Monday, December 22nd, 2008
Country Universe has presented you with its top 40 singles of 2008, but as you know, singles rarely scratch the surface of a great album. Over the course of the past year, while listening to various albums, I made note of songs that stuck out for one reason or another. Although this isn’t a comprehensive list by any means, here are some of my favorite songs of 2008:
#1 “She Left Me For Jesus” (Hayes Carll, Trouble in Mind)
Honestly, when is the last time you heard a song this slyly clever? This laugh-out-loud engaging? But not just anyone could pull off this song. Carll’s slow laughing drawl is absolutely perfect and he nails every punch line. He not only gets the joke, he assumes you do as well. Carll readily acknowledges that this song isn’t for everyone, but in my book, it’s an instant classic.
#2 “Red River Shore” (Bob Dylan, Tell Tale Signs: the Bootleg Series Vol. 8)
Bob Dylan, that enigmatic icon, continues to raise the bar for singer-songwriters. It’s nearly ridiculous at this point. This year, Dylan treated us to a grand smorgasbord of songs with the latest in his bootleg series. “Red River Shore” was one of the few previously unreleased songs on the set, and it’s perhaps the best on the album. I could spend hours ruminating over what Dylan intended with his lyrics about star-crossed lovers, but instead I’ll leave you with his opening lines: “Some of us turn off the lights and we live / In the moonlight shooting by / Some of us scare ourselves to death in the dark / To be where the angels fly.” This is, as the album booklet suggests, an elegant summation of Dylan’s artistic credo. If only others took note.
#3 “I’ve Done Everything I Can” (Rodney Crowell, Sex and Gasoline)
On “I’ve Done Everything I Can,” Crowell acknowledges that incredibly delicate interplay between father and daughter; that difficult line a father must walk between wanting to protect his little girl, and preparing her for the real world. He sings: “The sun comes up tomorrow / But there are no guarantees / It can rock you like a baby / It can knock you to your knees / The path that lies between us / Is a rough and rocky rue / I’ve done everything I can / There’s nothing I can do.” This song reminds me rather poignantly of my own father, who occasionally walked that fine line with grace, but usually just blundered over it with good intentions.
Category Best of 2008
Tags: Bob Dylan, Chatham County Line, Cherryholmes, Chris Knight, Dan Baird, Darrell Scott, Hayes Carll, Jason Boland, Justin Townes Earle, Kasey Chambers, Kathy Mattea, Lucinda Williams, Reckless Kelly, Robert Earl Keen, Shane Nicholson, Sugarland
Thursday, November 20th, 2008
Let’s face it, 2008 has not been a particularly strong year for country music albums. Sales are down both due to the struggling economy and as a result of big name artists not exactly releasing their most quality work. These factors, of course, are only part of what’s to blame for the decline, but is all that needs to be covered for the purpose of this discussion.
While in all reality there have been a number of very good albums in the past year, I am pained to realize that I have only been able to give one album the coveted five-star rating treatment. It’s true that I have not listened to every album that has been released in 2008, but I’ve certainly listened to enough albums that I think I should have been able to come up with at least one more album worthy of five stars this year.
What are your five star albums? In particular, what albums released in 2008 would you give five stars to? Hopefully, you’ll do better than I’ve been able to do.
Thursday, September 18th, 2008
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson
Kasey Chambers and her husband, Shane Nicholson have come together to create magic on their first joint effort, Rattlin’ Bones. While this album is new to those of us in the United States, it has already won awards and spent time at the top of the album charts in their native country of Australia. Regrettably, it is not likely to receive the same attention here, but not because it’s in any way undeserving.
The couple either wrote separately or collaborated together on each song for this album that was recorded in the space of eight days with all of the musicians recording in the same room. The final result is a crisp blend of acoustic and traditional flavored songs that sound so much like retro classics that one might easily be fooled into believing that they were covers rather than Chambers’ and Nicholson’s own original compositions.
Upon a cursory listen to Rattlin’ Bones, it would be easy to hear the warm harmonies, the relaxed arrangements and memorable melodies and mistakenly presume that the album consists of light fare. However, further intake reveals an album that expertly explores the theme of heartache in its various forms. With that in mind, the Title track appropriately opens the album with “Smoke don’t rise/Fuel don’t burn/Sun don’t shine no more/Late one night sorrow come around/Scratching at my door/But I cut my hands/Break my back/Draggin’ this bag of stones/’Til they bury me down beneath the ground with the dust and rattlin’ bones.”
Like “Rattlin’ Bones”, the songs of heartache on this project are accompanied by haunting melodies that help to create the intended atmosphere of hopelessness and desperation. An instance of such hopelessness is when the narrator in “Adeline” asks, “Who’s gonna save you now?” “Oh, what a Mess you’ve made today,”, they sing, which makes us assume that Adeline has caused her own destruction through the choices that she’s made and, therefore, has finally reached her demise.
Without a doubt, the most haunting and intriguing song on this record is “One More Year.” Sadness emanates from its every element—The tender vocals, the lone acoustic guitar accompaniment and the vulnerable but gorgeous melody. It’s evident that the couple in this song is in a desperately destructive relationship where hope is nowhere to be found. “One more year/One more year/Let’s hold our breath and give it just one more year”, they sing. However, by the end of the song, we find that the man is trying to repair the relationship, but instead of him being the one “holding a loaded gun”, it’s her who’s holding it now, while She’s “hoping that what we fear ain’t what we’ve become.” So much of the song seems simple on the surface, but it’s a captivating song that only gains depth with repeated listens.
Another prevalent theme of the album is matters of the spiritual nature. The pretty and traditional “No One Hurts Up Here” would perfectly fit into a church hymnal, while the gritty “The Devil’s Inside My Head” provides more provocative lyrics, such as “I gave my life to save my soul, but the devil took them both.” Similarly, the unshakably catchy “Monkey On A Wire” explores the tenuous act of attempting to resist the desires of temptation, but ultimately recognizing the futility of the exercise. With us as flawed humans playing the part of the symbolic monkey on a wire who’s attempting to evade the devil, they sing: “Oh, here I go/Me and my desire/Everyone’s got their own monkey on a wire/Oh, down below/Leader of the choir/He’s waiting for the next monkey on a wire.”
In a departure from the rest of the album, the hopeful “Jackson Hole” is funky and unique. It’s the only song with a prominent percussive beat. It would be a jarring experience if it weren’t so sonically intriguing.
Kasey Chambers is a beloved country artist in Australia, but Shane Nicholson is generally known for his rock influenced work. However, without outshining each other, their voices naturally meld perfectly to create tight and warm harmonies that unmistakably fit the genre for which this album was made. As they developed the concept for this project, their ultimate standard bearers were the pairings of Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, along with Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. While this was admittedly a lofty goal to attain, Chambers and Nicholson have brilliantly joined their talents to produce an extraordinarily well crafted project that is worthy to someday be counted in the pantheon of classic country music albums. Moreover, they’ve created an album that manages to resonate deeper and deeper with each successive spin.