Author Archives: Jonathan Keefe

Single Review: Lee Ann Womack, “The Way I’m Livin’”

Lee Ann Womack The Way I'm Livin'It’s always fascinating to see how a recording artist responds once her days as a consistent hit-maker have passed: While some chase the latest trends in an effort to remain commercially relevant, others embrace their newfound creative freedom and challenge themselves to add something meaningful to both their own artistic legacy and to the country genre itself.

With “The Way I’m Livin’,” the title track to her first album in six years, it’s apparent that Lee Ann Womack has taken the latter route.

For the better part of twenty years, Womack has been one of country’s most distinctive vocal stylists, thanks to her languid sense of phrasing and deceptively sweet vocal tone. On “The Way I’m Livin’,” Womack uses her instrument in entirely new ways. Shortening her vowels and clipping individual phrases, she brings a worldly, damaged point-of-view to the song’s sordid tale of “lyin’ and a’sinnin’.” Not even her feisty readings of standout hits “Ashes by Now” and “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger” hinted at her capacity for wallowing in vice the way she does here, and it’s downright revelatory.

Beyond the stellar vocal turn, though, what makes “The Way I’m Livin’” one of Womack’s finest singles is the complexity of the song itself. The imagery of the opening stanza, wherein Womack sings of meeting the Devil on the roadside and succumbing to temptation, may be familiar, but songwriter Adam Wright ensures that those images are fraught with implication. Whatever was in that “bottle of something sweet” the Devil may have offered, it was stronger than any Schnapps or other candied liqueur, and it set Womack’s protagonist on a wayward path.

Plenty of contemporary country songs, though, find women donning bad-girl drag. “The Way I’m Livin’” isn’t so one-dimensional. Too aware of both earthly and eternal forms of damnation to make for a braggart’s confession, the song is also too unapologetic to scan as a proper cautionary tale. The best Wright allows Womack to do is tell her mama not to worry, since she neither wants to nor can be saved. As the blues riffs and thundering percussion build behind her, Womack insists that, “If I ever get to Heaven, it’s a doggone shame.” She’s a woman in full control of her decisions, and she’ll be damned if she’ll hate herself in the morning.

Written by Adam Wright

Grade: A

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Single Review: Chase Rice, “Ready Set Roll”

He may have been the runner-up on one of the weakest seasons of Survivor (finishing second to
this strategic powerhouse), but Chase Rice has beaten tough competition from the likes of Jason Aldean’s “1994,” Parmalee’s “Carolina,” Ashton Shepherd’s “This is America,” Blake Shelton’s “Boys Round Here,” Krystal Keith’s “Daddy Dance with Me,” and Luke Bryan’s “That’s My Kind of Night” for the title of 2013′s worst country single.

For all of the countless complaints about the rise of “bro country” during the past year, what much of the criticism of this trend has ignored is its fundamental anonymity. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the notion of songs that champion tailgate parties or casual weekend hookups, as the kinds of experiences characterized in songs like Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” or “Ready Set Roll” are familiar to an audience that is not insignificant in size or purchasing power.

The problem, then, with this glut of frat-boys in their Ed Hardy gear and pick-ups– and what Rice and “Ready Set Roll” epitomize– is their interchangeability. Rice and his co-writers (usual suspects Rhett Akins and Chris Destefano) write almost entirely in clichés (“Yeah, we can run this town / I can rock your world / We can roll ‘em down, fog ‘em up / Cruise around and get stuck”), such that none of the experiences they’ve written about here are the least bit distinctive. But for a deeply gross line that goes farther in the objectification of women than do most songs of this ilk (“Get ya fine little ass on the step / Shimmy up inside / And slide girl, by my side girl”), there isn’t a single line in “Ready Set Roll” that couldn’t be exchanged word-for-word with lines from “Cruise” or Jake Owen’s “Days of Gold” or Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It” or Eric Paslay’s “Friday Night” without changing those songs in any meaningful or even noticeable way.

Setting aside the shallowness of the subject matter and Rice’s struggles with even basic syntax, it’s that lack of any discernible point-of-view that makes “Ready Set Roll” such appalling poor songwriting, the nadir of a trend that has quite rightly drawn the ire of those who value country music for its history of distinctive narratives, personal insight, and pure escapism that is still respectful of both craft and its audience.

And, thanks to a dated, cheap-sounding production job and Rice’s limited vocal ability, “Ready Set Roll” doesn’t even work as a throwaway, escapist single. The use of a digitized text-reader voice to bookend the single is jarring and adds nothing of value to the track. The most pedestrian of hip-hop beats drowns out the requisite handful of rote country signifiers, and the mixing sounds like it was made on a circa-2004 version of Winamp.

As he sort-of-raps his way through the track, Rice affects a throaty growl that unfavorably recalls Brantley Gilbert, and he dutifully emphasizes every syllable on the 2 and 4 counts without regard for whether or not native speakers of American English would emphasize those syllables. As co-writer for “Cruise,” Rice proved that he might be capable of writing a memorable hook, but there’s not one thing he and his alliance of bros do well on “Ready Set Roll.”

Written by Chase Rice, Rhett Akins, and Chris Destephano

Grade: F

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Single Review: Lady Antebellum, "Downtown"

lady antebellum downtownCredit where credit is due:  After a run of two full albums’ worth of singles that were each exponentially more tepid than the last, Lady Antebellum realized the urgent need for a course correction. “Downtown,” the lead single for the trio’s fourth album, may not be a return to the roots-rock sound of their promising debut, but it’s a definite, deliberate shift in style from the somnolent lite-AC pap that had become their signature. Lady A needed to do something different, and “Downtown” certainly is.

But the simple fact that something is “different” doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily “good” on its own merits. To that end, “Downtown” has a handful of important things working in its favor, but it’s debatable whether or not Lady A have gotten enough right here to overcome some serious flaws.

What’s most effective about “Downtown” is the way Lady Antebellum and co-producer Paul Worley emphasize its rhythm track. The single has an actual pulse in a way that brings the dreariness of “Hello World” and “Just a Kiss” into sharp relief, and the clever use of syncopation gives the chorus a strut and a swagger that are well-matched to the idea of going out to be seen. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to show off a little, a point that the fantastic Telecaster and steel guitar riffs in the song’s instrumental break really drive home. It’s a nifty and thoroughly unexpected flourish that highlights the lack of character in so much of the trio’s recent output and that makes the production on “Downtown” seem all the more purposeful and thoughtful.

It’s a shame, then, that the songwriting isn’t nearly so sharp. Lady A have often struggled to find a consistent artistic voice, so it doesn’t help their cause that the narrator in “Downtown” can’t stick to a coherent POV, reminiscing about never “dress[ing] to impress all the others” and the virtues of a “laid-back style” in the first verse before singing about her “platforms sitting in the corner” and “a dress that’ll show a little”  just a few lines later.

The trio’s dire self-seriousness has also been a problem– has a group of twenty-somethings ever seemed like better potential AARP spokespeople?– so when a night on the town consists of “smok[ing] while we were jaywalking,” it isn’t frivolous or youthful so much as quaint. When the narrator asks, “I don’t know why you don’t take me downtown,” and then sighs, “I just don’t get it,” at the end of the song, she may have already answered her own question several times over. And if there’s supposed to be some sort of double entendre to “going downtown,” it’s even more underwritten than the “motorboatin’” bit from Little Big Town’s “Pontoon.”  At least the single’s vibrant cover art, which

nods toward the B-52s, is kind of fun.

An even greater problem with “Downtown” is Hillary Scott’s lead vocal performance. She isn’t noticeably off-pitch for what seems like the first time in ages, but her attempt at a coy delivery still falls entirely flat. To her credit, it’s a logical choice of interpretation for the song, but her clipped phrasing, constipated timbre, and nasal tone simply cause the execution to fail, so her performance comes across as a protracted whine. For all the grief Taylor Swift rightly gets about her vocal technique, Scott isn’t a bit better of a singer:  A stronger vocalist could have compensated for the flaws in the songwriting on “Downtown,” but Scott just doesn’t have the chops to have done so.

Despite the sloppy songwriting and poor lead vocal, it’s hard to consider “Downtown” as anything less than an encouraging sign for Lady Antebellum, who could very easily have continued to churn out the same lifeless, banal music ad infinitum. Still, that a single this uneven counts as a step in the right direction only shows how far off-the-map they’d gone.

Written by Natalie Hemby, Luke Laird, and Shane McAnally

Grade: C+

Listen: Downtown

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Country Universe Turns Eight: Jonathan's View

I distinctly remember the google search that first led me to Country Universe back in early 2006. I was listening to Joy Lynn White’s “comeback” album, One More Time, and I was curious about the songwriter behind her mid-90s single “Wild Love,” the cassingle for which I had somehow misplaced.

All Music Guide didn’t have the information I wanted– typical of the gaps in their catalogue at that time when it came to somewhat obscure country acts– so I turned to google, which led me promptly to entry #395 on Country Universe’s “400 Best Contemporary Country Singles” countdown. A few hours later, having read through the rest of that feature and a host of single and album reviews, the site had officially made it onto the list of music review and news sources I check daily. And, give or take a day or two, I’ve kept up with Country Universe ever since.

The way people write about country music has changed dramatically – for the better, I’d argue – in the past

few years. And, though the exact roster of contributors to Country Universe has remained in flux during its eight years online, it has consistently offered writing that is passionate, authoritative, and distinctive: A testament to everything that the much ballyhooed “democratization” of internet criticism gets right. I find it humbling that this crew keeps me in their company.

The piece that best captures what I think makes Country Universe such a unique and essential source for writing about contemporary country music is the spectacularly-titled editorial Kevin posted after Taylor Swift’s much maligned performance of “You Belong With Me” at the Grammy awards. Not only is the article itself thoughtfully composed and smart, but note how the comments section plays out: The lengthy discussion that followed the post is every bit as revelatory as the original piece, with an exchange of actual ideas that’s as well-reasoned, civil, and rare as anything you’ll find online.

Country Universe Turns Eight:

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Single Review: Pistol Annies, "Takin’ Pills"

A standout cut from the Pistol Annies’ terrific Hell on Heels album, “Takin’ Pills” served as a thesis statement for the project, introducing each individual member of the group by her reputation and her preferred vice and giving the group’s exploits a broad narrative arc.

For the uninitiated, Pistol Annies are no supergroup: They’re “not trying to get rich/[They're] just trying to get by/Playing for tips on Saturday night.” And “Takin’ Pills” proves that they’ve got the kind of tunes that should have their open guitar-cases overflowing with cash.

The lyrical hook (“One’s drinkin’/One’s smokin’/One’s takin’ pills”) and the melody both have real follow-through behind their punches. The track’s arrangement is pure roadhouse, equal parts honky-tonk and sweaty bar-rock, a perfect match to the Annies’ rowdy attitudes.

To that end, “Takin’ Pills” works as a catchy standalone single that plays fast and loose with matters of artistic identity. And in doing so, the timing of the single’s release invites an important if somewhat obvious comparison, as “Takin’ Pills” draws the limitations of “Lone Star Annie” Miranda Lambert’s current single into sharp relief.

The prevailing tone of “Takin’ Pills” is one of toying with image in ways that are both purposeful and, above all else, playful: The Annies are playing dress-up and are having a ball doing so, and that sense of fun shines through in the recording. It’s a refreshing about-face from the dead-serious posturing that Lambert (and her co-writer, “Holler Annie” Angaleena Presley) adopt on “Fastest Girl in Town.” Lambert, Presley, and “Hippie Annie” Ashley Monroe look at their bad-girl vamping on “Takin’ Pills” as a means to a greater end, while the disheartening, unintentional self-parody of “Fastest Girl in Town” is a dead-end.

A killer hook. A swaggering performance. A rough-and-tumble arrangement. A smart, self-aware narrative that knows exactly how to develop an artistic persona. “Takin’ Pills” boasts all the signature elements of Lambert’s best singles. It’s a shame that they’ve gone AWOL from her solo material, but at least Pistol Annies and their broke-down van are still forging ahead.

Written by Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe & Angaleena Presley

Grade: A-

Watch: Takin’ Pills

Buy:

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Single Review: Eli Young Band, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart”

While I would prefer that contemporary country artists stop looking to the pop-rock music of the mid-1980s for their primary influences, I can at least credit Eli Young Band’s relative good taste.

Other A-list groups may aspire to the MOR sounds of Air Supply and REO Speedwagon, but Eli Young Band’s “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” tips its hand to the Replacements and Paul Westerberg.

Which is to say that at least they’re trying to sound like a very good band instead of an awful one, so they’ve handily cleared a bar that their peers have set just a few scant inches off the ground.

As a cover of singer-songwriter Will Hoge’s single from a couple of years back, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” is to-the-note faithful to the original arrangement and to its homage to all of the things the Replacements did well: The electric guitar power-chords are heavy and carry just a hint of distortion, giving the track a sturdy rock wash that can’t entirely mask how much the melody and construction owe to classic pop conventions.

What that has to do with classic country conventions is another matter entirely, but, considering how few singles on country radio at the moment have a memorable melody or show any real regard for how to structure a hook, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” does get a few important things right.

Lead singer Mike Eli, for his part, sings the song with as much conviction as he can muster. The natural rasp in Hoge’s voice brought a greater sense of gravity to his performance than Eli can pull off, but he makes a game effort to sell the song’s familiar narrative. As yet another testament to dues-paying and big dreams, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” is fine enough, but “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow,” it ain’t.

So it’s a matter of good but not great song, given a credible performance by a competent band with the wherewithal not to want to sound like Journey. While that, regrettably enough, might actually make for one of the year’s standout country singles, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” is undermined by its frankly terrible engineering.

Eli Young Band were on the losing side of the Loudness War in the recording of their track: Precious few guitar chords in the full duration of the performance actually ring to the full breadth of their tone, giving the single a clipped, tinny sound. Just as there’s no excusing the poor taste of so many of today’s country artists, there’s no excuse, given the available technology, for a single to sound as bad as this.

Written by Will Hoge and Eric Paslay.

Grade: Solid B for the song and performance, but a D for the recording…

Listen: Even if It Breaks Your Heart

 

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Single Review: Taylor Swift, “Sparks Fly”

Written by guest contributor Jonathan Keefe.

Compared to the cultural juggernaut that was Fearless, Taylor Swift’s Speak Now has underperformed at both retail and radio. The set’s fifth single, “Sparks Fly,” could turn things around for Swift, as it’s perhaps the most perfectly constructed single in a career built on tracks that are marvels of pop production and songwriting.

What makes “Sparks Fly” a standout is that it is, in a lot of ways, the purest iteration of Swift’s template and repertoire. Producer Nathan Chapman grounds the single in a punchy, not-at-all-country pop-rock sheen and ensures that all of its key lines and phrases are pitched for maximum impact.

It’s that attention to the details of production that make Chapman and Swift such a strong team: Most singles don’t highlight a line in the middle of their second verse, but here, Chapman dials back the volume on the electric guitars just as Swift sings, “You find I’m even better/Than you imagined I would be.” There isn’t a line in the song that captures the tone of first-love wonder more perfectly, and Swift’s breathless delivery suggests that she might be even more surprised by that revelation than anyone.

The song’s proper hook is even better constructed. The a capella “Drop everything now” exclamation simply commands attention, with the desperation in Swift’s call-to-action answering the common criticisms that her work is sexless and chaste. For all of the well-documented technical limitations of her voice—and yes, she wanders off pitch more than once on “Sparks Fly,” and yes, it would likely be even better a single if she didn’t— Swift is learning how to perform her songs with real depth and conviction.

As for the song itself, the narrative of “Sparks Fly” doesn’t necessarily scan as “country” in any archetypal way, but its simplicity and plain-spokenness parallel some of the genre’s conventions. If Swift writes what she knows, what she knows better than anything else is the head rush of infatuation. Of the many songs she’s written on that subject, “Sparks Fly” is both the purest in tone and the most familiar. With references to meeting someone in the rain and being guarded and fireworks and a touch that’s “really somethin’,” the song makes use of nearly all of Swift’s go-to phrases and images.

But, rather than scanning as redundant when considered alongside “Fearless” or “Back to December,” “Sparks Fly” proves how evocative those turns-of-phrase can be in the right context. To that end, “Sparks Fly” plays as a template as much as it does as a standalone single, and it’s a testament to everything Taylor Swift gets right.

Written by Taylor Swift

Grade: A

Listen: Sparks Fly

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