Category Archives: Album Reviews

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

sara evans playlist

Sara Evans
Playlist:

 The Very Best of Sara Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Album Review: Katie Armiger, Fall Into Me

katie armiger fall into me

Katie Armiger
Fall Into Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wanda Jackson
Unfinished Business

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

Unfinished Business draws material from a variety of

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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