Category Archives: Album Reviews

Album Review: Blake Shelton, Bringing Back the Sunshine

Blake Shelton Bringing Back the Sunshine

Blake Shelton
Bringing Back the Sunshine

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He’s been coasting on his celebrity status and his brand of aw-shucks humor for years, so it’s encouraging that Blake Shelton’s Bringing Back the Sunshine seems less phoned-in than its predecessors.

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Album Review: Angaleena Presley, American Middle Class

Angaleena Presley American Middle Class

Angaleena Presley
American Middle Class

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Presley’s upbringing in the hollows of Eastern Kentucky provides her with an endless well of believable first-person details that she uses to create the quirky, cockeyed fictions on American Middle Class. Hers are the types of stories that bait autobiographical readings— always a critical dead-end, even when Taylor Swift insists on dropping hints as to who her songs are about— but what Presley does best is create a sustained mood.

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Album Review: Brad Paisley, Moonshine in the Trunk

Brad Paisley Moonshine in the Trunk

Brad Paisley
Moonshine in the Trunk

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Paisley’s last four albums have established a pattern of something slightly progressive or challenging (American Saturday Night, Wheelhouse) followed by a course-correction back toward baseline (This is Country Music, Moonshine in the Trunk).

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Album Review: Trisha Yearwood, PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit

Trisha Yearwood PrizeFighter

Trisha Yearwood
PrizeFighter: Hit After Hit

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PrizeFighter: Hit after Hit includes the first set of new material from Trisha Yearwood in seven years.  That new material, six tracks in total, is uniformly excellent and often extraordinary, adding to her already impressive legacy as the genre’s finest singer and interpreter of the last thirty years.   What a pity that the rest of the collection cheapens and sullies that legacy.

Let’s start with those wonderful new tracks.  The lead single and title cut, “PrizeFighter”, is an inspiring, get back up when you fall power anthem, featuring supporting vocals by Kelly Clarkson.   In true Trisha form, the preview track is better than just about anything else on the radio today, yet still only hints at the treasures that await on the rest of the album.

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Album Review: Tim McGraw, Sundown Heaven Town

Tim mcgraw sundown heaven town

Tim McGraw
Sundown Heaven Town

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Tim McGraw returning to form is the musical equivalent of reconnecting with an old friend, where spending a little time with them suddenly reminds you why you were such good friends in the first place.

Sundown Heaven Town is McGraw’s strongest album in ten years, his best since 2004’s award-winning Live Like You Were Dying, which I still consider his strongest collection to date.  In the years since that collection, he’s been chasing trends more than setting them.  Each album had its strong moments, but always fewer than the previous one.  His simple formula – find a great song, sing it with enthusiasm, and keep the clutter in check – got lost along the way.

It’s not a coincidence that all of his recent awards attention have been for collaborations, usually with artists who hit the scene well after him.   He’s been chasing trends, not setting them.

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Album Review: Dolly Parton, Blue Smoke

Dolly Parton Blue Smoke

Dolly Parton
Blue Smoke
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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.

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Album Review: Miranda Lambert, Platinum

Miranda Lambert Platinum

Miranda Lambert
Platinum

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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.

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Album Review: Emmylou Harris, Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition

Emmylou Harris Wrecking Ball Deluxe Edition

Emmylou Harris

Wrecking Ball: Deluxe Edition

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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.

 

 

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Album Review: Rhonda Vincent, Only Me

Rhonda Vincent-only_me

Rhonda Vincent
Only Me

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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.

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Round Table Album Review: Brandy Clark, 12 Stories

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Brandy Clark
12 Stories

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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

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“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

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“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

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“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

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“Hungover”

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

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“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

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“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

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