Tag Archives: Shane McAnally

Album Review: Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan, Dos Divas

Pam-Tillis-Lorrie-Morgan-2013-Cover

Pam Tillis & Lorrie Morgan
Dos Divas

stars-312

If you have a soft spot for the great country artists of the nineties – particularly the generation of mature, articulate women who ruled the genre for much of the decade – the announcement of a duets album between Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan was likely a tremendous cause for excitement.  With both ladies being second-generation country stars, Opry members, touring partners, and great friends, a studio collaboration would seem a natural progression, and the lofty potential is obvious.

There’s a palpable joy in the proceedings as the two gal pals pair up in the studio for the first time, and there’s a sense of good-natured fun evident throughout, with song selections often skewing toward the humorous.  Tillis has a ball with “Old Enough to Be Your Lover” in which her narrator giddily flaunts a romance with a much younger man, a chuckle in her performance as she sings about her young lover not knowing who Richard Nixon was. (I imagine K.T. Oslin would be proud) On the delightfully snarky “Ain’t Enough Roses,” Tillis scoffs that there “ain’t enough roses on God’s green earth” to make her take back her no-good ex.  The line “I hope you saved your sales receipt so you can take ‘em back” is particularly delicious, and Tillis’ sassy delivery milks the song’s humor for all it’s worth.

But the album’s serious moments yield rewards their own.  The writing trio of Shane McAnally, Jessie Jo Dillon, and Country Universe favorite Brandy Clark supplies one of the set’s best-written song’s with “Last Night’s Make Up,” a regretful morning-after ballad in which Morgan’s narrator laments, “If I could wash you off like last night’s make up, looking in the mirror wouldn’t be so hard.”  It’s also one of Morgan’s best vocal turns on the album, demonstrating the level of nuance that she has retained even as her vocal power has noticeably declined.

And while Tillis’ powerhouse vocals have aged with remarkable grace, there are times when the signs of wear and tear on Morgan’s voice prove to be a hindrance.  She stays within her limitations for most of the album, but she occasionally sounds strained when tackling the high notes on the title track, or the rapid-fire verses of honky tonk throwdown “I Know What You Did Last Night.”

In terms of song content, there is a small amount of fat that could have been trimmed.  “That’s So Cool” presents what could have been an interesting account of a middle-aged woman rekindling an old high school romance, but the song is hindered by a lifeless melody and too much time wasted repeating its forgettable title (and if you didn’t like Reba singing about texting and Twitter, you won’t like Lorrie singing about Google and Facebook either).  While one likely wouldn’t doubt the sincerity behind “Another Chance To,” a meditation on the uncertainty of life, it’s unfortunate that the song is clogged up with throwaway lines such as “Every day is a gift” and “I’ve never loved the way I love you.”  Tillis makes the best of a fairly rote love song with “Even the Stars,” but the song still could have been left off with no great loss to the project as a whole.

But there are times when even the lesser songs are elevated by some inspired production choices.   The title track is spiced up with horn-infused Tex-Mex stylings, “That’s So Cool” boasts a delightful banjo line, and a bluesy piano and harmonica-driven arrangement perfectly underscores the quiet vindictiveness of “Ain’t Enough Roses.”  It’s particularly enjoyable to hear Tillis and Morgan sing over a pure traditional country arrangement as they lovingly cover “I’m Tired,” a 1958 Webb Pierce hit co-written by Pam’s legendary dad Mel.  The only glaring production misstep is the audacious, bass-heavy arrangement of “Old Enough to Be Your Love,” weighed down by too much clutter in the mix.

Enjoyable as the album is, it’s hard not to wish that Dos Divas contained a few more full-fledged duets with fewer solos.  The album opens with four duets, and then serves up eight solo tracks with Tillis and Morgan alternating lead vocals before closing with two final duets.  There’s nothing wrong with a duets album including a few solos for variety’s sake, but there’s a point at which it begins to feel like a missed opportunity.  Seeing as we already have plenty of solo material by both ladies, the real treat is hearing them sing together, whether playfully pointing fingers at each other’s rowdy tendencies in “I Know What You Did Last Night” or musing on gossipy small-town Southern culture in “Bless Their Hearts.”  The self-deprecating “What Was I Thinkin’” closes the album on a high note, drawing on Tillis and Morgan’s perspective as women who have done some living, as they look back with amusement on choices large and small that were later regretted.  A tongue-in-cheek conversational tone actively engages the listener while lines of spoken dialogue hint at the song being semi-autobiographical for the two artists.

Ultimately, it all adds up to a very good album, albeit one that could have been even better.  At its best, the album contains moments of pure brilliance, while Tillis and Morgan’s unshakable chemistry is enough to make one hope that this studio collaboration does not turn out to be a one-off.  It’s a fun, entertaining effort by two of country music’s brightest talents of the past twenty years, made all the more enjoyable by the fact that they clearly understand the need to not take themselves too seriously.

Top Tracks:  “Last Night’s Make Up,” “Ain’t Enough Roses,” “What Was I Thinkin’”

6 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Single Review: Kacey Musgraves, “Blowin’ Smoke”

Kacey Musgraves Blowin' SmokeOne of my longest running criticisms of contemporary country music is the disappearance of the working poor.  It’s a segment of the population that has been growing exponentially, but the genre that has historically been associated with chronicling their experiences has instead chosen to lionize and romanticize small town partying and country living.   Lots of songs about Sunday mornings and Saturday nights, but almost none about those tiring days in between.

This necessary documentation has found some mainstream success through Kacey Musgraves, who has a keen writer’s eye for capturing the specific realities of the daily existence of working class folks.  “Blowin’ Smoke” is one of the most effective examples of her talent in this area, crafting an entire song around a smoke break for exhausted waitresses with limited options and dwindling hope for the future.   They talk a big game about getting away someday, but they know that opportunities are as impossible to grab as  the smoke departing from their cigarettes.

Unfortunately, the monotony of their experiences is replicated a bit too faithfully in the song’s production and melody, which both plod along without any sign of a hook.   I get that they were trying to be faithful to the theme of the song, but if Musgraves is going to become the modern day Merle Haggard that we need, she must keep in mind that as vivid as Hag’s classic songs were in their depiction of the struggling underclass, they were also quite catchy and had memorable vocals and guitar work, too.

Written by Luke Laird, Shane McAnally, and Kacey Musgraves

Grade: B

9 Comments

Filed under Single Reviews

Album Review: Kacey Musgraves, <i>Same Trailer Different Park</i>

Kacey-Musgraves-Same-Trailer-Different-Park

Kacey Musgraves
Same Trailer Different Park

stars-4.gif

In just over half a decade, the now-24-year-old Texan Kacey Musgraves has gone from placing seventh on the 2007 season of Nashville Star and releasing a trio of independent albums to finally being granted some well-deserved mainstream exposure.  It was beyond a pleasant surprise when her beautifully written, critically lauded debut single “Merry Go ‘Round” became an honest-to-goodness Top 10 hit at country radio – a format not known for being friendly to intelligent, honest women.  Whether the industry will continue to support her remains to be seen, but Kacey Musgraves’ major label debut effort positions her as a ray of hope for country music at a time when such are very few – an artist who, if given the platform, just might have the potential to change country music for the better.

Appearing as a co-writer on every track along with a co-writer pool that consists of Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Luke Laird, Musgraves displays a songwriting voice characterized by clear-eyed insight and a tone of simple, plainspoken honesty.  She neither preaches nor judges; she simply observes.  “Merry Go ‘Round” foreshadowed this trait quite accurately.  On her debut hit, Musgraves mused on the human tendency to try to escape heartache through a variety of vices such as drug use or illicit sex, but noting that ultimately that “same hurt in every heart” still remains – each distraction is like a medicine that covers up the symptoms, but doesn’t cure the cold.  On “Follow Your Arrow,” she  sneers at small-town gossip while laying bare the futility of living to please others, noting that “You’re damned if you do; you’re damned if you don’t.”  On the witty upcoming single “Blowin’ Smoke,” she takes on the voice of a working class woman who chats with her co-workers on a smoke break about plans to leave her current line of work in pursuit of bigger dreams, but admits that “We’re just blowin’ smoke.”  The set is ripe with a strong sense of self-awareness that country radio has been sorely lacking for years now.

Musgraves clearly understands the value of escapism in country music, as evidenced by songs like opening track “Silver Lining,” in which she makes creative use of familiar metaphors to illustrate the point that if one wants good things to happen, one must accept the bad things that come along with it.  “My House” is a delightful ode to life on a house with four wheels, and to having someone with which to share it.  “Any place beside you is the place that I call home,” Musgraves sings, backed by a charming harmonica-laced arrangement.  Every bit as enjoyable is the witty “Step Off,” which plays like a Jason Mraz song with a banjo.

But oh, how rewarding it is when Musgraves channels pure vulnerability – a gift that finds its fullest expression in the pleading ballad “Keep It to Yourself,” in which Musgraves begs a former lover to let her move on, the lyric anchored by a melody that pierces deeply.  And while “It Is What It Is” has been nicknamed The Slut Song, such a moniker says nothing of the raw desperation that Musgraves conveys through her quivering performance.

Same Trailer Different Park sets itself apart from the pack by honoring genre traditions while slyly subverting modern conventions.  For a genre that takes pride in being the realm of “real” music, Kacey Musgraves is

one of precious few mainstream country artists to actually live up to that ideal, and for country radio programmers to let her slip through their fingers now would be an awful shame.  To call Same Trailer Different Park one of the year’s best mainstream country albums would not do it justice – it’s one of the year’s best albums period.

Top Tracks:  “Merry Go ‘Round,” “Keep It to Yourself,” “Follow Your Arrow”

16 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews

Single Review: Joanna Smith, "We Can't Be Friends"

Listening to the new Joanna Smith single, I’m reminded of when Lee Ann Womack first hit it big. I was impressed by

her taste in material and I thought the production of her records was impeccable.

But on those early hits like “The Fool” and “A Little Past Little Rock”, I always had the nagging feeling that the songs would’ve been better if they’d been recorded by Pam Tillis, who has a similar vocal style but more power and range.

Over time, Womack perfected her vocal technique and created her own distinctive style, one that is best showcased by simple arrangements and tasteful restraint.  The power of later hits like “I May Hate Myself in the Morning” and “Last Call” comes from her ability to accentuate an understated vocal will little punches of twang and power that create a dramatic effect.

So now, fifteen years after Womack first surfaced, I find myself listening to the new single by Joanna Smith and wishing it was being sung by Lee Ann Womack.   Smith’s got a great song, and she sings it well, following Patty Loveless’ golden rule: “Don’t get in the way of the song.”

But she stays out of the way of the song just a little too much, and there aren’t enough moments of twang or power to make the record interesting.    I still hope it gets a shot at radio, as it would be the best breakthrough single for a new female artist in a good long while.   I want to hear more from Smith, so I can hear more of Smith as she hones her style over time.

Grade: B+

Written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Shelley Skidmore

Listen: We Can’t Be Friends

4 Comments

Filed under Single Reviews

Album Review: Luke Bryan, Tailgates & Tanlines

Luke Bryan

Tailgates & Tanlines

Got a little boom in my big truck/Gonna open up the doors and turn it up. – “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)”

Girl you make my speakers go boom boom/Dancin’ on the tailgate in the full moon. – “Drunk on You”

Looking at those two lyrics from Luke Bryan’s new album, you can assume one of two things: Either Bryan was heavily influenced by hip-hop pioneers L’Trimm and their hit “Cars With the Boom,” or Tailgates & Tanlines falls victim to lazy songwriting. With all due respect to Tigra and Bunny, it looks like it’s the latter.

The country references are thrown about so fast and furiously here that duplicates inevitably pop up. There are multiple references to girls dancing on tailgates, squirrels and other assorted critters, moonshine, Dixie cups, dusty boots, old trucks, catfish and tractors. Sometimes the songs are about certain people or places, and sometimes they’re just about setting the RRPM (rural references per minute) record.

Occasionally, the country setting is put to good use. “Harvest Time,” for example, paints a vivid picture of a small town in the middle of its busiest season. “Tailgate Blues” takes many of the familiar references and turns them upside down, as even the usual comforts of quiet country hideaways can’t heal a broken heart.

All too often, though, the songs have no real meat underneath the catchphrases and references. They’re the same tired look at a vast hillbilly paradise – Val-holler, if you will – where the homemade wine is always flowing into Dixie cups, good ol’ boys are always ready to drive around in their trucks to find a good time after a hard day’s work on the farm, and the women are sexual props whose only purpose in life is to dance on tailgates on command.

When Alan Jackson sang “Chattahoochee,” there was so much detail that the listener felt certain that Jackson lived through all those experiences. Bryan’s “Muckalee Creek Water,” by comparison, has no such connection or personal attachment, even though there is a Muckalee Creek near Bryan’s hometown in south Georgia. That song, incidentally, references “a catfish line going bump bump bump,” so if you’re really into onomatopoeia, this is your album of the year.

The real shame is that those throw-away songs are a waste of some tremendous talent. Bryan has a strong voice that can make a good song sound even better.  “You Don’t Know Jack,” written by Erin Enderlin and Shane McAnally, gives a sympathetic portrayal to someone trapped by addiction. Sure, it won’t get a concert audience cheering and shouting, but it’s a standout track and one of the better songs of the year. While he is partly responsible for some of the album’s weakest tracks, Bryan also co-wrote some of its best, including “Harvest Time” and “Faded Away” (with Rodney Clawson and Michael Carter, respectively).

“Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” is turning into one of the biggest hits of Bryan’s career, which is bound to influence his future song choices. Good-time party anthems aren’t necessarily bad things, but too many of them on one album overwhelms the rest of the songs. Still, Kenny Chesney had to go through the “She Think My Tractor’s Sexy” phase before he got to covering Guy Clark, so there’s hope for Bryan.

Just leave the “booms” and “bumps” to fight sequences in the old Batman TV show, where they belong.

13 Comments

Filed under Album Reviews