This roundup post features reviews for new albums from Willie Nelson, Rebecca Connelly, and Greg Williams.
First Rose of Spring
Another year, another Willie Nelson album – with First Rose Of Spring acting as somewhat of a covers album, really.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s more like a rare instance of where Nelson’s own material stands apart from the remaining material here, with several songs scanning as familiar, and some – like the Randy Houser co-written title track, and seriously, good for him – providing a new perspective to Nelson’s work. Granted, it’s yet another Nelson album to revolve largely around mortality – what a year for that – and I’d say Nelson’s baseline of quality these days is just fairly solid, but as always, there’s no one who can deliver a song quite like him.
And that extends to his quality as a performer. No, he’s never been a technically great singer, but his emotive range is as strong as it’s ever been. There’s a natural warmth to the way he describes a young, budding love on the title track, and “Blue Star,” one of two tracks written by Nelson here, acts as an extended promise of devotion for that first track, with the love extending until even after death.
Of course, along with acknowledgments of that final ride in the great beyond comes the somber realization that Nelson is the lone outsider left, which is told in both rollicking fashion on the “I’ll Break Out Again Tonight” cover and in a much darker way on both the “Stealing Home” and “Yesterday When I Was Young” covers, the latter of which being an unexpectedly chilling note to end on.
In a sense, then, the material, though largely familiar, works to support a general thematic arc. Like with most Nelson albums, though, I’m left wanting a bit more from the actual presentation. The two Nelson penned tracks – “Blue Star” and “Love Just Laughed” – feature the warmest arrangements, with the interplay between the warm bass and harmonica providing a rollicking pulse to the album, and even the low-key, subtler blend of acoustics, organ, piano and pedal steel help to capture the innocence of the title track while providing a bouncier flair for “Just Bummin’ Around.” But there’s also covers like “Our Song” and “I’m The Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised” that feel tepid, both in terms of vocal delivery, flow and actual presentation. Still, coming off Nelson’s previous trilogy of albums, First Rose Of Spring is a fine listen that shows Nelson’s versatility as a performer.
Recommended tracks: “First Rose Of Spring,” “Blue Star,” “Stealing Home,” “Yesterday When I Was Young”
As a modern-day country music critic, it’s tough walking that fine line between not wanting to box myself in as a purist and voicing general concerns for the artistic direction of mainstream country music. I suppose it’s always been that way, though, especially when the conversation ultimately boils down to how far country music can go with a pop aesthetic and presentation. The truth – at least for that conversation – falls somewhere in the middle; less outdated, chintzy production from Sam Hunt, Jordan Davis and Russell Dickerson and more lavish, fully realized production from Caitlyn Smith, Caylee Hammack and Brandy Clark, if we’re going to go that route, please.
So let’s add another name to the “good” side of the pop-country debate – Irish singer/songwriter Rebecca Connelly, with California acting as her second album. Though it’s a bit lacking in places, there’s a strong sense of balance to this album, with plenty of warmth in the liquid acoustics, bass grooves and brighter layers of piano. And when the synth tones do slide in – like on “My Love” – they never feel obtrusive, but rather lend themselves to a pleasantly warm, brightly organic listen. It’s the sort of understated warmth that anchors the melodic guitar groove of “One Small Step,” the subtly brutal “Kiss Me” and the fiddle pickups of “So Near.”
Of course, the album does feel like it’s lacking in overall pace. There’s a lusher atmosphere to “You Are Mine” and “We Are Love” that soars at points, but it reflects my other nitpick with this project: the songwriting. Some of the themes, especially on those tracks, default to love songs operating on very basic templates and platitudes that lay the sweetness on a bit too thick. And that’s only further emphasized by the general highlights here, all of which feature a deeper complexity to the relationships at hand. I wouldn’t call Connelly an especially powerful singer, but she’s subtle, which works well for conveying the natural frustration of the emotional distance between two lovers on “So Near” while providing one hell of a turnaround on the hook of “Kiss Me,” where the implication of her lover’s cheating takes the song in a completely different direction from where it starts.
Ultimately, it’s one of those albums that, while a bit rough around the edges, conveys a lot of potential.
Recommended tracks: “Kiss Me,” “So Near,” “California,” “One Small Step”
The Mistakes I’ve Made
Like the aforementioned Rebecca Connelly, Greg Williams is another relatively unknown country artist still young into his career who dropped an album earlier this year. And though The Mistakes I’ve Made is a brisk listen at 15 minutes, there aren’t a lot of outright mistakes made at all. Yes, the backing vocals feel overmixed and don’t compliment Williams’ gruffer vocal tone all that well, and I wouldn’t say the writing feels all that distinctive quite yet; but again, there’s potential.
Sonically, it’s an easy sell for fans who enjoy the rough-edged, outlaw side of country music, where there’s a ton of smolder to the guitar lines and moments that let Williams shred on the fiddle. And aside from “Faster,” which operates purely as a generic adrenaline rush and nothing more, there’s no slouch in the bunch. I do hope, though, that Williams cuts a bit more loose on future projects, because “Livin’ To Die,” which features plenty of fantastic, frenetic, fast-paced solos, is easily the highlight here. And for an album playing to a very distinctive lane in country music, I love the lone-wolf mentality to the writing here, where Williams is mature enough to see his relationship is utterly dead on “Right Side of Goodbye” and walk away before the real trouble starts while “Bottom of the Bottle” – though a bit conventional – features the sort of blustering frustration that usually comes with these downward drinking spirals. A very promising start, indeed.
Recommended tracks: “Bottom of the Bottle,” “Right Side of Goodbye,” “Livin’ To Die”