Category Archives: Album Reviews

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

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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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Album Review: Blake Shelton, Based On a True Story…

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Blake Shelton
Based On a True Story…

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Bear in mind that Blake Shelton isn’t just another country singer.  He is the reigning Male Vocalist of the Year for both the ACM and CMA Awards, as well as the CMA Entertainer of the Year.  Due to his position as a judge on “The Voice,” he is one of the most recognizable country stars around.  Therefore, his new album Based on a True Story… isn’t just another album release.  It’s an event.  It’s a highly anticipated occasion.  So how does Shelton kick off this record?

Backwoods, legit, don’t take no s***
Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit.

Those words of wisdom come from “Boys ‘Round Here,” the opening track and one of the worst country songs of recent memory, even by the relative low standards of country-rap.  Sexist, crude and jam-packed with country stereotypes, it’s an embarrassment to everyone involved, including Shelton, the songwriters (Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson and Craig Wiseman) the Pistol Annies who sing background vocals and even the guy who says “red red red red red red red red redneck.”

That’s the low-water mark for the album, though it’s certainly a harbinger for what comes after.  For all the references to country songs and country living scattered throughout, it’s largely pop music, with some R&B and adult contemporary elements thrown in the mix.  In other words, it’s an ideal country album for people who like Shelton as a famous personality but don’t really care for country music.  The two most traditional-sounding songs (as well as two of the best songs) are available in the download- only deluxe version, so anyone who wants to avoid anything sounding like actual country music can easily do so.

There are plenty of other country singers who are employing pop sounds to reach a wider audience, so Shelton isn’t alone in that regard.  The problem with True Story is that the songs are so pedestrian and unmemorable. “Sure Be Cool if You Did” and “My Eyes” are essentially the same song about picking up a woman, though at least the cheesy pickup lines are different. “Small Town Big Time” is essentially the same song as half of Jason Aldean’s back catalog – the bad half – with some Auto-Tuned verses thrown in for

good measure.

“Country on the Radio” deserves special mention because it attempts to justify all of the hokey, redneck-centric songs that have clogged up the country charts for the last few years.  Why are they all about dirt roads, pretty girls on tailgates and homemade wine?  Because that’s how country folks roll, of course.  That’s not exactly a compliment – country songs are so simplistic and shallow because country people really are that simplistic and shallow.

“I Still Got a Finger” is one of the few instances where the feisty Blake Shelton of old – before he became famous outside of country music circles – makes an appearance.  Still, it has the feel of being forced, as if it was made to highlight Shelton’s smartass, uncensored Twitter personality without being too rude for a large audience.

“Grandaddy’s Gun,” written by Atkins, Davidson, and Bobby Pinson, is one of the highlights of True Story.  Without pushing one side of the gun control debate like an Aaron Lewis or Charlie Daniels would do, Shelton sings about the sentimental value of an old battered shotgun and demonstrates that he is still an outstanding country singer when he wants to be.  He does the same on “Mine Would Be You” from the dependable Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington and Deric Ruttan.

Shelton infamously said in his “old farts and jackasses” interview that kids don’t want to listen to their grandpa’s music and that country music has to evolve in order to survive.  If that’s true, then this is the evolution of country music. It’s slick and mainstream-friendly, with Top 40 appeal.  It features pop songs about how wonderful country living is. It’s occasionally raucous, but not enough to offend a focus group. It has some traditional country elements, but those are on album tracks that can easily be skipped over or not downloaded. If you happen to remember the great Blake Shelton songs like “Ol’ Red” and “Austin,” you’re clearly too old for this new country music.

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Album Review: Kacey Musgraves, <i>Same Trailer Different Park</i>

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Kacey Musgraves
Same Trailer Different Park

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In just over half a decade, the now-24-year-old Texan Kacey Musgraves has gone from placing seventh on the 2007 season of Nashville Star and releasing a trio of independent albums to finally being granted some well-deserved mainstream exposure.  It was beyond a pleasant surprise when her beautifully written, critically lauded debut single “Merry Go ‘Round” became an honest-to-goodness Top 10 hit at country radio – a format not known for being friendly to intelligent, honest women.  Whether the industry will continue to support her remains to be seen, but Kacey Musgraves’ major label debut effort positions her as a ray of hope for country music at a time when such are very few – an artist who, if given the platform, just might have the potential to change country music for the better.

Appearing as a co-writer on every track along with a co-writer pool that consists of Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Luke Laird, Musgraves displays a songwriting voice characterized by clear-eyed insight and a tone of simple, plainspoken honesty.  She neither preaches nor judges; she simply observes.  “Merry Go ‘Round” foreshadowed this trait quite accurately.  On her debut hit, Musgraves mused on the human tendency to try to escape heartache through a variety of vices such as drug use or illicit sex, but noting that ultimately that “same hurt in every heart” still remains – each distraction is like a medicine that covers up the symptoms, but doesn’t cure the cold.  On “Follow Your Arrow,” she  sneers at small-town gossip while laying bare the futility of living to please others, noting that “You’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t.”  On the witty upcoming single “Blowin’ Smoke,” she takes on the voice of a working class woman who chats with her co-workers on a smoke break about plans to leave her current line of work in pursuit of bigger dreams, but admits that “We’re just blowin’ smoke.”  The set is ripe with a strong sense of self-awareness that country radio has been sorely lacking for years now.

Musgraves clearly understands the value of escapism in country music, as evidenced by songs like opening track “Silver Lining,” in which she makes creative use of familiar metaphors to illustrate the point that if one wants good things to happen, one must accept the bad things that come along with it.  “My House” is a delightful ode to life on a house with four wheels, and to having someone with which to share it.  “Any place beside you is the place that I call home,” Musgraves sings, backed by a charming harmonica-laced arrangement.  Every bit as enjoyable is the witty “Step Off,” which plays like a Jason Mraz song with a banjo.

But oh, how rewarding it is when Musgraves channels pure vulnerability – a gift that finds its fullest expression in the pleading ballad “Keep It to Yourself,” in which Musgraves begs a former lover to let her move on, the lyric anchored by a melody that pierces deeply.  And while “It Is What It Is” has been nicknamed The Slut Song, such a moniker says nothing of the raw desperation that Musgraves conveys through her quivering performance.

Same Trailer Different Park sets itself apart from the pack by honoring genre traditions while slyly subverting modern conventions.  For a genre that takes pride in being the realm of “real” music, Kacey Musgraves is

one of precious few mainstream country artists to actually live up to that ideal, and for country radio programmers to let her slip through their fingers now would be an awful shame.  To call Same Trailer Different Park one of the year’s best mainstream country albums would not do it justice – it’s one of the year’s best albums period.

Top Tracks:  “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep It to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow”

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell, <em>Old Yellow Moon</em>

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell Old Yellow Moon

Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell
Old Yellow Moon

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The single biggest obstacle between a critic and a critical review of Old Yellow Moon is the reverence demanded by a collaboration of such artistic and historical significance. So why don’t we get that part out of the way first?

Nearly forty years ago, Emmylou Harris emerged from the shadows of the late Gram Parsons to forge her own solo career. By her side was a hungry young songwriter, Rodney Crowell. Supplying her with startlingly good material, Harris assembled a series of seminal albums that balanced his bold and original songs with both country and rock classics and other songs by marginalized writers.

In the years that have since elapsed, both have become legends, with Harris maintaining commercial success in mainstream country music and Crowell scoring hits as a singer as well as a songwriter. When radio was done with both of them, they had glorious second acts in the bourgeoning Americana scene, each of them producing albums that ranked among their best personal work.

Now the two legends have come together for their first collaborative album as peers, a project that now seems inevitable but until now seemed impossible, given how far the two have wandered from their shared starting point four decades ago. It sounds like the decision they made was to go completely back to their roots, so there are no Crowell polemics or self-penned Harris tunes.

Old Yellow Moon is a simple collection of country songs, most of which have been recorded before, sometimes by Crowell or Harris themselves. It’s worth noting that it’s a country album, too. It will be labeled Americana, but only because of AARP eligibility of the performers and the self-imposed limitations of terrestrial radio. Throughout the entire project, Crowell and Harris play it straight, a choice that produces some wonderful rewards but also holds the proceedings back at some crucial moments.

Let’s talk about the good stuff first. The album opens and closes with Hank DeVito tunes, and the opening “Hanging Up My Heart” finds Harris in fine voice, backed with a country beat that harkens back to her run of hits in the early seventies. The duo turns in a solid

cover of Roger Miller’s “Invitation to the Blues”, one of several songs that even relatively recent connoisseurs of traditional country will know well.

The challenge of familiarity hangs over the proceedings, and the artists find creative ways to counter expectations in some instances. “Dreaming’ My Dreams” has been covered to death, but their decision to alternate lead vocals between the verses and chorus adds a layer of shared regret that won’t be found in any of the excellent solo recordings of it in recent years. “Bluebird Wine” opened Emmylou’s first Reprise album, but having Crowell take the lead instead, with his haggard voice weathered by time, gives a new sense of redemption to the story of a drifter taken “in off of the highway.”

“Open Season of My Heart” was a wry highlight of Tim McGraw’s Live Like You Were Dying set, but Crowell’s delivery changes it completely. Where it was once dripping with irony and self-deprecation, it is now heartbreakingly despondent. A smart lyrical change that leaves off the original final line makes the transformation work.

The album includes a cover of Matraca Berg’s “Back When We Were Beautiful”, and it’s powerful to hear the lyrics sung by an aging voice. If Harris had gone the extra step and delivered the lyrics in the first person, it would have reached transcendence. That’s a disappointing missed opportunity, as good as the finished product still is.

Actually, that description is apt for a good deal of the project, which never dips below the level of pure, polished goodness but plays it a bit too safe to elevate it into the ranks of either artist’s best work. “Black Caffeine” is a cool song, but it begs for a more emphatic production, something along the lines of “Fate’s Right Hand” or “Deeper Well.”

“Spanish Dancer” is beautiful, but Harris doesn’t compensate her increasingly bewildering poor enunciation with enough vocal flourishes to paper over how hard it is to follow the storyline because you can’t quite understand what she’s singing.

“Bull Rider” does a decent job at mimicking the rhythm of Johnny Cash’s original recording, but you can actually hear that Crowell wrote it for Cash. He did so well at writing it for the Man in Black that his own take on it sounds like a demo recording in comparison, despite some cool harmonies from Harris along the way.

But complaining about the flaws feels a bit like complaining about some smudges on the window after returning home for the first time in years. The homecoming itself is its own reward, and while Old Yellow Moon isn’t among the greatest efforts from either Harris or Crowell, it’s a wonderful listen in its own right, and a welcome return for both artists to the simple pleasures of well-written and lovingly performed good old country music.

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Album Review: Tim McGraw, <i>Two Lanes of Freedom</i>

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Tim McGraw
Two Lanes of Freedom

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Though Tim McGraw's music was among the best to be heard on country radio in the late nineties and early two thousands, recent years have seen his choice of material embarking on a gradual downward slide before bottoming out entirely with last year's Curb Records swan song Emotional Traffic.  With McGraw's recent output being what it is, and with him now being in the clutches of  Scott Borchetta, it's hard to approach Two Lanes of Freedom with high expectations.

Produced by McGraw with longtime collaborator Byron Gallimore, Two Lanes of Freedom is several degrees better than Emotional Traffic, but still heavily bogged down by cheap gimmickry, and by McGraw's increasing tendency to over-dramatize.  The opening title track, for instance, could have been enjoyable by virtue of melody and performance, but it's all but leveled by distorted “Oh-oh-oh” chants that surface in each chorus, and that comprise a bloated, self-indulgent ending fade-out.  Love-gone-wrong ballads “Friend of a Friend” and the Taylor Swift duet “Highway Don't Care” (featuring Keith Urban on guitar) are decent songs, but both are marred by over-the-top string sections and gaudy electric guitar solos.

It should hardly come as a surprise that Two Lanes of Freedom includes serious lapses in songwriting quality, with the nadir of the project being the indefensible “Truck Yeah,” and the middling current single “One of Those Nights not faring significantly better.  “Southern Girl” is plain sloppy, recycling pandering formulas similar to those behind “Southern Voice,” and capping it off with auto-tuned chants of “Southern girl, rock my world….”  Can any songwriter expect to be taken seriously when rhyming “girl” with “rock my world”?

At its best, Two Lanes of Freedom offers sporadic glimpses of the subtlety and sincerity that marked McGraw's best work.  But even when McGraw brings the goods as a vocalist, the quality of the song material often comes up frustratingly short.  Though a paean to the country music industry and its history could in theory be great, it's unfortunate that “Nashville Without You” leans on the clutch of listing classic country song titles from “Crazy” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “Fancy” – particularly considering that it's one of the album's most tastefully produced cuts.  “Book of John” is a bit better, telling a finely detailed story of a character poring over photo album memories of a deceased loved one, but its title hook grasps at a gratuitous connection to the Biblical gospel of John, to which the bulk of the song's content is unrelated.  The best-written song of the lot is “Number 37405,” which explores the consequences of a man's decision to drink and drive with the gentle plainspoken tone of “Red Ragtop,” and without the preachy condescension of “Nothin' to Die For.”  The lyric smartly refrains from offering an ultimate resolution to the story, while McGraw and Gallimore mercifully dial back the production.  It's the closest representation the album has to offer of the Tim McGraw that once was.

Though Two Lanes of Freedom has its moments that are genuinely not half bad, the unevenness of the project as a whole offers little reason to believe that the Tim McGraw who gave us Everywhere, Set This Circus Down, and Live Like You Were Dying is likely to fully resurface anytime soon – and even if Tim McGraw were to make a return to form, it's highly unlikely that Scott Borchetta would be the one to facilitate it.

Top Tracks:  “Book of John,” “Number 37405″

Buy:  Two Lanes of Freedom

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Album Review: Randy Houser, <i>How Country Feels</i>

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Randy Houser
How Country Feels

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Randy Houser impressed the critics with 2010’s They Call Me Cadillac, but country radio yawned, and neither of the album’s two singles cracked the Top 30.  Houser’s Stoney Creek Records debut thus comes across as a mea culpa of sorts, as Houser shrugs his shoulders in defeat, and gets ready to do some good old-fashioned pandering.

The title track and first single, which recently became Houser’s first number one hit, was a most accurate preview of the project to follow.  Producer Derek George swaps out the tasteful, traditional-leaning arrangements of They Call Me Cadillac for spit-shine polished productions tailor-made for endless airplay.  The album is peppered with odes to country living and rural romance.  Trucks!  Tailgates!  Hollers and hills!  Country girls!  Skinny dipping!  Houser shouts Aldean-style over a pounding bass line in “Sunshine On the Line,” and shoehorns in some arena-rock chants in the vapid backwoods come-on “Running Outta

Moonlight.”  Lyrical formulas and clichés abound, from “Hands up, rockin’ like a boat… We’re gonna live this never-ending summer like we’re just growin’ younger” to “This kiss, this moment, yeah I just wanna stay in it.”  It’s unfortunately fitting that one of the songs finds Houser singing, without a hint of self-awareness, “I wrote a song ’bout absolutely nothing with my toes tapping in the sand,” as the majority of the album’s tracks seem to be about exactly that – nothing.

Even when the songwriters’ aspirations seem to be slightly higher, the songs rarely rise above one dimension.  “Route 3 Box 250 D” grasps at domestic violence to create a semblance of emotional heft, but leans on a bare-boned narrative that fails to channel the narrator’s inner struggles and emotions, while the songwriters awkwardly attempt to create a title hook out of the narrator’s home address.  Though “Along for the Ride” is one of the better-produced cuts, the lyric offers only dime store pseudo-philosophy with a boring, cliché-driven take on what Iris DeMent said far more eloquently with “Let the Mystery Be.”

The album’s only truly outstanding cut is one unlikely to see the light at radio.  “The Singer,” co-written by Houser with Cory Batten and Kent Blazy, is by far the album’s best-written song, utilizing a clear-cut, accessible hook in detailing the struggles behind a marriage in the spotlight.  “She loved the singer; she just couldn’t live the song,” Houser sings, effectively summing up the heartache of a woman who loves her famous spouse, but can no longer settle for being “just one of a million screaming his name.”  “Power of a Song” speaks to the power of songcraft with a melody that draws out an evocative performance from Houser, but the lyrics don’t pack the punch of past gems like Trisha Yearwood’s “The Song Remembers When” or Sara Evans’ “Three Chords and the Truth.”

The problem of weak material is compounded by the album’s length – a whopping fifteen tracks, roughly half of which are interchangeable.  What’s with the need for today’s artists to fill an album up with fourteen, fifteen, sixteen-plus songs when barely five of those songs have anything substantial or authentic to say?  Of course, Randy Houser’s performances are consistently solid – unsurprising, as he is in command of one of the strongest male voices on country radio.  He even manages to elevate the formula-driven title track into something mildly enjoyable.  But the problem remains that there’s no voice strong enough to save a fifteen-track album that’s stacked with poorly-written songs.

How Country Feels will likely succeed in keeping Randy Houser on the radio for the next two years.  Nonetheless, we might observe a moment of silence for the early artistic potential that this album leaves largely buried.

Top Tracks:  “The Singer,” “Power of a Song”

Buy:  How Country Feels

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Album Review: Sara Evans, <i>Playlist: The Very Best of Sara Evans</i>

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Sara Evans
Playlist:

 The Very Best of Sara Evans

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While Sara Evans is reportedly in the studio hard at work on her forthcoming seventh studio album, Sony Legacy has released a new fourteen track retrospective of her sixteen-year career – the latest installment in the label’s Playlist series.  Coming nearly five and a half years after Evans’ 2007 Greatest Hits package, Playlist:  The Very Best of Sara Evans intersperses several of her biggest hits with a few less expected inclusions.  While there is some great material to be heard, there are a few missed opportunities as well.

The most glaring omission is Evans’ 2011 smash “A Little Bit Stronger,” which returned her to the top of the charts after a six-year dry spell, and became the first platinum-certified single of her career.  Its absence is made particularly disheartening by the fact that the song post-dated Evan’s original Greatest Hits album.  Her other four number one hits – “No Place That Far,” “Born to Fly,” “Suds In the Bucket,” and “A Real Fine Place to Start” – are all present and accounted for, as are Top 10 hits “I Could Not Ask for More,” “I Keep Looking,” and “Cheatin’.”  Her 2003 #2 hit “Perfect” is curiously omitted, while “Backseat of a Greyhound Bus” gets the short shaft for the second time.

Among the lesser-known cuts, the most worthwhile inclusion is Evans’ 1997 single “Three Chords and the Truth,” from her critically acclaimed, commercially unheralded debut album of the same name – a project which Greatest Hits pretends never existed.  Another pleasant surprise is Evans’ rendition of the Barbara Mandrell hit “Crackers,” from the 2006 Mandell tribute She Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool.   Two unreleased album tracks (“You Don’t” from Born to Fly and “Niagara Falls” from Restless), one hymn (“The Sweet By and By,” after which Evans’ first novel was titled), and the pretty but forgettable Jim Brickman collaboration “Never Alone” round out the set.  The collection closes on an unnecessary sour note, tacking on the mediocre non-hit “Feels Just Like a Love Song,” from a 2009 album project that never materialized.

In theory, Sara Evans should be well served by a compilation that mixes hits with hidden treasures – especially considering that many of her finest moments never made it to heavy radio rotation.  Unfortunately, Playlist all too often includes questionable choices at the expense of superior material.  In some cases the songs included are decent, but pale in comparison to what might have been included instead.  If you’re going to include an unreleased track from Born to Fly, why “You Don’t” instead of “I Learned That from You”?  If you’re going to include a track from Restless, why “Niagara Falls” instead of “Rockin’ Horse”?  If you’re going to include one of her cover songs, why “Crackers” instead of “I Don’t Wanna Play House”?  Why not include excellent underrated singles like “Coalmine,” “Tonight,” or “Fool, I’m a Woman”?

Evaluated purely on the merits of its content, Playlist:  The Very Best of Sara Evans is an enjoyable listen with many fine tracks.  It’s a decent introduction to Sara Evans’ music, but it neither adequately summarizes her hit-making career, nor offers an effective representation of her best work.  Her 2007 Greatest Hits remains an overall better value.

Track listing:  1. Born to Fly/ 2. I Could Not Ask for More/ 3. I Keep Looking/ 4. No Place That Far/ 5. You Don’t/ 6. A Real Fine Place to Start/ 7. Sweet By and By/ 8. Three Chords and the Truth/ 9. Suds In the Bucket/ 10. Niagara Falls/ 11. Crackers/ 12. Cheatin’/ 13. Never Alone (with Jim Brickman)/ 14. Feels Just Like a Love Song

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Album Review: Katie Armiger, Fall Into Me

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Katie Armiger
Fall Into Me

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By now, Katie Armiger’s country music career comprises six years, four studio albums, and still zero bona fide radio hits.  Her label Cold River Records has nonetheless stuck with her since 2007, with her previous outing, 2010’s Confessions of a Nice Girl, producing her first chart singles in the #55 “Kiss Me Now” and the #42 “Best Song Ever.”  Her new album Fall Into Me has yet to reverse her fortunes at radio – Lead single “Better In a Black Dress” topped out at #42 on Billboard Country Airplay – but it no doubt contains more than enough tasteful, likeable pop-country material to keep current fans interested.

At its best, Fall Into Me combines effective melodies with clever lyrical turns of phrase and colorful vocal readings.  By such rights, “Man I Thought You Were” is arguably the album’s finest track, casting Armiger as a jilted young woman who’s had her heart broken by a man who didn’t fulfill expectations.  She turns the song’s concept on its head in the second verse, musing that she wishes she could hate the woman she lost her love to, but can’t because she knows that the same outcome awaits her successor.  The song’s story is enhanced by a compelling melody, and a performance that exudes vulnerability.  A similar interplay of elements is heard on “Merry Go Round,” in which a frantic melody and performance pulse in a way that mirrors the tumult of the relationship chronicled by the lyric.

The album is produced by Chad Carlson, who also produced Confessions of a Nice Girl.  Though the musical stylings often skew heavily toward the pop side of the country-pop spectrum, the album largely steers clear of the over-audacious pop arrangements that at times pervaded Confessions (with the noisy “So Long” being the glaring exception).  The project boasts several standout instrumental hooks and clever production touches, as well as some increased stylistic variety.  A brisk tempo and hand-clap section underscores the sense of urgency in album opener “He’s Gonna Change,” in which Armiger warns a woman not to hang her hopes on a man who will never grow to fully appreciate and respect her.  A prominent bazouki and harmonica imbue a swampy feel to the single woman anthem “Better In a Black Dress.”  Though “Merry Go Round” has the misfortune of sharing a title with one of the best songs currently on country radio, it boasts a catchy guitar hook anchoring a crisp, lightly infectious pop-country arrangement.

While Armiger has often shown herself to be a gifted vocalist worthy of rubbing shoulders with Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood on country radio, Fall Into Me finds the 21-year-old continuing to make artistic strides as a songwriter.  The themes of empowerment and belief in self recur throughout the album, evident in the cautious optimism of “Okay Alone,” and in the straight-up swagger of “Better In a Black Dress.”  Unfortunately, though the album serves up a generous fourteen songs, it doesn’t quite fill them out with fourteen songs’ worth of content.  Armiger appears as a co-writer on every track, but some benefit might have been derived by interspersing her own cuts with some quality outside material.  Though the figurative “A” side is fairly solid, the album loses steam around the tenth track, and starts serving up some filler.  The rather bland love song “Baby You’re Everything” hardly warrants explanation, while the forced thematic concept of “Stealing Hearts” comes off as something like the poor woman’s “Hell On Heels.”  There are also moments when she creates a solid foundation for a great song, but doesn’t quite tie it together with an effective hook.  A biting line such as “Look down on me and criticize/ It’s easy to do from up on high” seems to call for a greater payoff than “I’m free, free/ Like a raging wildfire through the trees,” and a refrain of “I’ll find a way to be okay alone” doesn’t quite match the potency of Armiger’s nuanced, falsetto-enhanced delivery.

Even though Katie Armiger has three albums already behind her, one doesn’t generally become a fully realized country artist by age 21.  At this point, she sounds like she’s flexing her creative muscles and having fun doing so.  Fall Into Me continues to hint at Armiger’s lofty potential as a creative force – at times wanting for consistency, but not for lack of heart.  Furthermore, it finds Armiger continuing to develop her own point of view as a songwriter, acting as a voice for strong, independent young women, which may very well blossom further with future releases.  Without a doubt, there is much that Fall Into Me gets right, even if it does feel like a fourteen track album that should have been a ten track album.

Top Tracks:  “Man I Thought You Were,” “Better In a Black Dress,” “Merry Go Round”

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Album Review: Wanda Jackson, <i>Unfinished Business</i>

Wanda Jackson
Unfinished Business

The original rockabilly queen returns with a vengeance on her sassy, spirited new album Unfinished Business, following up last year’s solid Jack White-produced comeback set The Party Ain’t Over.  This time around, Jackson swaps out White for Americana star Justin Townes Earle as producer as she takes on another set of classic cover tunes mixed with some newer material.

Unfinished Business draws material from a variety of

genre wells spanning classic country, blues, R&B, and rock and roll.  The album kicks off with a bang as Jackson tears into a rollicking rendition of Sonny Thompson’s “Tore Down.”  Kenny Vaughan injects a searing guitar riff into the tune that serves as a perfect match to the raw energy and grit of Jackson’s performance.  Certain choices might not fare well in comparison to previous renditions – We’ve heard superior versions of “Old Weakness (Comin’ On Strong)” by Patty Loveless and Tanya Tucker, while Jackson’s take on Bobby and Shirley Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” sounds surprisingly tame.  But even at their weakest, Jackson’s versions are always enjoyable for what they are, and there are no real duds in the bunch.

Jackson nods to her country roots with the sweet pedal steel-laden ballad “Am I Even a Memory,” a duet with Earle, as well as the aching “What Do You Do When You’re Lonesome” – a fine country shuffle if ever there was one.  But it’s not an entirely gloomy affair, as Jackson balances out the melancholy material with upbeat fare such as the Townes Van Zandt gospel rave-up “Two Hands,” which she sells with infectious joy.  Though Jackson’s vocal power may have deteriorated, her natural spunk and sense of presence more than make up for it, as toe-tappers such as “The Graveyard Shift” and Etta James’ “Pushover” show that Jackson can still belt and growl with the best of them.  The album closes with a beautiful rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “California Stars,” featuring some lovely steel guitar work by Paul Niehaus.

Considering Wanda Jackson’s musical style has long drawn from an amalgam of influences, it’s fitting that she here draws from such an eclectic selection of material.  What’s particularly impressive is that she is able to take songs from different genre origins, and make them sound like they belong together, blended by the unique flair of her performances.  Similarly, Earle’s production approach borrows elements from varying genre influences, and brings them over to traditional Wanda Jackson territory, creating an album that sounds diverse without sounding disjointed.

Indeed, though Unfinished Business pays tribute to Etta James, Sonny Thompson, Bobby Womack, and Woody Guthrie, among others, the star of the show is Jackson.  It’s not so much a country album, a rock album, or a blues album as it is simply a Wanda Jackson album – a fun, entertaining collection that serves as a testament to the enduring legacy of the talented rockabilly legend.  Her place in music history may already be secure, but as hinted at by the album’s title, Wanda Jackson is clearly not resting on her laurels.

Top Tracks:  “Tore Down,” “Pushover,” “California Stars”

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Album Review: Terri Clark, <i>Classic</i>

A great covers record, no matter how sincere the artist’s intentions, must provide a satisfactory answer to one question:  Why should we listen to this artist’s versions of these songs when the originals are still there for us to enjoy?

There are moments when Terri Clark’s Classic answers that question effectively, as well as some when the answer is murky at best.  Produced by Clark with Jeff Jones, the project fares best when Clark brings thoughtful vocal interpretations and creative production touches to her renderings of these classic songs.  Her take on Glen Campbell’s “Gentle On My Mind” marries a pleasantly subtle vocal reading to a warm and inviting bluegrass-tinged arrangement.  Another highlight is a reworking of Tanya Tucker’s 1972 debut hit “Delta Dawn,” on which Tucker herself contributes duet vocals.  Tucker proves to be in fine voice, while an acoustic guitar and fiddle-based arrangement accentuates the song’s Southern Gothic charms.  The album also includes some less-expected cover choices such as Linda Ronstadt’s “Love Is a Rose” and Emmylou Harris’ “Two More Bottles of Wine” – not necessary the usual go-to selections for a classic country covers project, but Clark’s searing fiddle-laced reworkings are a real treat.

The album’s most polarizing aspect would likely be its recurring tendency to place the songs in contemporary country-rock settings (which may make some country purists wince) similar to the style that became Clark’s calling card during her days as a mainstream country star.  One could commend Clark for adapting the songs to her own style (as opposed to causing the same musical whiplash as Martina McBride’s by-the-book re-creations from her Timeless project), but the strategy does suffer from the occasional overhaul.  She amps up Kittle Wells’ landmark hit “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” into a honky-tonk shuffle that could have worked if not for her overwrought vocal delivery, but an over-produced take on Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” all but buries the infectious sass of Lynn’s 1967 original.  By the time Clark’s rocked-up versions of Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors” and Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” roll around, the style begins to feel somewhat tired.

The duets included on the album are something of a mixed bag.  Dierks Bentley turns in one of his better performances as he fills George Jones’ shoes on the classic Jones-Wynette duet “Golden Ring.”  Dean Brody joins Clark on “I’m Movin’ On,” thus shifting the song to a two-person (ostensibly an ex-couple) perspective.  The third-person narrative of “Delta Dawn” is likewise well-suited to the duet treatment.  On the other hand, sonically pleasant duet versions of “How Blue” (with original artist Reba McEntire) and Patsy Cline’s “Leavin’ On Your Mind” (with fellow Canadian singer-songwriter Jann

Arden) suffer from the simple common flaw that the songs don’t work well as two-woman duets.

Terri Clark is to be commended for the sense of risk-taking evident on Classic, but unfortunately it sometimes comes at the expense of consistency.  Sleepless Nights it isn’t, but the best moments on Terri Clark’s Classic make it an enjoyable and worthwhile listen as a whole, even if the project falls a degree short of fulfilling its lofty potential.

Top Tracks:  “Love Is a Rose,” “Gentle On My Mind,” “Delta Dawn”

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