Category Archives: Album Reviews

Album Review: Corb Lund, Cabin Fever

 

With all the excellent releases that have come out this fall, it would be a shame to have one of the year’s best albums get overlooked.

Tell the current crop of current country music hitmakers to come up with a song based on the title “Gettin’ Down on the Mountain,” and you’d probably end up with a bunch of party anthems about kicking back on the weekend with your girl, your pickup truck and a 12-pack. Give the same title to Corb Lund, and he comes up with a retreat into self-reliance and solitude while an oil shortage leads to gridlock, the devaluation of paper currency, widespread hunger and an eventual and total breakdown of society itself. And with a catchy chorus, too.

In other words, don’t expect a lot of songs about girls dancing on tailgates on Lund’s albums. Outlaws, cowboys (the real ones), goth chicks and cows are much more likely to make an appearance on his latest album, Cabin Fever. Where so many current country songs fail to sound the least bit original (or country, for that matter), it’s refreshing to have someone like Lund come around and blatantly ignore any self-imposed restraints currently infecting the genre.

Lund and his band, the Hurtin’ Albertans, keep things sounding country for the most part. “Cows Around” is a lively Western swing tune that can double as an introductory course to the bovine family, and “Drink It Like You Mean It” is a similarly fun honky-tonker. Elsewhere, the band veers off into rockabilly (the campy “Gothest Girl I Can”), blues (“Dig Gravedigger Dig”) or surf rock (“Mein Deutsches Motorrad”).

Some of Lund’s songs can be so out in left field that when he delivers a sincere lyric, it can be almost disconcerting. “September” is a heartbreaking plea from one about to be left behind in a relationship, based on the fact that the simple country life doesn’t hold enough excitement for everyone. “One Left in the Chamber” goes down an even darker path, where a lifetime of regrets finally boils over. They serve as a reminder that while Lund can create some truly absurd characters and situations in his lyrics, he can’t be written off as a comedic lightweight.

As actual country music becomes harder and harder to find through mainstream sources, fans will have to turn increasingly to left-field sources for their fix. Fortunately, discovering Corb Lund is a trip worth taking.

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Album Review: Kathy Mattea, <i>Calling Me Home</i>

Kathy Mattea
Calling Me Home

 On her exquisite new album Calling Me Home, Kathy Mattea shows herself to be an artist who fully understands music as a medium of art and self-expression.  Following down a path similar to that of her stellar Grammy-nominated 2008 effort Coal, but expanding upon it by dealing with a wider range of topics, Calling Me Home finds Mattea turning to her own roots for inspiration, and producing what just might be the finest album of her illustrious career.

Produced by Gary Paczosa and Mattea herself, Calling Me Home is a confident, ambitious album that displays broadness in thematic scope, and eclecticism in musical influences, yet does so without sacrificing cohesion.  The album is perhaps most instantly appreciable as a work of astounding sonic beauty.  Mattea’s distinctive alto has rarely sounded better than it does when poured into a collection of simply beautiful Appalachian songs that she renders with poise, grace, and palpable personal connection.  Her voice is framed by the sounds of pure, gorgeous mountain instruments, performed by an ace team of veteran pickers that includes Bill Cooley on guitar, Bryan Sutton on mandolin, and Stuart Duncan on fiddle, among others.

Several songs encapsulate the warmth and comfort of home, as well as the homesickness brought on by one’s being separated from it.  The former is manifested in a warm and inviting waltz-like take on Hazel Dickens’ “West Virginia, My Home, with the latter being explored on the beautiful mandolin-driven album opener “A Far Cry.”  Mattea also addresses the coal mining industry that is central to the West Virginia economy.  In musing on man’s unending lust for coal, she takes on the voice of coal itself in the brilliant Larry Cordle/ Jeneé Fleenor

composition, “Hello, My Name Is Coal.”  She ventures into bleaker territory with Jean Ritchie’s “Black Waters,” (which features contributions from two of country music’s finest harmony vocalists, Patty Loveless and Emmylou Harris) a song which conveys the frustration of a narrator who sees his beloved farmland overrun by mining pollution.  Another Jean Ritchie song, the tragic “West Virginia Mine Disaster” deals with the heartbreak of a woman whose husband is killed in a coal mine, with Mattea delivering a desperate, heartrending performance.

A foremost thematic thread running through the album is that of respect for the natural world, and of the ongoing conflict between preservation of nature and man’s desire for growth and expansion.  “The Maple’s Lament” is worth hearing even just for the piercing, moaning fiddle that opens the track, and winds its way throughout, but Mattea’s take on Laurie Lewis’s aching tale of a maple tree that loses its life to a woodsman’s axe is more than enough to keep one interested.  In a similar vein, “The Wood Thrush’s Song” takes on the voice of the woodland bird whose song is no longer heard in the Appalachian woods.  Mattea’s vocal renderings show that she deeply she identifies with the characters she inhabits in these songs, whether giving voice to the widow of a deceased coal miner, or to something as simple as a personified wood thrush or maple tree.

The theme of human activities’ effect on nature comes to a head on Alice Gerrard’s “Now Is the Cool of the Day.”  In this haunting, unadorned a cappella performance, (one of two a cappella tracks on the album, the title track being the other) Mattea recounts an exchange between God and man that serves as a reminder of humankind’s responsibility to tend earth’s natural resources rather than damage them.  A message of hope is echoed by Si Kahn’s Gaelic ballad “Gone, Gonna Rise Again,” which deals with the restorative power of nature in the face of having been marred by human carelessness.

The value of this album is manifold.  Calling Me Home acquaints us on a personal level with the woman behind the microphone, giving insight into her background, and the things that are important and dear to her.  It enlightens, and challenges the listener to become a better, more caring person – not through a preachy or condescending tone, but through thought-provoking song material that that appeals to the listener’s heart, as well as to one’s own sense of home.

In short, the album does everything that music in its finest and purest form is meant to do.  The resulting product is not only the best country album of 2012, but a new peak for a woman who has already made some of the most compelling music of her generation.  Without a doubt, Mattea’s Calling Me Home is a must-have.

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Album Review: Various Artists, <i>KIN: Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell</i>

Various Artists
KIN:  Songs by Mary Karr & Rodney Crowell

A collection of songs written by industry veteran Rodney Crowell along with bestselling author and poet Mary Karr, recorded by a who’s who of country and Americana music greats. It should be enough to set the mouth of many a roots music aficiando watering.

The very concept behind the album places the emphasis squarely on the songwriting – an approach that is flawlessly adhered to by Joe Henry’s ace cialis no prescription needed quick delivery production job. The twangy, stripped-down arrangements stay entirely out of the way of the songs, often reverently nodding to the conventions of traditional country music. It doesn’t feel so much as a rote exercise in throwback neotraditionalism, but more so as a style that simply feels timeless and ageless on its own merits, untainted by production trends that might tie it to a particular era.

In large part, what’s impressive about this album is that, despite the eclectic line-up of participating artists, KIN doesn’t feel like a potluck project of songs randomly thrown together.  It really does feel like an album, with each track serving as a part of a cohesive whole, bound together by recurring themes of family and rural small town life.  Karr’s liner notes reveal that for song inspiration, she and Crowell drew heavily upon their own youthful experiences, having come from very similar upbringings despite not having grown up together.  However, the treatment of such topics is hardly lily-white, with family homes often sporting bullet holes and reeking of alcohol.

Crowell himself steps up to the mic on four of the albums ten tracks, sharing it with Kris Kristofferson on the standout duet “My Father’s Advice,” which boasts an infectious melody and fiddle hook.  While country radio often favors the proverbial “old man’s advice” song, “My Father’s Advice” rises above the often cliché-laden mainstream treatment of such subject matter by creating a believable, three-dimensional character sketch of the narrator’s father – realistically imperfect, but deeply devoted to rearing his son in the right way, with Kristofferson giving voice to the father figure of Crowell’s narrator.  Crowell’s other vocal turns include the noncharting single “I’m a Mess,” along with album opener “Anything But Tame,” a wistful meditation on the course taken by a childhood friendship.

The contributions of the participating artists are no less stellar.  Having built a career as a mainstream country artist with a moderate neotraditionalist bent, Lee Ann Womack has never sounded better than when paired with a fiddle-drenched pure country arrangement.  A jaunty tempo and dobro hook bely the dark lyric as Womack sings from the perspective of a child witnessing the dissolution of her alcoholic parents’ marriage on album standout “Momma’s On a Roll.”  In keeping with the family theme, the camaraderie of sisterhood is explored with “Sister Oh Sister,” which Crowell’s ex-wife Rosanne Cash renders with deep sincerity.  Vince Gill’s sweet tenor absolutely soars when paired with the stone cold throwback arrangement of “Just Pleasing You” – a traditional country gem that wouldn’t sound out of the place in the legendary Hank Williams catalog.  Lucinda Williams sounds downright desperate in her delivery of the aching ballad “God I’m Missing You,” while Norah Jones turns in a delightfully wry take on “If the Law Don’t Want You” – a witty tune inspired by Mary Karr’s teenage years.  Times past have attested to the fact that no Rodney Crowell song can hope for a finer vocal medium than the incomparable Emmylou Harris, who delivers the haunting “Long Time Girl Gone By” in an earthy whisper of a performance.

Crowell closes out the set with “Hungry For Home,” a charming detail-laden lyric that encapsulates the warmth and comfort of one’s home – something that can be found even in a home long beset with family strife.  It’s a fitting conclusion to the album as a whole, showing that – despite the hardships Karr and Crowell both dealt with in their respective upbringings on into adult life – they clearly retain a deep appreciation for the experiences that have shaped them as individuals.  “It was like we’d grown up next door in a hellacious place – the anus of the universe, my mother always called it,” writes Karr.  “But we adored those characters and their language – we’d never choose elsewhere.”

Considering that country music has long been a primarily singles-oriented format, it’s refreshing to see such a fine realization of the album as an art form. Though each individual piece is captivating in itself, KIN remains an album best heard in its entirety, with hardly a weak track to be found.  The entire project radiates authenticity, as Karr and Crowell essentially hand over their respective family photo albums for music lovers to leaf through, making KIN feel very much like a memoir set to music.  One would certainly hope that Karr and Crowell continue to write excellent songs together, and that the results will be at least half as rewarding as they are on this fine album.

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Album Review: Zac Brown Band, <i>Uncaged</i>

Zac Brown Band
Uncaged

Uncaged  may be the product of studio recording sessions, but it pulses with the energy of a live set.

That much is evident right from the bongo drums and whistle hook that open the album on “Jump Right In.”  Immediately afterward, the title track lays down a heavy arena-rock groove that was obviously made for a live setting.  Needless to say, the band’s eclectic musical stylings will not suit every listener’s personal taste, while traditionalist country music fans will find relatively little to celebrate on this record.   Regardless, it remains obvious that, of all the bands currently in heavy rotation on country radio, few are as fully developed as an actual band as Brown and his cohorts.

Yet Uncaged would not be the success that it is if not for the high quality of Brown’s songwriting, consistently characterized by unaffected sincerity, straightforwardness, and naturalness of flow.  “Goodbye In Her Eyes” begins with the line “I could tell that it was over when her lips met mine/ It was an emptiness in her voice, hesitation when she smiled” and heads from there to “She’d found what she’d been looking for, and I knew it wasn’t me,” while the backing instruments swell with a rising sense of urgency, making the track a clear standout in lyrical construction as well as overall song structure.

The weakest track on the album is called – wait for it – “Island Song,” and sounds like just about every other “island song” pervading country music.  It generally brings nothing new to the tiki bar, save for a painfully affected fake Jamaican accent on Brown’s part, while the aforementioned “Jump Right In” draws on similar reggae influences, but does so with a greater level of personality.  Likewise, “Sweet Annie” is a solid song on its own merits, but one that sounds a little too much like a retread of last year’s hit “Colder Weather,” both lyrically and melodically.

Lead single and current Top 20 hit “The Wind” is easily one of the best and coolest-sounding singles to make it to radio airwaves this year.  It’s one of the few tracks on the album that scans unmistakably as country music, but one that nods to genre conventions without compromising the band’s distinct sense of identity.  The band taps into a smooth jazz vibe with the Trombone Shorty collaboration “Overnight” – a sultry come-on lyric that could have scanned as embarrassingly campy if delivered through a lesser performance, but one that Brown manages to sell with infectious gusto.

While the band’s influences run the gamut from Alan Jackson to the Eagles to Jimmy Buffett to Bob Marley – and this album alone includes collaborations with Amos Leigh, Sonia Leigh, and Jason Mraz – Uncaged still manages to sound first and foremost like a Zac Brown Band album.  The effortless charm of Brown’s singing and songwriting, not to mention the energy of the band’s musicianship, creates a common unifying thread that runs throughout all the genre styles experimented with through the course of the set.

It’s consistently clear How do u buy propecia in canada that, according to the Zac Brown Band’s musical approach, it’s not about genres.  It’s not about radio formats.  It’s not about pleasing one’s chosen demographic.  It’s about music, plain and simple.  As a result, Uncaged is an unshakably confident, ambitious-sounding record that refuses to condescend to its listeners, and it thus may be just the thing to impart a shot of authenticity to mainstream country music.

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Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter, <i>Ashes and Roses</i>

Mary Chapin Carpenter
Ashes and Roses

Mary Chapin Carpenter could be considered an example of the rare artist who releases her best and most significant work right in the midst of her commercial heyday, or whose music might have even benefited from considering the ever-present concerns of what could be grasped by mainstream audiences.  In the years since Carpenter’s hot streak ended – She hasn’t had a Top 40 hit since 1999's “Almost Home” – she seems to have lost sight of the need to bring her thoughts down to an accessible, digestible level.

If you’ve at all been following Mary Chapin Carpenter’s output over the past decade, it should come as little surprise that her new album Ashes and Roses often wants for variance in melody and tempo.  Likewise, Carpenter and producer Matt Rollings back each track with only slight variations on the same soft acoustic coffeehouse folk arrangement.  Still, the greater issue is that the album offers little reward for the listeners who do take a closer listen, and dig deeper into the lyrical sentiments presented.

There’s hardly a memorable hook to be found on this album, be it lyrical or melodic, which means there’s little to help the material make any lasting impression on the memory.  Opener “Transcendental Reunion” has a melodic structure that essentially consists of the same progression of notes repeated endlessly throughout, offering a weak listener payoff.  Even when Carpenter hones in on a potentially interesting idea for a song, the treatment feels vague and underdeveloped.  One such example is “What to Keep and What to Throw Away,” which ineffectively attempts to chronicle the end of a relationship through a one-dimensional series of instructions delivered without any palpable emotional intensity.  “Don’t Need Much Too Be Happy” trades in a somewhat similar variation on Carpenter’s 1993 Lucinda Williams-penned hit, the superior “Passionate Kisses,” but lacks the same layers of character development in its list of polite requests for things the narrator needs.  The James Taylor duet “Soul Companion fails to reach any greater crescendo than a repetition of the title phrase along with a hollow refrain of “I will meet you there.” (Where?)  The fact that Carpenter’s voice scarcely rises above a whisper throughout the set doesn’t do anything to offset the weightlessness of the material, instead adding to the overall dreariness of the record as a whole.

The set’s best-written song is “Learning the World,” which is a wistful meditation on the grieving process – possibly inspired in part by Carpenter’s experience in dealing with the death of her father.  It opens with an interesting personification of grief as if “rides quietly on the passenger side, unwanted company on a long, long drive,” though it still includes the odd throwaway line “I wish I were the wind, so that I could blow away.”  Carpenter also connects more solidly with “I Tried Going West,” which benefits from a stronger semblance of narrative and attention to detail.  Even the songs that are more satisfying lyrically still suffer greatly from lack of heed to the importance of melody, such that listening to all fourteen of the album’s tracks still feels more like a chore than anything else.  By the time you’re only a few tracks in, you’ll find it awfully hard to resist flinging around the word boring.

Of course, many similar criticisms could be, and were, leveled against Carpenter’s previous set, 2010’s The Age of Miracles.  But even then, Miracles included several scattered melodic mood-breakers such as the singles “I Put My Ring Back On” and “The Way I Feel,” which is something that Ashes and Roses cannot claim. 

At this point, it’s easy to wonder if Carpenter will ever make a truly great album again.  It’s extremely disheartening to see such direction being taken by an artist who made such fine music back in her day, with her career-best effort Stones In the Road ranking among the greatest country albums ever recorded.  Ashes and Roses simply lacks the wit, insight, vigor, and substantial connection to everyday life that were the hallmarks of Carpenter’s best work, making it feel less like any form of forward artistic progression, and more like the spinning of wheels.

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Album Review: Alan Jackson, <i>Thirty Miles West</i>

Alan Jackson
Thirty Miles West

Jackson does so many basic things right on his new album that it's tempting to award him five stars right off the bat.

The production is clean, his singing doesn't get in the way of the songs, and those songs have complete ideas and actual structure.   It's the first mainstream country album in a long time that isn't overrun with production tricks, or kicking up the loudness to eleven, or playing an exaggerated personality type that's condescending to its audience.

In short, it's what we used to expect most country albums to be, but in today's climate, it sounds almost revelatory upon first listen.    Truth is, it's just a solid Alan Jackson album, and when put in the context of his own body of work, away from the comparisons to today's substandard standard-bearers, it demonstrates his usual consistency but perhaps not the creativity that has fueled his best work.

Jackson co-wrote about half the album, and he revisits some of the themes that have resulted in his greatest performances, but the latest variants are not as distinctive and memorable.   “Dixie Highway” captures his love for his upbringing and his roots, but despite charming support from Zac Brown, it's just not specific and urgent enough to meet the bar he set with “Home”, “Chattahoochee”, “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, and “Small Town Southern Man.”

“Everything But the Wings” is a beautiful love song with some poetic turns of phrase, but it doesn't have the seductive romance of “I'll Go On Loving You” or the personal poignancy of “Remember When.”  Similarly, there are some brilliant lines scattered throughout the solemn closing track, “When I Saw You Leaving (For Nisey)”, but the rambling narrative lacks the potent simplicity of “Sissy's Song” and “Monday Morning Church.”

The latter of those two classics was penned by outside writers, and interestingly, it is the outside material that shines brightest on Thirty Miles West.   “You Go Your Way” is a goodbye song in the same vein as the George Strait classic “Easy Come, Easy Go”, but it's not so easy for the protagonist of this one.   It has one of those great couplets that only sounds right in a real country song, soaked in fiddles and steel guitar:  “I poured some bourbon in a coffee cup.  It's been too long since I drank too much.”

Only a man who could sing that line convincingly could also get away with the opener, “Gonna Come Back as a Country Song”, which finds him promising his wife that she needn't grieve once he's gone, providing reincarnation is real.   He'll be back as a country song, living in eternal paradise “between the fiddle and the steel guitar.”

Two breakup songs are even better.   “She Don't Get High” has something of a misleading title, with its lament being that he “don't make her fly anymore…Hard as I try, I'm not the sky she's looking for.”   Even better is the current single, “So You Don't Have to Love Me Anymore”, which isn't just the best song Alan Jackson has recorded in the past few years.  It's better than nearly everyone else's best, too.

But my personal favorite moment comes from Jackson's own pen: “Her Life's a Song.”  It tells the story of a woman who loves every type of music and associates all of the big and little moments of her life with it.   He creates a totally believable character, and does so without succumbing to a single female stereotype or disparaging other genres and styles for the sake of putting country on a pedestal.    In a weird way, it's like the music lover's counterpart to the universality of “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)”,  celebrating everyone's experience with music as valid and worth singing about.

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Album Review: Carrie Underwood, Blown Away

Carrie Underwood
Blown Away

At this point, it’s easy to forget that Carrie Underwood first kicked off her country music career as an American Idol graduate.  Besides being one of country music’s most technically gifted female vocalists, she’s gone on to become one of its strongest commercial forces, with a seven-year-long string of Top-2 hit singles, not to mention albums that consistently sell like hotcakes.  But a noteworthy gap has often been seen between the impressiveness of Underwood’s talent and success and the quality of her material. In terms of lyrics and production, at least, Underwood’s new album Blown Away finds her taking steps forward that are small, but steps forward nonetheless.

As hinted at by the gloomy cover image, Underwood’s fourth album finds her taking on some notably darker, more serious song material than on her previous albums.  After leading off with the wildly catchy Shania Twain-esque debut single “Good Girl,” the album quickly takes a turn for deadly serious territory.  The title track tells of a young woman taking revenge on her abusive alcoholic father by hiding in the cellar when a tornado approaches their home, letting the house collapse on top of her father while he lies passed out on the floor.  Though it doesn’t quite reach the spine-tingling heights of Martina McBride’s similarly themed “Independence Day,” “Blown Away” is one of the most interesting and complex songs here, and though it could do without the gaudy vocal reverb effects, the arrangement lends the track an appropriately eerie feel.  As “Two Black Cadillacs” begins with a funeral scene, the listener is quickly pulled into the tale of two black veil-wearing women who share a dark secret.  The omission of some narrative details toward the end lessens the ultimate listener payoff, but “Two Black Cadillacs” likewise remains one of the album’s more striking and memorable cuts.  Indeed, Underwood is to be applauded for putting for the attempt to tackle more challenging lyrical material, as opposed to the predictable fare that tended to weigh down her previous releases.

Similarly, though the album often settles for the same pop-country sound that Underwood and producer Mark Bright have long favored, here there are several tweaks to the usual formula.  The prominent mandolin line on “Leave Love Alone” sounds different that anything Underwood has previously recorded, while the signature Brad Paisley guitar-shredding on “Cupid’s Got a Shotgun” turns an already fun song into a regular jam session.  The surprisingly sparse, primarily acoustic number “Do You Think About Me” benefits from added restraint both in production and vocal, which is effective in delivering the wistful lyric.  These production choices don’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, while some – such as the reggae flavorings of “One Way Ticket,” for example – may prove polarizing, but they are unexpected coming from Underwood.  Such willingness on the parts of Underwood and Bright to go for the occasional risk is refreshing.

Weighing in at a generous fourteen tracks, the album could have benefited from leaving off a few of its more forgettable cuts, and perhaps being condensed into a more consistently solid ten- or twelve-track collection instead.  Blown Away suffers most when it veers off into a shallow, feel-good thematic direction, which is particularly evident on the trite self-esteem booster “Nobody Ever Told You,” as well as the beachy Chesney-esque reggae of  “One Way Ticket” – the latter an obvious candidate for a summertime single release, with a music video that practically creates itself.  That’s not to say that such lyrical concepts are necessarily taboo, but these particular efforts lack the personality and strong hooks that are needed to make such efforts memorable.  The fact that power ballad “See You Again” was originally intended for The Chronicles of Narnia soundtrack is telling, as the vague, platitudinous lyric savors strongly of disposable soundtrack fare.  Cliché-laden album closer “Who Are You,” a surprising misfire of a composition from Shania Twain’s ex-husband/ ex-producer/ ex-songwriting-collaborator Robert John “Mutt” Lange,” is just a total bore.

That said, Underwood can be remarkably successful when she puts forth the earnest attempt to connect with her listeners on a relatable emotional level.  Though the title of “Thank God for Hometowns” raises a red flag, we are treated to a fully three-dimensional portrayal of the very best aspects of small-town living (“Small Town U.S.A.” it isn’t, thankfully), including the small-town camaraderie of close neighbors and friends, while the conversational tone lends both a personal feel and a welcome sense of structure to the lyric.  The two finest tracks are “Good In Goodbye” and “Wine After Whiskey,” both ranking among Underwood’s strongest co-writes to date.  The former displays a level of maturity and clear-eyed insight as Underwood reflects on a difficult breakup that has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  The latter utilizes an effective metaphor of drinking wine after whiskey to illustrate how the narrator’s current lover pales in comparison to the one she lost.  Better still, Underwood displays notable growth as a lyrical interpreter on both of these songs, wisely sparing us the power notes, while adding to the emotional impact through her nuance and subtlety.

Though it’s not quite a wholly consistent project, and it does have its share of weak spots, Blown Away is an album that is brilliant at best, and bland at worst.  But what makes Blown Away a fascinating and ultimately satisfying collection is that it displays an artist willing to continually grow and challenge herself by experimenting with different sounds, musical styles, and lyrical themes.  In today’s music industry, it’s all too easy for an established superstar to settle for predictable, wheels-spinning material that furthers his or her primary marketing persona without moving forward artistically in any meaningful way.  Granted, Underwood’s attempts at branching out still result in occasional missteps, several of which are documented on this album.  Still, to see such a demonstration of a “What’s next?” artistic muse, particularly from a woman who can already out-sing most of her peers from the corner of her mouth, is an absolute joy to hear.  Here’s hoping her future efforts achieve greater consistency to go along with her ambition.

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Album Review: Marty Stuart, <i>Nashville, Vol. 1: Tear the Woodpile Down</i>

Marty Stuart
Nashville, Vol. 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down

The casual listener may remember Marty Stuart for the string of country radio hits he enjoyed in the late eighties and early nineties.  However, Stuart’s legacy was cemented by groundbreaking projects released after his commercial heyday had drawn to a close, particularly 1999's landmark The Pilgrim as well as 2010's career-best effort Ghost Train:  The Studio B Sessions.  Through such critically lauded work Stuart has built up a reputation as an elder statesman of country music, acting to preserve country music's heritage and traditions, while simultaneously working to move the genre forward.

One important reason why Stuart has been such a fine advocate of traditional country music is that he does not treat it as a musical museum piece, but rather treats it as it is – as real and relevant now as it has ever been.  This is continually evident on Stuart’s new Sugar Hill release Nashville, Vol. 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down.  The project finds Stuart graciously and sincerely paying tribute to country music’s storied past, at times through well-chosen cover songs.  He offers his own rendition of the Jerry Chestnutt composition “Holding On to Nothin,” which was a Top 10 hit for Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton in 1968.  The song’s brilliantly constructed lyric finds a couple’s desire to rekindle their romance colliding with the sad realization that there is little left to save.  “I feel guilty when they envy me and you” is arguably one of the best lines a country song has ever come up with.

But while the album respectfully nods to the past, the loose infectious energy of up-tempo tracks like “Tear the Woodpile Down” and “Truck Driver Blues” is hardly derivative, adding to the project’s contemporary edge.  The latter finds Stuart both shredding the mandolin, and name-dropping wife Connie Smith.  The album also offers a more restrained reinterpretation of one song that previously appeared on Stuart’s 2003 effort Country Music, and “Sundown In Nashville” is a song that is most definitely worthy of a repeat release.  The lyric highlights the sad truth that for every performer who achieves the dream of becoming a country music star, countless others see their dreams “shattered and swept to the outskirts of town” – a sentiment that has remained of continued relevance on down through country music history.

On Tear the Woodpile Down, Stuart continues to indulge his penchant for collaborating with his like-minded friends.  Sadly, the list of collaborators does not include Connie Smith this time around, but the harmony vocals of The Carter Family descendant Lorrie Carter Bennett add a bittersweet touch to the beautiful steel weeper “A Song of Sadness,” while veteran guitarist and Jerry Lee Lewis-collaborator Kenny Lovelace appears on “A Matter of Time.”  The album closes on a high note with the Hank Williams III duet “Picture from Life’s Other Side” – a song originally written and recorded by Hank Williams, Sr., and one that Stuart and Hank III have performed together live.  Stuart’s smooth vocal delivery contrasts nicely with Hank III’s gritty drawl.  The two are backed by a bare-boned acoustic arrangement, allowing the song itself to pull the full weight with its brilliantly dark take on human mortality.  While backed by his seasoned cohorts The Fabulous Superlatives – who get to twang it out on the rousing instrumental track “Hollywood Boogie” – the project also includes appearances by veteran steel player Robbie Turner, as well as multi-instrumentalist Buck Trent, who lends his banjo work to the comedic title track and to “Holding On to Nothin’.”  Such contributions aid in making Tear the Woodpile Down an endlessly cool-sounding record.

In classic Marty Stuart fashion, Nashville, Vol. 1:  Tear the Woodpile Down shines with stellar, classic-worthy songwriting, bolstered by top-notch musicianship and restlessly creative arrangements.  It ranks as one of 2012’s best album’s yet – a thoughtful homage to country music's past that remains fully connected to the present, and one that will thoroughly satisfy any passionate devotee of pure, simple, non-hyphenated country music.

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Album Review: Tim McGraw, Emotional Traffic

Tim McGraw
Emotional Traffic

If you had a friend who was a tightrope walker, and you were walking down a sidewalk, and he fell, that would be completely unacceptable. – Mitch Hedberg

~~~

Emotional Traffic is a collection of poor choices.

First and foremost, the material is shockingly weak.  Yes, McGraw has been slowly slipping over the last couple of albums, but the bottom has completely fallen out here.

Take a song like “Right Back Atcha Babe”, for example.  It’s a hodgepodge of little details in the same vein as “Something Like That,” but none of them are believable.  And why are they having the conversation anyway? It’s not like they’ve suddenly run into each other after a really long time.  Why is he recapping the events like he’s got to get her caught up before this week’s episode?

“One Part, Two Part” and “I Will Not Fall Down” are Nashville songwriting at its laziest.   They’re not even songs so much as they’re song titles.   It’s all packaging and no product.

The album is polluted with that bizarre inversion of modern country music:  The less a song has to say, the longer it takes to say it.   Songs go on forever on this album.  The bloated opener, “Halo”, doesn’t contain a single intelligible moment, despite five minutes of trying.   “Touchdown Jesus” is a ridiculous concept to begin with, and could’ve made its point in two minutes instead of four, had McGraw had the good taste to cover Bobby Bare’s “Dropkick Me, Jesus” instead.

Look, you know you’re in trouble when nine tracks in, it’s a relief to hear “Felt Good On My Lips.”  Sure, the melody’s so blatantly derivative of “Video Killed the Radio Star”  that it makes Lady Gaga sound fresh and original.   But at least it has a pulse, even if I’m still bewildered by the Incredible Machinery of it all.

And to be fair, there are some decent moments scattered throughout, like “Better Than I Used to Be” and “Die By My Own Hand”, but it’s all ground that McGraw’s covered before, and better, too.   They’re just not worth sitting through Emotional Traffic for.

Had I not committed to writing this review, I don’t know that I would’ve listened to this album at all, certainly not for a second and third time.  This level of work from this level of talent is nothing short of completely unacceptable.

 

 

 

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Album Review: Kellie Pickler, 100 Proof


Kellie Pickler
100 Proof

From early on, it was announced that Pickler’s third album would more closely reflect the sound of the traditional country music that is closest to her heart, with Pickler claiming to have made the album “as country as I was allowed to make it.”  The bouncy steel guitars chords of opening track “Where’s Tammy Wynette,” and opening lyrics “While I’m torn between killin’ him and lovin’ him/ He stays torn between neon lights and home” quickly announce that Pickler is not kidding.

Does that mean that the album is a retro effort?  Not necessarily.  Rather, Pickler and her producers Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten effectively craft a sound that gives a respectful nod to country music’s past while simultaneously making tasteful use of modern sounds.  Thus, the album carries a strong traditionalist bent, but sounds vintage without sounding dated, demonstrating that it is indeed possible to create a fresh and modern contemporary country album while still maintaining a strong connection to the traditions of the past.

Ultimately, what really makes the album work is the fact that Pickler sounds at home and in her element throughout.  Though her technical vocal abilities are rather limited, the song selections and stylings of this album serve her well, highlighting her strengths as an interpretive singer.  Pickler herself takes writing credits on six tracks, collaborating with songwriting talents such as Dean Dillon and Leslie Satcher.  While she opts for softly wistful vocal takes on ballads such as “Long As I Never See You Again” and “Turn On the Radio and Dance,” she throws herself into the groove of “Unlock That Honky Tonk” with a loose, infectious energy.  “Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)” is just a simple charming delight of a song, with a lightly catchy melody that lingers in the head long after the song has ended.  Pickler longlingly sings “Don’t stop rockin’ with me, baby” while soft, airy fiddles lend the song a pleasant breezy feel.

While “Where’s Tammy Wynette” is unfortunately tainted by association with the ill-advised name-dropping craze, it’s actually a surprisingly decent song in which a wronged housewife looks to the honky tonk heartbreak queens of the past for advice and inspiration.  Like the 2008 Heidi Newfield hit “Johnny and June,” Pickler’s “Tammy Wynette” manages to reference a legend in a way that feels genuinly reverent and fleshed-out instead of superficial.  Even better is the straight-to-the-point “Stop Cheatin’ On Me” which has lyrics that sound thematically reminiscient of Loretta Lynn’s “You’ve Just Stepped In (From Stepping Out On Me)”  The female narrator counteracts her man’s philandering ways by threatening to repay in kind, while the song is backed by a steel-laden arrangement steeped in country tradition, the likes of which are rarely heard on country radio these days.

There are moments when the formula hits weak points.  Lead single “Tough” was written by Leslie Satcher, and was written for and about Pickler, supposedly inspired by her troubled childhood – an approach that is reflected in the song’s accompanying music video.  Unfortunately, it’s a bit too obvious that the song was written, not by Pickler herself, but by a co-writer (Leslie Satcher) who did not have Pickler’s firsthand experience, as the lyrics ring hollow for want of detail.  To her credit, Pickler sings it with gusto, and her producers dress it up with plenty of fiddle and banjo, making for a song that is sonically engaging but lyrically uninspiring.  Similarly, the production and vocal elevate the not-particularly-interesting road song “Little House On the Highway” to a degree, though it still ranks as one of the album’s more forgettable cuts.  The only instance in which production becomes an issue is in the overdramatic bridge on the title track, which culminates in an intrusive guitar solo.

Pickler shines brightest when she gets personal.  Drawing on her troubled childhood, she addresses both of her parents in songs with the tracks “Mother’s Day” and “The Letter (To Daddy).”  The former, written by Pickler with husband Kyle Jacobs, connects solidly by isolating a specific childhood experience that many listeners can relate to – buying a Mother’s Day card, having a photo taken with one’s mother – with Pickler expressing how she wishes she could have experienced such things for herself.  Though both songs mourn the heartaches of the past, they also cast a hopeful eye toward the future.  “Mother’s Day” finds Pickler vowing to be the mother she never had, should she ever have a child of her own, while “The Letter” concludes with Pickler determining to “make up for lost time” with her estranged father.  Best of all, both tracks utilize sparse acoustic production, allowing Pickler to connect deeply with some of her most beatifully restrained and compelling vocal performances to date.

All in all, there is much that 100 Proof gets right.  By placing Pickler in the musical environment that suits her best, and giving her a strong batch of song material, 100 Proof demonstrates that Pickler’s potential is significantly greater than her previous efforts suggested.  Without a doubt, 100 Proof is Pickler’s strongest album to date, and likely one of the better mainstream releases we’ll hear this year.

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