My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘Pain Killer’

1035x1035-lbt-pain-killer-coverLittle Big Town and producer Jay Joyce approach Pain Killer with red hued wild abandon, unapologetically subverting convention in favor of experimentation. If they thought of it, they used it, no matter how outlandish the result.

More often than not Pain Killer devolves into heavy rock, often smothering the individual tracks. “Turn The Lights On” is a progressive mess. “Stay All Night” and “Things You Don’t Think About” drown their harmonies in crashing drums. “Faster Gun” turns up the sexy factor with a filter on Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook’s vocal that renders them indistinguishable. “Save Your Sin” is more heavy metal than anything; a waste of what could be a shining moment for Kimberly Schlapman. “Good People” is just more of the same, with rock and pop colliding, but not meshing at all.

The band is slightly more enjoyable on “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” which is catchy, but rests its fortunes on a terribly unintelligent lyric. Lead single “Day Drinking,” which actually has structure and audible mandolin, is a step up from there.

For the remaining tracks, Little Big Town is good, if not great, or excellent. I love the title track, even though it features elements of the album at its worst, because the chorus is excellent and the band sounds engaged like nowhere else on the project. Second single “Girl Crush,” which only could’ve been written in this day and age, is an inventive lyric and one of Karen Fairchild’s most committed vocal performances. I do wish “Live Forever” retained more a country sound, but Joyce should be credited for a beautifully breathable harmony-centric production bed that’s too lush, but still a showcase for the band. Eerily similar is “Silver and Gold,” which keeps the harmonies in the forefront, but could’ve been a bit more interesting if Joyce had borrowed from “Shut Up Train,” one their strongest ballads.

Pain Killer is the blandest album of Little Big Town’s career. The elements of rock, pop, and metal do nothing to elevate their sound and are thus a distraction that deflects from their talent instead of enhancing it. The record is not without its bright spots, like Eric Church’s Joyce-produced The Outsiders. But I find it difficult to derive pleasure from wading through the dense forest to find them.

Grade: C-

Classic Rewind: The Statler Brothers – ‘Atlanta Blue’

Week ending 1/24/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

1955 (Sales): Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

reba1955 (Jukebox – tie): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1965: You’re The Only World I Know — Sonny James (Capitol)

1975: Kentucky Gambler — Merle Haggard (Capitol)

1985: How Blue — Reba McEntire (MCA)

1995: Not A Moment Too Soon — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2005: Awful, Beautiful Life — Darryl Worley (DreamWorks)

2015: Something In The Water — Carrie Underwood (19/Arista)

2015 (Airplay): Perfect Storm — Brad Paisley (Arista)

Classic Rewind: Loretta Lynn – ‘If Loneliness Can Kill Me’

Classic Rewind: Connie Smith – ‘Did We Have To Come This Far (To Say Goodbye)?’

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Homegrown’

homegrownEven though their music is not always strictly country, the Zac Brown Band has been one of the few bright spots at country radio in recent years. Much of their music to date has been a hybrid of country and the type of pop played on Top 40 radio stations back in the 70s. With “Homegrown”, their first release since joining forces with Big Machine, they seem to be branching out in a slightly different direction.

Whether it’s due to the label change or new co-producer Jay Joyce, this record sounds a bit different than the others. For one thing, the production is a bit louder with heavy emphasis in the intro on drums and fuzzy electric guitars. I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed upon hearing those opening notes, fearing that it would be another one of country radio’s typically dull and overloud offerings. Things improve, however, once the song gets underway with Zac Brown’s unmistakable voice. There’s a little banjo and fiddle thrown into the mix, but neither is featured prominently. Sonically, it isn’t structured like a country song at all, but the tune is very catchy and before you know it you’ll be tapping your toes in spite of yourself. The lyrics, about a protagonist who is more than content to smell the roses and enjoy his lot in life, are on the light side, but at least provide a theme that is country, even if the sound isn’t.

Written by Zac Brown with Niko Moon and bandmate Wyatt Durrette, seems more like a feel-good summertime record rather that a January release, but it’s apparently struck a chord with both radio and fans. It currently resides at #4 on the charts, only ten days after its release. It looks like it’s going to be a monster hit. I wouldn’t rank it among the Zac Brown Band’s best work, but there is nothing terribly objectionable about it — and these days, that’s a big plus.

Listen to it here.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: T Graham Brown – ‘Come As You Were’

Top 20 Albums of 2014: A Hidebound Traditionalist’s View

Rosanne CashWe didn’t get a chance to run this before the end of the year, but we figured our readers wouldn’t mind reading Paul’s year in review a little late. — Razor X

1. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

This album came out fairly early in the year, and yet I was fairly sure it would be the best new album I would hear in 2014. Elegant and insightful would be the terms I would think best describe this album.

2. Working Man’s Poet: A Tribute to Merle Haggard

So timeless are the songs are the songs of Merle Haggard that even marginal talents such as Jason Aldean and Jake Owen couldn’t mess up the songs. If fact I would regard Aldean’s take on “Going Where The Lonely Go” as he best recording he’s ever made. This tribute album is largely composed of modern country artists (Toby Keith, Parmalee, Dustin Lynch, Kristy Lee Cook, Randy Houser, Joe Nichols, Jake Owen, Jason Aldean and James Wesley) with Merle’s son Ben thrown in for good measure and Garth Brooks on the physical CD available at Walmart. The two tracks by Thompson Square (“You Take Me For Granted”, “Let’s Chase Each Other Around The Room”) are given a playful reading and are my favorite tracks, but every artist keeps the spirit of the Hag alive with these songs.

3. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year

The follow-up to Cheater’s Game dishes up another nice serving of real country music with more focus on newer material but with some covers including a nice take on the Statler Brothers classic “I’ll Go To My Grave Loving You” .

4. Jerry Douglas – Earls of Leicester

An instant classic, this album is almost a theatre piece with various stellar musicians cast in the roles of the members of the classic Flatt & Scruggs lineup of the 1950s and 1960s, doing a program of classic Flatt & Scruggs material. Starring Jerry Douglas on dobro, Barry Bales on bass, Shawn Camp on acoustic guitar and vocals, Johnny Warren – fiddle, Tim O’Brien – mandolin, & Charlie Cushman – banjo and guitar. Johnny Warren is the song of longtime F&S fiddler Paul Warren.

5. Carlene Carter – Carter Girl

Carlene Carter pays tribute to her musical heritage with a classic collection of Carter Family tunes plus a pair of original compositions. These recording have a modern sound that differs from, but is true to, the spirit of the originals.

6. Ray Price – Beauty Is

I wanted to call this the best album of 2014 and if Ray had been in top vocal form I would have, but this is the swan song of a dying man who knows the end is but months away. The album is elegant and heartfelt, in many respects a valentine to his wife of many years.

7. Jeff Bates – Me and Conway

For as popular as Conway Twitty was during his heyday (think George Strait), he has been almost entirely forgotten. A tribute to Conway Twitty is long overdue and while I think a multi-artist album would be nice, if it has to be a single artist tribute album, there is no one better to do it than Jeff Bates, whose voice can sound eerily similar to that of Conway Twitty. The album is about half Conway Twitty songs and half new material including the title track. My favorite tracks are the title track, “Lost In The Feeling” and Jeff’s duet with Loretta Lynn on “After The fire Is Gone” .

8. Mandy Barnett – I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson

Mandy is a masterful singer, if somewhat addicted to slow songs. Don Gibson was a top-drawer song writer, as well as a soulful performer. This album, initially available as a Cracker Barrel exclusive is proof that when you pair great songs with a great singer that very good things can happen. Don’s been gone for over a decade so it’s nice to see someone keep his songs in front of the American public.

9. Ray Price – A New Place To Begin

I am mystified that the tracks on this album went unreleased on an album for so long. During the mid 1980s Ray Price and Snuff Garrett collaborated on a number of successful singles (some of which were used in movie soundtracks) plus some other songs. True, producer Snuff Garrett fell ill somewhere along the line and retired, but Garrett was a big name producer and you would think these would have escaped somehow. This CD features seven chart singles that were never collected on an album, and seven other songs that were never released on an album. Sixteen tracks from one of the masters most featuring more steel guitar than was common for Ray during this period .

10. George Strait – The Cowboy Rides Away (Deluxe Edition)

This album has some flaws including what sounds like auto-tune on some tracks and the standard issue of the album doesn’t warrant a top twenty listing since it has only twenty songs on it. The Deluxe Edition, however, plants you into the middle of a George Strait concert – twenty-eight songs on the two CD set plus the entire 40 song set on the concert DVD with some bonus features. George never did tour extensively and when he hit town, the tickets were expensive and sold out quickly so I never did get to see him live in concert. This set is the next best thing. While the studio recordings are better, this is still worth having.

11. Chris Thile & Edgar Meyer – Bass & Mandolin

This album is a little hard to characterize – it’s not exactly bluegrass, folk, jazz or classical music, but it is all of them and more on the ten featured tunes, all of them co-writes. Meyer plays piano on a few tunes but mostly plays bass. Thile shines on the mandolin. The listener exults in the magic.

12. Sammy Kershaw – Do You Know Me: A Tribute To George Jones

True, Sammy is a distant cousin to Cajun pioneers Rusty and Doug Kershaw, but Sammy’s musical muses were Mel Street and George Jones. Here Sammy pays tribute to George Jones and does it well. My favorite among the dozen Jones hits (plus two new songs) covered is “When The Grass Grows Over Me”.

13. Joe Mullins – Another Day From Life

Joe Mullins has been around the bluegrass scene for a while, but this album was the first of his albums I happened to pick up. It’s very good and I’ll be picking up more of his albums when I hit the bluegrass festival in Palatka, Florida on February 20.

14. Rhonda Vincent – Only Me

Half country/half grass but 100% excellent. I wish that Rhonda would do an entire album of western swing and honky-tonk classics. It was silly to split this up into two six song discs, but I guess that the ears of the bluegrass purists needed protection from the country classics. My favorite track is “When The Grass Grows Over Me” which was also my favorite George Jones song. Rhonda’s takes on “Once A Day” and “Bright Lights and Country Music” are also highlights.

15. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

It is good to see new music from Lee Ann. I don’t regard this as highly as I did her first few albums, but it is a welcome return to form.

16. Willie Nelson - Band of Brothers

Death, taxes and a new Willie Nelson album are the only things you can really count on seeing every year. This one is up to the usual standards, with Willie having written nine of the fourteen songs on the album.

17. Secret Sisters – Put your Needle Down

I actually liked their debut album better, but this one will appeal more to younger listeners. At this rate they won’t be a secret much longer. Buy it at Cracker Barrel as their version has two extra songs.

18. Sturgill Simpson – Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

A lot has been written about this album, but the truth is that words really don’t adequately describe it. This album requires repeated listening.

19. Dierks Bentley – Riser

I like this album, but I keep expecting more of DIerks Bentley. “Drunk On A Plane” and “I Hold On” were the big radio/ video singles but I don’t think they were the best songs on the album.

20. Cornell Hurd Band – Twentieth Album

In some ways the Cornell Hurd Band is like Asleep At The Wheel, a very versatile band that can handle anything. Both are terrific swing bands but AATW leans more to the jazzy side while the CHB is more honky-tonk and more prone to novelty lyrics. All of their albums are filled with many and varied treasures.

Classic Rewind: Vince Gill and Patty Loveless – ‘Out Of My Mind’

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘Wine Into Water’

wine into waterBrown had fought a longstanding battle with alcohol, and this intensified after he lost his deal with Capitol. Having overcome it with the support of his wife Sheila, he returned to music in 1998 with the independent Wine Into Water, co-produced by his old friend Gary Nicholson.

The title track is stunning, perhaps the best thing Brown has ever cut, and drawing deeply on his own experiences. It is a moving plea from an alcoholic struggling with his compulsions, and begging God for help one last time:

So many times I’ve hurt the ones I love
I pushed them to the edge of giving up
They stood by me but how much can they stand
If I don’t put this bottle in your hands

Tonight I’m as low as any man can go
I’m down and I can’t fall much farther
Once upon a time you turned the water into wine
Now on my knees I’m turning to you Father
Could you help me turn the wine back into water?

I shook my fist at Heaven for all the hell that I’ve been through
Now I’m begging for forgiveness
And a miracle from you

The song was a big success o the Christian country charts, but the lack of major label muscle stopped it from repeating the feat on mainstream radio.

Almost as good is the melancholic ‘Keep Me From Blowing Away’, a wonderful Paul Craft song once recorded by Linda Ronstadt and also by Willie Nelson. Brown’s version features Marty Stuart on mandolin and showcases his own emotional vocals.

Nothing else is quite as good, but I enjoyed ‘Happy Ever After’ (a non-charting single for Gail Davies in 1990). Brown’s version is beefier, both in terms of the production and his vocals, but the latter give it a real emotional heft, focussing on the slog of building a love into a life together. I also liked the rockabilly piano-led ‘Hide And Seek’ and the soulful ‘Accept My Love’. ‘A Better Word For Love’ is a jazzy loungy ballad which makes an interesting change of pace.

‘Good Days, Bad Days’ is a bit dull. ‘Never In A Million Tears’ is very powerfully sung but an average song. ‘How Do You Know’ is a black gospel tune which is also well done.

The funky and partly spoken ‘Memphis Women And Chicken’ comes across as self-indulgent to me, but will appeal to those who like that style. The shouty ‘Livin’ On doesn’t do anything for me either.

This album contains two great tracks, and a number of good ones, and is Brown’s usual mixture of stylings.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: Tracy Lawrence – ‘Paint Me A Birmingham’

Album Review: Billy Yates – ‘These Old Walls’

these old wallsSinger-songwriter Billy Yates has released his latest independent album. As usual, it consist entirely of his own songs.

Five of the songs involve veteran and onetime George Jones duet partner Melba Montgomery as co-writer. The steel-drenched title track sadly reminisces about a childhood home.

‘No Fool Like An Old Fool’ (written with Melba and Tommy Polk) is great , with a sardonic lyric about a cheating wife who thinks she’s getting away with it – but:

Late last night in your sleep
You whispered soft and low
You told me that you loved me –
I just wish my name was Joe

This trio also wrote ‘She’s Got A Heart’, a nice love song.

Billy and Melba were joined by Monty Criswell to write the semi-up-tempo ‘Fallin’ Over Myself’ which is pleasant but not all that memorable. I preferred their ‘It’s Just A Scratch’, in which he soothes the wounded pride of a lady who has been hurt in love.

Billy and Criswell teamed up with Lee Thomas Miller for a pair of songs. The relaxed ‘You Must Be Out Of Your Mind’ is a charming love song about love triumphing over poverty. The entertaining western swing ‘Zeros’ has the poor man rejected by the object of his affections, because:

You never will amount to much nohow

Miller and Billy wrote another couple together. He is torn about taking back an ex revisiting ‘Her Old Stompin’ Grounds’. The resigned ‘Carry On’ is about pretending to be over someone as a way of working towards really getting over her. Both are good songs.

‘Waiting For The World To Turn My Way’ was written with John Northrup. The perky tune about an optimistic attitude to a really bad day and a tough life, with sprightly honky tonk piano prominent in the mix, makes this thoroughly enjoyable.

The closing ‘That’s All She Wrote’, written with Bill Able, is a breakup song in which the departing lady writes goodbye in lipstick on the wall. It’s a clever idea but the key is a bit too low for Billy in places, taking him down into a less attractive timbre.

The only solo composition is the quietly religious ‘Potter’s Hands’.

This is another excellent collection of songs from an underrated singer-songwriter whose music is always reliably genuine country.

Grade: A

Classic Rewind: The Harden Trio – ‘Tippy Toein’

Album Review: T. Graham Brown – ‘You Can’t Take It With You’

T._Graham_Brown_-_You_Can't_Take_It_With_YouYou Can’t Take It With You, released in 1991, marked T. Graham Brown’s final album for Capitol Nashville. While the album came on the heels of his top ten duet with Tanya Tucker, “Don’t Go Out,” it failed to produce any notable singles and was the first CD of his career not to chart.

Two singles were released from the project. “With This Ring,” a piano and horn mid-tempo number peaked at #31 while the title track, a ballad, failed to chart. Both singles displayed welcomed restraint in their respective styles and were excellent showcases for Brown vocally.

The remainder of You Can’t Take It With You is nicely balanced between uptempo tunes and delicately produced ballads. “Love At Work” is an excellently slinky horn drenched number while “Just A Woman” turns up the piano and drums for a rocking good time that foreshadows what was to come later in the decade. The electric guitar work on “Shaky Ground,” a wail of a rocker, lays the groundwork for songs like Tim McGraw’s “Real Good Man,” a pretty awful tune. Brown’s recording isn’t that bad as the production is nicely contained and doesn’t overshadow the track overall. “Bolt Out of the Blue” wouldn’t have been out of place on a Brooks & Dunn record and is actually quite listenable despite being a bit generic.

“The Rock” is a pretty good ballad but suffers from production that’s too bland and a vocal from Brown that lacks the subtly and tenderness needed to pull the song off. “Sweet Believer” has a better balance between vocal and production, but the horns and faux R&B stylings are cheesy. “You’re Everything She Couldn’t Be” follows the same pattern and in this mix is just more of the same. “Pillow of Mercy” is actually very good although it probably would’ve been more interesting if someone like Lee Roy Parnell had sang it instead.

After the horrible mess that was Brilliant Conversationalist, I was very pleasantly surprised when I actually enjoyed You Can’t Take It With You a lot. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel by any means, but it shows Brown as an artist trying to pull of substance through quality songs with good production. The bland ballads could’ve used a nice dose of fiddle to make them stand out more and the rockers aren’t Vegas-y at all. This isn’t an outstanding or even a great album, but as far as Brown is concerned, it’s a huge achievement.

Grade: B

Classic Rewind: T Graham Brown – ‘I May Never Get To Heaven’

Cover of a Bill Anderson song:

Week ending 1/17/15: #1 singles this week in country music history

eddierabbitt.1955 (Sales): Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1955 (Jukebox): More and More — Webb Pierce (Decca)

1955 (Disc Jockeys): Loose Talk — Carl Smith (Columbia)

1965: Once A Day — Connie Smith (RCA)

1975: Ruby, Baby — Billy “Crash” Craddock (Monument)

1985: The Best Year Of My Life — Eddie Rabbitt (Warner Bros.)

1995: Not A Moment Too Soon — Tim McGraw (Curb)

2005: Some Beach — Blake Shelton (Warner Bros.)

2015: Something In The Water — Carrie Underwood (19/Arista)

2015 (Airplay): Perfect Storm — Brad Paisley (Arista)

Classic Rewind: T Graham Brown – ‘Hell And High Water’

Classic Rewind: Gary Stewart – ‘In Some Room Above The Street’

Single Review – Tim McGraw feat. Catherine Dunn – ‘Diamond Rings and Old Barstools’

ad2One thing is certain about Tim McGraw. From the inception of his career twenty-two years ago, he’s had to fight his way through a cloud of exaggerated self-parody to prove he’s a substantive artist with enough credibility to be taken seriously. He hit his creative peak at the turn of the century, before falling off the wagon in the late Oughts. Who could blame a guy for wanting to stay relevant?

This decade has already seen McGraw scream for that relevancy on multiple occasions with helpless pleas drenched in desperation. With it finally out of system, the only thing left for McGraw to do is be himself again. That return to form resulted in an elegant top five followed by a four-week number one. The latter hit was McGraw’s biggest single in ten years.

He now aims to recapture the traditional country market, a risky move, with the four singles from Sundown Heaven Town, “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools.” Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that wail you hear in the background is a steel guitar. The harmony vocal? Well, that’s none other than rising country star Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin.

But it’s 2015, after all. So one cannot get too traditional or they risk clunking to the bottom of the Americana remainder bin. That’s why clunky electric guitars overwhelm the track, sucking out any real enjoyment. It’s also why the much-touted harmony vocal by Dunn is barely audible. Emphasize her too much and she might actually get decent exposure.

Unfortunately those grips are nothing compared to the lyric, which plays on the premise of good versus evil without being clever or excitingly original. The chorus is fantastic, with the story’s main couple finally admitting to themselves they’re not good for each other. It’s just the verses say so little, and are such a waste of opportunity, the whole thing is rendered blah.

I was excited when “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” was released, as I thought I remembered it being a great song. When reviewing the album, I thought it had too much gruffness to it, a point I still stand by. If the verses were stronger and the whole thing far softer, this could actually be a home run. The bones are there, if you’re willing to dig through the clutter to find them.

Grade: B-

Listen

 

Classic Rewind: Michael Martin Murphey – ‘Cowboy Logic’

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 131 other followers