Category Archives: 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.

 

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Album Review: Blake Shelton, Red River Blue

Blake Shelton

Red River Blue

It’s hard to dispute that Blake Shelton possesses one of the strongest and distinctive male voices in country music today. Likewise, he has proven to be a more than capable interpreter of the songs that he writes and chooses to record. He knows when to sing with soft sensitivity and he knows when to sing loud and hard.

However, his interpretive abilities and vocal prowess does not always translate into the highest quality songs, as has been the major weakness of his last few projects, particularly Startin’ Fires and his two “six-paks.” The trend continues with Red River Blue, even though this album is a solid improvement.

The album wisely kicks things off with the popular lead single, the mid-tempo “Honey Bee.” The positive tune sets the tone for the remainder of the album, which reflects where Shelton is in his life thanks to a finally-exploding career and newly-married status to Miranda Lambert.

Among the other mid-tempos, the bluesy “Ready to Roll” is the most straight arrow. Its rolling baseline is pleasant, infectious and completely inoffensive. “Drink on It” is also a bit bluesy, but carries the line “He sounds like such a prick,” which turns out to be the song’s only memorable aspect. Continuing on the status quo scale, “Good Ole Boys” is pretty much summed up by its title: “Where did all the good ole boys go?” Apparently, good ole boys are synonymous with country boys who are the only people who are polite and hold doors for women and say “Yes, Ma’am.” Shelton’s infamous offbeat humor shows up at the end of the track when he banters, “I’ll even go pick up some of those feminine products for you. That’s what a good ole boy would do.” While the lyrics are inane, the Jennings-influenced arrangement is one of the most sonically satisfying on the album.

As he’s proven on previous albums, some of Shelton’s most memorable and brightest moments are when he fully embraces the ridiculous, which shows up in the form of “Hey” and “Get Some” this time around. Both songs have delightfully funky lyrics and interesting productions. “Hey” more successfully illustrates country living than many other songs of its ilk, the random “baby Jesus” reference notwithstanding. The premise of the charming “Get Some” is reminiscent of Toby Keith’s “Getcha Some”, but with a toned down, tasteful production that showcases engaging honky tonk piano and acoustic guitar solos.

While Shelton has proven capable of elevating substandard songs to higher levels in the past, he is not able to work his magic on most of the ballads on this album. Despite reliably stellar vocals on songs like the quality “Over,” decent comeuppance ballad “I’m Sorry” and the schmaltzy “God Gave Me You,” the tracks are all but ruined by tasteless eighties guitar solos and drum machines that turn them into power ballads rather than good country songs.

Not all of the ballads are mired in bombastic productions, however. In fact, not only does “Red River Blue” make a cool album title, the song with its name happens to be the standout track as well. Because it’s the quietest song on the album, tucked away at the end (not counting the two bonus tracks that include the island-flavored “Chill” and a cover of Dan Seals’ “Addicted), it’s easy to overlook its strength. Along with a subtle production, Miranda Lambert’s quiet background support helps to solidify the song’s mournful tone.

The songs on this album are more than well performed, but the album as a whole is weighed down by some blandness and far too many overwrought productions. While this album is a definite step back in the right direction from Shelton’s last three projects, it still has a long way to go to equal the quality of his first four.

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Album Review: Gary Nicholson, Texas Songbook

Gary Nicholson
Texas Songbook


Written by Bob Losche

Texas Songbook is the latest album from country/blues singer/songwriter Gary Nicholson, a recent inductee into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame. Nicholson is best known for writing familiar radio hits such as”The Trouble With the Truth” (Patty Loveless), “One More Last Chance” (Vince Gill), “Squeeze Me In” (Garth Brooks/Trisha Yearwood), and “She Couldn’t Change Me” (Montgomery Gentry), among many others.

Although he left Texas for Nashville over 30 years ago, Nicholson remains a Texan at heart, and all 13 songs on Texas Songbook have a Texas connection.

Produced by Gary and recorded in Austin at Asleep at the Wheel’s Bismeaux Records, the album features Texas musicians and co-writers, the latter group including the likes of Lee Roy Parnell, Delbert McClinton, Guy Clark and Allen Shamblin among others. There’s plenty of fiddle and steel guitar as well as effective use of the harmonica and accordion in this collection of swinging and two-stepping, dance hall and honky-tonk style music.

Many country music fans may already be familiar with some of the songs on this album: “Fallin’ & Flyin’ “, written with the late Stephen Bruton and performed by Jeff Bridges, was featured in the movie “Crazy Heart.” The island flavored “Live, Laugh, Love” was written with Allen Shamblin and previously recorded by Clay Walker on his 1999 album of the same title. It’s a “seize the moment” song.

Previously recorded by George Strait, Delbert McClinton and Del McCoury, “Same Kind of Crazy” written with Delbert McClinton, gets things rocking. McClinton plays harmonica with backing vocals by Randy Rogers. The man is smitten because his new girl is the same kind of crazy as he is. The third verse begins, “It’s getting hard to use a ladder ’cause I keep climbing down just to kiss her” and concludes with the best line of the song, “she talks in her sleep but she always gets my name right.”

My favorite track on the album is “Talkin’ Texan”, which was written with Jon Randall Stewart. I especially love the chorus: “there’s nothin’ he ain’t seen or done,/ he’s always got the biggest one/ he ain’t lyin’, he’s just talkin’ Texan”

Another co-write with Jon Randall, along with Guy Clark, is “Some Days You Write the Song”, which was the title song of Clark’s 2009 Grammy nominated record, Some Days the Song Writes You. Musing on the mystery of the song writing process, Nicholson sings, “Somedays you write the song, some days the song writes you.”

The cool sounding “Messin’ with My Woman”, written with John Hadley and Seth Walker, is a swinging tune with attitude. “Don’t be messin’ with my woman, when I’m out on the road, let my song be your warning, you can’t say you ain’t been told.” If the guy does mess with his woman, he’s “gonna take a whole lot of doctors to put you back the way you were”, with background singers Ray Benson and Jason Roberts of Asleep at the Wheel chiming in “they’d never get it right, they’d never get it right”.

The well executed fiddle and steel guitar filled “Texas Weather”, written with Lee Roy Parnell, opens the album by comparing the singer’s relationship with his woman to the volatile weather of his home state. He contrasts “angry voices, bitter cold and tender words that warm the soul”. “We know if we only wait a while we’ll see that rainbow smile”. The theme is a bit predictable. It reminds me of the saying, “If you don’t like the weather in (fill in the blank), wait 5 minutes.”

With a swinging melody that I love, “She Feels Like Texas” was written with Kimmie Rhodes. The girl’s “in a lone star state of mind, everywhere she goes.” Whenever she sees a foreign tourist attraction, she compares it to something from Texas, including calling the Eiffel Tower “the biggest oil rig I believe I’ve ever seen”.

“A Woman in Texas, A Woman in Tennessee” is a solo writing effort by Gary that he calls “a true story I made up”. Both women wondered where he was half the time. The situation gets more complicated as the song progresses: children with both, an accidental meeting of the families and the revelation of another family in Louisiana.

“Listen to Willie” is a tribute to the Redheaded Stranger written with Kevin Welch. Except for the chorus, the lyrics consist essentially of Willie Nelson song titles: “You’ve always been a ‘good hearted woman’, and I’d hate to see your ‘blue eyes cryin’ in the rain’. Other titles cleverly connected to compose the verses include “funny how time slips away”, “you were always on my mind”, “night life”, “on the road again”, “crazy” and about a half dozen others. Add a star if you’re a Willie fan. It is clever but after a few listens, I got tired of it

“Bless ‘em All”, written solely by Gary, bless him, features the gospel singing McCrary Sisters. Bless them too. The song mentions about a dozen religions, bless ‘em all, and concludes that “we got to all come together and find a better way to live”.

“Texas Ruby”, written with Jim Croce’s son AJ, features Marcia Ball on piano and Jim Hoke on saxophone. It tells of a stripper who gets on a street car in New Orleans on a real hot and sticky day and starts doing her thing. It’s a mildly amusing tune that AJ previously recorded in ’06 on his “Early On” cd.

“Lone Star Blues” was written with Delbert McClinton and has been previously covered by Delbert & George Strait. In the first scenario, he signs up for the rodeo. “I drew a bull called original sin, heard he’d killed a couple of men”, … but “he got disqualified when the bull up and died”. The chorus and last two scenarios gave me the blues and should have died too. The chorus speaks of north, south, east and west Texas blues, together the Lone Star Blues.

Although the songs included in “Texas Songbook” do not, for the most part, match some of Gary’s very best songs, the album as a whole is thoroughly enjoyable. The production is light throughout, the music is great and Gary knows how to deliver a song. If you’re into dancing, you’ll double your pleasure with this album.

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Album Review: Craig Campbell, Craig Campbell

Craig Campbell
Craig Campbell


The slightly perceptible shift to more traditional-sounding music on mainstream country radio carries on with Craig Campbell’s debut self-titled album, which was produced by the venerable Keith Stegall. Campbell may not be a household name just yet, but his album’s lead single is being warmly received so far and will likely continue to be at least for the near future.

The promising debut album from which the domestic “Family Man” comes is rife with very strong elements, but still suffers from some weaker moments that keep it from being a full on success.

With fiddle and steel guitar aplenty, Craig Campbell embraces a crisp neo-traditional sound that is refreshing to hear on an album marketed as country. Moreover, Campbell’s voice is strong and nicely melds with Stegall’s pleasant productions.

The combination of Stegall’s spot-on arrangements, Campbell’s commanding baritone, and the songs’ sing-able melodies provides a very fulfilling sonic experience for the listener who longs to hear unapologetic country music in the mainstream again. In fact, the brightest spot on the album is a severe, though sincere, indictment on the current state of country music that simply concludes, “If you gotta tell me how country you are, you prob’ly ain’t.”

Fortunately, while Campbell sings songs that celebrate innate country-ness (“Makes Me Wanna Sang”, “That’s Music to Me”), he largely avoids hypocrisy by using more subtle imagery instead of pulling out the stops with empty in-your-face proclamations. Furthermore, he does some name-dropping in “That’s Music to Me” as well, but does it respectfully with appropriate instrumentation to support it.

As to be expected from a country record, Campbell ably covers the common themes of love, lost love, family, and rural living. Among the most interesting of the themes, however, is when he touches on barely getting by. In “When I Get It”, Campbell matter-of-factly tells his bill collectors (including ex-wife), “When I Get it, you’ll get it / Times are tough / Get in line and wait / When I get it, you’ll get it / That’s all you’re getting’ today.” Similarly “Family Man” begins with “I’ve been working as a temp at the local factory / I hope they hire me on full time / I’ve got shoes to buy and mouths to feed.”

Despite all of its notable strengths, however, the album as a whole is weighed down by lyrical and content deficiencies that cannot fairly be overlooked. In many places, the lyrics are simple and often border on rudimentary, including “na na nas” (“When I Get It”) and humming (“Makes You Want to Sang”). The biggest pitfall, however, is the album’s tendency to attempt cleverness, which wouldn’t even be worth mentioning if it happened only once or twice. Unfortunately, cutesy wordplay is employed enough times on an 11-track album that it becomes a glaring distraction, which might too easily result in an album that is too gimmicky to enjoy longevity.

For instance, “I Bought It” runs through the times that he bought his woman things she wanted just because she showed interest in them, to buying her line about needing space to figure things out, to finally revealing that the tables were turned when she bought that he was excited that she’d decided to come home. Additionally, The more obvious attempts at clever wordplay can be found in “Fish” and (groan!) “Chillaxin.” “Chillaxin” needs no explanation, but the word “Fish,” let’s just say, shouldn’t rhyme with words like “truck,” “up,” “enough,” “love” and “luck,” which all precede it with added dramatic pauses for good measure.

In spite of this criticism, Craig Campbell is an album that shows tremendous potential for an artist who will hopefully mature with time and experience. It would be a shame to see such a talented artist either fall off our radar or ride on such mediocre lyrics for an entire career, because he’s clearly better than either scenario.

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Album Review: Steve Wariner, Guitar Laboratory

Written by Paul W. Dennis of The 9513.

Steve Wariner
Guitar Laboratory


Chet Atkins had many disciples, not the least of whom was Steve Wariner. Steve was a major country star and chart presence from 1980-1994 with scattered success both before and after his peak years.

Steve grew up listening to his father’s record collection which included some Merle Travis and everything Chet Atkins recorded. After tours with Dottie West and Bob Luman, Steve signed with RCA as a recording artist and became a friend and student of Chet Atkins. Steve has won many awards and honors but the award of which he is most proud was being awarded the Certified Guitar Player designation by Chet (the only others were Tommy Emmanuel, Jerry Reed and John Knowles).

Guitar Laboratory is a sequel of sorts to his previous album, My Tribute To Chet Atkins, released in 2009 . This album is no stubborn copy or pastiche of Chet’s style but represents a tribute to the spirit of Chet Atkins, covering a wide range of styles and tempos. While I wouldn’t describe this album as a country album, it does contain some country (“Sugarfoot Rag”) as well as some jazz (“A Groove”), some rock (“Telekinesis”), some blues (“Crafty”), some folk/bluegrass (“Up A Red Hill”) and even some Hawai’ian (Waikiki ’79) On some songs such as “Crafty” and “Kentuckiana” Steve sounds very much like Chet; however , on other tracks, not quite so much.

Steve enlists several guest pickers on the album who acquit themselves admirably. Steve is joined on “Sugarfoot Rag” by legendary guitarist Leon Rhodes, a long-time Opry Band member and former member of Ernest Tubb’s Texas Troubadours. Paul Yandell, a long-time associate and musical compadre of Chet’s, joins in on “Pals” and Steve’s son Ryan Wariner shows his musical chops on the rocking “Sting Ray”. The review copy of the album did not include any notes so I am not sure of the identity of any background musicians such as the accordionist and violinist on “I Will Never Forget You (Je Ne T’oulbieri Jamais)” or the trumpeter on “Phyllis and Ramona”, but suffice it to say they are all excellent.

All songs on this album, except “Sugarfoot Rag” were written by Steve Wariner (“Sugarfoot Rag” of course was written by guitar legend Hank Garland). There’s something for everyone on this all instrumental collection, and while I generally prefer vocal albums, I’ve listened to this album five times through thus far, although I’ve played my two favorite tunes “Sugarfoot Rag” and “Up a Red Hill” far more often than that.

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A Tale of Four Hits Collections

Four generous hits collections were released in 2010, each one chronicling the entire career of a contemporary country music star.  Individually, each double-disc set serve as the most expansive and thorough compilation for each artist. Taken together, they tell the story of country music over the last twenty years.

Alan Jackson
34 Number Ones

In the late eighties, Randy Travis did something that no other country star had done before. He became the top-selling country artist by a wide margin without making any musical concessions to pop or rock. In doing so, he tore up the old playbook. Suddenly, you could be a multi-platinum country artists without the added benefit of top 40 radio or accolades from the rock and roll press.

Thus began contemporary country music, the new paradigm that reached its commercial peak in the nineties, but has never come close to receding to its earlier status as a niche genre. A crop of young stars surfaced in 1989 and 1990, each one of them staking a claim to be the Haggard, the Jones, the Willie, the Waylon of their generation. Out of all of them, none struck a more perfect balance between artistic credibility and commercial viability than Alan Jackson.

Simply put, he is the most significant singer and songwriter of the past quarter century. So it’s no surprise that out of all of the country stars who’ve compiled #1 hit collections, Jackson’s set is the best, both in terms of overall quality and effectiveness in summing up an entire career.

Fact is, radio’s played nearly everything Jackson’s sent their way, and he’s demonstrated remarkably good judgment over the past twenty years. The highest of the high points – “Here in the Real World”, “Don’t Rock the Jukebox”, “Chattahoochee”, “Gone Country”, “Where Were You”, “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere” – aren’t just great records from their time period. They’re accurate representations as well, little time capsules that show Jackson as being centrally relevant to the genre while he was also making great music.

Today, with critical acclaim and commercial success becoming increasingly divergent pathways, 34 Number Ones serves as a powerful reminder that one need not sacrifice quality for radio airplay. Of the new tracks, Jackson’s cover of “Ring of Fire” doesn’t quite measure up, It’s certainly a competent reading, but Jackson’s already a legend in his own right. Just listen to “As She’s Walking Away”, the duet with Zac Brown Band that serves at the set’s bonus 35th number one. His mere presence elevates the track into greatness.

Tim McGraw
Number One Hits

Jackson’s ascent into superstardom came at the peak of the new traditionalist movement. Tim McGraw got in just under the buzzer, breaking through a year before Shania Twain shifted the course of country music to a distinctively more pop sound. He’s since been able to maintain stardom by going with the flow of these changes.

At his best, few have been better than Tim McGraw, but Number One Hits documents his bookend years as a follower of trends. It’s the songs on either end of his hit run than are the weakest. Whereas Jackson has flirted with banality once in a while, McGraw has openly embraced it. He became a mega-star by alternating shoehorning the five-hankie weepfest “Don’t Take the Girl” between novelty songs like “Indian Outlaw” and “Down on the Farm”, all of which reek of the hat act herd mentality that was heading out of style in 1994.

But McGraw used his clout from those early hits to get access to better material, and his albums soon demonstrated a song sense that was unrivaled among the other new acts of the time, most of whom quickly faded away as pop ascended in the genre. The best of his biggest singles came over the course of the next decade. Classics like “Just to See You Smile”, “Please Remember Me”, “Angry all the Time” and “Live Like You Were Dying” were among the best songs on the radio.

For a while there, he could get just about anything into the top fifteen, but this collection focuses only on the chart-toppers. So instead of fantastic gems like “Can’t Be Really Gone”, “One of These Days”, “Red Ragtop”, and “If You’re Reading This”, this set features quite a bit of forgettable fare that hasn’t aged well. They may have topped the charts, but that doesn’t make “Not a Moment Too Soon”, “She Never Lets it Go to Your Heart”, and the particularly abysmal “Southern Voice” worthy of inclusion in a best-of set.

If they were able to suspend the concept to include a questionable dance remix of the #8 chart hit “Indian Outlaw” and the mediocre new hit “Felt Good on My Lips”, they might as well have just been more generous with the track listing and released The Very Best of Tim McGraw. His music has been far more compelling than this collection shows.

Dixie Chicks
The Essential Dixie Chicks

The explosive crossover success of Shania Twain, LeAnn Rimes, and Faith Hill was in full swing in 1998, which left traditionalists hungering for a superstar alternative. In waltzed the Dixie Chicks, with a combination of musical credibility, traditional roots, and youthful appeal that instantly made them the darlings of the format. Over the course of two albums – 1998’s Wide Open Spaces and 1999’s Fly – they dominated radio, retail and the awards circuit.

Tracks from those two albums combine for fourteen of the thirty tracks of The Essential Dixie Chicks. All of the biggest hits are here, but chart success wasn’t the only determination for inclusion. Thank God for that, as less impressive top ten hits like “Cold Day in July” and “If I Fall You’re Going Down With Me” are left off, with the far more compelling “Heartbreak Town” and “Sin Wagon” in their place.

As good as their first two albums were, it was the 2002 masterpiece Home that truly solidified them as artists for the ages. Released at the height of O Brother mania, the timing couldn’t have been better for this acoustic album. “Long Time Gone”, “Landslide”, and “Travelin’ Soldier” all went top two, and the album swept the country categories at the 2003 Grammy Awards.

And then, the bottom fell out. Poorly chosen words about the president quickly overshadowed Home, and the princesses of country radio suddenly became pariahs, taking the burgeoning roots movement down with them. Radio slamming its door shut is what makes a hit-centered Chicks compilation impossible, and Essential Dixie Chicks wisely chooses to give equal representation to Home and its follow-up, the California country Taking the Long Way.

An excellent job is done of selecting the best album cuts from both collections, an especially difficult task with the latter album. Sure, it won five Grammys and sold well, but the platinum single “Not Ready to Make Nice” was the only real hit. Thankfully, we’re treated to gems like “Top of the World” and “Truth No. 2″ from Home and “The Long Way Around”, “Easy Silence,” and “Lubbock or Leave It” from Taking the Long Way.

And while a case could be made for some great tracks left off – “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)”, “More Love”, and “Voice Inside My Head” come to mind – everything that’s here is essential listening. Then again, the Chicks could have randomly picked any 30 songs from the four albums represented here and still ended up with a great collection of music, so high has their standard of excellence been all along. How many other superstar country artists could do the same?

Brad Paisley
Hits Alive

If the Dixie Chicks best represent the last gasp of lofty aspiration in mainstream country music over the past twelve years, Brad Paisley best represents the mediocrity the genre was willing to settle for. Rising to fame around the same time as the Chicks, Paisley was similarly touted as a traditional savior for the increasingly pop-influenced genre.

And for more than ten years, he’s lived up to the traditionalist part, rarely flirting with crossover sounds. Much like Alan Jackson, Paisley’s sound hasn’t changed much over time. But unlike Jackson, Paisley’s point of view hasn’t changed much either. He’s been releasing antiseptic, mostly dull radio fodder for most of his career, getting regular radio play with an endless stream of interchangeable love songs and party anthems.

Hits Alive attempts to assess his work to date, and it takes an odd approach. A disc of studio hits is paired with a disc of live recordings of his hits. Figuring out the guiding principle in song selection is near impossible. Some of his signature hits – “I’m Gonna Miss Her”, “Letter to Me”, “Waitin’ on a Woman” – appear only in live form. Songs that practically beg to be livened up, like “Ticks”, “The World”, and “Celebrity” – are only here in their studio incarnations. Bizarrely, “Alcohol” and “Mud on the Tires”, are presented in both forms.

The double dipping means early hits like “Who Needs Pictures”, “Wrapped Around”, “Two People Fell in Love”, and “I Wish You’d Stay” are omitted entirely. That’s a shame, because they’re all better than his string of condescending and slightly misogynist love songs that do make the cut, the worst offenders being “The World” and the jaw-dropping “Little Moments”, the latter providing a list of endearing traits that would be insulting if he was singing about his child, let alone his partner.

Thankfully, many of his best moments are included, most notably “Whiskey Lullaby” and “When I Get Where I’m Going”, two hits that have gone on to become genre standards in the years since their release. Plus, the live disc brings some unexpected treats. “Time Warp” showcases his stunning instrumental talent, while the hits “Water” and “American Saturday Night” truly do come alive on stage, making them sound better here than they did on the radio.

Of the four collections, Paisley’s may be the least impressive, but it’s still a decent representation of one of country music’s last superstars, and it speaks volumes about the creative holding pattern that still paralyzes the genre. Unless the spiritual successors to Alan Jackson or the Dixie Chicks come along, Paisley’s might be as good as it’s gonna get on country radio.

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2010 Christmas Albums Extravaganza

Yay! Christmas time is here again!

This year, instead of writing about this year’s crop of Christmas projects individually, I’ve decided to round them up in one post in an effort to make sure I acknowledge all of them. Unless I’ve overlooked one, the only album that will be omitted from this roundup is Shelby Lynne’s Christmas album, which is super good/compelling and funky, so it deserves its own review and it will come as soon as I figure out how to write about it.

Let the fun begin!

Carter’s Chord, Christmas

As Toby Keith’s best discovery so far, Carter’s Chord is a talented sister duo that hasn’t yet gotten the success that they deserve. With only one digitally released studio album that has received criminally little attention, they’ve still managed to deliver a delightful 4-song EP that would be well worth adding to your Christmas collection.

All of the songs are well produced, with very tasteful country arrangements, but the standout track is the warm and bluesy “Snowed In.” Surprisingly, the lead vocal on “Up on the Housetop” could easily be mistaken for a Miranda Lambert performance.

Lady Antebellum, A Merry Little Christmas

Yes, since I typically don’t shop at Target, I made a special trip to purchase this exclusive 6-song EP. It was at least one-third worth the effort. Literally. “Their versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, “Blue Christmas” and “Let it Snow” are given nice, if not unremarkable, country leaning treatments while “All I Want for Christmas Is You” and “On This Winter’s Night” lean more toward R&B. “Silver Bells”, however, suffers from the generic pop production that Lady Antebellum all too often utilizes for their regular music.

Point of Grace, Home for the Holidays

For the last couple of years, Contemporary Christian group, Point of Grace, has attempted to make gains in the country market. They haven’t been successful, but they continue to try with the release of their fourth Christmas album (the third being a collection of their first two), Home for the Holidays. Their smooth harmonies are sweet but vibrant enough to stay out of the syrupy territory. The original “Candy Cane Lane” is laced with fiddle and steel guitar and, incidentally, is one of the stand out tracks on the album, along with the gorgeous “Emanuel.” Standards such as “Silver Bells”, “Little Drummer Boy”, and “Holly Jolly Christmas” are also treated to decidedly country arrangements and ably performed on the whole.

Mandy Barnett, Winter Wonderland

Mandy Barnett’s Cracker Barrel exclusive Christmas album is an unapologetic throwback to the Nashville sound of Yesteryear both in production and notable reverb affects. At this point, it’s unoriginal to compare her voice to Patsy Cline, but the similarity is pretty much irrefutable, so it’s no wonder that Barnett aptly capitalizes on the comparison and we, in turn, continue to make the connection. Ultimately, it’s a pleasant album, but more for background than intrigue.

Jason Michael Carroll, Christmas on the Farm

With Jason Michael Carroll’s chart success being somewhat spotty, it’s easy to forget that he possesses one of the top voices among the current country crop as he slips under the radar much of the time. Therefore, it’s the surprise of the season that his Christmas EP is one of the best Christmas projects of 2010. His talent gorgeously shines through most especially on the gently and beautifully sung arranged “Auld Lang Syne”, but on “Silent Night and “O Little Town of Bethlehem” as well. “Joy to the World” is a rousing back porch pickin’-type affair that is ridiculously infectious. The title track is also upbeat, but is the lone contemporary produced song on the set. It wouldn’t sound like a typical Christmas song if not for the setting, but it’s fun, if not superfluous, nonetheless. If this EP is representative of Jason Michael Carroll at Christmas Time, more please!

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Album Review: Reba McEntire, All the Women I Am

Reba McEntire
All the Women I Am

A case study in musical identity crisis.

Here we have one of the most gifted vocalists in the history of country music, searching in vain for her voice.  The trend has been going on for some time now, and if this isn’t its apex, we’re in for a long and bumpy ride. Not since her days with Mercury has McEntire ever tried so hard to fit in with the current sound on country radio, and much like those early records, this trend-chasing set is both overprocessed and underdeveloped.

What can you say about a woman of McEntire’s age and stature covering Beyoncé? How can one take seriously her references to Twitter and “kicking it” with the guys? One one track, she talks about meeting an old man on the plane who is mourning Chelsea,  the love of his life who has since passed on.  She dreams about being “Somebody’s Chelsea.”  How can a woman in her mid-fifties not have something substantial to add to a conversation with this man?

Everything takes place in the distant future here, and truth be told, this would be a pretty good Kellie Pickler album. But in adopting the voice of the younger generation of ladies, McEntire becomes the student when she should really be the teacher.

At her peak, McEntire gave voice to the everyday woman. On classics like “Only in My Mind”, “Whoever’s in New England”, and “Is There Life Out There”, she put into words what women were really thinking but were conditioned not to say.

Which is why when McEntire suddenly taps that vein in two of the album’s closing tracks, it’s like a sudden jolt to the system. “The Day She Got Divorced” is vivid and real, with lyrical imagery that would make Jeannie C. Riley proud.   Just as good is the album’s beautiful closing track, “When You Have a Child,” where McEntire catalogs all of the conflicting emotions a mother feels from the time her child is born to when they’re leaving home.

You know why it works? Because McEntire has the life experience to back it up.  It’s actually age-appropriate, and it’s tremendously powerful as a result.  None of the younger artists she’s chasing the sound of could pull it off, but McEntire effortlessly knocks it out of the park.

Here’s the deal. These days, there is no shortage of young women with barely any life experience who have the whole world hanging on every word they say.  McEntire doesn’t need to lower herself to that level, just so she can be heard. As the best moments on All the Women I Am prove, she’s more authoritative when speaking for her own generation than she can ever be by adopting the viewpoints of the young’uns who aren’t that interesting to begin with.  Music by adults, for adults please.

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Album Review: Sugarland, The Incredible Machine

Sugarland
The Incredible Machine


There’s no point in dancing around it.

The Incredible Machine is a terrible album, an unmitigated disaster that manages to fail in ways that shouldn’t even be possible, especially on a mainstream album created by established professionals and released by a major label.

At its best, Sugarland has made successful music by combining clever musical arrangements with strong lyrical hooks, delivered by the inimitable vocal talent that is Jennifer Nettles.  I would have deemed a full album being completely devoid of all three components inconceivable, but The Incredible Machine comes frighteningly close.

First, the arrangements. Look, it’s cool when an audience sings back to you at a concert.  Heck, the Sugarland audience has been known to sing along with “Stay” and “Joey”, which are hardly your typical Bic light anthems.  But on several tracks here, Jennifer and Kristian become their own audience, singing back to each other in chants best fit for a Journey concert.

And, oh boy, are they chanting back some inane lyrics. Sugarland make the fatal error of mistaking form for content. Yes, there’s an adrenaline rush that’s produced by Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'”, and Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer”, and Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends.” But that’s because the songs have a deeper meaning that resonates with audiences, not just because they simply can be chanted along with.

So we get the empty platitudes of “Stand Up”, for example, which impels us to do stand up and…do what, exactly? It unpleasantly reminded me of the high drama of primary season two years ago, when I stood there confused, wondering why I was supposed to be inspired by vague promises of change instead of hard work and proven results. The time for music lifting up a people into social action is largely behind us, but if you’re going to try to resurrect it, it helps to clue us in on what you’re impelling us to do.  Unless you just want to feel important for five minutes in an arena, I guess.

So the lyrics aren’t what you’d expect from Sugarland, even on an off day, and the arrangements fall flat on nearly every track. But you still have Jennifer Nettles at the mic, so that must be a net positive, right?

Wrong. I don’t know the Jennifer Nettles on most of this album. She yells at me, can’t enunciate, uses odd accents, and often sounds like she has a head cold, the latter being very pronounced on the could’ve-been-good-if-it-was-sung-better “Tonight.”  I can only shake my head at the sad truth that the woman who once broke my heart singing about “Pictures, dishes, and socks” can now repeat the same word a dozen times in the title track without me being able to decipher it once. (The word is “calling”, by the way. Not that it matters, since it doesn’t make sense anyway.)

I can’t think of an album that has ever disappointed me more than this one. Having loved Love On the Inside and Live on the Inside, and simply adoring lead single, “Stuck Like Glue”, I really thought this was going to be good.  The charm of that lead single, which brought reggae flavor firmly over to traditional Sugarland territory, had me thinking they could be country music’s Blondie, innovative in their integration of other genres without sacrificing their own musical identity.  They decided to be its Starship instead, rejecting everything that made them distinctive and relevant and embracing a musical style that they aren’t even able to do competently, let alone do well.

Where were the adults to tell this A-list act that the music wasn’t working? Why even have a record label anymore, if they either can’t hear the sound of their top act throwing their careers away or don’t have the gumption to stop them before they do? This is a poorly conceived and poorly executed album.  Even one of those would be bad enough, but the two of them together is worse than tragic. It’s a disgrace.

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Album Review: Randy Houser, They Call Me Cadillac

Randy Houser
They Call Me Cadillac

In a male-dominated industry, it’s often difficult to hear distinction in the plethora of male voices on mainstream country radio. We do not have such a challenge with Randy Houser, however. Instead, Houser has a voice that rivals the soul and strength of Brooks and Dunn’s Ronnie Dunn. Regrettably, his debut album mainly suffered from production that detracted from his distinctive voice by placing heavy emphasis on the trending bombast of the times.

Houser’s promise was not completely absent, however, as demonstrated on strong songs like “Anything Goes”, “Something Real” and “How Many Times”, along with the playful “Lie”. Unfortunately, those moments were overshadowed by the larger raucous tone of the album, which, ultimately, made the disc uneven. So, in one of the small positive twists of 2010, Houser’s new album, They Call Me Cadillac, is a pleasant divergence from his previous effort.

Along with the jaunty title track that, apparently, refers to Houser’s nickname, “Out Here in the Country”, and “I’m All about It” help to fill the uptempo quota that is inarguably needed for a mainstream release. These songs are catchy with a certain level of cheeky charm to keep them enjoyable. Additionally, “A Man Like Me” is a pleasing throwback to a Waylon Jennings sound with a refreshing modern twist to it. On the mellower end of things, the slow burning “Addicted” and the pretty waltz, “If I Could Buy Me Some Time”, help to serve as a good counterbalance.

There are a couple of missteps on the album, however. “Whistlin’ Dixie”, the album’s lead single, is simply an intolerable wall of noise full of insufferable clichés for the express purpose of conjuring up southern imagery. The other notable stumble on the album is sonically pleasing, but lyrically troubling. “Will I Always Be This Way” is a self-indulgent lament of a man who doesn’t know if he can ever settle down. While the sentiment is a continual trope of country songs, it’s expressed especially distastefully  in this one, as Houser asks, “Will I ever be the kind of guy / Who’s running home every night / To the little house / And doing right by the little wife?”

Luckily, the album is rarely interrupted by such inferior material. Instead, it’s largely comprised of solid songs with some standout gems, particularly the bone-chillingly spare “Lead Me Home”, a bluesy gospel song that Houser vocally nails with just the right mix of soul and restraint. Similarly, “Somewhere South of Memphis” is also impressively soulful, as its title rightfully suggests.

Randy Houser is now on the Toby Keith-owned label, Show Dog Universal. Interestingly, it seems that despite Keith’s reputation for in-your-face songs and productions, Houser has still been granted the freedom to dial back the loud that pervaded his freshman album to embrace a less cluttered, more organic sound for his sophomore project. Rather than the screaming guitars and pulsating rhythms that largely drove Anything Goes, this album manages to find a way to retain the energy from the first album while sounding relaxed and allowing Houser to seem more comfortable with his songs. Electric guitars and hooky drum beats are still a part of the equation, but fiddles, acoustic and steel guitars are just as present, which mercifully allows the two styles to positively coexist.

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