Category Archives: Album Reviews

A Tale of Two Tributes: Alabama

Alabama-Friends

Various Artists
Alabama & Friends

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To recognize the impact that Alabama has had on modern country music, you could consider their millions of albums sold, their hundreds of awards, their many #1 songs or their induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. You could also look at how the boys from Fort Payne, Ala. have the distinction of bringing something entirely new into country music.

Prior to Alabama, country music was predominantly a land of solo acts, with the occasional superstar duos (Conway & Loretta, George & Tammy) or backing bands (The Strangers, The Buckaroos) thrown in for good measure. Sure, there were plenty of vocal groups (Statler Brothers, Oak Ridge Boys), but actual bands, who played their own instruments, were few and far between in country music. It took Alabama to break down that particular barrier, and they paved the way for groups like Zac Brown Band, Diamond Rio, Eli Young Band and others.

Alabama is celebrating its 40th anniversary with a reunion tour and a couple of well-deserved tribute albums. The tributes are quite different, with one being done under the direction of the band, and the other a completely independent effort.

Alabama & Friends, featuring many of today’s leading country stars, comes off as less of a tribute album and more of an Alabama-themed celebrity karaoke night. Many of the songs have very similar arrangements to the originals, and even include Randy Owen, Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry on lead and harmony vocals.

Many of the memorable elements from the original songs are still present. The fiddle breakdown in “Tennessee River” (with Jason Aldean), the tempo changes in “My Home’s in Alabama” (with Jamey Johnson) – they’re all present and accounted for. The songs that stick close to the originals aren’t necessarily bad. Luke Bryan, for instance, has plenty of flaws as a country singer, but his vocal abilities are not in question, so his version of “Love in the First Degree” is solid. The same could be said of Jason Aldean’s take on “Tennessee River” and Toby Keith’s “She and I.” There’s nothing wrong with them, but fans who love the Alabama originals might think the new ones are a bit too by-the-book.

There are a few instances where the guest singers step outside the box and add more of their own personality to the recording. Trisha Yearwood, the only female voice on the project, does a lovely job on “Forever’s as Far as I’ll Go,” and “Lady Down on Love” by Kenny Chesney stands among his best vocal performances. The same can’t be said of Florida Georgia Line, who takes “I’m in a Hurry (and Don’t Know Why),” adds their usual amount of noise and clutter to the mix, and makes it sound like every other Florida Georgia Line song ever recorded. While it’s a rare opportunity to hear both Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing lead vocals, it raises the issue of whether or not they’ve already run out of original ideas.

Alabama recorded two songs for the first time in 11 years, but they’re the weakest songs on the album. For a band that was one of the first to successfully blend country music with amped-up Southern rock, “That’s How I Was Raised” and “All American” are low-energy, generic rah-rah country disappointments.

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Various Artists
High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama

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High Cotton: A Tribute to Alabama, is available from Lightning Rod Records and has a collection of Americana/Red Dirt/indie all-stars doing their takes on Alabama hits. There is some overlap with the Alabama & Friends, but these versions have a bit more of an original feel. “Why Lady Why” gets transformed into a smoldering soul tune by JD McPherson, while Jason Isbell and John Paul White of The Civil Wars completely reinvent “Old Flame.” The Turnpike Troubadours and Shonna Tucker provide a spark with “If You’re Gonna Play in Texas (You Gotta Have a Fiddle in the Band)” and “Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler),” respectively. While neither version is light years from the original, they add energy to a project that leans heavily toward slow and reflective songs.

Two of Alabama’s love songs are recast as duets. While it’s startling to hear Todd Snider as a romantic balladeer instead of a smart-ass hippie folk singer, his voice never quite meshes with Elizabeth Cook on “Feels So Right.” Wade Bowen and Brandy Clark’s duet on “Love in the First Degree” is excellent, however, and raises the anticipation level for Clark’s debut album.

Not every experiment is a success. Once again, “I’m in a Hurry” gets short shrift, as Jessica Lea Mayfield turns it into a funereal dirge. “Lady Down on Love” just does not work as a bluegrass/spoken word ballad, as evidenced by Bob Schneider & The Texas Bluegrass Massacre with Ray Benson. Jason Boland & The Stragglers’ take on “Mountain Music” is fine, but the insistence of aping the original, from the spoken-word intro to the guest vocals from a couple of the Stragglers à la Cook and Gentry is a little cheesy.

It’s a testament to Alabama’s far-reaching appeal that artists as different as Jason Isbell and Jason Aldean would want to sing their songs. Whether it’s a note-for-note recreation or a completely new interpretation of their hit songs, there is something in these two albums to please any Alabama fan.

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Album Review: Tammy Wynette, The Essential Tammy Wynette

the essential tammy wynette

Tammy Wynette
The Essential Tammy Wynette

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The legendary First Lady of Country Music is the subject of a generous new forty-track double-disc career retrospective in Legacy Recordings’ Essential series.

The Essential Tammy Wynette opens with her 1966 debut single “Apartment No. 9,” which set the tone for the many heartbreak-themed hits that would follow it, going on to enter the annals of country music classics despite charting at only #44. From there, the album checks off Wynette’s biggest and best-loved hits in chronological order. All 29 of her Billboard Top 10 solo hits are included, with essential classics such as her signature “Stand by Your Man,” heart breakers such as “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “‘Til I Can Make it On My Own,” and toe tappers such as “Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad” and “He Loves Me All the Way” all present and accounted for.

Of Wynette’s ten Top 10 duet hits, only four are included – her chart-topping 1967 David Houston duet “My Elusive Dreams,” two of her duets with George Jones (“Take Me” and “Golden Ring”), and her 1985 Mark Gray duet version of “Sometimes When We Touch” -Wynette’s final Top 10 hit, previously a pop hit for songwriter Dan Hill. “Two Story House” is a particularly puzzling exclusion – a classic hit which ranks among Wynette’s best work. The Essential Tammy Wynette might have benefited to some degree by including a few more of her most essential duets at the expense of some of the lesser hits included on the album.

Still, the album remains a remarkably thorough overview of Wynette’s outstanding career, and one which, in addition to the big hits, includes a few less-expected cuts such as her final pair of Top 20 hits, 1987’s “Your Love” and “Talkin’ to Myself Again.” An especially pleasant surprise is album closer “That’s the Way it Could Have Been,” a beautiful self-written cut which Wynette recorded with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton for their stunning 1993 collaborative effort Honky Tonk Angels. It offers an enticing hint at all the great songs that Wynette might still have written had her voice not been silenced by untimely death at the age of 55.

The Essential Tammy Wynette is a thoroughly enjoyable collection which impresses both in content and in effectively summing up the career of one of country music’s most important women. It will likely be more than enough to satisfy the casual fan, and it’s an ideal starting point for listeners who are just beginning to delve into the rich musical legacy of Tammy Wynette.

Track listing: (Disc 1) 1. Apartment #9 2. Your Good Girl’s Gonna Go Bad 3. My Elusive Dreams (with David Houston) 4. I Don’t Wanna Play House 5. Take Me to Your World 6. D-I-V-O-R-C-E 7. Stand by Your Man 8. Singing My Song 9. Too Far Gone 10. The Ways to Love a Man 11. I’ll See Him Through 12. He Loves Me All the Way 13. Run, Woman, Run 14. The Wonders You Perform 15. We Sure Can Love Each Other 16. Good Lovin’ (Makes it Right) 17. Take Me (with George Jones) 18. Bedtime Story 19. Reach Out Your Hand 20. My Man (Understands)

(Disc 2) 1. ‘Til I Get it Right 2. Kids Say the Darndest Things 3. Another Lonely Song 4. Woman to Woman 5. (You Make Me Want to Be) A Mother 6. I Still Believe in Fairy Tales 7. ‘Til I Can Make it On My Own 8. Golden Ring (with George Jones) 9. You and Me 10. Let’s Get Together (One Last Time) 11. One of a Kind 12. Womanhood 13. They Call it Making Love 14. No One Else in the World 15. Crying in the Rain 16. Another Chance 17. Sometimes When We Touch (with Mark Gray) 18. Your Love 19. Talkin’ to Myself Again 20. That’s the Way it Could Have Been (with Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton)

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Album Review: Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan, Dos Divas

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Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Dos Divas

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If you have a soft spot for the great country artists of the nineties – particularly the generation of mature, articulate women who ruled the genre for much of the decade – the announcement of a duets album between Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan was likely a tremendous cause for excitement.  With both ladies being second-generation country stars, Opry members, touring partners, and great friends, a studio collaboration would seem a natural progression, and the lofty potential is obvious.

There’s a palpable joy in the proceedings as the two gal pals pair up in the studio for the first time, and there’s a sense of good-natured fun evident throughout, with song selections often skewing toward the humorous.  Tillis has a ball with “Old Enough to Be Your Lover” in which her narrator giddily flaunts a romance with a much younger man, a chuckle in her performance as she sings about her young lover not knowing who Richard Nixon was. (I imagine K.T. Oslin would be proud) On the delightfully snarky “Ain’t Enough Roses,” Tillis scoffs that there “ain’t enough roses on God’s green earth” to make her take back her no-good ex.  The line “I hope you saved your sales receipt so you can take ‘em back” is particularly delicious, and Tillis’ sassy delivery milks the song’s humor for all it’s worth.

But the album’s serious moments yield rewards their own.  The writing trio of Shane McAnally, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Country Universe favorite Brandy Clark supplies one of the set’s best-written song’s with “Last Night’s Make Up,” a regretful morning-after ballad in which Morgan’s narrator laments, “If I could wash you off like last night’s make up, looking in the mirror wouldn’t be so hard.”  It’s also one of Morgan’s best vocal turns on the album, demonstrating the level of nuance that she has retained even as her vocal power has noticeably declined.

And while Tillis’ powerhouse vocals have aged with remarkable grace, there are times when the signs of wear and tear on Morgan’s voice prove to be a hindrance.  She stays within her limitations for most of the album, but she occasionally sounds strained when tackling the high notes on the title track, or the rapid-fire verses of honky tonk throwdown “I Know What You Did Last Night.”

In terms of song content, there is a small amount of fat that could have been trimmed.  “That’s So Cool” presents what could have been an interesting account of a middle-aged woman rekindling an old high school romance, but the song is hindered by a lifeless melody and too much time wasted repeating its forgettable title (and if you didn’t like Reba singing about texting and Twitter, you won’t like Lorrie singing about Google and Facebook either).  While one likely wouldn’t doubt the sincerity behind “Another Chance To,” a meditation on the uncertainty of life, it’s unfortunate that the song is clogged up with throwaway lines such as “Every day is a gift” and “I’ve never loved the way I love you.”  Tillis makes the best of a fairly rote love song with “Even the Stars,” but the song still could have been left off with no great loss to the project as a whole.

But there are times when even the lesser songs are elevated by some inspired production choices.   The title track is spiced up with horn-infused Tex-Mex stylings, “That’s So Cool” boasts a delightful banjo line, and a bluesy piano and harmonica-driven arrangement perfectly underscores the quiet vindictiveness of “Ain’t Enough Roses.”  It’s particularly enjoyable to hear Tillis and Morgan sing over a pure traditional country arrangement as they lovingly cover “I’m Tired,” a 1958 Webb Pierce hit co-written by Pam’s legendary dad Mel.  The only glaring production misstep is the audacious, bass-heavy arrangement of “Old Enough to Be Your Love,” weighed down by too much clutter in the mix.

Enjoyable as the album is, it’s hard not to wish that Dos Divas contained a few more full-fledged duets with fewer solos.  The album opens with four duets, and then serves up eight solo tracks with Tillis and Morgan alternating lead vocals before closing with two final duets.  There’s nothing wrong with a duets album including a few solos for variety’s sake, but there’s a point at which it begins to feel like a missed opportunity.  Seeing as we already have plenty of solo material by both ladies, the real treat is hearing them sing together, whether playfully pointing fingers at each other’s rowdy tendencies in “I Know What You Did Last Night” or musing on gossipy small-town Southern culture in “Bless Their Hearts.”  The self-deprecating “What Was I Thinkin'” closes the album on a high note, drawing on Tillis and Morgan’s perspective as women who have done some living, as they look back with amusement on choices large and small that were later regretted.  A tongue-in-cheek conversational tone actively engages the listener while lines of spoken dialogue hint at the song being semi-autobiographical for the two artists.

Ultimately, it all adds up to a very good album, albeit one that could have been even better.  At its best, the album contains moments of pure brilliance, while Tillis and Morgan’s unshakable chemistry is enough to make one hope that this studio collaboration does not turn out to be a one-off.  It’s a fun, entertaining effort by two of country music’s brightest talents of the past twenty years, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that they clearly understand the need to not take themselves too seriously.

Top Tracks:  “Last Night’s Make Up,” “Ain’t Enough Roses,” “What Was I Thinkin'”

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Round Table Album Review: LeAnn Rimes, Spitfire

As you may have noticed, the Country Universe staff loves to find ways to participate in joint writing projects. So, while it won’t be the exclusive way that we review albums, we thought we would give a new, more collaborative album review format a try. As an offshoot of our Round Table Single Reviews, which could become repetitive when we all agreed on a particular track, we are test-driving Round Table Album Reviews, which will give us all a chance to weigh in on different tracks and aspects of a single album. With this format, even if we all generally positively (or negatively) agree on an album, as happens to be the case here, we still have room for a variety of perspectives.

Spitfire

LeAnn Rimes
Spitfire

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It’s certainly no secret that LeAnn Rimes has lived a tumultuous life, a fact which has been sensationalized by various media outlets throughout her career. While her male counterparts are frivolously singing about cruising backroads, partying life away and generic love, Rimes has channeled her life circumstances into an emotional and fiery work of art, just as true artists tend to do. As a result, music critics have taken notice and have rewarded her efforts with high praise and acclaim.

As Dan observed in his review of the album’s lead release, Rimes is “an artist who hit her commercial peak early, but whose creative peak is still sloping up with each passing year.” Rimes’ Spitfire demonstrates that the trend continues with the best album of her career and, certainly, what will be one of the shining albums of 2013. - Leeann Ward

“Gasoline and Matches” (with Rob Thomas, featuring Jeff Beck)

In an album rife with weighty reflection and introspection, the nearly frenetic “Gasoline and Matches”, originally written and performed by Buddy and Julie Miller, is a welcome reprieve. It’s as intense as the rest of the album, but in a decidedly different way.

Lyrics like “You pull my pin and you trip my wire/Yeah, well, you come in and set my heart on fire/You knock me out, you rock me off my axis” signal that this isn’t just some run-of-the mill love song, but rather, a cleverly constructed, fiery romper. What’s more, is there a more endearing proposal line than “Baby, we should get related”? Maybe so, but it perfectly fits the cheekiness of this song.

Furthermore, along with the addicting bass riff and bluesy guitar solo from Jeff Beck, Rimes and Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas rise to the song’s proverbial gauntlet with a rousing performance where they match each other’s intensity phrase for phrase, which all culminates into a truly riveting listening experience. - Leeann Ward

Written by Buddy Miller and Julie Miller

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“Who We Really Are”

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen an artist’s entire “reason to be” shift so dramatically over the course of one career.   When Rimes first surfaced, the novelty was she was a young girl with amazing pipes who could belt out classics past and present.  Her success was based on the very opposite of song interpretation, with the focus being completely on the singer – “Wow, can you believe a little girl just hit that note!”  The songs were incidental, and usually better interpreted by other artists in years gone by.  In that sense, she foreshadowed what would make most of the “American Idol” also-rans popular while on the show, but irrelevant once they were voted off.

“Who We Really Are” perfectly illustrates how she’s become something else entirely: a subtle, nuanced singer who gets out of the song’s way, allowing the writing to take center stage.  This only works if a singer is able to pick (or write) great material in the first place, and is able to communicate the song’s meaning in a way that is clarifying for the listener.  She succeeds wildly here, earning what might be the greatest compliment a singer can get when recording outside material:  It sounds like she wrote it.   - Kevin John Coyne

Written by  Darrell Brown and Sarah Buxton

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“I Do Now”

What music fan hasn’t had this experience? You heard a song as a kid, fell in love with the feeling and melody, grew up ten years and suddenly realized, “Oh; this is about heroin addiction.”

That’s not quite Rimes’s character here, thankfully. But in one of the most upbeat admissions of wrongdoing since “Dang Me,” she does fess up to her share of cheating and drinking, all while bopping around to a beat so groovy that they had to give it a 50-second solo at the top of the track. Turns out Rimes used to find the classic Hank and Merle weepers pretty groovy, too – until she started living through them.

But you can’t keep a good girl down: even after she’s driven away her man, then alienated everyone else trying to drink away her shame, she manages to get her act together, coming full circle to a new love who helps set her free, just like in the oughta-be classic “Cowboy Take Me Away.” Getting older and wiser can mean seeing more of the darkness in the world, Rimes seems to acknowledge – but if you hold out for it, you get see more of the light, too.  - Dan Milliken

Written by LeAnn Rimes, Darrell Brown & Dan Wilson

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“God Takes Care of Your Kind”

The most obvious choice LeAnn Rimes could have made for her performance on “God Takes Care of Your Kind” would have been a vengeful, “woman scorned” act, turning the song into a tale of fiery accusations and Old Testament style retribution. But Rimes has spent her last four albums avoiding those obvious choices that most of her contemporaries likely would – and far too often do – make. What makes the final kiss-off of “God Takes Care of Your Kind” so cutting isn’t the rusty barbs knotted in its lyrics but the fact that Rimes’ delivery couldn’t be more casual in its dismissal.

She references deep betrayal in the chorus (“I let you in where I never let anyone/You cut me open just to watch the blood run,” for those wondering if modern country songs could still trade in sexually loaded metaphors). But, drawling out her lines over a slinky rhythm section, she doesn’t sound the least bit pressed by any of it. Instead, she’s relaxed and confident, resting easy in the blessed assurance that the Good Lord has her back. - Jonathan Keefe

Written by Darrell Brown, LeAnn Rimes and Dean Sheremet

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“A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind”

Amidst all the astute, specific storytelling on Spitfire, “A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind” sticks out for its broad strokes of emotion. There’s no vivid thought process to trace here; it’s just a lament about the cost of foolishly ignoring love, built around a turn-of-phrase that sits dangerously close to contrived.

But its craft is elsewhere: Like the potent country song it recalls, it drowns the narrative in emotion – through the swell of the melody, the cry of the steel guitar, the guilt in Rimes’ voice – until the words becomes an accessory. Rimes plays into this effect with a performance that’s as stirring as the arrangement it complements, restrained and self-loathing all at once. If Spitfire is an indication of the vision-driven artist we weren’t sure Rimes could become, “A Waste is a Terrible Thing to Mind” is a reminder of the artist whose voice could always light fire and relevance under the most classically constructed country songs. - Tara Seetharam

Written by David Baerwald, Darrell Brown and LeAnn Rimes 

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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>

randy houser how country feels album

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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