Author Archives: Dan Milliken

Single Review: Carrie Underwood, “See You Again”

carrie see you againYou’d be forgiven if Carrie Underwood’s current hit left you a little underwhelmed. After the one-two murderoo of “Blown Away” and “Two Black Cadillacs,” the releases that announced Underwood’s ascension from superstar singer to potentially cool artist, the Narnia-inspired “See You Again” may feel like a retreat back to simpler days. Actually, with its mechanical piano, bloated chorus production, and vague celestial imagery, it almost sounds like a descendant of “Inside Your Heaven,” Underwood’s sappy American Idol single. Uh oh!

But if you can accept that songs of this flavor will probably always be part of the Carrie Underwood experience, you may find that she’s improved the recipe a good bit over time.

It helps that “See You Again” is a decent composition on its own merits, with a stirring – if safe – theme of reconnecting with the loved ones we’ve lost or been separated from, plus some enjoyable – if gratuitous – “woah”s and “oh”s.

But the crucial difference is in the performance. For all the hosannas Underwood’s huge voice received early on, tracks like this demonstrate how much she’s still progressing both technically and interpretively. Early cuts like “Inside Your Heaven” or “Lessons Learned” were occasionally mired by reedy tones, robotic vibrato, or impassive phrasing; you had the sense of a singer finding her way around her instrument. Not so for the muscular, dynamic presence who drives this song. She’s gradually growing into her preordained destiny as a country-pop diva, confidently weaving runs and slurs into the fabric of the melody, and creating fun, little Carrie-isms like her quirky pronunciation of “again,” her whips into head-voice whenever she hits the title phrase, or her impassioned (if unintentional) belting of her own name. (“I will carry!”)

Does that sound like teasing? It’s praise. You can fall in love with a singer’s voice, but you stay in love because of the distinct ways they use it. It’s my opinion that Carrie Underwood still needs a new producer, someone who will encourage her more ambitious instincts and stop putting so much bland noise behind her, drowning out potential nuances. But I’m finally enjoying the Carrie we have at this moment in time, too. There’s something there.

Written by Carrie Underwood, Hillary Lindsey & David Hodges

Grade: B+

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Freakin' "Accidental Racist," Y'all

Accidentally Racist HandshakeIn case you spent yesterday outdoors and missed it, Brad Paisley released his eyebrow-raising new collaboration with rapper LL Cool J, “Accidental Racist,” and the Internet’s eyebrows shot up into outer space.

Summarizing this song and all it entails feels, frankly, beyond me. It has to be experienced firsthand. Listen to it

if you can find a clip that hasn’t been taken down, or download it on iTunes. But here are the lyrics:

To the man who waited on me
At the Starbucks down on Main
I hope you understand
When I put on that T-shirt
The only thing I meant to say
Is I’m a Skynyrd fan

The red flag on my chest is somehow like the elephant
In the corner of the South
And I just walked him right into the room

Just a proud rebel son
With an old can of worms
Looking like I’ve got a lot to learn
But from my point of view

I’m just a white man
Coming to you from the Southland
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
But not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still picking up the pieces
Walking over eggshells
Fighting over yesterday
And caught between Southern pride
And Southern blame

They called it Reconstruction
Fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still sifting through the rubble
After 150 years
I’ll try to put myself in your shoes
And that’s a good place to begin
It ain’t like I can walk a mile
In someone else’s skin

‘Cause I’m just a white man
Living in the Southland
Just like you, I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from
And not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
And we’re still paying for the mistakes
Than a bunch of folks made
Long before we came
Caught somewhere between Southern pride
And Southern blame

[LL Cool J]
Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re living in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold, but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the South into firewood
I want you to get paid, but be a slave I never could
Feel like a newfangled Django dogging invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinking it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judging the cover, not the book
I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here

I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Coming to you from the Southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Trying to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you forget my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
It ain’t like you and me can rewrite history
(Can’t rewrite history, baby)
Oh, Dixieland
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly, I’m a black Yankee, but I’ve been thinking about this lately)
I’m a son of the New South
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
Where all that’s left is Southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee, but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)

Oof.

So, where to even begin reacting? The reading assignments have already piled up. There’s the Tennessean article by the reliably moderate, incisive Peter Cooper. There’s the quippy Twitter snark, dutifully logged at the snark-centric Witstream. There are no shortage of fiery deconstructions at sites like Jezebel. And because this is the Internet age, there’s already quite a bit of word from Paisley himself.

Of course, to longtime surveyors of country music, it may come as no surprise that Brad Paisley has released an objectionable song. Writers and readers at Country Universe, at least, have often found Paisley’s work to land with some accidental clunk, whether the subject is a woman he loves (who’s most charming when she’s screwing things up!), the music genre he records in (which could totally beat up your genre!), a societal trend he finds interesting (total losers impersonating successful guys like Brad Paisley on MySpace!), or even his entire gender (the acceptable members of which would never do something feminine like highlight their hair or, say, maintain a perfectly shaped goatee and flawless skin at all times and wear cute little modern-cowboy ensembles that hug all the right places). So really, perhaps “Accidental Racist” is just the next logical item in Paisley’s trunk o’ clunk – another sign that he just doesn’t quite see beyond his inherent privilege as a successful, talented, conventionally handsome, heterosexual, Christian, Southern white male.

But it’s also hard to throw the guy completely under the bus. He’s demonstrated that he’s at least more thematically ambitious than many of his country contemporaries, and I don’t think anyone would question his or LL’s good intent here. If nothing else, this incredibly clumsy, awkward track may inspire some productive discourse in communities that are, frankly, still hurting for it. The comparison of judging Confederate flags to judging do-rags may hurt your brain on every level, but hey, maybe we’ll wind up with fewer songs where baggy pants are used as shorthand for a life of crime?

What say you? Is there anything good to be gained from “Accidental Racist”? Is it not as bad as all that, or every bit as bad? Will LL Cool J host next year’s ACMs, or will he simply get two full performance slots? (And given that we’re wading in sensitive territory here, please do keep your remarks civil and in line with our Comment Policy.)

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ACM 2013 Live Blog

acm awardsIf you’re tuned into tonight’s show at Blake and Luke just ain’t gettin’ buy tadalafil online it done for ya, come commiserate on the state of this genre with us. It’ll be fun, maybe!

As always, please let us know in the comments if you have any trouble with the live blog client.

Winners

Entertainer: Luke Bryan

Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert

Male Vocalist: Jason Aldean

New Artist: Florida Georgia Line

Album: Eric Church, Chief

Song: Miranda Lambert, “Over You”

Single: Miranda Lambert, “Over You”

Musical Event: Jason Aldean, Luke Byran & Eric Church, “The Only Way I Know”

Music Video: Little Big Town, “Tornado”

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Singles Roundup – Band Edition: ZBB, The Henningsens, The Band Perry, The Steeldrivers, Train

zac brown band uncaged

Zac Brown Band, “Jump Right In”

“The Southern wind sings again an island lullaby!”  What a fun way to say, “Here’s the token ‘tropical’ single from this ZBB album!” But whatever. It sounds like Mario Party.

Written by Zac Brown, Wyatt Durette, and Jason Mraz

Grade: B

Listen here

Henningsens American Beautiful

The Henningsens, “American Beautiful”

The long: It’s awesome to see a two-generation family band score a hit. And the potential is there: the song has a tight melody, and they wrote basically half of The Band Perry’s first album. But they sound like a Lady A tribute band here, and the lyrics are generic to the point of parody. Sorry; I’m tired of odes to That Special Girl – that anonymous one who’s sweet but fiesty! God-fearin’ but hell-raisin’! Pretty in a black dress OR blue jeans! Country as sweet tea!  It feels like a weird, heavy-handed ego stroke for the listener, who is naturally supposed to imagine herself as this exalted Supergirl-next-door. And things don’t get any better when Superguy takes over in the second verse.

The short: It’s called “American Beautiful.”

Written by Brett Beavers, Aaron Henningsen, Brian Henningsen, and Clara Henningsen

Grade: C-

Listen here

Band Perry Done

The Band Perry, “Done”

Speaking of them, I’m digging the upgraded ‘tude. This kiss-off can’t touch the craft or creative spark of “Better Dig Two,” but it’s got a dose of the same fire in the performance and production. Hopeful about the album.

Grade: B

Listen here

Steeldrivers Hammer Down

The SteelDrivers, “I’ll Be There”

I’m missing the fire from these reliables, though, particularly on a song with so much tasty spite. It kind of plods along; I wish they’d punched up the arrangement and lead vocal a bit. But you can’t argue with the harmonies when they hit the wailin’ B section.

Grade: B-

Listen here

Train Bruises

Train featuring Ashley Monroe, “Bruises”

Ohhh, TrainI believe this is crack #3 at the country market? After the Martina duet version of “Marry Me” and that banjo remix of “Hey, Soul Sister”? So many gifts, Train. We thank you.

Actually, I’d be fine if this one did find an audience – and not just because it’s got Ashley Monroe, although there’s no easier way to imbue your record with some extra warmth and humanity. It’s just a feel-good number. The production thumps along pleasantly, the interplay of voices is fun, and the premise feels real and relatable. You can’t take it too seriously, since this is a band that routinely fills sincere songs with lyrics like “Good to see you’re still beautiful; gravity hasn’t started to pull!” or “Leaving you makes me want to cry!” or “Looooses the vibe that separates!” (…?) But there’s still a lot to like.

Written by Patrick Monahan, Espen Lind, and Amund Björklund

Grade: B+

Listen here

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Single Review: Gary Allan, "Pieces"

Gary PiecesStrong vocal, strong production, weak little song.

Not that I care much. Gary Allan’s on the comeback train, baby, and if it gets him some Little Big Town-type belated recognition, I’ll happily accept a few mediocre singles.

Because after years of laboring in semi-stardom, he may be the finest singer left standing in country music today. Even on this introspectish throwaway, which sounds

like it was bumped from the space between “Trying to Matter” and “Half of My Mistakes” on Living Hard, his combination of technical and interpretive skill – the golden tone, the rasp that scratches just the right places, the way he bounces off some words and grips into others – feels so natural that you wonder why every other singer can’t achieve it.

Set that to some nice, punchy Jay Joyce drums, and even a little “meh” factor can’t derail the listening experience. It’s not the best he’s ever had…but it’s not so bad.

Written by Gary Allan, Odie Blackmon & Sarah Buxton

Grade: B-

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Grammy 2013 Live Blog

55th Grammy AwardsThe telecast starts at 8 PM Eastern/7 Central, and we’ll be launching our coverage about a half-hour prior. We’re trying out the newfangled live blog client again, hopefully with better prep and results this time! Please let us know if you have any issues

accessing the client/the site in general in the comments section, or at our Facebook or Twitter.  -DM

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Single Review: Darius Rucker, "Wagon Wheel"

darius wagon wheelNo matter that Old Crow Medicine Show’s original track isn’t even ten years old yet. Thanks to the proliferating powers of the modern age, “Wagon Wheel” has already become a chestnut – so much so that any new recording of it is bound to feel a little stale, even a long-overdue FM bid like this one.

It doesn’t help that the talented Rucker turns in an unusually bloodless vocal. And it almost kills it that labelmates Lady Antebellum join in on the chorus. For all their skill with pop harmony, the trio sounds lost trying to navigate this rootsier ‘grass-folk territory, with poor Hillary Scott winding up particularly sour in the final mix.

But Frank Rogers’ production retains many of the original’s simple charms, and ultimately the song itself still shines through. And it’s a classic song: simple, vivid, instantly singable, lovingly stitched together from a Bob Dylan bootleg ditty. If nothing else, it sets a good example for country music in 2013, and

its surefire success at retail may inspire a few imitators – which, as Ketch Secor showed us when he first mined that bootleg, is not always such a bad thing.

Written by Ketch Secor and Bob Dylan

Grade: B-

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Single Review: Florida Georgia Line, "Get Your Shine On"

FGL shineLove it, hate it, or tolerate it, the one thing “Cruise” undeniably had going for it was a mighty hook. Not just a catchy one, either; as in all great sing-alongs, there was a universal quality to it; it captured a certain moment in the human experience. Yes, I really do think “Baby, you a song / You make me wanna roll my windows down and cruise” speaks to something substantial – kind of like “Oh, play me some mountain music / Like Grandma and Grandpa used to play” or “You and me goin' fishin' in the dark!” – or, to hew closer to Florida Georgia Line's probable influences, “I don't ever wanna feel like I did that day” and “You better lose yourself in the music, the moment, you want it, you better never let it go.”

So it's a good'un. Unclasp that magic hook, though, and everything wrong with this duo's current approach becomes all the more obvious.

First: they desperately need a new production M.O., as Joey Moi has rendered “Get Your Shine On” – as he did with “Cruise,” and has done with every other track on their debut album – with a super-loud, super-compressed, super-exhausting assault of arena-country blah.

Second: they desperately need to aim higher than soundtracking tailgate parties – or at least need to sneak some smarts and heart into that theme, if they're set on it. I really think they could pull it off, too; if you can endure this thing long enough to pay attention to the lyrics, you'll see that they've got a sharp way with details to go along with their strong melodic sense. Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley can craft songs; they just have to aspire to more than musical junk food. Songs like “Cruise” that tap into universal feelings can last; songs like this that mean almost nothing will be forgotten like so many 'shine-drunk nights.

Third: I encourage a frank, lusty detail here or there, but the line is fine between that and gross objectification. Careful, fellas.

Written by Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley, Rodney Clawson and Chris Tompkins

Grade: C

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Single Review: LeAnn Rimes, “What Have I Done”

Long lost in the torrent of tabloids, lost in the fickle four-lady shuffle of country radio, is the truth that LeAnn Rimes – whatever her circumstances – is an exceptional country artist. An artist who hit her commercial peak early, but whose creative peak is still sloping up with each passing year, as her natural talent imbibes the wisdom and weather of age. The chipper tween who Patsy-parroted through “Blue” was charming, but nowhere near as compelling as the guarded optimist of “What I Cannot Change.” And even she, in turn, sounds a little simplistic compared to the woman we now encounter in “What Have I Done.”

That title should tip off the song’s subject matter to anyone familiar with Rimes’s personal history. But that’s where the easy answers in this release end. Far from a one-note PR push, “What Have I Done” explores every gray shade of Rimes leaving “the only man that’s ever loved me,” painting a strikingly three-dimensional picture of the event and its aftermath.

It could be unwieldy. But the song manages to unfold all this reality gently, each line like a carefully measured breath in a meditation. There’s hardly a wasted word in “What Have I Done,” hardly a note of ornament. Even when Rimes curls the word “loved” at the end of the chorus, it doesn’t feel like a stunt. It feels like what the folk tradition demanded – what the song’s craft demanded. It’s as if in confronting her worst demons yet, Rimes has tapped into the life-spring of classic country: clean, composed catharsis.

Does it all still seem…a bit calculated? Of course; how could any release under such circumstances not? It also seems achingly sincere – and maybe the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. If there’s anything “What Have I Done” has to teach, it’s that the truth is complicated. We don’t get to go through life having pleased everyone, or even having convinced everyone of our good intent, or even having convinced ourselves, at times. We just get to try, tugged at each moment by the thoughts and circumstances of the day, and watch what happens. The final judgment on Rimes’s attempts remains to be seen. But as for the judgment on her art – there’s no question.

Grade: A

Written by LeAnn Rimes, Darrell Brown & David Baerwald

Listen:

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CMA 2012: Live Blog

Winners

Entertainer: Blake Shelton

Female Vocalist: Miranda Lambert

Male Vocalist: Blake Shelton

Vocal Group: Little Big Town

New Artist: Hunter Hayes

Vocal Duo: Thompson Square

Musician: Mac McAnally

Album: Eric Church, Chief

Single: Little Big Town, “Pontoon”

Song:  Miranda Lambert & Blake Shelton, “Over You”

Musical Event: Tim McGraw & Kenny Chesney, “Feel Like a Rock Star”

Video:  Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup”

LIVE BLOG

9:59 I enjoyed Shelton’s acceptance speech, nodding to his “other” jobs but maintaining his commitment to the genre. And hey, at least it wasn’t Jason Aldean. Thanks SO much for sticking with us, everyone; we promise to iron out the technical difficulties come spring award season. -TS

9:57 Say what? -TS

9:57 Entertainer of the Year: Blake Shelton

9:56 Here we go. An always-glowing Reba McEntire and Tim Allen presenting Entertainer of the Year to … -TS

9:49 Willie Nelson starts singing “On the Road Again,” and it’s like a big sigh of country relief. -TS

9:40 This Willie tribute is pretty solid so far, methinks.  I’m liking Tim and Faith’s take on “Good Hearted Woman.” -BF

9:47 Faith Hill and Tim McGraw singing onstage together for the first time in a while. Very cute. -TS

9:46 Huge ditto to that last comment, Tara. -BF

9:45 I typically would not expect Hillary Scott to fare well on a Patsy Cline classic, but I daresay she acquitted herself nicely on that. -BF

9:43 If they stop winning every damn award, I think there’s still hope they’ll be inspired to step up their game, Ben. -TS

9:43 It’s lovely to hear Lady Antebellum singing a truly great song for once.  It makes me think of what could have been :( -BF

9:42 This is the soulful, organic Lady A I used to love. But Willie’s all like, who are these peeps? -TS

9:42 “If there’s a Mt. Rushmore for country music [Willie’s] on it.”  Totally agree, Brad! -BF

9:36 It’s nice to hear Miranda say some kind words for her fellow nominees.  It almost feels like a subtle antidote to all the Carrie – Taylor – Miranda fanwar nonsense. -BF

9:34 Lambert says she doesn’t necessarily deserve the award. I tend to agree, but since this is the night of retroactive awards (Little Big Town), whatevs. Love that she personally acknowledged every single female in the category. -TS

9:34 Female Vocalist of the Year: Miranda Lambert

9:33 The ABC star cameos generally bug me, but at least they’ve mostly dialed back on that this year, and this one is somewhat country music-related. Panetierre needs to turn off the fake Southern drawl. -BF

9:33 The ladies of “Nashville” presenting the Female Vocalist of the Year award to … -TS

9:31 I would take “Wanted” over this as well. -BF

9:30 I don’t love “El Cerrito Place,” but I would have preferred to hear it over “Come Over.” -BF

9:28 Kenny Chesney singing his previous boring single. Reader poll: What’s better – “Come Over” or “Wanted”? I vote the latter. -TS

9:21 Repeat Male Vocalist of the Year win for a tipsy Blake Shelton. Expected. He had a solid year, I’ll admit. -TS

9:20 Male Vocalist of the Year: Blake

Shelton

9:20 I would have liked to hear a little more of Vince, but Kelly nailed it.  Plus this actually has some country flair to it.  Is that a steel guitar I hear? This is definitely in the running for my favorite performance of the night. -BF

9:17 Hey, I can actually hear Kelly’s vocals! -BF

9:16 And K. Clarkson’s stylist is still MIA. But if those aren’t two of the greatest voices of our generation… -TS

9:15 I’m hoping that her Female Vocalist nod (unwarranted though it may be) will give Kelly a nudge toward finally making that country album. -BF

9:11 I almost forgot about the K. Clarkson / Vince Gill performance. Stoked, y’all. -TS

9:08 Oh my… I just about rocketed out of my chair when they announced the Little Big Town win! -BF

9:06 And Lady A goes down. Very happy for Little Big Town. -TS

9:06 Vocal Group of the Year: Little Big Town

9:06  Ben:  Not Lady A, not Lady A, not Lady A… -BF

9:05 Definitely one of my favorite Underwood singles in recent memory.  It’s just so COOL. -BF

9:05 Ouch. Underwood did not nail that falsetto. But the rest of the performance was solid, per usual. Kind of glad “Blown Away” has run its performance course. -TS

9:03 So far this is actually sounding better than I expected.  The vocals are coming through pretty well, but then again, this is Carrie we’re talking about. -BF

8:59 Side note – I’m still trying to decide how much I like “Nashville,” but this version of “Telescope” is stellar. -TS

8:56 I want to be excited about Carrie’s performance of “Blown Away,” but all I can think about is how lousy the sound is going to be. -BF

8:51 Kind of wish that could have stayed an acoustic performance. -BF

8:50 I really do think there’s something special about “Southern Comfort Zone.” This acoustic version drives that home for me. -TS

8:48 Hunter Hayes wins New Artist of the Year. Alright. -TS

8:47 New Artist of the Year: Hunter Hayes

8:46 It was so great to see Connie Smith get a moment of recognition, brief though it may have been.  Loved hearing Carrie sing “Once a Day.” -BF

8:44 I dig this ZBB / Keith Urban song. Might be my favorite performance so far, outside  of Carrie and Brad’s tribute to Connie. -TS

8:41 We experienced technical difficulties and will now be “old school” live-blogging. Chime in via comments – our apologies, y’all. -TS

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