Archive for the ‘Retro Single Reviews’ Category

Retro Single Review: Alan Jackson, "Gone Country"

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

“I hear down there, it’s changed, you see.  They’re not as backward as they used to be.”

“Gone Country” is a snapshot of country music at the peak of the boom years, when forces within the music industry and larger shifts in the social landscape of America coalesced to launch country music from its long-suffering redheaded stepchild status into a billion dollar business.

Penned by Bob McDill, a pop songwriter who’d gone country himself many years earlier, the song’s sing-along chorus lends itself to “Born in the U.S.A.” syndrome.  Many sang along without realizing that it was actually an indictment of musical artists who manipulatively decided to go country, rather than a celebration of the explosive new audience that had embraced the format in the early nineties.

Who but Alan Jackson could have delivered it so masterfully? Even during the hat act years, when every young new buck was falling over himself to declare his affinity for Haggard and Jones, Alan Jackson stood out as the real deal.  But despite his staunch traditionalism and reverence for the genre’s greats, he still skillfully incorporated fifties rock, sixties pop and seventies rock into his sound, which is why he could cover “Tequila Sunrise” just as credibly as “A Good Year for the Roses.”

The man singing the song had reached mega-superstardom, selling more copies of one album than many of his heroes had sold of their entire catalog.   Even as he played the cocked-eyebrow guardian of the genre, looking at these carpetbaggers with disdain-laced suspicion, he also knew that the gold rush that was calling their names had made him successful beyond his wildest dreams.

So while there’s a whiff of condescension toward the Vegas singer going “back to her roots”, the folkie who thought “some of that stuff don’t sound much different than Dylan”, and the pop executive who was sure he’d  “be back in the money in no time at all”,  his confident air throughout the song was a reminder that all of their perceptions were based in truth.

Nineties country really did share some roots with the pop and rock music that lounge singers would belt out in Vegas.   Mary Chapin Carpenter, a folkie if there ever was one, was selling multi-platinum and dominating the award show circuit.  And while pop music was at its lowest nadir, languishing in the shadows of both grunge rock and hip-hop, country radio was the only place on the radio dial where bright production and lyrical emphasis could be found.

It was a golden moment in the genre’s history, the first and last time when country dominated the entire American musical landscape without having to compromise its own identity to capture the interest of the crossover audience.   They made smart, contemporary music that acknowledged and built upon the genre’s rich legacy, and the audience came to them.

These days, of course, they’re as backward as they’ve ever been.  Hillbilly pride songs compete for airtime with songs so blatantly pop that they don’t even need remixing for pop and AC airplay. But “Gone Country” is a beautiful snapshot of a time when buy generic viagra online the genre had risen to the top of the music scene, simply on the twin strengths of authenticity and artistry.

Written by Bob McDill

Grade: A

Next: A Good Year for the Roses (with George Jones)

Previous: Livin’ on Love

Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, "Ka-Ching!"

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

2003 | Peak:  #2 (Europe, Austria, Sweden); #3 (Germany); #8 (U.K.)

Shania Twain at her most deliciously subversive.

“Ka-Ching!” stands in such sharp contrast to her entire catalog that it's something of a shock that she wrote and recorded it.

Even more shocking is that this biting indictment of consumer culture was originally written for her Christmas album, but she added it to Up! when that project was shelved.

Less shocking is that she chose not to release it in America, given that the bulk of her descriptions might resonate a little too deeply with her target audience stateside.   The red “pop” mix is better than the green “country” one anyway, channeling all that is best about Abba without sounding dated.  No wonder it was a huge hit in Scandinavia.

I hope that if she ever does come out with another album – almost ten years and counting – her observations are as razor-sharp and sing-along catchy as they are here.

Written by Robert John “Mutt” Lange and Shania Twain

Grade: A

Next: Forever and For Always

Previous: Up!

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Retro Single Review: Dolly Parton, "I Will Always Love You"

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

1974 | #1

Where to start?  How do you begin a review of a song as seemingly universal as this one is?  I could go on about what a massive success this song was in all the different versions that were recorded.  But for now, I'll just talk about what a fine record this 1974 original is on its own merits.

Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of country music history knows that Parton wrote the song for her mentor Porter Wagoner, from whom she was separating professionally at the time.  The song deals with feelings personal to Parton, but they are conveyed in a manner just vague enough that virtually any listener can connect the story with his or her own experiences.

But for all of Parton's formidable songwriting talent, what makes “I Will Always Love You” a great record goes beyond the lyric sheet.  This original 1974 recording is simply one of the finest displays that can be found of the deep sincerity that Parton has always brought to her performances.  Her vocal here is subtle and almost hushed, but she fills every crevice of the acoustic arrangement with her aching, nakedly honest delivery, while the melody of the song is just hauntingly beautiful.

There's not a trace of anger or animosity to be found – just honest, heavy-hearted resignation that the relationship could not be made to work, coupled with ongoing love, and hope for the loved one to find happiness.  Best of all, Parton is such a fine vocal interpreter that you get the sense that if she were singing the song directly to Wagoner, and to no one else, that it would still have sounded exactly as it does on the record here.

Without a doubt, there are clear reasons why “I Will Always Love You” is a classic.  Though this is only the beginning of the life that “I Will Always Love You” would take on over the years, this 1974 recording remains the definitive version of the song.

Written by Dolly Parton

Grade: A

Next:  Please Don't Stop Loving Me (with Porter Wagoner)

Previous:  Jolene

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, "Famous Last Words of a Fool"

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

1988 | Peak: #1

Strait previewed his eighth studio album, If You Ain't Lovin' You Ain't Livin', with a cover of a minor hit by Dean Dillon from 1983.

It's a solid song, but Strait's performance is oddly distant, and he sings it in a register that's slightly too low.  He may have hemmed to closely to Dean's original recording, which is ultimately more successful as a record than Strait's chart-topping version.

Written by Dean Dillon and Rex Houston

Grade: B-

Next: Baby Blue

Previous: Am I Blue

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Retro Single Review: Tim McGraw, "My Next Thirty Years"

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

2000 | Peak: #1

Age forty is still seen as more of a milestone, but age thirty might be the best place to neatly divide your life.

McGraw captures that feeling of settling in to who you're going to be, and the growing confidence that you're really an adult and that you've somewhat established yourself.

Suddenly, you look back on the ridiculous things you've done in your twenties with amusement and appreciation, like you're looking back on a different person who you're quite fond of but can no  longer completely relate to.   It's a moment in time when you've gathered your necessary life skills and still have enough energy to put them to use.

Who could be a better vehicle for this song than McGraw? He was 32 when he recorded it, and was enjoying unparalleled success at country radio, while also starting a family with fellow superstar Faith Hill.   “My Next Thirty Years” was his twelfth #1 single in only seven years, and his seventh to spend four weeks or more at #1, a run absolutely unheard of in the modern era of country radio.

He sings with the confidence of a man on the top of his game, completely unaware of the fact that he'd one day sing “Truck Yeah.”

Written by Phil Vassar

Grade: A

Next: Let's Make Love (with Faith Hill)

Previous: Some Things Never Change

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Retro Single Review: Dolly Parton, "Jolene"

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

1973 | Peak: #1

This haunting little record went on to become Parton's most covered song.   Not bad for a humble tale of a woman simply begging another not to take her man.

One of the reason it works is that it's recorded in a minor key, which is still a rarity for country songs.   The instantly recognizable guitar hook played with solemn urgency practically drips with sorrow, setting up Parton to deliver a performance wrought with tension and fear.   She's begging him not to take her man, but everything about the record and her performance suggest she's already lost him and she knows it.

“Jolene” was the first of a string of five #1 singles for Parton, and it was also her only solo top ten hit in the United Kingdom.   Other artists have also had success with the song, most notably Olivia Newton-John, who spent three weeks at #1 atop the Japanese pop chart with her version, and the White Stripes, who had a successful live version that was a major rock hit in many markets.

Written by Dolly Parton

Grade: A

Next: I Will Always Love You (1974)

Previous: If Teardrops Were Pennies (with Porter Wagoner)

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Retro Single Review: Shania Twain, "Up!"

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

2oo3 | #12

The title track and second single of Shania Twain's Up! album is arguably the finest and fullest realization of Twain's signature positivity.  It also perfectly exemplifies the sheer brilliance of the strategy behind the Up! album.

With Shania Twain having found a whole new worldwide audience thanks to the crossover success of Come On Over, she found an ingenious way to placate both her pop and country music fan bases with her subsequent album release.  Each song on the album was recorded in three different versions – country, pop and East Asian rhythm.  Thanks to that solution, Twain was freed of the need to carefully toe the line between musical styles.  Instead, the pop versions could be even more pop than the songs on Come On Over had been, while Twain likewise had the freedom to fully amp up the twang factor on the country versions.

“Up!” is a charming song in any form, but by all rights, the country version spanks the others.  The energetic banjo picking adds a whole new layer of personality to the tune as it mixes deliciously with the pulsing pop beat.  Regardless, it's ultimately Twain's uninhibited performance that makes the record soar, as she delivers the hook of “Up!  Up!  Up!  There's no way but up from here” with ferocious conviction as well as infectious spunk and charmisma.

While the lyrics are simple, the magic lies in the fact that the melody and performance carry just the right “spark” to bring the song fully to life.  It's not so much about the words themselves as it is about the feeling created by the composite product, such that the spirit of the song goes so far as to transcend the song itself.  That makes “Up!” one of those rare instances in which seemingly rudimentary ingredients combine with just the right musical chemistry to create something truly memorable and special.

Written by Shania Twain and Robert John “Mutt” Lange

Grade:  A

Next:  Ka-Ching!

Previous:  I'm Gonna Getcha Good!

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Retro Single Review: Alan Jackson, "Livin' on Love"

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

1994 | Peak: #1

So catchy, so charming, and so full of little funny details that you can forgive him for ripping off “Two Sparrows in a Hurricane” so blatantly.

Written by Alan Jackson

Grade: B+

Next: Gone Country

Previous: Summertime Blues

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Retro Single Review: George Strait, "Am I Blue"

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

1987 | Peak: #1

Another hit from Strait that revels in his Western Swing roots.

Like much of his best eighties material, the contemporary production makes it timely, but the arrangements and vocal performance make it timeless.

Written by David Chamberlain

Grade: B+

Next:  Famous Last Words of a Fool

Previous: All My Ex's Live in Texas

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Retro Single Review: Tim McGraw, "Some Things Never Change"

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

2000 | Peak: #7

McGraw at his most listless.   “Some Things Never Change” is an easy listening number that's so easy to listen to, it might put you to sleep.

It goes nowhere lyrically or melodically, and there isn't a drum beat or steel guitar hook around to save it.

Written by Walt Aldridge and Brad Crisler

Grade: C-

Next: My Next Thirty Years

Previous: My Best Friend

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