Category Archives: Album Reviews

Album Review: The Little Willies, For the Good Times

The Little Willies
For the Good Times

After having first formed in 2003, The Little Willies released their self-titled debut album in 2006, four years after pianist and vocalist Norah Jones had found success with her jazz and pop flavored solo album Come Away With Me. 

Six years later, a second Little Willies album finally comes to light, following in the tradition of the first by featuring covers of country classics.  For the Good Times finds The Little Willies covering classics songs by some of country music’s most revered (and most covered) artists, including nods to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Loretta Lynn, and Dolly Parton, among others.

The heart and soul of the project, however, is The Little Willies themselves.  Much like the band’s previous effort, For the Good Times is unmistakably a group effort.  Norah Jones and Richard Julien share lead vocal duties, while generous instrumental breaks give all five members – rounded out by Jim Campilongo on guitar, Lee Alexander on bass, and Dan Rieser on drums – ample room to shine.

If there is a noteworthy complaint to be leveled against the album, it is that its approach to selecting cover material is mostly by the book, in that it often leans on predictable choices that have been covered endlessly.  In particular, Parton’s “Jolene” is one of the most covered songs by an artist whose catalog is ripe with hidden treasures waiting to be discovered, which is not to say that Jones does not sing it beautifully.  Fortunately, the Willies have a strong knack for re-interpreting cover material in a way that feels respectful and reverent, but not overly so, and not to the point of becoming half-hearted re-creations of the originals.  Thanks to creative, organic arrangements, they repeatedly clear the lofty bar of taking a well-known song, and making it seem new again.

One of the album’s best tracks is the surprisingly good cover of Loretta Lynn’s “Fist City.”  Fact:  Loretta Lynn is a hard one to cover.  Her distinct persona and vocal style are so familiar that many artists have fallen into the trap of misguided mimicry – Just ask Sheryl Crow.  But as it turns out, Jones acquits herself nicely by giving a performance that is true to her own vocal style, but that still conveys the sharp sass that the tell-it-like-it-is lyric calls for – She has never sounded feistier.  Likewise, the band reworks the song into a two-stepping arrangement that serves it well, while still retaining its signature instrumental hook.

Elsewhere, there’s hardly a dull spot to be found on the record.  Jones’ spirited performance of Lefty Frizzell’s “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time” is unshakably joyful, as is Julien’s take on Cash’s “Wide Open Road.”   On a much different note, Jones’ and Julien’s half-singing, half-whispering performance of “Foul Owl On the Prowl” makes for a deliciously haunting mood-breaker.  A slowed-down rendering of Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” as well as a hushed performance of the Kristofferson-penned Ray Price hit that serves as the title track, demonstrate the band’s wise focus on putting the songs themselves above all else.  No matter which creative direction the band goes in with the songs they cover, their treatments never come across as gaudy or misguided, nor do they place the singer ahead of the song, but they consistently retain the emotional aspects of the originals.

The instrumental “Tommy Rockwood,” written by Campilongo, is a welcome addition, demonstrating that the The Little Willies are just as competent when cutting loose on an original song as when delivering a well-thought-out cover.  Ultimately, it’s the band’s palpable, infectious enthusiasm for these tunes that makes the record tick.  Despite some missed opportunities with regard to song selection, there is still no denying that what’s here is consistently well-executed, such that any lover of traditional country music will find Good Times to be a highly enjoyable listen.

5 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Album Review: Joe Nichols, It’s All Good

Joe Nichols
It’s All Good

It’s impossible to review an album titled It’s All Good without indulging in a few witty remarks.  Such a title tends to beg the question of whether or not the album really is “all good.”  The vocals are all good, to be sure.  Joe Nichols has already proven himself to be one of mainstream country music’s best male vocalists, and on his newest effort, his performances do not disappoint.  The production, likewise, is consistently solid.  Producers Mark Wright and Buddy Cannon back Nichols with arrangements that sound easily accessible and radio-friendly, while laced with traditional country trimmings of fiddle and steel, and it certainly is enjoyable to hear country music that is sonically recognizable as such.

For all its positive traits, however, the album at times falls into a rut of predictability, leaning on safely inoffensive radio-ready themes that have grown stale from overuse.  In that regard, lead single “Take It Off” turns out to be an accurate preview of the album it foreshadowed.  The single was released in May, just early enough to capitalize on country radio’s annual summer song mania, albeit with limited success, as the song topped out at #25 on the charts.  It’s a fun enough tune, but it’s too forgettable, not to mention interchangeable with any other summer song, to be worth coming back to all year round.  Likewise, the country boy hokum of “This Ole Boy” plays like a rote run-of-the-mill Peach Pickers tune that wasn’t particularly interesting when Craig Morgan sang it either, while the Blake Shelton-esque “The More I Look” is nothing more than disposable radio fodder.

Though the quality of the song material is inconsistent, Nichols’ performances often elevate it to a point.  While the imagery of “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is nothing to write home about, Nichols lifts the song to a higher level with his warm and expressive delivery, while a fiddle in the background lends an almost haunting quality to the track.  With the title track, Nichols imbues his own distinct personality into a lyric about life’s simple pleasures, while the laid-back traditional country arrangement finishes things off nicely.

In spite of all its middling material, the album’s best moments simply shine.  “Somebody’s Mama” offers a novel spin on the timeless theme of “the one that got away,” as the narrator is having a tattoo of his ex-lover’s name covered, and pondering over where she might have ended up in life, assuming that “She’s probably somebody’s mama by now.”  The bittersweet lyric fully functions on par with the steel-laden arrangement as well as Nichols’ smooth vocal delivery.  The title track “Never Gonna Get Enough” shows a loose and laid-back style along with lyrical imagery that recalls George Jones “Tennessee Whiskey,” while “She’s Just Like That” works well as a simple ode to a woman who is beautiful inside and out.

The album’s finest tracks offer a glimpse of what could have been had the overall caliber of song material been a few degree higher.  In the end, we’re left with an album that sounds good, but that could have been better.  Of course, the spot-on vocals and solid traditional-leaning arrangements make for an album that is sonically pleasant throughout, with not a single moment that sounds fingernails-on-chalkboard awful.  While there are still plenty of listeners who will find such an effort wholly satisfactory, those who prefer country music with a little extra meat to it would likely prefer to cherry-pick it instead.  As a whole, It’s All Good plays like a musical piece of candy – mostly enjoyable, but largely insubstantial.  Good it is, but great it isn’t.

2 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Album Review: Scotty McCreery, Clear as Day


Scotty McCreery

Clear as Day

In listening to American Idol winner Scotty McCreery’s debut album, it becomes all too clear that either McCreery is being carefully reared by the unabashedly commercial-minded execs of 19 Entertainment… or that he simply enjoys playing follow-the-leader.  The former is most likely, but almost every track on Clear as Day sounds like an emulation of the style of one of country radio’s favorite hitmakers.  We get to hear Scotty McCreery play Montgomery Gentry.  We get to hear Scotty McCreery play Kenny Chesney.  But there are precious few moments in which it sounds like Scotty McCreery is being Scotty McCreery.

“Water Tower Town” sounds like something lifted out of the Montgomery Gentry reject pile circa 2002.  “Better Than That” carries a strong thematic resemblance to Kenny Chesney’s “Never Wanted Nothing More,” with nothing about it’s story structure feeling at all urgent or revelatory.  On another note, it comes as no surprise that “Walk In the Country” was co-written by Urban, as the track clearly has Urban written all over it. (Think “Where the Blacktop Ends”)  Such style-mimicking demonstrates the fact that, as a whole, Clear as Day falls into the common trap in which commercialism overshadows an album’s artistic merits.

Somewhat oddly, it’s the two singles released thus far that represent the album at its absolute worst.  “I Love You This Big” scans as a grammatically-awkward piece of schmaltz with an uninspired production and a dull, auto-tuned vocal.  “The Trouble with Girls” merely sounds like a cute little basket of cliches, as if the writers were more concerned with struggling to find words that rhyme than connecting with a listener on more than a surface level.  At the same time, the dramatic orchestral swells in the bridge make the song sound like it’s taking itself way too seriously.  It’s all too obvious that the songs’ sole purpose of existence is to serve as inoffensive distractions between radio commercials.  They are so carefully calculated so as to make no negative impression that they end up making hardly any impression at all.

In most cases, lyrics rarely scratch below surface level.  High school hallways serve as a common stage setting – Little surprise, given McCreery’s age of 18 – with many of the tracks playing like gender-flipped versions of Taylor Swift songs, minus the authenticity and distinct perspective.  The title tracks recalls a few mundane details of an encounter with a romantic flame, only to settle for a clumsy grasp at the heart strings by killing the girl off in the end.  The songs that work are those that emphasize the melodies and Scotty’s performances above the generally mediocre lyrical content.  “Write My Number On My Hand” finds McCreery turning in what is possibly his most engaged performance of the set, with a wink-wink country boy charm that effectively sells the silly lyrics.  But that’s not to say that all of the songs are lyrical duds.  With “Dirty Dishes,” McCreery taps into the universally acceptable country radio theme of faith, and offers a take that is actually interesting.  The song (written by Neil Thrasher, Michael Delaney, and Tony Martin) portrays the narrator’s mother saying “the strangest prayer ever said,” in which she thanks God for dirty dishes, noisy children, slamming doors, et cetera, and then highlighting the positive aspects of common domestic annoyances.  Less effectively, however, “That Old King James” scans as an inferior “Three Wooden Crosses”-wannabe.  It tracks the life journey of a King James Bible as it is passed down through different family members, but it lacks a clear message to serve as a form of listener payoff.

At its best, Clear as Day continues to offer glimpses of the substantial well of talent McCreery possesses.  But at the same time, that talent sounds like it’s a long way from being fully realized.  He’s not Josh Turner.  He’s not George Strait.  He’s not John Michael Montgomery.  But when it comes to portraying who Scotty McCreery is as an artist, Clear paints a picture that is disappointingly murky.

14 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes, Lady and Gentlemen

LeAnn Rimes

Lady and Gentlemen

A new covers album from LeAnn Rimes would likely draw comparisons to her 1999 self-titled effort, which found her covering the likes of Hank Williams and Patsy Cline.  But this time, there’s a twist:  All of the songs she’s covering were originally recorded by male artists.  Thus, Rimes is re-interpreting them in a female perspective.

And while 1999’s LeAnn Rimes album might have given you a feeling that you were listening to really good karaoke singer, as her versions seldom strayed far from the originals, Rimes’ new collection Lady and Gentlemen finds her taking substantial liberties with these classic hits.  She even alters lyrics on Waylon Jennings’ “Good Hearted Woman” and “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” (re-titled as “The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line”).  The songs are given modern, yet reverent, production arrangements, with Rimes adding her own personal style to each one, resulting in a uniquely creative effort.

Besides the obviously strong song material, what really makes Lady and Gentlemen a keeper is the fact that, although she covers everyone from Jennings to Jones to Haggard, the project remains first and foremost a LeAnn Rimes album.  She sounds entirely in her element – After all, she grew up listening to these songs – and the result is a strong set of performances that sound natural, sincere, and unaffected.

Rimes and her co-producers Vince Gill and Darrell Brown craft arrangements that sound simultaneously vintage and modern, never treating the songs as museum pieces.  The albums kicks off with Rimes’ cover of John Anderson’s “Swingin,” which was released as the project’s first single last year.  Though it barely made a ripple on the charts, it easily ranked as one of the best singles of the year.

While everything about the original Anderson recording screamed “eighties,” LeAnn speeds up the tempo, and transforms the über-cheesy hit into a modern-day jam session.  In listening to Rimes’ vocal delivery, you’d think she chugged down a pot of espresso before heading into the recording studio.  Like an auctioneer at the county fair, Rimes calls out the verses in rapid-fire succession, while the band furiously plucks away behind her.

The better part of the album finds Rimes backed with simple acoustic and steel guitar-driven arrangements, such as on the Freddy Fender cover “Wasted Days and Wasted Night” – worth hearing for her Spanish accent alone.  She utilizes a similar sonic approach on Merle Haggard’s “I Can’t Be Myself,” notable also for a vocal that sounds deeply plaintive, while also casting a feminine tone over the classic lyric.  While her version of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons” carries a deep retro vibe, she adds an extra layer of sass to the lyric, which makes the song one of the album’s most interesting tracks.

She deviates from the vintage approach with her cover of Vince Gill’s “When I Call Your Name,” and instead puts a blue-eyed country soul spin on the nineties hit.  Such an approach accents the deep bluesy tone in her voice, but the unnecessary addition of a gospel choir distracts from the raw emotion that came through in Gill’s original recording.  Though interesting, her take on “When I Call Your Name” is less satisfying than many of the album’s other tracks.

Perhaps the song that gives her the biggest shoes to fill is the classic Bobby Braddock/ Curly Putman composition “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” a hit for George Jones in 1980, and widely regarded as the greatest country song of all time.  Appropriately, Rimes and Gill’s approach places the classic lyric front and center, with no superfluous bells or whistles.  Rimes is backed by little more than an acoustic guitar as she recounts the dark tale of a man who loved his woman until the very end, even when his love was no longer requited.  She gives a remarkably moving performance of the familiar ballad, even when delivering the spoken-word portion.  Vince Gill adds his distinctive harmony touch to the track, and the result sounds absolutely haunting, making “He Stopped Loving Her Today” a strong contender for being the album’s best track.

The album closes with the original songs “Crazy Women” and “Give,” both of which have seen release as singles.  “Crazy Women” sounds like something out of a Broadway musical (or a Laura Bell Bundy album, for that matter), and Rimes deftly pulls it off with a broadly entertaining performance of the wickedly snarky tune.  Current single “Give” returns Rimes to a fully modern pop-country style.  While the philosophical song – a call for proactivity and benevolence in the world – is a strong composition, the musical styling is an awkward fit for an album that is largely retro in style.  It’s a good song – It just sounds like it belongs on a different album.

As a special treat for her fans, Rimes offers a re-recorded version of her classic 1996 debut single “Blue,” commemorating the fifteen-year anniversary of the song’s release.  The new version sounds even more traditional than the original, which is saying a lot, while also displaying Rimes’ growth as a vocalist and lyrical interpreter.  She gives a performance with more restraint than the original, connecting with the underlying emotions on an even deeper level than before, while the simpler, twangier arrangement highlights the timeless nature of the Bill Mack composition.  It’s impressive to note the ease with which “Blue” fits in among all these revered classics.  As one who’s known and loved the song “Blue” for years, I do not say this lightly:  The new version of “Blue” rivals the original.

A binding thread running throughout the set is the palpable reverence Rimes displays for these songs, which makes Lady and Gentlemen one of the most intriguing and wholly satisfying releases of 2011, and of Rimes’ own career output.  It all comes together so well that the project’s success seem perfectly natural.  LeAnn Rimes is a great singer, and these are great songs, so in her tackling these timeless tunes, it logically follows that a great album would result.

23 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Album Review: Lady Antebellum, Own the Night

Lady Antebellum

Own the Night

Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now” is a once-in-a-career kind of hit.  The drunk-dial ballad became a such a huge cross-genre smash that is was virtually inescapable no matter which radio station you tuned to.  The Grammy-winning hit pushed Lady Antebellum to instant-add status on country radio, which is where they stayed even as their single releases gradually slid downhill in quality.

The downward slide continues on the trio’s third album Own the Night, an uninspired effort that savors strongly of an act coasting along on their superstar status while resting on their laurels artistically.  One could present the easy-out criticism that the album is not country, and indeed it makes little effort to sonically resemble country, but the real issue is not simply that these are pop songs.  The issue is that, pop or country, they’re just flat-out not good songs.

The album title suggests a work dominated by songs about the carefree nature of young love, and it not only delivers, but beats the concept into the ground.  Own the Night is replete with canned references to being caught up in a moment, dancing in moonlight, “the love we made,” and “baby ridin’ shotgun,” among many other overused formulas.

Opening track and current single “We Owned the Night” offers little more than rote imagery strewn together without the benefit of a catchy chorus or hook.  Rocking up-tempo “Friday Night” fares a little better thanks to an energetic beat and some quirky turns of phrase, though it suffers from cluttered production.

But cliché-filled lyrics like “When You Were Mine,” complete with “heart open” and “never had butterflies like this” are embarrassingly amateurish.  Even when song lyrics are subpar, a spirited melody can go a long way toward enhancing the appeal of an unremarkable song.  Such a strategy has at times worked for Lady A. in the past, but on tracks like “Wanted You More” and “Dancin’ Away with My Heart,” painfully plodding melodies make the songs nearly unlistenable.

Narrow perspective aside, such an effort could still have been enjoyable to some degree if the production and performances managed to channel the youthful excitement that the lyrics aim for.  But it doesn’t happen.  Instead, Own the Night sags under the weight of murky, watered-down production and flat, colorless vocal interpretations.  Charles Kelley possesses a strong singing voice, but all too often settles for rigid by-the-book vocal deliveries with little flair or style.

On the other hand, Hillary Scott has a pleasant-sounding voice, but lacks precision and control, often veering off pitch.  That’s not to say that absolute technical perfection is a must, since an artist’s vocal flaws have at times enhanced the emotional qualities of the performance.  But in the case of Scott, it more often registers plainly as a weak performance that bogs down the overall quality of the track.

At the same time, producer Paul Worley’s arrangements largely hurt the project instead of helping it.  Cluttered noise obliterates “Wanted You More,” while tinkling pianos and string arrangements on “As You Turn Away” and “Heart of the World” ring saccharine and syrupy.

Overall, Own the Night is notable only for its dogged refusal to take a single risk, or to say anything artistically significant.  It’s distinctive only in its non-distinctiveness, offering precious little insight into who Lady Antebellum are as artists.  Regardless of whether one had high expectations to begin with, it’s beyond disheartening to see such a high-profile act churn out such a deadly boring and uninteresting album that’s all filler and no killer.

39 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Album Review: Luke Bryan, Tailgates & Tanlines

Luke Bryan

Tailgates & Tanlines

Got a little boom in my big truck/Gonna open up the doors and turn it up. – “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)”

Girl you make my speakers go boom boom/Dancin’ on the tailgate in the full moon. – “Drunk on You”

Looking at those two lyrics from Luke Bryan’s new album, you can assume one of two things: Either Bryan was heavily influenced by hip-hop pioneers L’Trimm and their hit “Cars With the Boom,” or Tailgates & Tanlines falls victim to lazy songwriting. With all due respect to Tigra and Bunny, it looks like it’s the latter.

The country references are thrown about so fast and furiously here that duplicates inevitably pop up. There are multiple references to girls dancing on tailgates, squirrels and other assorted critters, moonshine, Dixie cups, dusty boots, old trucks, catfish and tractors. Sometimes the songs are about certain people or places, and sometimes they’re just about setting the RRPM (rural references per minute) record.

Occasionally, the country setting is put to good use. “Harvest Time,” for example, paints a vivid picture of a small town in the middle of its busiest season. “Tailgate Blues” takes many of the familiar references and turns them upside down, as even the usual comforts of quiet country hideaways can’t heal a broken heart.

All too often, though, the songs have no real meat underneath the catchphrases and references. They’re the same tired look at a vast hillbilly paradise – Val-holler, if you will – where the homemade wine is always flowing into Dixie cups, good ol’ boys are always ready to drive around in their trucks to find a good time after a hard day’s work on the farm, and the women are sexual props whose only purpose in life is to dance on tailgates on command.

When Alan Jackson sang “Chattahoochee,” there was so much detail that the listener felt certain that Jackson lived through all those experiences. Bryan’s “Muckalee Creek Water,” by comparison, has no such connection or personal attachment, even though there is a Muckalee Creek near Bryan’s hometown in south Georgia. That song, incidentally, references “a catfish line going bump bump bump,” so if you’re really into onomatopoeia, this is your album of the year.

The real shame is that those throw-away songs are a waste of some tremendous talent. Bryan has a strong voice that can make a good song sound even better.  “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Erin Enderlin and Shane McAnally, gives a sympathetic portrayal to someone trapped by addiction. Sure, it won’t get a concert audience cheering and shouting, but it’s a standout track and one of the better songs of the year. While he is partly responsible for some of the album’s weakest tracks, Bryan also co-wrote some of its best, including “Harvest Time” and “Faded Away” (with Rodney Clawson and Michael Carter, respectively).

“Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” is turning into one of the biggest hits of Bryan’s career, which is bound to influence his future song choices. Good-time party anthems aren’t necessarily bad things, but too many of them on one album overwhelms the rest of the songs. Still, Kenny Chesney had to go through the “She Think My Tractor’s Sexy” phase before he got to covering Guy Clark, so there’s hope for Bryan.

Just leave the “booms” and “bumps” to fight sequences in the old Batman TV show, where they belong.

13 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney, Concrete

Sunny Sweeney

Concrete

Sunny Sweeney’s 2007 debut album was fantastic, but too raw and twangy for country radio to touch it with a ten-foot pole.  Thus, Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame produced no charting singles.  Sweeney re-emerged in 2010 with “From a Table Away,” a single that took on a glossier finish so as to be more radio-friendly.  Still, the core country elements were uncompromised.  The strategy worked, netting Sunny Sweeney the first Top 10 hit of her career.  Likewise, the remainder of her sophomore album has enough polish to be palatable to country radio, but Sweeney’s traditionalist bent remains intact, as the album retains an identifiably country sound throughout (such that the “pop-country” label would be a misnomer).  Concrete sounds poised to build on Sunny Sweeney’s newfound career momentum, yet it also finds an artist able to make reasonable commercial concessions without sacrificing her own identity in the process.

Mainstream country music all too often settles for one-dimensional songs about domestic bliss, summer fun, country livin’, you name it.  But Sweeney takes us back to the classic themes of country music – cheating, drinking, heartbreak – and puts her own distinct and creative spin on them.  This is evident in her breakout hit single “From a Table Away,” which casts Sweeney as the infamous “other woman” character in the love triangle.  The song walks us through the narrator’s revelation that the married man she loves has been lying to her as much as he’s lied to his wife, and that the fantasy of having him to herself will never become reality.  But it’s the similarly-themed “Amy” that ranks as arguably the album’s best track.  In a confrontation between wife and mistress, Sweeney asks for forgiveness for her own actions, but also asks the wife to recognize the own role she herself has played in her husband’s course of adultery.  “Amy” is a song characterized by raw, unabashed honesty, and that’s the stuff of a country music classic.

In addition to her smart, punchy songwriting, Sweeney excels in her ability to inject emotion and personality into her song lyrics.  That’s evident in the excellent current single “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” in which she delivers opening lines “Leaving’s hard/ Trust me, it’s really bad” with the tired, weathered tone of one who’s been there – and she has been there, having drawn on her own divorce as inspiration in her songwriting.  Even the most well-constructed lyric can fall flat if the performance doesn’t pop, but Sweeney gives strong, commanding performances that strike all the right emotional chords in the lyrics.  Album opener “Drink Myself Single” might not stand out much from any other good-timing country drinking song if delivered by a less-capable vocalist.  But Sweeney injects spite and vindictiveness into lines like “I wanna know what it’s like/ To stagger in the house like you do every night/ Sneakin’ in the bed like I don’t know the truth…” thus adding a layer of snark and bitterness to the uptempo honky-tonk tune.  Similarly, her anger-ridden delivery of “Helluva Heart” elevates  the tell-it-like-it-is “You done me wrong” song a significant degree above the typical kiss-off number.

There are many reasons why die-hard country music fans have grown disillusioned with the format’s current state, with the absence of country instrumentation being one.  But the greater loss has been the lack of well-crafted, resonant lyrical material matched with emotionally-connective vocal performances.  That’s one of the biggest reasons why country radio has become such a yawn.  Country music needs more artists like Sunny Sweeney, and more so now than ever before.  Sweeney demonstrates a strong connection to the country music of the past, while also showing that she has plenty to say as an artist herself.  If radio holds onto to her, she would present a formidable threat of making the format interesting again.  Regardless, Concrete is a rock-solid effort strong enough to withstand more than a few repeated listenings.

14 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Album Review: Connie Smith, Long Line of Heartaches

 

Connie Smith

Long Line of Heartaches

Connie Smith is hailed by many as the best vocalist in country music history, and that distinction is clearly warranted.  When it comes to tone, phrasing, and vocal power, the woman has no equal.  In listening to Long Line of Heartaches, her first album of new material since 1998, it would be a great understatement to say that she is still in fine voice.  Her voice may have picked up a few rough edges over the years, but she still posseses more than enough vocal chops to blow today’s hitmakers out of the water.

Perhaps one of the most important characteristics setting Smith head-and-shoulders above so many current artists is her firm grasp on one of the most important truths about great country music:  Sincerity comes before power.  “I believe that country music is the cry of the heart,” she says in the album’s liner notes.  “It spans the whole of our emotions from the ecstasy to the agony.  I believe the role of a singer is not just to perform, but to communicate this heart-felt cry to the audience.”

Right from the opening steel guitar chords of the title track, Long Line of Heartaches gives unshakable authority and authenticity to the above statements.  Husband Marty Stuart acts as producer for this twelve-track set, backing Smith with vintage-sounding traditional country arrangements that consistently allow her incomparable voice to be the center of attention.  The sound of this record is not far removed from the music of her 60’s heyday, yet it benefits from the clarity of sophisticated modern-day recording techniques.  She wringes every ounce of emotion from each song’s lyrics, bringing a weathered been-there-done-that pathos to her delivery of “Long Line of Heartaches” and “The Pain of a Broken Heart,” both co-written with Stuart (Smith shares writing credits on five of the album’s twelve tracks).

Today’s mainstream artist’s often lean toward positive uplifting material so as to be accepted by country radio, but they all too often seem to forget the fact that country music’s signature theme is heartache.  On this set, however, heartache is the central theme – treated often with undercurrents of pain and regret, but sometimes tinged with hope and dawning optimism.  In the beautiful “That Makes Two of Us,” written by Kostas with Patty Loveless and Emory Gordy, Jr., Smith expresses a desire to set aside past differences and to reconcile with her former lover, and seeks to find out if her feelings are requited, entreating “Don’t you think it’s time to let the healing start?”

On “Ain’t You Even Gonna Cry,” Smith is determined to walk out on an ill-fated relationship, completely self-assured of her decision, yet still taken back by the nonchalant ease with which her significant other watches her leave.  In contrast, she puts on a confident air on the album standout “I’m Not Blue,” yet the lyric and performance betray the fact that she is in denial of her true feelings. (“If you think there’s teardrops in my eyes/ They’re only raindrops from the sky… The truth gets hard to say when pride stands in the way/ So just let me lie to you/ I’m not blue) In addition to these fine selections, we are treated to a well-chosen cover of the Harlan Howard/ Kostas composition “I Don’t Believe That’s How You Feel.”

Complementing the high caliber of songwriting, Smith is joined by some talented musicians on this album, including the members of her longtime backing band The Sundowners.  Marty Stuart plays electric, acoustic, and hi 3rd guitars, while renowned steel player Robby Turner plays on six of the album’s tracks.  As a special treat in closing, Smith’s own daughters – Jodi Seyfried, Jeanne Jaynes, and Julie Barnick – sing background vocals on the album’s final track, the spiritual ballad “Take My Hand.”

Long Line of Heartaches triumphs artistically thanks to its unerring focus on song and storytelling above all else, thus drawing on Smith’s formidable vocal prowess without exploiting it.  It’s the same approach that has served Smith well throughout her Hall of Fame-worthy career.  The result is an album that ranks among the best of 2011, and that effectively builds on the already well-established legacy of Connie Smith.

4 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Album Review: Suzy Bogguss, American Folk Songbook

Suzy Bogguss

American Folk Songbook

An accompanying press release explains how the idea came about for Suzy Bogguss to record an album of classic American folk songs (some of which sprang from European origins, and were later adopted into American culture):  “Suzy Bogguss had a revelation on stage with Garrison Keillor in 2008. Everyone loves to sing along on ‘Red River Valley’ –  except the children who somehow don’t know the song.”  That realization gave rise to concern over the possibility that such beautiful folk songs could be overlooked, particularly with music education fading from the public school system.  Thus, she set about to record an album of her favorite folk classics with updated-yet-reverent arrangements.  The resulting collection is an absolute delight.

Bogguss herself fills the producer’s shoes for the project, and she does an excellent job of carefully seeing that each song is given its ideal treatment.  When beloved folk songs meet Bogguss’s golden-throated vocals and soft acoustic instrumental backing, it’s a match made in heaven.  In recognizing the timelessness of these songs, Bogguss sees to it that they are never treated as museum pieces.  Instead, each song is interpreted in a manner that is updated, yet still true to the spirit of the original song.  Though their classic nature is emphasized, they are treated in a way that makes them feel relevant even today.

The songs are backed by a beautiful stripped-down instrumental arrangements, featuring the sounds of fiddle, mandolin, concertina, harmonica, banjo, and tin whistle, as well as other instruments.  Drums are used sparingly.  In addition, Bogguss’s talented partners in crime – Matraca Berg and Gretchen Peters – can be heard singing background vocals.  Many distinctive creative touches are added, but Bogguss never resorts to cheap gimmickry.  Echoing background vocals at the end of “Banks of the Ohio” give the dark murder ballad an almost otherworldly feel, while subtle hopping-frog sound effects meld nicely with the sprightly arrangement on the ditty “Froggy Went A-Courtin’.”  There are many instances in which the instrumental arrangements on their own are engaging enough to hold up as instrumental tracks.  One example is “Ol’ Dan Tucker” on which Richard Bailey’s banjo picking makes the familiar tune sound more catchy than ever before.  Meanwhile, Stuart Duncan’s fiddling makes “Sweet Betsy from Pike” a delightful sonic treat.

But a major part of what makes this collection so special is the fact that Bogguss clearly has a deep connection to these songs, and that connection is audible in her performances.  The once-platinum-selling Grammy winner is still in fine voice at age 54.  Through her ethereal vocals, she breathes new life into these familiar tunes.  One of her finest vocal turns comes at the beginning of the iconic “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” as she sings the opening lines a cappella, and then the gentle dobro-driven arrangement gradually kicks in.  On her broadly enjoyable version of “Erie Canal” she gives a loose, jazzy delivery as she eases into the musical tale of navigating the Erie Canal. 

A fine example of Bogguss’s deep emotional resonance comes in her performance of “Red River Valley” – the standard that inspired the recording of this album.  She injects deep emotion into the oft-heard lyrics “Do you think of the kind heart you’re breaking/ And the pain you are causing to me?”  Even if you’ve heard the song countless times, hearing Suzy Bogguss sing it is like hearing it for the very first time all over again.  Another highlight is “Shenendoah,” a song whose lilting melody fits Bogguss’s voice perfectly.  As the album reaches its final tracks, she sings “Beautiful Dreamer” in a half-whisper against a bare-bones acoustic arrangement, closing out the set on a high note.

Though the album weighs in at a hefty 17 tracks, Bogguss effectively holds our attention throughout.  Each track feels essential in its own way.  There is no filler material.  It feels cohesive without the tracks running together.  Through these stellar reinterpretations, Bogguss’s American Folk Songbook not only keeps these classic folk songs alive, but ends up an artistic achievement in its own right. 

Whether you’re a devoted fan who’s followed Suzy Bogguss’s career from the start, or a new convert just beginning to discover the riches of her music, Songbook is an album that’s well worth adding to your collection.  Now everyone can sing along to “Red River Valley”!

21 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Album Review: Eric Church, Chief

Eric Church

Chief

On his new album, Eric Church sings that we need “Some longhaired hippie prophet preaching from the book of Johnny Cash/A sheep among the wolves there standing tall/We need a country music Jesus to come and save us all.”

Bear in mind that he’s singing these lines on an album loaded with distorted vocals and sound effects, guitar solos closer to Three Doors Down than Cash, and a song about Bruce Springsteen.

That’s not to say that Chief is a bad album, because there are a lot of keepers in its 11 tracks – some of them are even country songs. It just seems odd to be calling for Country Music Jesus when you’re acting like one of the money-changers in the temple.

Church’s willingness to incorporate different stylistic elements does keep things interesting. “Creepin’” kicks the album off with a swampy vibe and ends up being even catchier than “Smoke a Little Smoke.” “Homeboy” unexpectedly includes a harp flourish or two with the hard rock guitars, while “Springsteen” manages to capture that Springsteen sound without sounding like a ripoff of one of The Boss’ hits. On the flip side, “Keep On” attempts to blend the bravado from a Toby Keith song, a guitar lick possibly lifted from an episode of “CHIPs”, and some guy in the background repeating random words from the verses. It just doesn’t work on any level.

Fortunately, all the production tricks don’t often get in the way of a strong collection of songs. The two best ones, “Over When It’s Over” and “Hungover & Hard Up,” were written by Church and Luke Laird and tackle the aftermath of a failed relationship. In particular, “Over When It’s Over” nicely expresses the frustration of having a good thing fall apart.

“Homeboy,” written by Church and Casey Breathard, is the most interesting lyrically. In lesser hands, this could have been about a farmboy wooing his wayward brother back home with a list of wonderful things about country living (sweet tea, parties in the barn, etc. etc.). Instead, Church gives a much more realistic portrayal (“Ain’t a glamorous life but it’ll keep you out of jail”), and he and Breathard deserve credit for creating characters with depth and for avoiding a simplified happy ending.

Then there are the requisite drinking songs like “Drink In My Hand,” “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” and “Jack Daniels.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with them, but they all have a retread feel about them and aren’t nearly as compelling as the other tracks. The lyrics have just enough of an edge to help bolster Church’s outlaw rep but not enough to be actually controversial. So expect to hear Church singing about shoving overtime up his boss’ can or how Jack Daniels kicked his ass on the radio soon.

If you’re looking for Country Music Jesus, Chief may not be the answer to your prayers. On the whole, though, Church has put together one of the most ambitious and interesting albums that mainstream country music has seen all year.

 

32 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews