As Dan observed in his single review of “Up on the Ridge”, there was a noticeable decline in Dierks Bentley’s music after his well received Long Trip Alone album. It is purely speculative to suggest, but one can’t help but wonder if Bentley himself felt staleness creeping into his music as well. It’s not farfetched for the idea to be true, since Dierks has proven himself to be an astute artist in the past. So, why wouldn’t he notice if there was, indeed, a shift?
Speculation aside, Bentley has taken a break from the routine of his last four albums to create an album that is far removed from what is popular on mainstream country radio and somewhat different than what he’s put on his own previous albums. However, he is still marketing to radio, as his first single, the title track, has been treated like any other Bentley single release. The album is not as adventurous, or as strong, as the Dixie Chicks’ unapologetically acoustic album, but it may be as close to the concept as we have gotten since their targeted mainstream acoustic project, Home.
It has been appropriately publicized that this album is not a pure bluegrass project. Instead, it is close in style to the bluegrass influenced tracks that Bentley has consistently included on each of his studio albums. Yes, mandolin, banjo, dobro and fiddle are ever present, but Bentley is not shy about using drums, exploring subversive melodies (“Up on the Ridge”, “Fallin’ for You”), or deviating from traditional bluegrass rules of engagement along the way. Moreover, Bentley does not possess the high lonesome tenor that is typically associated with bluegrass. He, however, proves himself to be a capable vocalist within the parameters of his unique style of it.
A handful of covers, songs by well respected songwriters, and some of Bentley’s own compositions makes this rootsy album a well rounded set. The best of the covers is bob Dylan’s “Senor (Tales of Yankee Power) and Kris Kristofferson’s Bottle to the Bottom”. While the otherwise solid “Bottle to the Bottom” features a somewhat pointless cameo by Kristofferson, the addition of the Punch Brothers on “Senor” is inspired art. A less successful cover is U2’s “Pride (in the Name of Love).” While Del McCoury’s distinctive tenor does well to do the heavy lifting, the over all recording still lacks the etherealness of the original. Ironically, as they are most closely associated with Americana, the Buddy Miller cover is the most mainstream friendly sounding song on the album. Unfortunately, it is also inferior to Miller’s version.
Among the strongest of Bentley’s songs is “Rovin’ Gambler” (once again, with the Punch Brothers), “Draw Me a Map” (featuring Alison Krauss on background vocals), “You’re Dead to Me” (co-written by and featuring Tim O’Brien”, and “Down in the Mine.”
Bentley wisely enlists the help of some of his creative friends such as the Punch Brothers (with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek fame), Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Miranda Lambert, Tim O’Brien, and Kris Kristofferson. Complimented by Jon Randall’s organic production sensibilities, this impeccable support adds a welcome texture to the project. However, the collaborations work best when they are more subtle. For instance, while the prospect of Miranda Lambert and Jamey Johnson collaborating is, indeed, an appealing concept, the result does not rise to the occasion in practice. Both Lambert and Johnson deliver excellent performances with Bentley on “Bad Angel”, with Lambert’s voice being huskier than usual, but the parts together translate as more disjointed than natural. Likewise, the results of Del McCoury’s and Kris Kristofferson’s contributions were not as successful as one would hope for from such revered artists. On the other hand, the Punch Brothers (who played on several tracks), Alison Krauss, Tim O’Brien, Jon Randall, and Vince Gill (“Fiddlin’ Around”) were used less overtly to greater effect.
With expert musicianship by the best in the business, solid songs, and impressive vocal support, Up on the Ridge is a refreshing album from an artist who is taking a chance with this musical detour while still in the throes of a considerably lucrative career. Not only is taking such a chance commendable, Bentley has created a solid album to justify the diversion.
I don’t know about y’all, but Dierks Bentley has been on this swift downward trajectory for me ever since his killer trio of “Every Mile a Memory”, “Long Trip Alone” and “Free And Easy (Down the Road I Go)” back in ’06/’07. I don’t know whether his team got spooked by Long Trip Alone‘s low sales and tried to force crowd-pleasers out of him or if he just ran out of interesting ideas on his own. Either way, it’s been a bummer.
I believe in second chances, though, and there’s no better way to prime me for one than to announce a roots-based or traditionalist project. (Like, even Kellie Pickler is getting me kind of curious.) So I was pumped to hear that Bentley was planning on releasing a full bluegrass album, especially one with actual radio singles. And here we are at the first one, the upcoming album’s title track.
Now, as Bentley is an A-minus-list country star who cut some of his teeth at Nashville’s Station Inn, it’s no surprise that he managed to corral the very finest pickers for this project, and it’s no surprise that those pickers sound very well-arranged here. “Up on the Ridge” has a dark, shimmering newgrass production that doesn’t quit, and that alone will easily make it one of 2010′s most memorable singles.
Unfortunately, that production is forced to prop up some pretty weak efforts by the headlining artist. The song – an extended invitation to join its singer for a sexy camping trip – sounds like it was written merely as a means to get to its cool-sounding title. The melody and lyrics are serviceable but stagnant, offering none of the excitement of similarly-themed singles like “Fishin’ in the Dark”, “Hey Bobby” or even “Mud on the Tires.” Even Bentley’s vocal sounds awkard and disconnected as it mulls over throwaway lines about his dog howling at an owl (or something). So while the record has a cooler style than, say, “Sideways,” its substance suffers from many of the same shortcomings.
Worse still, the juxtaposition of the awesome guest players and the thoroughly bland song and performance by Bentley makes the single sound like a premature vanity project, something no one would’ve wanted to contribute to if the chief creator weren’t a star. That’s probably not the case, as Bentley seems like a great guy and a genuine friend to the bluegrass community. But it’s abundantly obvious who’s doing the heavy lifting here; I can only hope that the rest of the album showcases Bentley’s own talents much better.
Even in Grammy’s darkest hours, CU brings its picking powers!
- Superhero television show about our blog from the 50′s.
We won’t be live-blogging this time around, but will be reacting to the show in a full post tomorrow, and welcome your reactions in comments on this post. The awards telecast starts at 8 pm Eastern, and I imagine there will be some red carpet action in the hour prior.
Record of the Year
Beyonce, “Halo” – Kevin
Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling”
Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” - Tara
Lady GaGa, “Poker Face” - Dan
Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”
Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling”
Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody” – Kevin, Dan, Tara
Lady GaGa, “Poker Face”
Taylor Swift, “You Belong with Me”
Kevin: Am I wrong for preferring Eric Cartman’s rendition of “Poker Face” over the original? This is a pretty lightweight slate of contenders. I really like “Halo”, but I suspect Kings of Leon will win, simply because it’s the only rock song in a lineup of pop hits.
Dan: “Poker Face” just feels very representative of popular music in 2009. I wouldn’t whine if it got passed over so that “Bad Romance” could take this award next year, though.
Tara: I would’ve pulled for “Single Ladies” in a heartbeat had it been submitted, but “Use Somebody” is just as deserving of this award. It’s a fantastic song even outside the context of its moment in pop culture, and it’s the kind of larger-than-life song that the voters have picked to win in the past.
Album of the Year
Beyonce, I Am…Sasha Fierce
Black Eyed Peas, The E.N.D.
Lady GaGa, The Fame – Kevin, Tara
Dave Matthews Band, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King
Taylor Swift, Fearless - Dan
Beyonce, I Am…Sasha Fierce
Black Eyed Peas, The E.N.D.
Lady GaGa, The Fame
Dave Matthews Band, Big Whiskey and the Groogrux King - Kevin
Taylor Swift, Fearless - Dan, Tara
Kevin: I’d like to see dance music get some respect in the big category, even if there are a half-dozen Madonna albums at this point that would’ve been worthier winners than The Fame. Again, I think the Top 40 votes are going to be split, leaving Dave Matthews Band the winners.
Dan: In little over a year, Fearless has grown from success story to cultural artifact. It’s that rare pop album that seems to have a personality all its own, like Jagged Little Pill in a yellow sundress (and sung about as well). I could see anyone but the Peas taking this, but I think Swift’s support in both Nashville and the Top 40 crowd will take her to the top.
Tara: I have to say I was fairly shocked to see Swift’s truckload of Grammy nominations, so I’m having a little trouble wrapping my mind around the Academy’s thought process – but, I suppose a Swift win in this category is inevitable. However, I fully back Lady GaGa, who is the perfect storm of creativity, vision, swagger and raw vocal talent (remember that, pop world?). (more…)
Since this was a solo blog, doing a Grammy Wish List has been an annual tradition. I’m not too excited about this year’s Grammys, to be honest. 2009 was a weak year in my opinion, and the shortened 11-month eligibility period didn’t help matters. But a tradition is a tradition, so here are my picks in the eleven categories that I care about this year:
* denotes my personal wish:
Record of the Year
Beyoncé, “Halo” *
The Black Eyed Peas, “I Gotta Feeling”
Kings of Leon, “Use Somebody”
Lady Gaga, “Poker Face”
Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me”
It’s always nice to see a country radio hit in there, but I honestly can’t stand “You Belong With Me.” I dig the Kings of Leon song, but the record that I enjoy the most here is “Halo.” Some pundits have suggested that Beyoncé threw her chances at this trophy by submitting “Halo” instead of “Single Ladies”, but I like that song even less than “You Belong With Me.” Love “Halo”, though.
Song of the Year
Lady Gaga & RedOne, “Poker Face”
Hod David & Musze, “Pretty Wings”
Thaddis Harrell, Beyoncé Knowles, Terius Nash & Christopher Stewart, “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”
Caleb Followill, Jared Followill, Matthew Followill & Nathan Followill, “Use Somebody” *
Liz Rose & Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me”
Great to see Liz Rose in there, too, but I still can’t stand the song. I think “Use Somebody” is a great composition that could easily be a hit in other formats if the right artist covered it. Are you listening, Sugarland?
Best New Artist
Zac Brown Band *
The Ting Tings
Zac Brown Band don’t quite live up to the hype, but they come a lot closer than last year’s nominee, Lady Antebellum.
Best Country Album
Zac Brown Band, The Foundation
George Strait, Twang *
Taylor Swift, Fearless
Keith Urban, Defying Gravity
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
There isn’t an album here that is built for more than cherry-picking. Strait’s set has the most cherries.
Best Female Country Vocal Performance
Miranda Lambert, “Dead Flowers”
Martina McBride, “I Just Call You Mine”
Taylor Swift, “White Horse”
Carrie Underwood, “Just a Dream” *
Lee Ann Womack, “Solitary Thinkin’”
The only women who brought their A-game to this category are Swift and Underwood. “White Horse” might be the better song, but Underwood’s is the better vocal performance by a country mile.
Best Male Country Vocal Performance
Trace Adkins, “All I Ask For Anymore”
Billy Currington, “People Are Crazy”
Jamey Johnson, “High Cost of Living”
George Strait, “Living For the Night” *
Keith Urban, “Sweet Thing”
I love the Strait song, so it’s my pick, but this is one of the only strong categories this year and I wouldn’t mind seeing any of these five win.
Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group With Vocals
Brooks & Dunn, “Cowgirls Don’t Cry”
Zac Brown Band, “Chicken Fried”
Lady Antebellum, “I Run to You”
Rascal Flatts, “Here Comes Goodbye”
Sugarland, “It Happens” *
No A-game here, but Sugarland’s B-game is better than the rest.
Best Country Vocal Collaboration
Dierks Bentley & Patty Griffin, “Beautiful World”
Kenny Chesney & Mac McAnally, “Down the Road”
Brad Paisley & Keith Urban, “Start a Band”
Carrie Underwood & Randy Travis, “I Told You So” *
Lee Ann Womack & George Strait, “Everything But Quits”
Some amazing pairings here, but Underwood and Travis are the only ones with the material to match the talent.
Best Female Pop Vocal Performance
Adele, “Hometown Glory”
Katy Perry, “Hot N Cold”
Pink, “Sober” *
Taylor Swift, “You Belong With Me”
Pink is an awesome songwriter, and easily the most substantial female pop star to come along in the last decade. “Sober” is one of her best.
Best Pop Vocal Album
The Black Eyed Peas, The End
Colbie Caillat, The Breakthrough
Kelly Clarkson, All I Ever Wanted
The Fray, The Fray
Pink, Funhouse *
It’s not quite as good as I’m Not Dead, but it comes close.
Best Dance Recording
The Black Eyed Peas, “Boom Boom Pow”
David Guetta and Kelly Rowland, “When Love Takes Over”
Here are the top selling country albums of the calendar year 2009. The number in parentheses is the album’s rank on the overall list encompassing all genres. The totals are rounded to the nearest thousand:
Taylor Swift, Fearless (1) – 3,157,000
Zac Brown Band, Foundation (15) – 1,243,000
Carrie Underwood, Play On (19) – 1,150,000
Rascal Flatts, Unstoppable (21) – 1,123,000
Lady Antebellum, Lady Antebellum (24) – 948,000
Jason Aldean, Wide Open (27) – 940,000
Darius Rucker, Learn to Live (31) – 849,000
Taylor Swift, Taylor Swift (36) – 766,000
Keith Urban, Defying Gravity (38) – 715,000
Sugarland, Love On the Inside (41) – 678,000
Kenny Chesney, Greatest Hits II (54) – 547,000
Tim McGraw, Southern Voice (55) – 547,000
George Strait, Twang (62) – 499,000
Brad Paisley, American Saturday Night (69) – 462,000
Jamey Johnson, That Lonesome Song (71) – 460,000
Carrie Underwood, Carnival Ride (74) – 457,000
Taylor Swift, The Holiday Collection (79) – 425,000
The 201 Greatest Singles of the Decade, Part 3: #160-#141
#160 “Last Call”
Lee Ann Womack
Womack’s second-best Aughts song about late-night temptations is still better than a lot of people’s first-best songs about anything. Even in avoiding her drunken ex’s advances, she sounds positively heartbroken, suggesting she’d gladly make the other decision if she didn’t know better. – Dan Milliken
#159 “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face”
Her motivation for her music has always been escapism, but I love the personal touch she slips into this one. Her late mother is the one who she’s referring to when she sings “at night, she pumps gasoline.” – Kevin Coyne
Pam Tillis, It’s All Relative: Tillis Sings Tillis
By the time she released a tribute to her father Mel, she’d become something of a legend in her own right. So it’s no surprise that she approached Mel’s stellar songwriting catalog as if she was recording any other studio album, taking the best of the bunch and making them her own. Bonus points for preserving the original fiddle breakdown from “Heart Over Mind” while making that classic shuffle a forlorn ballad, and a few more for hitting the archives of the Country Music Hall of Fame until she found a forgotten gem that should’ve been a hit back in the day (“Not Like it Was With You.”) – Kevin Coyne
Yoakam takes a new, inspired spin on the greatest hits album concept, presenting us with a hearty sampling (over 20 songs) of his catalog served acoustic style. It simply works for the country legend. He introduces some delightful new twists and turns to his old classics, and as it should go with acoustic music, the album is driven by unadulterated, raw vocals, coupled with honest storytelling – the purest form of country music. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere”, “Things Change”
Gillian Welch, Time (The Revelator)
Time (The Revelator) is Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with much of their typical production stripped away. Accompanied by acoustic guitar and banjo, Gillian sings with emotions as much as she sings notes that create a surprisingly full sound. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll”, “Red Clay Halo”
Reba McEntire, Reba Duets
That McEntire is able to smoothly and effortlessly wrap her voice around eleven other distinctive voices is a tribute to her sheer talent as an artist. With duet partners stretching from Justin Timberlake to Ronnie Dunn, McEntire presents a stunning, layered mix of sounds and styles, demonstrating that when gifted artists come together, no perceived boundaries can stop them from making good music. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “The Only Promise That Remains”, “When You Love Someone Like That”
Lee Ann Womack, Call Me Crazy
Very few country artists can express pain more poignantly than Womack, who taps into a place of tender desperation with her highly-acclaimed 2008 album. The stories are deep and reflective, the sorrow palpable, and the production adeptly sparse – a potent combination. – TS
Nickel Creek has been nominated for Best Bluegrass Album and Best Country Instrumental Performance Grammys and won Best Contemporary Folk Album, yet the group does not easily fit into any of those categories. Produced by Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek’s self-titled album is their most bluegrass-influenced album. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “The Fox”, “The Hand Song”
Sara Watkins, Sara Watkins
Sara Watkins’ self-titled debut holds more than a few surprises, including more country influence than you will hear from any of her former Nickel Creek bandmates’ solo work. Produced by John Paul Jones, pedal steel is prominent on Jimmie Rodgers’ “Any Old Time,” performed as western swing, “All this Time,” and Tom Waits’ “Pony.” – WW
Recommended Tracks: “All This Time”, “Give Me Jesus”
Dierks Bentley, Modern Day Drifter
Rife with accessible melodies, solid lyrics and a penchant for traditional sounds, Dierks Bentley’s sophomore project, Modern Day Drifter, confirmed the promise that was only hinted at on his first album. The title of the album rightly suggests that Bentley will explore the components of breaking the chains of domesticity, which include the freedom (“Lotta Leavin’ Left to Do”, “Modern Day Drifter”, “Domestic Light and Cold”, “the Cab of My Truck”) and the ultimate consequences (“Settle for a Slowdown”, “Down on Easy Street”). Nevertheless, Bentley does not stop with those themes. He also finds room for common themes as love and loss, as demonstrated in the pretty “Good Things Happen”, the smoldering “Come A Little Closer” and heartbreaking “Gonna Get There Someday.” – Leeann Ward
Todd Snider, The Devil You Know
An explosion of righteous anger over poverty with an undercurrent of joyous celebration of America’s underclass. You can never tell for sure if he sees himself as their advocate or their peer, but the songs are so powerful, it doesn’t really matter. – KC
Recommended Tracks: “Just Like Old Times”, “The Devil You Know”
Rodney Crowell, The Houston Kid
After a string of somewhat underwhelming major-label releases in the 90′s, Rodney Crowell rebounded in a big way with this remarkably deep set on celebrated indie label Sugar Hill. Childhood joys and adult insights stand side-by-side in The Houston Kid, producing an emotionally rich and complicated survey of the album’s world. Such is the detail and soul of Crowell’s writing that every second comes across as autobiographical, even the ones that probably aren’t. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “The Rock Of My Soul”, “I Walk The Line (Revisited)”
McBride has a voice that would have been as relevant in country music fifty years ago as it is today, and her album of cover songs exemplifies this. She doesn’t attempt to move any of the songs to a different level, but instead inhabits the artists’ original style with precision and spirit. The result is a pure, respectful homage to the country greats. – Tara Seetharam
Recommended Tracks: “Make The World Go Away”, “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”
Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock
The Felice Brothers are the least-known among the members of ‘The Big Surprise Tour’ headlined by Old Crow Medicine Show and featuring Dave Rawlings Machine with Gillian Welch, and Justin Townes Earle. Melding country-rock and folk-rock, they are roots-influenced and made their start playing in the subway. While it may take an extremely big tent to call them “country,” consistent Dylan comparisons make Yonder is the Clock hard to ignore. – William Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Run, Chicken, Run”, “The Big Surprise”
Big & Rich, Horse of a Different Color
Big Kenny’s and John Rich’s voices and creativity blend to form a richly textured harmony that is only fully realized when they work together, as is most evident on their debut album that took country music by storm in a huge way. While their subsequent projects haven’t even come close to matching the potential of their first, Horse of A Different Coloris an album of refreshing risks and creativity that has been both embraced and criticized as a result of unique production and odd lyrical twists. Songs ranging from ridiculous to philosophical and all points inbetween make this album one of the most memorable, if not controversial, mainstream albums of the decade. – Leeann Ward
Recommended Tracks: “Holy Water”, “Live This Life”
Dierks Bentley, Long Trip Alone
Bentley takes his road theme all the way, crafting a concept album that both celebrates the loneliness of the road and mourns the resting places left behind by those who choose to stay on it. – Kevin Coyne
Recommended Tracks: “Long Trip Alone”, “The Heaven I’m Headed To”
Josh Turner, Everything is Fine
Turner’s third album is an outstanding example of a style that is deeply traditional yet still current, assured yet still vulnerable. His distinctive voice is paired with a well-crafted and charming set of songs on this album, which further solidified him as one of the genre’s leading traditionalists. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “Another Try”, “Nowhere Fast”
Reckless Kelly, Bulletproof
Country and power-pop collide in one of Texas’ most memorable albums in years. If Bulletproof has a weakness, it’s that its love songs and road anthems are all so damn hooky that the deeper material has to fight to steal your attention away. – Dan Milliken
Recommended Tracks: “American Blood”, “Mirage”
Chick Corea & Béla Fleck, The Enchantment
The Enchantment is a collaboration between jazz pianist Chick Corea and banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. Full of soaring energy and technical prowess, The Enchantment blends the influences of both Corea and Fleck resulting in jazz compositions infused with bluegrass overtones.- WW
Recommended Tracks: “Mountain”, “Sunset Road”
James Otto, Sunset Man
On his breakthrough sophomore album, Otto’s voice is commanding and rich with soul, proving he has one of the most interesting male voices to come out of country music in the past few years. Sunset Man is a solid contemporary country album that has his voice melting just as effectively with bluesy, mid-tempo numbers as it does with muscular power ballads. – TS
Recommended Tracks: “For You”, “These Are The Good Ole Days”
Jon Randall, Walking Among the Living
Thanks to his very lucrative songwriting collaboration with Bill Anderson that resulted in a smash hit for Brad Paisley and Alison Krauss with “Whiskey Lullaby”, Jon Randall received a major label deal with Sony. Unfortunately, Randall’s only album with them was not even a blip on most people’s radars, though not due to lack of quality. Randall’s gorgeous tenor, most closely comparable to Vince Gill’s,tastefully blends with rootsy instrumentation and solid compositions to create a humble work of art. – LW
Recommended Tracks: “I Shouldn’t Do This”, “Lonely for Awhile”
Crooked Still, Shaken By a Low Sound
Crooked Still is an alternate bluegrass group led by vocalist Aoife O’Donovan. With haunting vocals and technical prowess Crooked Still pushes acoustic music in a manner similar to Nickel Creek but with a slightly more recognizable traditional bend. – WW
Recommended Tracks: “Wind and Rain”, “Little Sadie”