Articles by Ben

Single Review: Danielle Car, “Turn You On”

August 3, 2013

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The Motor City might not exactly be known as a hotbed of country music talent, but it happens to be the home of one talented country voice by the name of Danielle Car.  She has yet to ink a record deal, but has been actively making the rounds and building a fan following with her independent efforts.

Car has continually cited California country legend Dwight Yoakam as a favorite artist as well as a primary musical influence, but you don’t have to read her bio to guess that – it’s clear from one listen of her current single “Turn You On.”  A driving Bakersfield-via-Detroit-style production puts the listener right in the middle of the dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music as Car’s narrator attempts to drown her blues in liquor, only to stumble into a new romance quite accidentally.

But while the sonic stylings may be an open nod to the legends of California country, the fun, flirtatious melody and the irresistible energy in Car’s performance are anything but derivative.  What impresses most about “Turn You On” is the fact that Car honors her influences while still bringing plenty of herself to the project.  The Yoakam influence in particular is unmistakable, but “Turn You On” remains first and foremost a Danielle Car record.

Far from displaying the complacency that weighs down far too much of today’s country music, Car delivers a blast of spirited country fun that begs to be replayed over and over again.  The country radio listening experience would be a lot more engaging if today’s hits showed half as much personality.

Written by Danielle Car

Grade:  A

Single Review: Brandy Clark, “Stripes”

July 10, 2013

Brandy-ClarkBrandy Clark has many times shown that she’s one heck of a songwriter.  Recently, her writing talents have been heard on respectable cuts such as Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart” and The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,”  while her name appears all over the co-writer credits on Kacey Musgraves’ excellent Mercury Records debut Same Trailer Different Park.  Now we get to hear the woman get behind the mic herself with her recently released Brandy Clark EP and her debut single and video “Stripes” – a brash up-tempo number that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on a Miranda Lambert album.

The song begins with a bang, opening line “You were lying in there with nothin’ on but a goofy little grin and a platinum blonde” reeling the listener in quickly.  Next thing we know, the narrator is cocking a pistol, and we’re beginning to wonder if we’re in for a murder ballad.

But she stops short of doing the deed – not in a display of mercy or conscience, but because our fashion-conscious narrator bristles at the thought of having to don a prison uniform, with Clark singing “I hate stripes and orange ain’t my color, and if I squeeze that trigger tonight I’ll be wearin’ one or the other.”  It’s a clever and original, not to mention humorous, twist on a tried-and-true country music theme as Clark entertainingly captures the moment of catching one’s partner in the act.

Fortunately, “Stripes” doesn’t go so far as to fall into novelty territory, thanks in part to Clark’s fierce, simmering vocal rendering.  The fresh, engaging David Brainard-helmed production is a delight, with a jaunty drumbeat and honky-tonk piano lending added grit and punch to the song’s tale.

As the first radio bid from an exceptionally talented singer-songwriter, “Stripes” does not disappoint.  It’s an ambitious, energetic debut single that makes the prospect of a full-length Brandy Clark album (to be released later this year) even more enticing.

Grade:  A

Single Review: Toby Keith, “Drinks After Work”

July 3, 2013

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Looking at recent single releases “Red Solo Cup,” “Beers Ago,” “I Like Girls That Drink Beer,” and “Hope On the Rocks,” it would appear that Toby Keith is definitely in the zone for drinking songs right now.  His chart success, however, has not been quite so consistent lately.  He scored the first double-platinum hit of his career with the ubiquitous sing-along and viral video hit “Red Solo Cup” only to miss the Top 15 with both of the singles from last year’s Hope On the Rocks album.

The first single from Keith’s upcoming seventeenth studio album doesn’t exactly sound like another career hit for the two-time ACM Entertainer of the Year, who now seems to have reached the back side of his commercial peak.  But it what it does sound like is a tasteful, competent, not overly self-serious chill-out jam that will no doubt hit the spot at the end of a long, hard work day.

Today’s country radio is hardly short on feel-good fare, but it’s not always as solidly produced as “Drinks After Work,” which is smartly held together by a catchy guitar hook and some sweet mandolin picking.  Better yet, “Drinks After Work” actually manages to convey why its narrator seeks the respite of a few good beers as he mutters about his, “long day, no break,” straining to be optimistic in noting that “We made it to the middle of the week.”  Keith’s delivery makes the narrator sound every bit as fried as the lyrics suggest.  Bonus points to the writers for steering clear of goofy Blake Shelton-esque pick-up lines as the narrator casually and unpretentiously invites a lady friend to join him for his night on the town.

It certainly doesn’t hurt the proceedings that we have one of contemporary country music’s strongest male vocalists behind the mic, or that the writers thankfully bothered to give the song a melody with a little life to it.  The only major knock against the song is that it lacks a strong lyrical hook.  “It’s just drinks after work” is a bit on the shallow side as a listener payoff.  But even when allowing for that deficiency, there are still many far less enjoyable drinking tunes currently populating country radio.

It sure is good to hear a drinking song with a little heart and character to it, and if it re-gains a little commercial steam for Toby Keith, then all the better.  Bottoms up!

Written by Barry Dean, Natalie Hemby, and Luke Laird

Grade:  B

Single Review: Cassadee Pope, “Wasting All These Tears”

June 30, 2013

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While her pop-punk band remains on indefinite hiatus, former Hey Monday frontwoman Cassadee Pope attempts to re-start her career through the reality show strategy, having now been packaged into a country music star with a little help from The Voice.  Her debut country single “Wasting All These Tears” is weighed down by problems that tend to be common among former reality show contestants, foremost among which is a failure to stay out of the way of the song.

In listening to “Wasting All These Tears,” it’s disheartening to note just how irrelevant the actual song feels to the overall project.  Her performance feels extremely disconnected as she hits the notes prettily, but with little personal flair or sense of first-person authenticity.  As a listener, one doesn’t get the sense that she has any real emotional investment in the song.  As she forgoes subtlety and nuance in favor of empty belting, it becomes all too clear that this is all about the singer.

Besides the song itself being treated as a mere accessory, there’s too much clutter in the mix for “Wasting All These Tears” to work on any meaningful level as a vocal showcase.  Screeching electric guitars and murky background vocals place needless barriers between Pope and her listeners, making it difficult to even understand the words she is singing.

Unfortunately, a closer look at the lyrics shows a song riddled with odd unclear metaphors (“My loneliness was a rattle in the windows”) and trite phrases (“I’ll do everything I gotta do to get you off my mind”).  The didactic, heavy-handed treatment all but kills off whatever potency the song might otherwise have carried.

Written by Rollie Gaalswyk and Caitlyn Smith

Grade:  C-

Single Review: Keith Urban, “Little Bit of Everything”

May 31, 2013

Little-Bit-of-Everything-Keith-Urban Keith Urban launches his upcoming new album Fuse with a little ditty called “Little Bit of Everything,” written by The Warren Brothers with pop singer-songwriter Kevin Rudolf.

The energetic performance and the singalong-friendly melody contain traces of the organic quality that has marked Urban’s best songs in this vein.  Frustratingly, the effect is dampened by an annoying drum machine and a lack of a strong hook (a deficiency for which the “na na na”s don’t quite compensate).

The bigger problem is a set of sloppy lyrics that mindlessly stumble about with no discernible point.  Between Urban singing about wanting to “hang a disco ball from an old oak tree” one moment and then wanting to “take a whole box of Cuban cigars and smoke ‘em nice and slow like they were good for me,” it’s hard to make sense of what’s coming out of the man’s mouth.  At a time when country music’s respect for women is not at a high point, lines about wanting “a cool chick who’ll cook for me but still dance on the bar in her tan bare feet and do what I want when I want and she’ll do it with me” feels distasteful as well as unoriginal.

Is it a love song?  Is it a song about enjoying the simple pleasures of life?  It’s hard to tell where exactly the writers intended to go with it, but it sounds a lot more like “too much nothing” than “a little bit of everything.”

Written by Brad Warren, Brett Warren, and Kevin Rudolf

Grade:  C

Single Review: Kellie Pickler, “Someone Somewhere Tonight”

May 28, 2013

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A new chapter begins in Kellie Pickler’s career as she prepares to release her first music on her new record label Black River Entertainment.  She kicks things off with a true beauty of a song with the Dave Raines – Walt Wilkins ballad “Someone Somewhere Tonight.”

To call “Someone Somewhere Tonight” a love song feels like an oversimplification of sorts, even though that’s basically what it is.  Far from indulging in empty schmaltz, it’s a song that captures commonality of the human experience, meditating on the endlessly repeating cycles of birth and death while contrasting the different turns life can take based on a person’s choices.

Pickler’s performance doesn’t quite possess the sense of age-earned wisdom that enriched previous versions by Kenny Rogers and Pam Tillis, but her comparatively youthful take on the song is effective in its own right.  The poised, graceful lyrical interpreter who fully blossomed on last year’s 100 Proof makes a return as Pickler imbues the song with the gravitas of one who, lest we forget, has put in some hard living in only 26 years.  The arrangement strikes a balance between the modern and the traditional, while allowing plenty of leeway to let the lyric and performance speak.

It’s a compelling performance of a quality song – something far too rare in the modern country format.  Though richly deserving of a mainstream audience, such an astute, insightful ballad would hardly seem the usual go-to for an artist making her first radio bid on a new label, but this release would seem to confirm that Pickler’s pandering days are indeed over.

Only time will tell if the risk will pay off, and if the Black River promotional muscle will have any success in restoring Pickler to her slot at country radio.  But as Pickler ventures out with a new team behind her, and doubtless some increased notoriety in the wake of her recent Dancing with the Stars victory, there may be a reason to hope that “Someone Somewhere Tonight” just might bring a little substance and sincerity back to mainstream country music.

Written by Dave Raines and Walt Wilkins

Grade:  A-

Single Review: Justin Moore, "Point at You"

May 16, 2013

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A song about a narrator whose woman completes him is a worthwhile concept, so long as one avoids pouring on the syrup.  But in this case, the execution falls very flat.

“If you wanna see my sweet side, my soft side, my best side, I just point at you,” Moore sings in the chorus.  The hook doesn’t have much heft, and is not particularly clever or interesting, but the bigger eye roll is that the song spends most of the time indulging in the tired backwoods rebel shtick on which too much of Moore’s career has already been wasted.

He’s got “a rough side, a wild side at least a country mile wide,” but so, it seems, does virtually every other twenty or thirty-something male artist on country radio.  The one-dimensional lyrics make Moore seem like a caricature, and when you add a brash, over-the-top country-rock production, the single seems to exemplify all of Moore’s most irritating tendencies as a recording artist.

It’s not as obnoxious as, say, “Bait a Hook,” but it’s also devoid of the earnestness of “‘Til My Last Day.”  “Point at You” is just overly loud and entirely uninteresting.

Written by Rhett Akins, Ross Copperman, and Ben Hayslip

Grade:  C-

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Win a Copy of Randy Rogers Band’s Trouble

May 1, 2013

Randy Rogers Band TroubleUPDATE:  Contest closed.  Congratulations to winner Brandy!

Texas Country group the Randy Rogers Band has a new album out today called Trouble, and Country Universe has gotten a hold of one copy to give away to a reader.

Trouble is the Randy Rogers Band’s eighth studio album overall, and second release on MCA Nashville.  The album includes their new single “Fuzzy” as well as last year’s Top 40 hit “One More Sad Song.”

To enter the giveaway, leave a comment below telling us your favorite song the Randy Rogers Band has recorded.  A winner will be chosen via random number generator, so be sure to include a valid email address.  The contest will close on Saturday, May 4, at 11:59 p.m. Eastern/ 11:00 Central.

Single Review: Scotty McCreery, “See You Tonight”

April 24, 2013

See-You-Tonight-scotty-mccreeryScotty McCreery has stated in interviews that his main goal with his upcoming second album is to get a Top 10 radio hit.  First single “See You Tonight” makes that goal a little too obvious.

McCreery makes his songwriting debut on “See You Tonight” – a song which aspires to be nothing more than radio fluff, and doesn’t even work on that level.  A great hook is an important component of enjoyable radio fluff, but the hook of “Girl, I gotta see you tonight” is weak and forgettable.

The single largely abandons the moderate traditionalist bent of McCreery’s debut album, with a polished-to-a-fault contemporary arrangement and pounding guitars taking its place.  Though McCreery is a technically proficient singer, his performance does little to cut through the stink of pandering that hangs over the whole project.

Scotty McCreery may have strong voice, but his artistic potential will not be realized as long as he keeps shamelessly chasing radio.

Written by Ashley Gorley and Scotty McCreery

Grade:  C

Listen:  See You Tonight

Album Review: The Mavericks, <em>In Time</em>

April 20, 2013

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The Mavericks
In Time

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A reminder of the magic that can happen when a strong lyric meets a fresh, engaging production and a vocal performance that cuts right to the bone.

Founded in 1989, The Mavericks enjoyed a successful run on MCA Records in the mid-nineties.  Though radio was generally lukewarm toward their efforts, that didn’t stop The Mavericks from quietly building a formidable fan following, selling gold and platinum at retail, and famously winning the 1996 CMA Vocal Group trophy without ever reaching the Top 10 at radio.  In Time marks the now-reformed band’s first new album in the ten years since their 2003 disbandment, as well as their first release since signing with Scott Borchetta’s Valory label.

Though The Mavericks have long been filed under the “Country” label, In Time, like much of the group's past work, is a melting pot of genre stylings, incorporating, country, classic 1950s pop, and a heavy flavoring of Latin and Tex-mex influence.  The inimitable vocals of Raul Malo

continue to be the group’s most definitive feature, but The Mavericks still maintain their function as a group, with each member’s individual talents given ample spotlight, and with the arrangements incorporating everything from mariachi trumpets to surf guitar to pedal steel, there's hardly a dull moment to be found.  Malo supplies a solid set of self-written material, taking writing credits on every track and collaborating with the likes of Gary Nicholson, Bob DiPiero, James House, and Al Anderson (who co-wrote The Mavericks highest-charting single, 1995's “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down”).

There's a sense of restless excitement evident on even the most melancholy of material, and the best tracks practically boil over with energy and urgency.  “Come Unto Me” demands to be heard with a swelling melody, forceful performance on Malo’s part, and an aggressive stop-and-start rhythm, no doubt making it nearly impossible for the narrator’s love interest to resist the titular come-hither call.  The jaunty organ-driven arrangement of opening track and second single “Back In Your Arms Again” almost makes the listener wonder if the narrator is bemoaning his on-again-off-again lover's hold over him, or celebrating it.

Conversely, the band is able to utilize a less-is-more approach with equal efficacy, best  exemplified in the sorrowful ballad “In Another’s Arm,” in which Malo’s evocative delivery fills out every nook of the bare-boned arrangement.  Malo almost sounds like a male Patsy Cline on the regret-filled countrypolitan-tinged “Forgive Me,” while “That's Not My Name” lightly plugs along in a manner that seems to mirror the defeat of its downtrodden narrator.  The penultimate track, “(Call Me) When You Get to Heaven” is over eight minutes long, but the smooth tango groove is so absorbing that one hardly notices, after which the set closes with a rousing Spanish version of “Come Unto Me” (“Ven Hacia Mi”).

“Lies” is slightly less satisfying, as the melody doesn't quite match the punch of the songwriting and performance, but it ultimately pales only in comparison to its glorious counterparts.

It’s anybody’s guess how long The Mavericks will stay together this time, but the longer the better.  In Time is a richly rewarding set that deserves to be mentioned in any discussion of the year's best albums – another fine Mavericks album which we have every reason to believe will age just as gracefully as its predecessors.

Top Tracks:  “Back In Your Arms Again,” “Come Unto Me,” “In Another's Arms”

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