If It Wasn’t For You
I’m of two minds on Caylee Hammack’s debut album, If It Wasn’t For You. On one hand, I’m elated to see Capitol Records Nashville release this, even without the help of a major single boosting its attention. But the fact that a second single hasn’t yet been shipped to radio – “Small Town Hypocrite” is right there, what are y’all waiting for? – is indicative of how the industry is failing most modern female country artists. That’s not an empty statement, either. Come September, one of us here at Country Universe will likely talk about Mickey Guyton’s latest EP – I repeat, EP – following her latest one … released in 2015. It speaks volumes as it is without further opening that conversation.
Whatever, though. If It Wasn’t For You is here, and even though I didn’t love lead single “Family Tree,” “Small Town Hypocrite” received critical acclaim earlier this year for very good reasons. In assessing the dichotomy between those two songs, though, I’m left wishing this album wasn’t as much of a mixed bag as it is. Sure, the production is a bit heavier than I’d otherwise prefer, but it never stifles the melodies or hooks. The problem is that there’s no real identity to the album’s presentation. It starts off with “Just Friends” and “Redhead” – two tracks that lean heavily on ragged guitar grooves, with the former sounding fairly messy and unfocused and the latter coming through with more clear presence – but those rougher edges eventually get sanded away, starting with “Preciatcha.” And between that track and others like “Sister” and “King Size Bed” aiming for pure pop sentiments, the synthetic elements feel too murky and weightless to come through effectively, making parts of the album start to blend together.
It also doesn’t help matters that most of the overproduction is noticeable in the vocals. Hammack isn’t the most distinct or powerful singer, mind you, but outside of “Family Tree” – which often traps her in her lower range on the verses and isn’t quite as effective – she often plays to her strengths and makes up for those limitations with a powerful emotive presence. And that’s most evident when she plays opposite to Reba McEntire on “Redhead,” favoring a charismatic flair that makes for one of the most fun listens on the entire project.
But she also carries a flair for heavier dramatic stakes, which ties into the songwriting on this project. Most of this album finds Hammack either looking inward to question her vulnerabilities and roles in the failings of relationships, the bluntest and best example still being “Small Town Hypocrite,” or putting on a brave face to face the outside world. But it’s complex and layered. “Looking For A Lighter” finds her just as mad at herself as she is at her ex-significant other for even dredging up those old memories in the first place. And while her fighting spirit explored on “Redhead” won’t keep her down for long, she is left to question how to move on in the meantime, like on “Forged In The Fire.”
But that’s the album at its best. There’s tracks that aim for the same sentiments, but often lack the same nuance of the details as the album’s best material. So we get painfully basic tracks like “Just Friends,” “King Size Bed” and the juvenile “Just Like You.” We also get a non-descriptive ode to family on “Sister” completely outdone by “Family Tree,” and while the Tenille Townes and Ashley McBryde collaboration on “Mean Something” is interesting, it feels like a wasted opportunity to have it settle for being an overwrought, inspirational tune. There’s potential in one of the final tracks, “Gold,” which, like “Looking For A Lighter,” pulls more from Americana-inspired folk-pop than anything else, but is only meant to give way to “New Level Of Life,” where all of the aforementioned production criticisms come to fruition one last time. Which is another way of saying that this is a good album, but it’s not without its filler moments, and there’s a better album waiting underneath all of the production.
Recommended tracks: “Small Town Hypocrite,” “Redhead,” “Forged In The Fire”
Whereas Orville Peck’s Pony focused more on its presentation than its storytelling, followup effort Show Pony reverses that order of importance. It’s a more subdued listen that requires a rarer sort of patience – even for its shorter runtime – but feels like a more cohesive effort from Peck overall.
Of course, the larger focus is on Peck traversing the world as a gay cowboy, where the themes of traversing through the Wild West act as metaphors for his larger journey of exploring the world around him and, in the process, understanding a bit more of himself with every step.
So it’s fitting that he rocks the “Fancy” cover here, choosing to let the tension build throughout until a brief – but still explosive – guitar solo ends it. Like with Bobbie Gentry and Reba McEntire, he’s got a flair for drama that anchors his performances and huge, bellowing voice. Of course, one of my main criticisms with his work that somewhat carries over to here is that, for as strong of an emotive presence as Peck can carry into his work, and for as effective he is at setting a scene, his scope remains a bit too broad and general to effectively connect just a bit more. “Fancy” shows what could happen at Peck’s fullest potential, and “Drive Me, Crazy” is another brilliantly creative tune that focuses more on deeper storytelling with a surprisingly dark subtext. But for as much as I like tracks like “Summertime” and “No Glory In The West,” they do scan as familiar and feel a bit more abrupt than they otherwise should.
And while it’s a short listen, Show Pony also could have afforded a bit more variety in tempo. There’s good merits to the actual presentation. I like the murky bass driving the melancholy that comes in the aftermath of “Summertime,” and there’s a solid waltz-inspired cadence that gives “Drive Me, Crazy” that hazier, dreamy atmosphere it’s clearly aiming for. But it really picks up steam with the Shania Twain collaboration of “Legends Never Die,” which, while purely an ego trip and nothing more, is still an awesome one nonetheless. As a whole, though, Peck inches closer to greatness with Show Pony; I just want to hear him push a bit harder to deliver something truly worthy of his talents.
Recommended tracks: “Fancy,” “Legends Never Die,” “Drive Me, Crazy”
Ain’t Lookin’ Back
I’m not sure what to make of Mo Pitney anymore. It seemed like he was poised to break out around five years ago – especially when the collapse of bro-country as a dominant subgenre gave way to new/rising names like Jon Pardi, William Michael Morgan and Maddie & Tae as possible torchbearers for a modern neotraditionalist movement.
Obviously, that didn’t happen, and with Pitney stuck on Curb Records of all places, I’m not surprised it took four years just to get a sophomore album out there; I suppose I’m more surprised it was released at all.
But for sharp as Pitney’s debut album was, Ain’t Lookin’ Back is more of a disappointing effort, carrying the same warmth and charm as his usual material, but feeling a bit more clumsy this time around.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with corny, per se; it’s a secret core element of what comprises country music as a whole. But it didn’t take long for me to groan at the double entendre of “Local Honey” that Blake Shelton did better with “Honey Bee” nearly a decade ago (which isn’t saying much, really), and while it’s not surprising to hear that Pitney likes the “Old Stuff Better,” keep in mind that his idea of “new” stuff he doesn’t quite like is – wait for it – CDs and email. In 2020.
To his credit, Pitney’s sophomore album includes a warmer production approach than the stuffier tendencies of his debut album. But when there’s not a lot of variety to the actual instrumentation for a more distinctive pulse, it can make this album start to run together very quickly. Midtempo acoustic tracks are fine, but when there’s not much to the content, it’s just a boring listen. That’s not to mention how bloated this album can feel, especially when it’s obvious Pitney and his team included the slicker “Boy Gets The Girl” for a possible bid at radio, but just ends up sounding awkward for Pitney’s style.
Which is also a note on Pitney himself. There’s certainly an old-school charm to his delivery, and in terms of pure power and range, he’s solid. But there’s rarely any character to his performances, which doesn’t help when this album is already lacking a strong pulse. Granted, that sort of stoic tone can work when he’s trying to keep it together and put on a brave face while subtly acknowledging his pain is wearing him down from the inside on “Looks Like Rain,” especially with the supple piano, warmer bass and percussion driving the melancholic groove. It’s what also helps the title track, where the wistful atmospherics blend nicely with the fast-picked acoustics and rickety percussion and suit the angsty content nicely, even if it’s weird to hear Pitney acknowledge he’s got no time for the past on an album mostly content to dwell in it.
That, of course, is a note that carries over to the content, which mostly feels tepid and uninspired. “A Music Man” is one of the few brighter spots in that regard, but it feels overlong and overwrought as the album opener, and with Jamey Johnson only here for backing vocals and one line at the end, it feels like a wasted collaboration. But then it shifts to “Right Now With You,” which is a tepid “we made it” love song that suffers from a lack of character in the other elements, almost creating a domino effect at this point. It’s pretty nice to hear him flex his storytelling muscles on the bluegrass-inspired cover of “Old Home Place,” especially on what it is mostly a well-done album. It’s just rarely an interesting listen.
Recommended tracks: “Looks Like Rain,” “Ain’t Lookin’ Back,” “Old Home Place”