It’s taken a long time to put words together for this review, mostly because the prospect of Patty Griffin being billed on a mainstream single is too exciting not to cloud critical judgments a little. I mean, seriously – “featuring Patty Griffin.” From the same label that just won Taylor Swift a Female Vocalist award. It’s far too much cool for a body to digest in one sitting.
After that initial shock fades, though, “Seeing Stars” doesn’t linger much. There’s an admirable core message about maintaining optimism through down times, with the chorus comparing the act to spiritual faith and the verses implying (impressionistically, which is a nice touch) that once one chooses to see optimistically, new opportunities begin to appear in unexpected corners of life, perhaps along with understandings of why past dreams didn’t work out.
The grace and nuance of that message never totally finds its match in the spotty melody, however, and Ingram’s understated vocal doesn’t always stick out in the mix. It’s a nice single, to be sure, but for such an interesting lyric, it’s hard not to wish for a slightly stronger package.
Miranda Lambert is a rare and fascinating case study of an artist who is able to push a significant number of records out the door, but is hard-pressed to receive equally significant radio airplay in return. While her first album, Kerosene, was certified Platinum and the follow up project, Crazy Ex Girlfriend, fared similarly well with Gold certification, she has only managed to squeak into radio’s top ten once with “Gunpowder And Lead.” On her third album, Revolution, it is entirely possible that Lambert has finally found a way to strike the tenuous balance of pleasing both critics and the general country music listening public with her album consisting of everything from sensitive ballads to rocked up, punk-flavored songs and a lot in between.
Not only does her impressive range of versatility sonically manifest itself, her depth of influences also appears by way of song contributions by people who aren’t just the usual suspects, but also dips into the pens of some highly esteemed Americana artists who aren’t typically covered by mainstream artists, as she did with songs from Gillian Welch and Patty Griffin on Crazy Ex Girlfriend. While there is a song that is co-written with the male members of Lady Antebellum and three co-writes with Blake Shelton, more interesting contributions are Fred Eaglesmith’s “Time to Get A Gun”, which is actually more relaxed than Eaglesmith’s manic rendering, Julie Miller’s “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go” that was rearranged with a punk vibe, and a lyrically watered down (with confusing changes) but sonically amped up version of John Prine’s “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round”. Additionally, she includes three songs written with Ashley Monroe, including the catchy “Me and Your Cigarrettes” (also written with Shelton), which Monroe sings on as well.
As was ever present in her previous albums, Lambert maintains a certain edge for which she is best known both in sound and lyrics. Songs like “Maintain the Pain” (with a guest appearance from Blake Shelton), “Time to Get A Gun”, “Sin for A Sin”, “White Liar” and “Only Prettier” display Lambert’s trademark tendency toward the attitudinal. While all these songs are noteworthy for various reasons, “Only Prettier” specifically taps into Lambert’s sardonic capabilities, which results in the most amusing song of the album. Using political jargon, she suggests that the high society crowd can get along with the less refined folks but ends up antagonistically concluding with the barb, “We’re just like you, only prettier.”
However, as is also often overlooked with Lambert’s music, there is certainly a more sensitive and introspective side that is actually more prevalent on Revolution than on her prior albums. In fact, “Makin’ Plans”, “The House That Built Me”, “Airstream Song” (her answer to Merle Haggard’s “The Way I Am”), and “Virginia Bluebell” can all be described as gorgeous. Incidentally, they are also the quieter tracks. Of these songs, the most thematically compelling is “The House that Built Me”, which is an unshakably touching tribute to the contribution of the childhood home and its accompanying memories. “If I could just come in, I swear I’ll leave/Won’t take nothin’ but a memory from the house that built me”, she promises the house’s current owner.
In this fifteen song set, Lambert does not merely rest on the comfort ability of her past album’s themes and productions. Instead, she reaches for growth and diversity. While she is not completely successful (mostly thanks to some heavy production choices), her attempts to stretch herself are largely positive and indicative of an artist who is mainstream but not afraid to stay true to her tasteful and eclectic roots. Moreover, Lambert continues and even improves upon her natural inclination toward quality songs, stellar vocals and intriguing productions. Hopefully, she will someday be truly rewarded for her artistic integrity by receiving airplay to match her sales.
The nominations for the 8th Annual Americana Music Association Awards have been announced:
ALBUM OF THE YEAR
Real Animal, by ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO
Written in Chalk, by BUDDY & JULIE MILLER
Jason Isbell & The 40 Unit, by JASON ISBELL & THE 40 UNIT
Midnight At The Movies, by JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
ARTIST OF THE YEAR
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR
NEW & EMERGING ARTIST
BAND OF HEATHENS
JUSTIN TOWNES EARLE
SONG OF THE YEAR
“Chalk,” written by JULIE MILLER, performed by BUDDY MILLER & PATTY GRIFFIN
“Country Love” by the GOURDS
“Homeland Refugee,” by JOE ELY, JIMMIE DALE GILMORE, and BUTCH HANCOCK, performed by the FLATLANDERS
“Rattlin’ Bones” by KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON, performed by KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON
“Sex And Gasoline,” by RODNEY CROWELL, performed by RODNEY CROWELL
DUO GROUP OF THE YEAR BUDDY & JULIE MILLER
KASEY CHAMBERS & SHANE NICHOLSON
As I was scouring the neighborhood around 9pm last night after work looking for an open pet store, I flipped through the local radio stations looking for something new and interesting. I really didn’t expect to find much, but after awhile, I finally hit something with a cool beat and lyrics. Something that I hadn’t heard before and sounded different. I kinda liked it, but couldn’t place it.
It turns out that the station was previewing the new Green Day album, 21st Century Breakdown, (due out in stores and online today). I consider myself somewhat of a Green Day fan, despite the fact I only own Dookie and American Idiot. (And there’s a good, somewhat funny concert story related to the band mixed in there as well.) As such, I’ve been cautiously optimistic about their new album.
Fortunately, from what I heard in between futile stops at closed pet stores, it sounded pretty good, and I decided to buy it today. But as I made that decision, I realized that there are very few albums coming out soon that I’m genuinely looking forward to with anticipation and excitement. And I was truly surprised by how ambivalent I really felt about this release by a band that I know I like. Maybe that’s because as we get older, we become more picky and more frugal. Or perhaps we just haven’t heard anything awesome in such a long time, we figure it might be best to wait and see if we hear some buzz before we cautiously download a song, much less an entire album.
What I do know, is that the only albums I can currently recall that I am looking forward to are the upcoming Patty Griffin, Charlie Robison and Levon Helm albums. Griffin is always fantastic. Robison’s album has good advance buzz and is bound to be interesting given the time period in his life in which he wrote it. And I’m a recent Helm fan. But, help me out…there’s gotta be more!
Which albums coming out soon are you most looking forward to?
Kathy Mattea’s brilliant album released last year, Coal, reminded me of how much I love themed albums. There is something unique and special about an album that addresses a single topic from varied angles or transports the listener on a purposeful ride. It’s not just a random collection of singles with little to coalesce them together. Rather, like great movies, themed albums demand that you listen from the first note to the last, lest you miss something important in between.
Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger is one of the most famous themed albums in country music history. The entire album is based on the conceptual story of a preacher who shoots his cheating wife and her lover before going on the run. However, the theme doesn’t have to be as concrete as the one in Red Headed Stranger or as narrow as the one in Coal, which endeavors to shine a light on the coal-mining industry, to be included in this category. It can be as amorphous as “love” or “heartache.”
Just for fun, I culled through my musical catalog (and all 5 million or so country songs about love, heartache and partying on Friday night) and put together my own themed album very loosely titled: America 2009:
Filthy Rich (Big Kenny, John Rich, Bill McDavid, Freddy Powers, Sonny Thockmorton)
Workingman’s Blues #2 (Bob Dylan)
If We Make It Through December (Merle Haggard)
Dirt (Chris Knight)
What’s A Simple Man To Do? (Steve Earle)
The Ballad of Salvador & Isabelle (Dave Quanbury)
If You Don’t Love Jesus (Billy Joe Shaver)
Ellis Unit One (Steve Earle)
Dress Blues (Jason Isbell)
It’s a Different World Now (Rodney Crowell)
Everybody Knows (Gary Louris, Martie Maguire, Natalie Maines, Emily Robison)
Up to the Mountain (Patty Griffin)
Reason to Believe (Bruce Springsteen)
If you were to create your own themed album, what would it look like?
In his iconic 1985 hit, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” George Jones echoed the concerns of many when he wondered (or more honestly, worried) how the next generation of country singers would compare to the likes of Waylon and Willie. “Who’s gonna give their heart and soul to get to me and you?” he asked, with the sound of a lonesome whistle serving as his only answer. Soon, the neotrad movement remodeled Music Row, allaying the fears of country’s elders momentarily.
The prevailing narrative in Nashville usually centers around how the new country crop treats the town’s long-held customs. In the grand Southern tradition, the young’uns are expected to be faithful: to their mamas, to their Maker and to the music that laid the legacy for the format.
Dierks Bentley’s debut, then, was cool comfort for traditionalists, who reveled in his back-to-basics approach. Even as he steered towards a more rock-tinged tone and sheered off his beloved curls (a downer for all those smitten dames), the hosannas rang high from all corners. On Feel That Fire, though, Bentley seems to finally buckle under the weight of contemporary expectations. Always at the mercy of his raw materials, he’s saddled himself with a bushel basket of songs that briefly scratch the surface of his talent. (more…)
Belly Up Tavern
Solana Beach, California August 28, 2008
At some point, every dedicated fan should have the opportunity to watch their favorite artist(s)—no matter how big or famous—perform from five feet away.Particularly in a small, intimate venue that captures every stray guitar lick and nuance in the voice.There’s nothing quite like it.I had that opportunity Thursday night as I dragged an unsuspecting friend (and new fan) to see the luminous and beautiful Patty Griffin perform at a sold-out Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach, California.Before a couple hundred adoring fans, she put on a show I will not soon forget.
On the way to the show my friend asked me “What kind of music does Patty sing?” My first response was “Well, she’s labeled Americana.” Blank stare.But really, how does one define Patty’s style? I read this definition of Americana or roots music online the other day. It applies perfectly to Patty and I couldn’t have summed it up better: “American Roots music isn’t country, pop or rock, though it’s not ashamed to borrow from those styles. It’s not bluegrass, gospel, folk or Cajun, though there are elements. To its practitioners, it’s the authentic heart of the heartland, songs that could only come from here, sounds that remind us who we are. Soul music, if you will.”
Like many others, I was introduced to Patty the songwriter before I was introduced to Patty the singer and performer.Patty has had the blessing or curse (depending on how you view it) of having been famously covered by a number of big names—Dixie Chicks (“Top of the World”, “Truth No. 2″, “Let Him Fly”, “Mary”), Miranda Lambert (“Getting Ready”), Martina McBride (“Goodbye”), The Wreckers (“One More Girl”) and Emmylou Harris (“One Big Love”, “Moon Song”), among others.
In recent years, however, Patty has emerged from the shadows, so to speak, to stand on her own as a vibrant singer and performer, and one of the most respected songwriters in modern music.In 2007, Patty was the Americana Music Association’s Artist of the Year and her latest gem, Children Running Through, captured Album of the Year.Everyone’s favorite collaborator, she frequently performs with Willie Nelson, and she went on tour earlier this year with Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin and Buddy Miller.
On this particular night, however, she stood alone; and really, despite her excellent 3-piece backing band, Patty was all we needed.
When Patty walks on stage, she appears so ethereal and delicate you almost hold your breath until the first lyric falls from her mouth.Can she really belt out a tune with the same soulful passion as she does on her albums?Oh yes, she can.Her first note was like a punch in the gut.And from there on, Patty held the audience in the palm of her hand, performing a wide range of songs that could be defined as nothing other than “soul music.”
So who the hell is Patty Griffin, anyway? If you’re asking that question, I highly recommend clicking through and hearing one of Americana’s most consistently interesting and incisive songwriters. Here, she emphatically rejects fear and those who promote it, choosing instead to push to get to know the strangers around us until they aren’t strangers anymore. Political message? Perhaps, but I read it more as a call to discard all of those assumptions of ill intentions that we make about the people in our life, and choose instead to believe the best about them, even if we end up wrong in the end. Open the doors, instead of close them. Music to my ears.