’s a good question, but she may have wanted to stay within the original spirit of the compositions.

On paper, I wanted to take this album and Frisbee it across the room. No offense to Martina, but there’s just very little useful purpose for an album like this in regards to championing the cause of music. But listening to it, I surprisingly didn’t want to immediately turn it off. It was well done, for what it is, and Martina McBride can still sing.

Martina McBride made something very clear here: If she was going to be put out to pasture, she was going to do it her way. And it’s very hard to fault her for that.

1 1/4 of 2 guns up.

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Apr
13

Vintage Album Review – Kossoy Sisters “Bowling Green”

April 13, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  10 Comments

the-kassoy-sisters-bowling-greenWhen it comes to primitive American recordings of country music, it is Ralph Peer and his Bristol Sessions from 1927 capturing Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, and others in their most primitive state that defines the sound of what country music was before commercial concerns corrupted the purity of the expressions of America’s rural people. Even today, the simplicity and innocence embodied on those recordings sets the standard for neo-traditional country, bluegrass, old time, Americana, and folks artists looking to recapture the raw emotion and untouched virtue inherent in early 20th Century rural America.

Though they may try, modern artists will always fail to some degree to rekindle that primitive magic. Even if they get close to the sound and the sentiment, it’s only from interpretation, not from authenticity. Modern society has long since laid its indelible, spoiling touch on all of us, and that is what makes the appeal for early recordings so priceless and incomparable.

However there’s one record, newer than the Bristol Sessions, but still a vintage recording, that captures the pureness of American country music in its primitive state that has never properly received its due as a heavy influence on the modern ear and country modes.

kassoy-sisters-1Unlike Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family who were plucked right out of the American countryside and plopped in front of a field recorder, The Kossoy Sisters come from New York City; born some 11 years after the Bristol Sessions. The identical twins started singing together at the age of six, taking their cues from their mother and aunt who sung in close harmonies to old-time and Appalachian tunes around the house. The sisters attended a summer camp at the age of fifteen where folk legend Pete Seeger performed, and suddenly found themselves engrossed in the burgeoning folk scene in New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1950′s.

By the time they were seventeen, it was 1956 and sisters Irene and Ellen were recording their first, and only album from the period called Bowling Green. Helping them along was songwriter and musician Erik Darling, best known for replacing Pete Seeger in The Weavers in 1958. Irene sang lead mezzo soprano and played guitar, while Ellen supplied soprano harmony parts and played banjo.

kassoy-sisters-2Though The Kossoy Sisters were surrounded by the folk revival, much of the inspiration and compositions for their music originated farther south in the Southern Appalachians. Their focus was gospel and primitive country murder ballads. Most importantly, that innocence and purity that the world had scarcely heard since those original Ralph Peer Bristol Sessions was present in their music. The close harmonies the sisters employed also set a more Southern tone, indicative more of The Louvin Brothers than other folk performers of the time.

The Kossoy Sisters as identical twins were unmatched in how effortlessly they could sync pitch, anticipate changes, and craft harmony lines with each other. But this isn’t the only thing that makes Bowling Green a treasure of the American musical lexicon. The dark pall that lingers over their music from the Gothic, sometimes disturbing themes—many that refer to death and murder with striking honesty and vibrant recollection—matched with The Kossoy Sister’s dry, innocent, 17-year-old voices, make such a contrast that even when they sing an uplifting spiritual like “I’ll Fly Away” it seems to refer more to poor desperation, hunger, and the chronic fear and wonder that pervaded the early American experience. The paired voices of The Kossoy Sisters don’t sound like they originate from the material world, but from a memory captured in a faded, black-and-white photo enclosed in a tarnished locket clasped tightly in the hand of a dying 1800′s Appalachian settler.

The Kassoy Sisters later in life

The Kassoy Sisters later in life

After Bowling Green, The Kossoy Sisters never made another record until 2002, and why would they? They had struck perfection with their first one, and as they grew older and got swept up in the 50′s folk revival—playing at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival in 1959 along with other noteworthy festivals and venues—it could be argued they would never be able to capture that raw, untouched, and innocent sound again. And similar to many of their Ralph Peer-discovered predecessors, The Kossoy Sisters really weren’t interested in fame. They were two young women that sang for love and life, and nothing more.

The Bowling Green album received some renewed attention when the Kassoy Sisters’ version of “I’ll Fly Away” found its way onto the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack in 2000, but that song just scratches the surface of what The Kassoy Sisters and Bowling Green have to offer. It was one of the very first American country records that set out to capture the magic of a by-gone era, and was one of the only ones to truly succeed.

Two guns up!

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Apr
10

Ronnie Dunn’s “Peace, Love & Country Music”

April 10, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  34 Comments

ronnie-dunn

To do Ronnie Dunn and his new album Peace, Love & Country Music justice, one doesn’t need to write an album review, one needs to do something in between an in-depth psychoanalysis and a diagramming treatise. There’s so much going on here, so many tentacles to the current Ronnie Dunn story, and ones that reach far beyond the music itself, that it’s hard to know where to even start, or to end for that matter.

I guess the first place to start is to try and set the context of just where Ronnie Dunn is in his career, and where he came from. Because Brooks & Dunn was so overshadowed in their day by Garth Brooks, George Strait, Alan Jackson, and the other solo artists of the 90′s, and because his name was only given half credit as a member of a duo, it may be difficult to appreciate just what a mark Ronnie has put on country music. But his impact has been nothing short of towering. Brooks & Dunn sold 30 million records. Their signature album Brand New Man sold over 6 million alone. They had 30 #1 singles. They won the CMA for Vocal Duo of the Year a remarkable 13 out of 14 years between 1992 and 2006, and won Entertainer of the Year in 1996. Their career and impact were historic, and Hall of Fame worthy.

And now, Ronnie Dunn is a defector. He is one of the leading voices of dissent against the institutions presiding over American country music. He has created a loyal and rabid following of tens of thousands of disenfranchised music fans. On a weekly, and sometimes daily basis, Ronnie Dunn is decrying Music Rows ways, specifically criticizing the exclusivity of radio, the stamping out of creativity by record labels, and the way the business treats its talent, young and old.

Think about it: This is one of Nashville’s biggest bread winners of the last 25 years, and he’s now a turncoat. The quotes from Dunn and the topics he’s broached about Music Row’s debauchery are so numerous, I couldn’t even start to delve into them and do it all justice. But long story short, this is a guy that fought Nashville’s wars for a nearly a quarter of a century, and now he’s fighting against them. “I did it for 20 years, and I learned all it was was the mainstream way of doing things was just where ideas go to die these days,” Dunn said in a recent interview. “Mainstream is the road to mediocrity. And it took me 20 years to realize that. But it got to the point to where everything we would come up with to do as maybe an idea or something we thought was fairly innovative, we would get cut off at the pass. So it’s time. It felt like time to start to try to do different things.”

ronnie-dunn-peace-love-country-musicAnd doing things different is what he’s done. Ronnie Dunn is a completely independent artist now who owns his own record label called Little Will-E Records. During the CMT Awards in Nashville last summer, Dunn set up an encampment on lower Broadway guerrilla style, and as the throngs of people poured out of the Bridgestone Arena, Ronnie played three of his new songs off the album on the roof of a nearby building as a promotional stunt. No permission, no permits. He even got in trouble with the Opry for shining a light banner on the roof of the Ryman asking “Who’s Ronnie Dunn?” Depending on your perspective, Dunn had either lost his mind, or finally found it and come to the side of believing in music over money.

All of this was great. Here was one of mainstream country’s biggest stars spouting the same type of rhetoric that one may find on Saving Country Music on a regular basis. Then there was news he was writing songs and recording with none other than Texas music guru Ray Wylie Hubbard. Everything was setting up quite nicely for the release of Ronnie Dunn’s first independent record to be a sort of musical insurrection perpetuated by one of Nashville’s own, with reverberations reaching who knows how far into the dug in foundations of Music Row.

But then one little pesky problem materialized just as it seemed like Ronnie Dunn might be the chosen one we’d all been waiting for to lead country music out of its current wasteland. Despite all of Ronnie’s talk about how unjust it was that classic country no longer had a place on country radio, and how aging talent was getting pushed aside for young pups with no respect for the genre and playing music that was more indicative of rock than country, here comes Ronnie releasing songs that sound exactly like the music he’s criticizing.

One of the first songs we heard from Peace, Love & Country Music was called “Country This”—a complete hard rock guitar-driven bro-country mega anthem with ultra-stereotypical laundry list lyrics and absolutely no story or soul. I mean this thing was terrible. And I wasn’t the only one all of a sudden taking a second look at what Ronnie Dunn was doing. “Kiss You There” was another one of Peace, Love & Country Music‘s first offerings, and despite affording a little more story, it almost seemed to be walking the edge of country rap, with little EDM moments peppered throughout the song.

Sammy Hagar and Ronnie Dunn share the same manager

Sammy Hagar and Ronnie Dunn share the same manager

However promising Ronnie’s off-the-stage rhetoric had been, to say his music wasn’t syncing up with his words is a gross understatement. Remember those songs he wrote with Ray Wylie Hubbard? Interestingly one of them showed up in the repertoire of Sammy Hagar, called “Bad On Fords and Chevrolets“. Some in Ronnie Dunn’s camp wanted to revolt, but Ronnie calmed nerves when he seemed to allude that he was using these first singles almost as Trojan horses. He told everyone he wasn’t wasn’t abandoning the revolution, but that he needed to give radio one last shot, maybe to prove that even when he put out songs that were ripe for country’s new format, they would still be ignored if you weren’t in the good graces of Music Row’s major labels. “Mainstream radio does not dictate the full flavor of a multi-song CD,” Dunn assured.

So after many months of spirited discourse from Dunn through Facebook and interviews, the confounding first few tracks, we now finally get to hear the full breadth of Ronnie’s independently-released record. And what do we get? Pretty much what we got in the run up: crossed signals and conflicting messages, though a few good songs here and there.

It’s not that Ronnie Dunn is trying to take advantage of the growing anti-Nashville sentiment, similar to someone like Eric Church and other “new Outlaws” where the rhetoric seems to be nothing more than marketing and a distraction from the music. It seems much more innocent than that, like Ronnie has spent so much time residing within the system and was raised so deeply within its inner workings, that to Ronnie this record and many of its songs are groundbreaking. But when you bring a more global, a more informed ear to the project—one that has truly been versed in independent country and country protest music—it seems almost like parody.

Meanwhile the contradictions are nothing less than striking. Peace, Love & Country Music has a straight up protest song in it called, “They Still Play Country Music in Texas”.

I turn on the radio they’re mixin’ heavy metal with twang
People on TV doin’ anything for fame
I’m not one to cling to the past
But some of this new stuff burns my ass
Thank God and Willie some things stay the same

Yes, awesome! Let’s all pump our fists and praise Ronnie Dunn for speaking up! … except that numerous songs on this album are “mixin’ heavy metal with twang,” exclusively. I mean, that’s the whole premise some of these songs are built around.

Ronnie Dunn has all the right sentiments, all the right ideas and philosophies. But when it comes to his actual sonic output, he needs guidance, and guidance in a big way if the message is going to match up with the music. He needs to spend a weekend with Marty Stuart or Vince Gill. He needs someone to walk him through their record collection, explaining to him how we got here. He needs to see Sturgill Simpson at the Station Inn. Though I understand many from the mainstream perspective will hear this album as rebellious, forward-thinking, or even groundbreaking, the simple fact is that it isn’t. It is still a very, very mainstream album. Maybe it’s a mainstream album with good moments, but it’s still one that is cast in predictable turns of phrases and phrasing, and well-worn tones and textures; one that panders for attention, relevancy, and radio play.

As cool as it is to get a protest song like “They Still Play Country Music in Texas” from him, I wish it wasn’t on the album because the hypocrisy inherent in it drags down the rest of the project. Songs like “Country This”, “Cowgirls Rock & Roll”, and “Thou Shalt Not” are every bit dependent on their rock guitar riffs. Hell, “Cowgirls Rock & Roll” is one of the worst “country” songs I may have ever heard, no different than a single you’d hear from Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean, with Auto-tuned inflections on the vocal track indicative of modern Jerrod Niemann or Tim McGraw.

And look at these lyrics:

Que Paso Hey Pard Yo Yo
Play Back In Black Set Em Up Joe…
Goth Black Ponytail Ink On Her Arm
Out Here In The Way Back
Doin’ Things She Shouldn’t Be Doin Like That
Ghost Of Hank Still Hangin On
Snoop n Willie Keep Singin That Song
Brown Jar Liquor Got A Shotgun Kick
Got It Goin On Out Here In The Sticks

Then again, there’s some very worthy tracks on Peace, Love & Country Music. The first two songs “Grown Damn Man” and “Cadillac Bound” start off the record right. “You Should See You Now” and “Wish I Smoked Cigarettes” are excellently written, and no matter what Ronnie Dunn is singing, it’s hard to escape the fact that he still holds one of the best voices in the business, and came from a time when you couldn’t fake it, or let your fame ride off a pretty face.

Something else that seems to hinder this album is that it took so long to go to print. Ronnie Dunn seems to be in the precarious position of trying to maintain his mainstream relevancy, while at the same time come to grips with the new realities of his career. He wants to lead a revolution, but he wants to hold onto the last vestiges of the spotlight for one last moment. But you can’t have it both ways. There are songs on this album that could have been worthy of radio, whether it’s because they’re good enough and would elevate the format, or because they’re bad enough to be radio hits in country’s current climate. But neither will be given a chance because of all of Dunn’s sabre rattling off stage. Dunn’s plan came off as half baked, and in need of some guidance and perspective from people who really understand where the trends in music are headed.

I like Ronnie Dunn’s spirit, and I feel like there’s a kinship in his fight. And make no mistake, there are many, many country music fans who are listening to his every word about what is happening in country, because his words are rooted in truth. And because of this and a few pretty good songs, I can’t give it a negative review. But don’t get bogged down by the bravado surrounding this album. If you simply listen, you will find it is an album addled by stark contradictions.

One gun up for some good songs and an independent spirit.

One gun down for some very, very bad songs, and a conflicting message.

The pretty good:

The very, very bad:

Apr
4

Karen Jonas Stuns with “Oklahoma Lottery” Debut

April 4, 2014 - By Trigger  //  Reviews  //  13 Comments

Karen-Jonas-Oklahoma-Lottery

Our dreams can be the most uplifting, most fulfilling element inherent in the human design. And they can also be the most destructive. When realized, dreams can fill cavities in the human heart that we never even knew existed and that have no physiological parallels, making us feel whole for the first time in our lives. Or in the disillusion of our dreams, the cavities become like caverns, like sticks of dynamite were stuck in them, and the explosion of negative emotions inflicts permanent, collateral damage on our souls, leaving us with a lost connection to the very thing evolution has instilled in every one of us that pushes us forward in hopes that in the grace of history we can be measured as something more than the sum of our human parts—that our indelible mark will linger, and that somebody beyond our own time will remember that we were here, and that our mark will leave the world one measure better.

This drive is what sent our ancestors trekking out across barren middle America, and deposited settlers into the breadbasket to seek their fortunes in the tilled soil of the plains. Fredericksburg, Virginia songstress Karen Jonas sings about this in the title track of her new album, Oklahoma Lottery—how some came with heads full of dreams, and when they scratched the surface of their little appointed marks in the American dirt, they came up blank. No cherries aligned, no stars formed a diagonal pattern, no doubler hit, and no consolation prize was awarded. And so they moved on, their backs a little more bowed, their eyes a little more glazed.

Karen Jonas, whether she knew it or not, heeded the advice of the great Ray Wylie Hubbard to all songwriters: don’t just listen to The Ghost of Tom Joad, read The Grapes of Wrath. How do we know this? It’s not just from the wisdom interwoven in the lyrics, it’s from the amount of pain Ms. Jonas is able to capture in her performance. This isn’t just an inflected interpretation, but the very evocation through herself of the troubled ghosts of the story —not just wrapping herself in their clothes, but walking a mile in their shoes, and then conveying the pain she knows they felt from the aching of her own blisters.

karen-jonas-oklahoma-lottery-2Similar to how the settlers of Oklahoma toiled at the yoke without a thought of rest, Karen Jonas, after putting her pair of young children to bed every night, tip toes to the other side of the house, takes the guitar in hand, and digs, hoping to unearth the riches of song. And lucky for her and the rest of us, the ground that she tilled ended up to be quite fertile, and the result a verdant display of artistic release.

If music was a lottery, then Karen Jonas hit big. But this is no fortune to be chocked up to sheer luck. The toil, the heart that Karen Jonas put into this music and this record is eminently palpable. And it is not just the result of talent, but talent honed and refined through cutting self-criticism, study, discipline, and work.

This music starts with a girl, her guitar, her stories, and her demons. Similar to Justin Townes Earle in the way she plays the guitar in a hybrid of the clawhammer banjo style—a plucking with her thumb and then striking the strings with the nail side of her fingers—shows a refined study of her instrument, not just a rudimentary running through of chords while letting the words tell her story, with no sense of style to match up with the mood. This musical approach exacerbates the lead-heavy, almost unbearable tension that Karen is able to instill in her music. Her music aches like a broken heart; heaves and creaks like the boards of an old wooden floor under heavy weight.

Karen Jonas tells stories, like in the aforementioned “Oklahoma Lottery”, and the first track of the album “Suicide Sal” which refers to the Bonnie & Clyde saga. And then she gets quite personal, alluding through numerous offerings about her tragic, recurring frailty when it comes to matters of the heart, and men. You get the sense with Karen Jonas that there’s a deeper narrative here; a tragic story underlying all the little glimpses she gives us, but a story she never completely reveals, which once again goes into building the tension that elevates her music above the din of musical noise.

Karen didn’t just make this record to entertain us, or even to convey some expression or message. She made it to prove something, to herself and to others, that her choices, though not always right, were hers, and she was willing to take ownership of them, and redeem herself through music.

Karen Jonas is hungry. She is eager to fill the holes that still remain in her heart. This is reflected in this album, and she’s done all she could. The seeds are planted in fertile ground. The next question is, should anyone pay attention beyond her little groove in Fredericksburg, Virginia? My answer would be that they most certainly should.

Two guns up!

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Purchase Oklahoma Lottery from Karen Jonas

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