A big step up from her last few projects, Dolly Parton’s Blue Smoke is her most balanced album since Backwoods Barbie. While it lacks cohesion due to so many different styles being used, there’s a solid entry from every kind of Dolly – country Dolly, pop Dolly, mountain Dolly, gospel Dolly, duet-with-fellow-legend Dolly. While it isn’t likely to be anyone’s favorite Dolly Parton album because of this, it’s also unlikely that any fan of hers won’t find something here that reminds them of why they became a fan in the first place.
Category Archives: Album Reviews
Miranda Lambert’s life experience has caught up with her talent.
Platinum is a confident, intelligent record that weaves the themes of nostalgia, femininity, and celebrity together over sixteen tracks. It’s a cohesive set, with lead single “Automatic” making much more sense in the context of the full album. It’s also remarkably, defiantly country, which shows more of a rock-and-roll attitude these days than rocking out does.
Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition
Nonesuch has released an impressive deluxe edition of the landmark Emmylou Harris album, Wrecking Ball. For those who are new to the set, this is the edition you should buy. But it’s also worth the upgrade for those who already have this set in their collection.
Produced by Daniel Lanois, this album was a stunning departure for Harris, so much so that she personally requested that it not be eligible for the country charts. That’s funny in retrospect, given that alongside legends like Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young, the album was anchored by compositions by up-and-coming songwriters like Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams, and Julie Miller. With further cuts by writers like Anna McGarrigle, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell, Wrecking Ball helped set a template for what would become a vibrant Americana scene over the years that followed.
Nice history lesson, right? But the reason this album sounded great then, and still does now, is because the songs are fantastic and the production is evocatively original. It still sounds fresh today, and while Emmylou would hold on to remnants of this sound for next few projects, it has both its birth and its zenith on this record. It might be her best album, period, and it’s definitely her most ambitious and interesting.
The deluxe edition’s best element is its second disc of demos and outtakes, which help tell the story of how some of these songs took shape. I was most fascinated by the revved-up, rapid-fire “Deeper Well”, and the melancholy reading of the self-penned “Gold”, which she would include in a (slightly) more upbeat version on her 2008 album, All I Intended to Be. It didn’t quite fit with the rest of Wrecking Ball. All of the outtakes and demos included indicate the album was released in its best possible form, and most are for the completist only.
The bonus DVD is a 1995 documentary called Building the Wrecking Ball. It’s an overlong puff piece that’s most entertaining for its showcase of mid-nineties “serious musician” garb. Emmylou in sleeveless flannel aside, the doc also features what I consider the most maddening editorial choice films like this can make: playing the final album version of a song over mixed footage of said song being recorded and being performed live. For me, it made watching it unbearable.
But the packaging is worth the upgrade, with a fantastic new essay by Gillian Welch and nearly typo-free lyrics for both the original album and the second disc of rarities. Some nice photos, too. Overall, it’s a more serious deluxe take than we’ve gotten on any Emmylou Harris album to date, putting those Rhino reissues of her earlier work to shame.
Modern bluegrass legend Rhonda Vincent shows off two sides of her musical repertoire with her delightful new album Only Me, which is split across two six-track discs. The first disc is a collection of bluegrass songs, while the second showcases Vincent’s prowess in performing traditional country music.
On the bluegrass side, Vincent is joined by her longtime backing band The Rage, which includes Hunter Berry on fiddle, Brent Burke on resophonic guitar, Mickey Harris on upright bass, Aaron McDaris on banjo, and Josh Williams on acoustic guitar, while Vincent herself performs on the mandolin. The entire band proves to be in top-notch form right from the fast-picking opening up-tempo “Busy City,” which segues into the album’s fantastic lead-single, the angst-ridden Larry Cordle ballad “I’d Rather Hear I Don’t Love You (Than Nothing At All).”
Vincent is joined by two special guests on the bluegrass disc. The iconic Willie Nelson contributes duet vocals as well as guitar work to the title track – a love song which combines bluegrass instruments with Spanish guitar in a genre-blending album highlight. Vincent recasts George Jones and Melba Montgomery’s 1963 duet hit “We Must Have Been Out of Our Minds” as a bluegrass song on which Daryle Singletary supplies the male vocals – with glorious results.
Longtime fans know that the country disc is hardly the first foray into this genre for Rhonda Vincent, who even took an unsuccessful stab at become a mainstream country star in the nineties. Vincent’s work in the country field was highlighted by 2011’s Your Money and My Good Looks – a stellar duets project with country genre luminary Gene Watson. The country side of Only Me follows in the tradition of that excellent set, and is likewise dominated by cover material. This disc features a luscious take on the Dallas Frazier song “Beneath Still Waters,” a minor 1970 hit for Diana Trask which Emmylou Harris later took to the top of the charts in 1980, as well as a loving tribute to the late George Jones with a tear-jerking take on “When the Grass Grows Over Me.” As an extra treat, Vincent includes an original song that she wrote at the tender age of sixteen with “Teardrops Over You,” a country heartbreaker that sounds like it could very well have been recorded by any of the legends whose work Vincent here covers.
A particular highlight is Vincent’s take on Connie Smith’s Bill Anderson-penned 1964 breakthrough hit “Once a Day” – the first chart-topping debut single by a female country artist, and the longest running number-one single by a female country artist (until the latter record was broken in 2012 by… ahem… Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”). Vincent here turns the classic song into a gentle barroom shuffle. As one of very few women who are anywhere close to Smith’s league as a vocalist, she reminds us that the bluegrass queen can still deliver a honky-tonk wail like few others.
Vincent offers a pleasant mood-breaker with her gender-flipped take on Bill Anderson’s “Bright Lights and Country Music” – a song to which any longtime Opry listener will react with warm recognition. As the set closes, Vincent relishes her narrator’s boozy, brokenhearted misery on the 1946 Ernest Tubb hit “Drivin’ Nails” – a song Vincent previously recorded in a bluegrass setting, but here turns into a Western-swing-tinged fiddle jam with all the energy of a great live performance.
The press material for Only Me explains that the album is meant to provide an answer to the question of whether Vincent’s voice is bluegrass or country by confirming “it’s in the perception of the listener,” while showing that “either way, country or bluegrass, it’s Rhonda!” However, the project not only showcases how outstandingly adept Vincent is at performing both styles, but it also demonstrates how similar in spirit the two are – both built on accessible, sincere storytelling. Though the banjos and mandolins are swapped out for pedal steel halfway through, the project doesn’t feel like two different albums shoved into one – both halves feel like they belong together, making Only Me beautiful realization of the album as an art form. Better yet, it’s a welcome reminder that, regardless of genre placement, great music is universal.
Our Brandy Clark coverage continues with a round table review of her hotly anticipated debut album, which is out today.
She teased us earlier this year with “Stripes,” which I proudly awarded an A in my review of the song, calling it “a clever and original, not to mention humorous, twist on a tried-and-true country music theme.” It was more than enough to whet our appetites for the album to follow, which ended up going so far as to supersede expectations.
A foremost theme on the aptly-titled 12 Stories is the near-universal desire to escape from something, whether it’s an unhappy marriage, a dead-end job or the everyday stresses of life – even if the respite is only momentary. The stories are laced with striking first-person attention to detail, while often using surprisingly plainspoken language to tap into deep wells of emotion. Though Clark’s songwriting gifts are already well documented – see Kevin’s recent feature – it’s a special treat to finally get to hear what a strong singer she is, her songs beautifully realized through moving, expressive performances.
While the entire album warrants a recommendation, we at Country Universe are pleased to share some favorite tracks from one of our favorite releases of the year.
“Pray to Jesus”
So many of the hired-gun songwriters in Nashville today have adopted a “write what you know” ethos and have then shown a perverse kind of pride in proving that they know absolutely nothing of real value. In stark contrast, “Pray to Jesus,” the first of Clark’s 12 Stories, packs enough into its scant running time and plainspoken, salt-of-the-earth imagery that it probably merits a good 3000 words to delve into what, exactly, Clark knows. Shattering any lingering illusions of upward social mobility in modern America, she delivers a withering cultural commentary that’s noteworthy not for its irony or class condescension but for its empathy and bleak but still good-natured humor. - Jonathan Keefe
Written by Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally
“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”
Ultimately, the factor that makes Clark’s album so accessible is the realistic nature of each song. The stories are raw, real and relatable in one way or another–whether it’s being able to personally relate, knowing somebody who can, or at least being able to imagine the predicament. While it may not be about contemplating cheating, we can all relate to a black and white situation that still feels grey somehow. If not that, Clark’s portrayal of such a scenario manages to invoke sympathy for the song’s focal character, even as you’re mentally willing her not to carry out the act.
Every element of “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven”, including Clark’s intimate performance and a sympathetic production, works perfectly together to create the vulnerability imperative for a believable cheating song. Vince Gill’s always winning background support is just the icing on the cake. - Leeann Ward
Written by Brandy Clark and Mark Stephen Jones
“Hold My Hand”
12 Stories is a snapshot of life –dirty, messy, redeeming life—taken by a woman with a keen appreciation for its grey areas. Against that backdrop, “Hold My Hand” feels like the exception, a quiet moment of ex-girlfriend-fueled insecurity that isn’t all that complicated. But it’s no less observant: Clark brings to the song a visceral understanding of the female psyche, gently giving weight to the smallest of gestures. Her request for reassurance is a vulnerable one, of course, but leave it to her to make it with such purpose. - Tara Seetharam
Written by Brandy Clark and Mark Stephen Jones
“Take a Little Pill”
Nashville has become pretty flippant about recreational drug use in recent years, but Clark’s take on self-medicating is much more harrowing. It’s a delicate topic if you try to approach it seriously, but she deftly shows sympathy for people trapped in a spiral of addiction while offering some barbs toward a society that encourages pill-popping as a solution for any problem. - Sam Gazdziak
Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Mark D. Sanders
There’s a thread of hope and optimism in this song that makes you root for the woman who is slowly taking control of her life, in spite of the love she still has for the man she is slowly leaving behind. The triumph of her just buying a ticket and going to her sister’s feels like an “Independence Day”- level climax, simply because the character was drawn so perfectly from the beginning. - Kevin John Coyne
Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon
“The Day She Got Divorced”
This song feels like the lazy choice off Clark’s album, since, hey, even “Turn on the Radio”/”If I Were a Boy”-era Reba couldn’t ignore its greatness. Still, out of all the colorful women sketched on 12 Stories, I keep coming back to the one drinking extra-strong coffee, shrugging off household cleaning, and humoring an empty fling with her married boss. Perhaps it’s because of how impressively the song marries simple craft to complex feeling, arranging its crisp, little details into a vivid picture of mid-life disillusionment. Or maybe it’s all the fun quirks that mark a writing team in confident control of their powers: “dirty dinner dishes,” “wudn’t that sorry, wudn’t that sad,” and of course, the delicious, dramatic title phrase. I guess it’s all of the above, though. “The Day She Got Divorced” is like if a primetime soap like Nashville were written with the precision of a Mad Men and the personality of a Buffy. It’s the best. - Dan Milliken
Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Mark D. Sanders
“Just Like Him”
For all the bold, in-your-face fun of “Stripes” and “Crazy Women,” Clark’s characters are often disarmingly vulnerable. With “Just Like Him,” Clark gives voice to a woman who has grown up with a neglectful, overbearing alcoholic father, only to find her adult self in a relationship with the same sort of man. Arguably, the song’s most potent moment is when Clark heaves a heavy sigh and concludes “I can’t do this again” – a credit to her abilities as an interpretive singer.
The tale is beautifully augmented by a fully realized melody and by David Brainard’s near flawless production job, with strains of harmonica, piano and cello echoing the narrator’s hurt and disappointment. It’s a testament to the fact that the right melody, vocal reading, and production possess a power to elevate something already great into something truly unforgettable. - Ben Foster
Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon
Alabama & Friends
To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.
Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.
Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.
Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.
Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.
There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.
Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.
Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.
Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.
It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.
The Essential Tammy Wynette
The legendary First Lady of Country Music is the subject of a generous new forty-track double-disc career retrospective in Legacy Recordings’ Essential series.
The Essential Tammy Wynette opens with her 1966 debut single “Apartment No. 9,” which set the tone for the many heartbreak-themed hits that would follow it, going on to enter the annals of country music classics despite charting at only #44. From there, the album checks off Wynette’s biggest and best-loved hits in chronological order. All 29 of her Billboard Top 10 solo hits are included, with essential classics such as her signature “Stand by Your Man,” heart breakers such as “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “‘Til I Can Make it On My Own,” and toe tappers such as “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and “He Loves Me All the Way” all present and accounted for.
Of Wynette’s ten Top 10 duet hits, only four are included – her chart-topping 1967 David Houston duet “My Elusive Dreams,” two of her duets with George Jones (“Take Me” and “Golden Ring”), and her 1985 Mark Gray duet version of “Sometimes When We Touch” -Wynette’s final Top 10 hit, previously a pop hit for songwriter Dan Hill. “Two Story House” is a particularly puzzling exclusion – a classic hit which ranks among Wynette’s best work. The Essential Tammy Wynette might have benefited to some degree by including a few more of her most essential duets at the expense of some of the lesser hits included on the album.
Still, the album remains a remarkably thorough overview of Wynette’s outstanding career, and one which, in addition to the big hits, includes a few less-expected cuts such as her final pair of Top 20 hits, 1987’s “Your Love” and “Talkin’ to Myself Again.” An especially pleasant surprise is album closer “That’s the Way it Could Have Been,” a beautiful self-written cut which Wynette recorded with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton for their stunning 1993 collaborative effort Honky Tonk Angels. It offers an enticing hint at all the great songs that Wynette might still have written had her voice not been silenced by untimely death at the age of 55.
The Essential Tammy Wynette is a thoroughly enjoyable collection which impresses both in content and in effectively summing up the career of one of country music’s most important women. It will likely be more than enough to satisfy the casual fan, and it’s an ideal starting point for listeners who are just beginning to delve into the rich musical legacy of Tammy Wynette.
Track listing: (Disc 1) 1. Apartment #9 2. Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad 3. My Elusive Dreams (with David Houston) 4. I Don’t Wanna Play House 5. Take Me to Your World 6. D-I-V-O-R-C-E 7. Stand by Your Man 8. Singing My Song 9. Too Far Gone 10. The Ways to Love a Man 11. I’ll See Him Through 12. He Loves Me All the Way 13. Run, Woman, Run 14. The Wonders You Perform 15. We Sure Can Love Each Other 16. Good Lovin’ (Makes it Right) 17. Take Me (with George Jones) 18. Bedtime Story 19. Reach Out Your Hand 20. My Man (Understands)
(Disc 2) 1. ‘Til I Get it Right 2. Kids Say the Darndest Things 3. Another Lonely Song 4. Woman to Woman 5. (You Make Me Want to Be) A Mother 6. I Still Believe in Fairy Tales 7. ‘Til I Can Make it On My Own 8. Golden Ring (with George Jones) 9. You and Me 10. Let’s Get Together (One Last Time) 11. One of a Kind 12. Womanhood 13. They Call it Making Love 14. No One Else in the World 15. Crying in the Rain 16. Another Chance 17. Sometimes When We Touch (with Mark Gray) 18. Your Love 19. Talkin’ to Myself Again 20. That’s the Way it Could Have Been (with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton)
Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
If you have a soft spot for the great country artists of the nineties – particularly the generation of mature, articulate women who ruled the genre for much of the decade – the announcement of a duets album between Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan was likely a tremendous cause for excitement. With both ladies being second-generation country stars, Opry members, touring partners, and great friends, a studio collaboration would seem a natural progression, and the lofty potential is obvious.
There’s a palpable joy in the proceedings as the two gal pals pair up in the studio for the first time, and there’s a sense of good-natured fun evident throughout, with song selections often skewing toward the humorous. Tillis has a ball with “Old Enough to Be Your Lover” in which her narrator giddily flaunts a romance with a much younger man, a chuckle in her performance as she sings about her young lover not knowing who Richard Nixon was. (I imagine K.T. Oslin would be proud) On the delightfully snarky “Ain’t Enough Roses,” Tillis scoffs that there “ain’t enough roses on God’s green earth” to make her take back her no-good ex. The line “I hope you saved your sales receipt so you can take ‘em back” is particularly delicious, and Tillis’ sassy delivery milks the song’s humor for all it’s worth.
But the album’s serious moments yield rewards their own. The writing trio of Shane McAnally, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Country Universe favorite Brandy Clark supplies one of the set’s best-written song’s with “Last Night’s Make Up,” a regretful morning-after ballad in which Morgan’s narrator laments, “If I could wash you off like last night’s make up, looking in the mirror wouldn’t be so hard.” It’s also one of Morgan’s best vocal turns on the album, demonstrating the level of nuance that she has retained even as her vocal power has noticeably declined.
And while Tillis’ powerhouse vocals have aged with remarkable grace, there are times when the signs of wear and tear on Morgan’s voice prove to be a hindrance. She stays within her limitations for most of the album, but she occasionally sounds strained when tackling the high notes on the title track, or the rapid-fire verses of honky tonk throwdown “I Know What You Did Last Night.”
In terms of song content, there is a small amount of fat that could have been trimmed. “That’s So Cool” presents what could have been an interesting account of a middle-aged woman rekindling an old high school romance, but the song is hindered by a lifeless melody and too much time wasted repeating its forgettable title (and if you didn’t like Reba singing about texting and Twitter, you won’t like Lorrie singing about Google and Facebook either). While one likely wouldn’t doubt the sincerity behind “Another Chance To,” a meditation on the uncertainty of life, it’s unfortunate that the song is clogged up with throwaway lines such as “Every day is a gift” and “I’ve never loved the way I love you.” Tillis makes the best of a fairly rote love song with “Even the Stars,” but the song still could have been left off with no great loss to the project as a whole.
But there are times when even the lesser songs are elevated by some inspired production choices. The title track is spiced up with horn-infused Tex-Mex stylings, “That’s So Cool” boasts a delightful banjo line, and a bluesy piano and harmonica-driven arrangement perfectly underscores the quiet vindictiveness of “Ain’t Enough Roses.” It’s particularly enjoyable to hear Tillis and Morgan sing over a pure traditional country arrangement as they lovingly cover “I’m Tired,” a 1958 Webb Pierce hit co-written by Pam’s legendary dad Mel. The only glaring production misstep is the audacious, bass-heavy arrangement of “Old Enough to Be Your Love,” weighed down by too much clutter in the mix.
Enjoyable as the album is, it’s hard not to wish that Dos Divas contained a few more full-fledged duets with fewer solos. The album opens with four duets, and then serves up eight solo tracks with Tillis and Morgan alternating lead vocals before closing with two final duets. There’s nothing wrong with a duets album including a few solos for variety’s sake, but there’s a point at which it begins to feel like a missed opportunity. Seeing as we already have plenty of solo material by both ladies, the real treat is hearing them sing together, whether playfully pointing fingers at each other’s rowdy tendencies in “I Know What You Did Last Night” or musing on gossipy small-town Southern culture in “Bless Their Hearts.” The self-deprecating “What Was I Thinkin'” closes the album on a high note, drawing on Tillis and Morgan’s perspective as women who have done some living, as they look back with amusement on choices large and small that were later regretted. A tongue-in-cheek conversational tone actively engages the listener while lines of spoken dialogue hint at the song being semi-autobiographical for the two artists.
Ultimately, it all adds up to a very good album, albeit one that could have been even better. At its best, the album contains moments of pure brilliance, while Tillis and Morgan’s unshakable chemistry is enough to make one hope that this studio collaboration does not turn out to be a one-off. It’s a fun, entertaining effort by two of country music’s brightest talents of the past twenty years, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that they clearly understand the need to not take themselves too seriously.
Top Tracks: “Last Night’s Make Up,” “Ain’t Enough Roses,” “What Was I Thinkin'”
As you may have noticed, the Country Universe staff loves to find ways to participate in joint writing projects. So, while it won’t be the exclusive way that we review albums, we thought we would give a new, more collaborative album review format a try. As an offshoot of our Round Table Single Reviews, which could become repetitive when we all agreed on a particular track, we are test-driving Round Table Album Reviews, which will give us all a chance to weigh in on different tracks and aspects of a single album. With this format, even if we all generally positively (or negatively) agree on an album, as happens to be the case here, we still have room for a variety of perspectives.
It’s certainly no secret that LeAnn Rimes has lived a tumultuous life, a fact which has been sensationalized by various media outlets throughout her career. While her male counterparts are frivolously singing about cruising backroads, partying life away and generic love, Rimes has channeled her life circumstances into an emotional and fiery work of art, just as true artists tend to do. As a result, music critics have taken notice and have rewarded her efforts with high praise and acclaim.
As Dan observed in his review of the album’s lead release, Rimes is “an artist who hit her commercial peak early, but whose creative peak is still sloping up with each passing year.” Rimes’ Spitfire demonstrates that the trend continues with the best album of her career and, certainly, what will be one of the shining albums of 2013. - Leeann Ward
“Gasoline and Matches” (with Rob Thomas, featuring Jeff Beck)
In an album rife with weighty reflection and introspection, the nearly frenetic “Gasoline and Matches”, originally written and performed by Buddy and Julie Miller, is a welcome reprieve. It’s as intense as the rest of the album, but in a decidedly different way.
Lyrics like “You pull my pin and you trip my wire/Yeah, well, you come in and set my heart on fire/You knock me out, you rock me off my axis” signal that this isn’t just some run-of-the mill love song, but rather, a cleverly constructed, fiery romper. What’s more, is there a more endearing proposal line than “Baby, we should get related”? Maybe so, but it perfectly fits the cheekiness of this song.
Furthermore, along with the addicting bass riff and bluesy guitar solo from Jeff Beck, Rimes and Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas rise to the song’s proverbial gauntlet with a rousing performance where they match each other’s intensity phrase for phrase, which all culminates into a truly riveting listening experience. - Leeann Ward
Written by Buddy Miller and Julie Miller
“Who We Really Are”
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an artist’s entire “reason to be” shift so dramatically over the course of one career. When Rimes first surfaced, the novelty was she was a young girl with amazing pipes who could belt out classics past and present. Her success was based on the very opposite of song interpretation, with the focus being completely on the singer – “Wow, can you believe a little girl just hit that note!” The songs were incidental, and usually better interpreted by other artists in years gone by. In that sense, she foreshadowed what would make most of the “American Idol” also-rans popular while on the show, but irrelevant once they were voted off.
“Who We Really Are” perfectly illustrates how she’s become something else entirely: a subtle, nuanced singer who gets out of the song’s way, allowing the writing to take center stage. This only works if a singer is able to pick (or write) great material in the first place, and is able to communicate the song’s meaning in a way that is clarifying for the listener. She succeeds wildly here, earning what might be the greatest compliment a singer can get when recording outside material: It sounds like she wrote it. - Kevin John Coyne
Written by Darrell Brown and Sarah Buxton
“I Do Now”
What music fan hasn’t had this experience? You heard a song as a kid, fell in love with the feeling and melody, grew up ten years and suddenly realized, “Oh; this is about heroin addiction.”
That’s not quite Rimes’s character here, thankfully. But in one of the most upbeat admissions of wrongdoing since “Dang Me,” she does fess up to her share of cheating and drinking, all while bopping around to a beat so groovy that they had to give it a 50-second solo at the top of the track. Turns out Rimes used to find the classic Hank and Merle weepers pretty groovy, too – until she started living through them.
But you can’t keep a good girl down: even after she’s driven away her man, then alienated everyone else trying to drink away her shame, she manages to get her act together, coming full circle to a new love who helps set her free, just like in the oughta-be classic “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Getting older and wiser can mean seeing more of the darkness in the world, Rimes seems to acknowledge – but if you hold out for it, you get see more of the light, too. - Dan Milliken
Written by LeAnn Rimes, Darrell Brown & Dan Wilson
“God Takes Care of Your Kind”
The most obvious choice LeAnn Rimes could have made for her performance on “God Takes Care of Your Kind” would have been a vengeful, “woman scorned” act, turning the song into a tale of fiery accusations and Old Testament style retribution. But Rimes has spent her last four albums avoiding those obvious choices that most of her contemporaries likely would – and far too often do – make. What makes the final kiss-off of “God Takes Care of Your Kind” so cutting isn’t the rusty barbs knotted in its lyrics but the fact that Rimes’ delivery couldn’t be more casual in its dismissal.
She references deep betrayal in the chorus (“I let you in where I never let anyone/You cut me open just to watch the blood run,” for those wondering if modern country songs could still trade in sexually loaded metaphors). But, drawling out her lines over a slinky rhythm section, she doesn’t sound the least bit pressed by any of it. Instead, she’s relaxed and confident, resting easy in the blessed assurance that the Good Lord has her back. - Jonathan Keefe
Written by Darrell Brown, LeAnn Rimes and Dean Sheremet
“A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind”
Amidst all the astute, specific storytelling on Spitfire, “A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind” sticks out for its broad strokes of emotion. There’s no vivid thought process to trace here; it’s just a lament about the cost of foolishly ignoring love, built around a turn-of-phrase that sits dangerously close to contrived.
But its craft is elsewhere: Like the potent country song it recalls, it drowns the narrative in emotion – through the swell of the melody, the cry of the steel guitar, the guilt in Rimes’ voice – until the words becomes an accessory. Rimes plays into this effect with a performance that’s as stirring as the arrangement it complements, restrained and self-loathing all at once. If Spitfire is an indication of the vision-driven artist we weren’t sure Rimes could become, “A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind” is a reminder of the artist whose voice could always light fire and relevance under the most classically constructed country songs. - Tara Seetharam
Written by David Baerwald, Darrell Brown and LeAnn Rimes
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”