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Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘Wrangled’

These past couple of years have seen Pistol Annies go their separate ways, as Ashley Monroe tried to gain traction with The Blade and Miranda Lambert continued to rack up Female Vocalist of the Year trophies, publicity split from Blake Shelton and poured her soul into The Weight of These Wings, released last November. Their bandmate Angaleena Presley is the group’s true outlier, the musical anomaly that doesn’t quite fit any particular mode.

Pistol Annies have reunited this year on Gentle Giants: The Songs of Don Williams, in which they contribute their take on his classic “Tulsa Time.” They’ve also come together for the opening track of Presley’s sophomore record Wrangled, which was produced by Oran Thornton. The track, “Dreams Don’t Come True” is a steel-laced ballad concerning the dark side of stardom:

I thought

There’d be a man in a suit and a ten-gallon hat

He’d give me a deal and a red Cadillac

And I’d make hit records and get hooked on drugs

But I wound up pregnant and strung out on love

 

Dreams don’t come true

They’ll make a mess out of you

They’ll hang around the darkest corners of your mind

They’ll beat your heart black and blue

Don’t let anyone tell you they do

Dreams don’t come true

 

I thought

I’d change the world with three chords and the truth

I’d be like Elvis but with lipstick and boobs

My bra would be floatin’ in a guitar-shaped pool

And I’d flip the bird to them whores in high school

The lyric is brilliant and it’s nice to hear the band’s harmonies again, but the track is so cluttered and weighted down, I’m finding it difficult to extract the enjoyment from it I so desperately want to. Wrangled continues in that tradition throughout its twelve tracks, presenting a sonic landscape I honestly found challenging to take a liking to. But the significance of these songs makes Wrangled hard to ignore.

Presley uses Wrangled as a vehicle for venting the frustrations and anger she feels towards society and an industry she feels unjustly spit her out. At 40, she’s dictating her own rules and refusing to play nice.

Those emotions come to light on “Mama I Tried,” which finds Presley and Thornton revising the themes (and signature riff) of the Merle Haggard classic. The lyric is directed at the music industry, and while fantastic, the presentation (littered with cumbersome electric guitars) is far too loud for my taste:

I came so close so many times

And I’ll never get back the best years of my life

Empty proposals, all talk, no show

It’s getting too hard to keep holding on

Now you’ve got to let it go

 

Mama I tried, Mama I tried

I cheated and I lied

I painted up my face like a rodeo clown

And I choked on cheap perfume as I spread myself around

I strutted my stuff at every juke joint in town

Always the bridesmaid, never the bride

Mama, Mama, I tried

She continues with her self-written confessional “Outlaw,” in which lays bear (with help from Sheryl Crow) her true nature:

Grass looks greener, the money does too

It sure looks easier for the chosen few

Mama always said God broke the mold when he made me

And I’ve spent my whole damn life tryin’ to fit back in

 

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

I wanna be a straight-shootin’ high-falutin’ rider on the hit parade

It’s too hard to live this way

I don’t wanna be an outlaw

I don’t wanna be a renegade

 

If you think I’m brave, you’re sadly mistaken

Every fight I’ve ever fought, every rule I’ve ever broke

Was out of desperation

I’d just as soon be

Another face in the crowd of people who are scared of me

Presley examines her life as a performer on “Groundswell,” which pairs her desires with a nice banjo riff. She spends the song feeling almost hopeful:

I gotta make it through these Alabama pines

‘Cause I’ve got a house to clean and bedtime story to tell

One more song, one more show

One more penny in the well

One whisper leads to one yell

Groundswell

Groundswell

The treatment of women by modern society is at the heart of “Good Girl Down,” which Presley co-wrote with rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson. The blistering rocker, which uses noise to drown out Presley’s vocal, is a pointed and sharp feminist anthem:

I’m not just a pretty face

not a flower in a vase

its a mans world and I’m a lady

and they’ll never appreciate me

 

They’re gonna take the time to get to know who I am

frankly boys, I don’t give a damn

I’ve got my head on straight

 

You can’t get a good girl down

You can’t get a good girl down

She’s got not secrets and she’s got no lies

She’ll burn you out with the truth in her eyes

She’s standing on solid ground

You can’t get a good girl down

Wrangled also features Guy Clark’s final song, which he and Presley co-wrote together. “Cheer Up, Little Darling,” which features an intro of Clark speaking the first verse, is sparse and a nice breath of fresh air.

She teams with Chris Stapleton on “Only Blood,” a brilliant ballad that dissects a couple’s marriage, his cheating, and their inevitable confrontation. The track, which features an assist from Stapleton’s wife Morgane, is not only one of Wrangled’s strongest tracks, but it’s one of my favorite songs so far this year.

While she had a hand in writing each of the twelve tracks on Wrangled, Presley wrote three solo. The title track revisits one of my favorite themes, quiet desperation, with the intriguing tale of a housewife who feels she “might as well be hogtied and strangled/tired of wakin’ up feelin’ like I’ve been wrangled.”

Presley follows with “Bless My Heart,” the most honest woman-to-woman song since Pam Tillis & Dean Dillon’s “Spilled Perfume.” Presley plays the role of the aggressor, tearing the other woman down at every delicious turn:

Listen here honey, I know you mean well

But that southern drawl don’t cover up the smell

Of your sweet little goody-goody

Spoiled rotten daddy’s girl act

Your two-faced trash talkin’ tongue

Might as well be an axe

 

You’d knock a girl down

So you could feel tall

You’d burn Cinderella’s dress

So you could feel like the hottest girl at the ball

You’re a beauty mark on the human race

And if you bless my heart I’ll slap your face

 

It’s evolution honey, and in case you didn’t know

The more you learn, the more you grow

When you’re livin’ in a bubble

You can bet that it’s bound to burst

You’re going to pay for every time

You didn’t put the greater good first

The most adventurous track on Wrangled is “Country,” which features hip-hop artist Yelawolf. The track is a mess, but the lyric is genius. The track was composed in parody to the trends on modern country radio. In a twist, it’s the verse rapped by Yelawolf that helps the message truly resonant:

There used to be a place downtown

Where they threw nut shells on the floor

But they cleaned up and went corporate

And now I don’t go there no more

My mama bartended that place

When it was a dive and alive

But they sold it out to retire

And chase that American Pie

Now we got no Hank and Johnny

No Waylon playin’, Dwight Yoakam on radio

Just a crazy load of these country posers

I suppose a couple are real

But they’ll never make it

So thank God for Sturgill Simpson

‘Cause Music Row can fuckin’ save it

But I’m fuckin’ gettin’ it son

Wrangled closes with the gospel rave “Motel Bible.” I’ve never said this before about a project, but this truly is a difficult album to assign a grade to. Each of the twelve tracks, including “High School,” are lyrically brilliant and demand to be heard. But puzzling production choice mare more than a few of the songs, leaving the listener wanting a more delicate approach in order to fully appreciate what they’re hearing. But if you can look past that flaw, Wrangled is this year’s Big Day In A Small Town – a record for the ages by a female artist with an unabashed adult perspective. It hasn’t yet charted and likely won’t find much of an audience, but that doesn’t distract from its high quality. I just wish the production didn’t get in the way.

Grade: B+

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Ten Albums of 2014

For whatever reason, I always find it easier to tackle a singles list than one dedicated to albums. It’s easier to dive into the creative merits of a song for me than to look at a whole album, at least where a ranked list is concerned. As country music has veered off course in recent years, I’ve noticed my tastes have shifted away from the mainstream as I’ve filled my ears with the sounds of independent or Americana leaning artists, who still make music for themselves, and not for the corporate machine.

My top ten includes an artist who staged a wonderful comeback, another who treated us to his second album this decade, a group who reunited for their twenty-fifth anniversary, and a duet pairing who’ve spoiled us with riches two years in a row. All are strong artistic triumphs and prove, once again, that incredible country music continues to see the light of day.

71Pl0cfcAZL._SL1500_10. Nickel Creek – A Dotted Line

Nine years after breaking off in different directions, Sara, Sean, and Chris reunite showing astonishing artistic growth. A Dotted Line doesn’t eclipse their breathtaking 2000 debut, but it’s just so great to have them back.

Key Tracks: “Destination,” “Hayloft,” “Love Like Mine”

9. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Our Year11183_JKT

The married couple follow-up 2013’s stellar Cheater’s Game with a traditional delight that packs on the steel and Willis’ once in a lifetime voice with Robison’s brilliant songwriting. It doesn’t get much better.

Key Tracks: “Carousel,” “Anywhere But Here,” “This Will Be Our Year”

MirandaLambertPlatinum8. Miranda Lambert – Platinum

The de facto mainstream entry goes to Lambert’s latest set, which balances progressive sensibilities while remaining nostalgic for times gone by.

Key Tracks: “Automatic,” “Pricilla,” “All That’s Left (with Time Jumpers)”  

RF.EISHS-117. Radney Foster – Everything I Wish I’d Said

Foster’s latest covers wide ground – the grip of creativity, love for the Golden State, and racism, et al – but it all works, thanks to his sharp songwriting and blistering production.

Key Tracks: “Whose Heart You Wreck,” “California,” “Not In My House”

lm_album6. Lori McKenna – Numbered Doors 

The first of three stellar collections from female singer-songwriters to land on the list comes from McKenna, singing exquisitely about small-town life. It’s always a treat when she releases a new set, and Numbered Doors is no exception.

Key Tracks: “The Time I’ve Wasted,” “Stranger In His Kiss,” “What A Woman Wants”

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000px5. Angaleena Presley – American Middle Class 

Holler Annie’s voice is an acquired taste and her production choices aren’t entirely conventional, but her songwriting is vividly clear and features the focused prospective of a woman breathing every last word.

Key Tracks: “Grocery Store,” “Life of the Party,” “Better Off Red”

don-williams-album-reflections-2014-400px4. Don Williams – Reflections

And So It Goes was a wonderful reintroduction to Don Williams for a new generation, as a man in his 70s. Fully reacquainted, Williams has released the collection of his life – ten reflections on life from a man who’s lived and breathed every word.

Key Tracks: “I’ll Be There In The Morning,” “Working Man’s Son,” “Talk Is Cheap”

81jry8GphML._SL1425_3. Rodney Crowell – Tarpaper Sky

Rodney Crowell is irrefutably one of the greatest songwriter/artists of the past forty years. He’s done it all in his astonishing career, yet he continues to surprise at a point in his profession where artists either hang it up or coast on their success. He’s at the peak of his ability with no signs of slowing down. All the better for us, and the greater good of the country genre.

Key Tracks: “The Long Journey Home,” “God I’m Missing You,” “The Flyboy & The Kid”

the way im livin2. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’ 

A new Lee Ann Womack album is a cause for celebration, and while I wasn’t blown away by her latest set, there were some incredible moments throughout. It also doesn’t hurt that she’s championing pure country music, especially at a time when the genre is poppier than it’s ever been.

Key Tracks: “Fly,” “Same Kind of Different,” “Sleeping With the Devil”

Rosanen-Cash-The-River-The-Thread-300x3001. Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread

The third consecutive release in which she mines her family legacy is Cash’s masterpiece, the brilliant singer-songwriter project that comes wholly from the soul of its creator. Through twelve immaculate southern-themed songs, Cash vividly paints her landscapes and introduces us to those who call this region of the country home.

Key Tracks: “When The Master Calls The Roll,” “Night School,” “The Sunken Lands”

Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘Numbered Doors’

lm_albumEver since Faith Hill plucked her from obscurity in 2005, Lori McKenna has been one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters and a delightful artist in her own right. She’s scored major radio cuts by the likes of Hunter Hayes and Little Big Town and even secured a major label deal that resulted in a single collection far more upbeat than her usual fare.

Most songwriters in her enviable position would focus on the big time, but McKenna has maintained her small-town Massachusetts roots all the while continuing to keep one foot in music city. Her music, as a result, has maintained its uniqueness; no one is as astute in crafting such simple lyrics about the eccentricities of small town life. Her “Grocery Store,” an Angaleena Presley co-write from her American Middle Class focuses on the act of standing in a checkout line, but reveals its brilliance in the quiet pondering of both fellow customers and the checkout clerk’s life story.

In September, McKenna returned the focus to herself with her eighth LP, the experimental Numbered Doors. This time around she wrote with an outsider’s perspective, crafting songs from other people’s stories instead of self-absorbed personal narratives. It doesn’t mean she detours from her comfort zone too much sonically. The tracks are still clothed in the trademark lush instrumentation she’s famous for leading to few surprises but still providing a delightfully ear catching experience for the listener.

The extraordinary title track, a mandolin soaked manifesto on quite desperation, served as the promotional single. Few paint extreme hopelessness as vividly as McKenna who gives voice to women paralyzed by the rabbit hole they can’t dig themselves out of. These women are often the byproduct of long marriages where, as the lady in “All A Woman Wants” can attest, longs to take away the breath of the husband who renders her sexually and emotionally starved. They’re also painfully self-aware, able to recognize the lack of life in their years, lamenting over “All The Time I’ve Wasted” on a relationship that couldn’t be saved. Their inwardly reflective pity-party only serves to make the situation worse, and without an exit, makes their prognosis seem pretty grim.

McKenna sings from the other side, too, turning “Livin’ On Love” on its side with “Good Marriage,” a tune about life’s daily struggles dissolving into a fight where the couple “take back every word that’s said” before heading to bed. Hope continues with “God Never Made One of Us To Be Alone,” a track about how the daily struggles will always be there but we’re not meant to face them without companionship and love. Said company isn’t always a significant other, as the woman with “Three Kids No Husband” can confirm with a ‘broken home [that] ain’t no fairytale.’

The ever present brokenness seeps back in with “Starlight,” which uses the old rhyme “starlight star bright” to convey a woman’s inner desire to wish for a life consisting of more than ‘kitchen tiles [that] used to be white.’ McKenna has long danced around the subject of extramarital affairs from “Stealing Kisses” to “If You Ask,” but she’s never tackled the subject head on like she does while playing a woman confronting the best friend who’s “The Stranger In His Kiss.” Erin Enderlin passively sat next to the forthright woman screwing her man, saying nothing, but McKenna drives said mistress to tears during a late-night rendezvous. When she reveals ‘you were standing right there beside me when he said, “till the day he dies,”’ the listener feels the true intensity of the woman’s pain. “The Stranger In His Kiss” is the crown jewel of an album beaming with specifically crafted studies of emotional depth.

If I can fault McKenna for anything, it’s her ability to craft albums basking in lyrical and sonic repetition. There’s no denying her masterful ability to craft material from the perspective of a woman living a small-town life. But a whole album worth of these type songs, typically immaculately produced ballads, is too weighted down and begins to get old very quickly. As individual compositions each of the ten tracks are truly incredible. I just wish she’d give a little thought to diversifying each project to ramp up the overall listening experience. That doesn’t mean I don’t highly recommend Numbered Doors because I do. There’s hardly a stronger collection from a prominent female singer-songwriter released this year. It just doesn’t come without a one slight flaw, an issue with a very easy fix.

Grade: A

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000pxFor her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Provoked’

sunnysweeneyFollowing a three-year break from the recording studio, Sunny Sweeney is back, and as you may have deduced from the title of her new collection, she is in a feisty mood.  She’s been through a lot of changes both professionally and personally since the release of 2011’s Concrete:  divorce, remarriage and parting ways with Republic Nashville Records.  Those who, like me, were hoping that freedom from the shackles of a major-label contract would result in an album more like the excellent Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame, will find much to be happy about.  The Luke Wooten-produced Provoked is not as rootsy as her debut, but it is less polished than Concrete and has plenty of traditional moments.  There are more than a few concessions to contemporary tastes, with perhaps an eye still on the charts, but the prospects of a radio hit are unlikely without major label backing.

Provoked contains a generous 13 tracks, eleven of which were co-written by Sunny.  The album opens with the excellent “You Don’t Know Your Husband”, a collaboration with Angaleena Presley and Mark D. Sanders.  It’s a Loretta Lynn-style confrontation over a man, although Sunny is cast in the role of the other woman rather than the agrieved wife.  It’s followed by  “Bad Girl Phase”, which was written by Brandy Clark, Jesse Jo Dillon and Shannon Wright and released as a single a ilttle over a year ago.  It’s got more of a rock edge than we’re used to hearing from Sunny but to her credit she makes no attempt to tone down her twang on this number or anywhere else on the album.  It’s a catchy number that I like more each time I hear it, but the production is a bit cluttered and at times threatens to drown out her vocals.

Following “Bad Girl Phase”, the album enters a somewhat lengthy dull phase, through the more contemporary “Second Guessing”, “Carolina on the Line” and “Find Me”, none of which are particularly memorable.  But just when one might be about to give up on the album, things pick up nicely with the uptempo “Can’t Let Go”, a Randy Weeks number that reminds me of something The Judds might have recorded in their early days.

The album’s best moments are primarily in the second half, beginning with “My Bed”, a duet with Will Hoge that Sunny wrote with Angaleena Presley and Ashley Monroe.  “Sunday Dress” finds her jilted, presumably at the altar, and unwilling to face the prying eyes of her small-town neighbors.  “Used Cars” is a nice mid-tempo number about finding love even when one is a little past one’s prime.  Her feisty side emerges again on the album’s last two tracks; on “Backhanded Compliment” ,she takes issue with those who either knowingly or inadvertently make catty or thoughtless remarks and the confrontational “Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass” is a working class honky-tonker of the kind that Johnny Paycheck used to pull off with gusto.

Provoked is an intelligent, well-written collection of music that will probably be ignored by the mainstream but it has all the makings to be a cult hit. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an album by a current female artist this much.  I highly recommend it.

Grade:  A

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Country Albums of 2013

The statistic is getting old, fast. If your name isn’t Miranda, Carrie, or Taylor and you’re a solo female artist, then you’re probably not going to have many hit singles. It’s too bad because the strongest country music released this year comes from female artists who aren’t scared to go against the grain and say what needs sayin.’ I’m always amazed at the good quality music that’s released each year – and these are ten such releases, all of which should be apart of your musical catalog.

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10. Alan Jackson – The Bluegrass Album

Now a legacy artist, Jackson proves he isn’t done doing what he does best – crafting simple songs framed in equally uncomplicated melodies. But he nicely updates his formula this time around by making a bluegrass record, proving he isn’t done with experimentation. May he never go to the lows of Thirty Miles West ever again.

jason-isbell-southeastern

9. Jason Isbell – Southeastern 

The best modern album by a male country singer released this year. Southeastern is a tour-de-force of emotion and strength – a modern masterwork from a man who’s just getting started reaching his potential.

American_Kid_cover

8. Patty Griffin – American Kid

In an effort to pay tribute to her father Patty Griffin has given us one of the best discs to tackle the many facets of death in recent memory. One listen to her spiritual anthem “Go Where Ever You Wanna Go” and you’ll be hooked into taking this journey right along with her. Be sure to catch, “Please Don’t Let My Die In Florida.” It’s the best song against retirement in the Sunshine State I’ve ever heard.

AnnieUp

7. Pistol Annies – Annie Up

When most people criticize modern country they take aim at the songwriting, which has been modified to appeal to a younger demographic. The other complaint is the addition of rock and hip-hop sounds into the music. Even worse, then all of that is the diminishing of traditional country instruments in modern sound.

Annie Up is a fantastic country album both vocally and lyrically. Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley defied the sophomore slump by recording another killer record. Tracks like “Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” “Dear Sobriety,” and “I Hope you’re The End of My Story” are among the best of the year. I just wish the CD didn’t so blatantly throw its lack of steel guitar and fiddle in our faces. If these country songs retained the hallmarks of classic country, I’d have this ranked much higher.

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6. Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game

One of the year’s most refreshing albums came from this husband and wife duo, who’ve never recorded a LP together until now. Both give us fantastic numbers; Willis shines on a cover of Hayes Carll’s “Long Way Home” while Robinson is perfect on Robert Earl Keen’s “No Kinda Dancer.” But it’s Robison’s self-penned material that shines brightest, making me long for the days when his no-fuss songwriting was a regular fixture on country radio.

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5. Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell – Old Yellow Moon

Ever since a glimpse at the track listing a year ago, I can’t help but shake the feeling this decades-in-the-making collaboration is merely an above average album, not the transcendent masterwork it could’ve been. Covers of “Invitation to the Blues” and “Dreaming My Dreams” are very good, but feel like doorstops. Surely Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell could’ve dug a little deeper into their combined musical legacies instead of spending their time covering country classics. In any event, it’s still among my most played CDs this year which means they did something right.

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4. Ashley Monroe – Like A Rose

Like A Rose redefines the sophomore record by building on the tremendous potential set by the artist’s debut. Monroe brings a sharper pen and keener ear to these 9 songs that are standards, more than mere pieces of music. Observances on out-of-wedlock pregnancy (“Two Weeks Late”), drunken flings (“The Morning After”), and adulteresses (“She’s Driving Me Out of His Mind”) are rarely this fully formed, from someone so young. At its best Like A Rose is a modern masterpiece from a woman who’s just getting started forming her artistic identity.

As far as female vocalists go, Monroe holds her own with all the genre greats from Loretta Lynn and Connie Smith to Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton. Her buttery soprano is a modern wonder, shifting from honky-tonk twang to contemporary pop with ease far beyond her 26 years. God only knows where she’ll go from here.

Vince Gill And Paul Franklin - Bakersfield_Cvr_5x5_300cmyk

3. Vince Gill & Paul Franklin – Bakersfield

Twenty years ago when Vince Gill was accepting the ACM Song of the Year trophy for “I Still Believe In You” he quipped about the state of modern country saying, “I’ve been watching this show tonight and I’ve marveled at how country music has grown. And I want you to know that in my heart country music hasn’t changed, it has just grown. And that’s the healthiest thing we got goin’” He went on to share a lesson he learned from his parents, that a person’s greatest strengths are embedded in their roots.

For Gill that optimistic view of commercial country doesn’t hold up today, but as a legacy artist he’s clearly taking his parents’ innate wisdom to heart. Teaming up with Steel Guitarist Paul Franklin to cover a set of Merle Haggard and Buck Owens tunes is no easy undertaking, but the pairing has resulted in one of the only perfect country albums of 2013. Instead of merely covering the hits, the duo dug deep into the artists’ catalog and unearthed gems even they weren’t familiar with going in. The added effort gave the album unexpected depth but a flawless reading of “I Can’t Be Myself,” a favorite of Gill’s since his late teens, gave the album it’s heart and soul.

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2. Kacey Musgraves – Same Trailer Different Park

If you view Kacey Musgraves as yet another castoff from a reality singing competition, she placed seventh on Nashville Star in 2007, then you’re missing out on the most promising newcomer signed to a major Nashville label in years.

Musgraves didn’t win the Best New Artist CMA Award (beating Florida-Georgia Line) by accident. She won on the sheer strength of her debut album, an exceptional collection of songs bursting with a depth of clarity well beyond her 24 years. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Follow Your Arrow” are just the beginning, introductions to the deeper material found within. She’s only just scratched the surface, which makes the prospect of future recordings all the more exciting.

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1. Brandy Clark – 12 Stories

Not since Clint Black reinvigorated Merle Haggard’s legacy on his classic Killin’ Time has a debut album come so fully formed, from an artist with such a clear prospective. Clark’s brilliance isn’t an updated take on classic country but rather the next evolution of the 90s female renaissance – a group of individualists (Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, etc) who owe their genesis to Linda Ronstadt and the rulebook she crafted through Prisoner In Disguise and her definitive take on “Blue Bayou.”

Clark is the first newcomer to work with the formula in more than 20 years, and she often exceeds what her forbearers brought to the table. “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “Pray to Jesus” are two of the best songs Yearwood has yet to record, while “The Day She Got Divorced” is as perfect a story song as any I’ve ever heard.

Nashville, while admitting their admiration for the album, found 12 Stories too hot to touch. It’s shameful the adult female perspective has been silenced in Music City since without it country music has lost a major piece of its cultural identity. Where would we be as a genre today if the likes of Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, and Emmylou Harris had been regulated to offbeat labels and kept off of radio? Clark is fortunate she’s found success writing for other artists, but country music would be far better off if she found success as a singer, too.

Album Review: Pistol Annies – ‘Annie Up’

pistolannies2011’s Hell on Heels, the first Pistol Annies effort, was a surprise hit despite receiving little promotion from either radio or its label. The title track and non-charting single earned gold certification and the album itself sold over 400,000 units. So it was perhaps inevitable that a sequel would follow what once seemed like a one-off project. Producer Frank Liddell is back on board, joined this time by Chuck Ainlay and Glenn Worf. The Annies themselves — Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley wrote all of the album’s songs.

Like the first album, Annie Up is full of tell-it-like-it-is, redneck attitude, and while this was a breath of fresh air amongst the bland and soulless music dominating the airwaves in 2011, it occasionally comes across as a bit contrived this time around. The trio seems at times to be at risk of becoming a caricature of itself, a la Gretchen Wilson, which would be a shame because collectively and individually, the members of Pistol Annies are far too talented to be written off as a one trick pony.

The opening track “I Feel A Sin Comin’ On” gets the album off to a good start. The song begins with an a cappella arrangement, and my initial reaction was one of relief that this wasn’t another one of those overly-loud numbers that seem so popular these days. Then, about two thirds into the song, a very loud and intrusive electric guitar enters into the mix, almost drowning out the vocals. The loudness continues into the second track and current single, ironically titled “Hush, Hush”. This is my least favorite track on the album, but it is also its most commercial, making it a wise choice for a single. It is currently on the verge of becoming the group’s first Top 40 hit. Also plagued by cluttered and too-loud production is “Loved By A Workin’ Man”, a decent song that would have been better served by a quieter arrangement.

Much more to my liking were the quieter numbers, particularly “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty”, a nice steel guitar-laden lament about the tedious and sometimes labor-intensive effort the female sex must make in the name of beauty and “Unhappily Married”, a bleak and tongue-in-cheek (I think) look at the downsides of marriage. “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina”, a Lambert-led number advising a friend that she’s better off without her unreliable love interest, sounds like it has hit single potential. “Dear Sobriety”, one of the collection’s more serious efforts, is told from the point of view of an addict struggling to overcome her dependence on pills and alcohol. It is an excellent song but it is probably too politically incorrect in today’s environment to be considered for a single release. It is followed by the light-hearted “Damn Thing”, which provides a much-needed change of pace.

The album closes with “I Hope You’re The End Of My Story”, which is my favorite track. It is a quiet acoustic guitar-led affair that allows the trio’s beautiful harmonies to shine. I’d like to hear more of this side of Pistol Annies and a little less redneck woman the next time around.

Overall, Annie Up is a very solid album, despite a few production missteps, but it doesn’t quite rise to the level of Pistol Annies’ debut effort. Nevertheless, fans of the first album will find much to enjoy here and it is definitely worth checking out.

Grade: B+

Singles Round-Up: Pistol Annies, Little Big Town, and Carrie Underwood

Hush-HushPistol Annies – “Hush, Hush”

 If “Hush, Hush” proves anything, it’s that the Pistol Annies sure know how to cultivate a brand. They’re hell bent on taking the redneck woman from deep in the holler thing as far as it’ll take them, whether it means they take risks thematically or not.

The finished product is good, but the slightly too loud electric guitar compromises the vocals a little too much. Angaleena Presley’s voice is a little thin for this type of thick production while Miranda Lambert sounds as though she’s on twang overdrive; almost overcompensating to prove she’s still a country girl. Only Ashley Monroe sounds perfectly comfortable here and she proves it with a confident vocal that makes Presley and Lambert sound amateurish.

Hell on Heels is going to be a tough act to follow. They may be up to the challenge, but “Hush, Hush” needed a bit more polish before it was ready for release. I’m digging the overall feel of the track but the story seems predictable from them. They’ve set the bar impossibly high, and while they almost reach it, they never quite get there all the way.

Grade: B

Your-Side-of-BedLittle Big Town – “Your Side of the Bed”

Let’s get it out of the way. “Your Side of the Bed” is a direct rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed” from Here For The Party. Wilson’s song wasn’t a single, but the similarities between the songs are hard to ignore – both songs cover the same ground almost identically.

Little Big Town has turned the concept into a duet between married band members Karen Fairchild (once again singing lead on a LBT single) and Jimi Westbrook. Trading off the verses, they exude the right amount of desperation to make the story work. Jay Joyce also helps by framing them in a hauntingly understated 1970s soft rock tinged production that works nicely in their favor. The track is gorgeous, and the most sonically interesting mainstream single since Zac Brown Band’s “Goodbye In Your Eyes.”

I’m just having a trouble with the seemingly obligatory choral harmonies. They delude the pain Fairchild and Westbrook bring to the song by overcrowding the moments of greatest emotional impact with third parties not connected with the verses. A bit less vocal clutter, and this could’ve been one of the year’s best singles – a direct rip-off or not.

Grade: B+ 

15gsfbaCarrie Underwood – “See You Again”

At first glance there’s nothing wrong with this song at all. “See You Again” has an engaging melody, the strong type of vocal performance that Underwood excels at, and the track is a quintessential earworm, listen a few times, and you’ll be singing it all day.

So where’s the problem? Well, for starters, “See You Again” is classic power pop and bares no resemblance to country music whatsoever. That doesn’t help matters any as the choruses have been reduced to a muffled and bombastic mess that leaves Underwood no choice but to screech her way to next verse and bridge. This was the point in the Blown Away album cycle to change it up, with a “Do You Think About Me” for instance, opposed to sticking with more of the same. Safe filler like this doesn’t do a career any justice in the long term.

At least we’ve been spared “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun,” “One Way Ticket” or “Nobody Ever Told You” getting released. It isn’t saying much, but at least there’s that.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘Like A Rose’

like a roseAlthough shes’s still in her 20s, it’s been a long haul for Ashley Monroe, who has been one of the best kept secrets in country music for far too long. Signed to Sony while still in her teens, her singles failed to make much headway, even when she duetted with Ronnie Dunn. Her album for Sony was critically acclaimed but only released digitally in 2009 in a half-hearted kissoff by the label a couple of years after they had dropped her. Teaming up with superstar Miranda Lambert and songwriter Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies has definitely raised her profile among country fans.

Her return to a major label, Warner Brothers, was one of the most exciting pieces of news last year, and I have been eagerly anticipating this album. Vince Gill produces with Justin Niebank, and they do a great job showcasing Ashley’s pretty voice. She co-wrote every song here.

The autobiographical title track and current single, which Ashley wrote with Guy Clark and Jon Randall, has an inspirational sweetness about overcoming the pain instilled in her family by the death of her father when she was 13. It is a charming track, but sadly does not appear to have made much headway with radio. The melancholic ‘She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind’, also written with Jon Randall, is another highlight, sounding like a lost-love country classic.

The ironic ‘A Dollar Short And Two Weeks Late’, a co-write with Shane McAnally, sounds sweet (especially with Rebecca Lynn Howard’s harmonies) but has a lyrical edge which would have made it a good fit for Ashley’s work with the Pistol Annies. Here Ashley portrays a young woman living in a conservative town who finds herself pregnant by her now-absent lover:

When you’re living in sin I guess
Sometimes that’s just what you get

So the man is gone
What a damn cliche
And my mama says
Looks like I gained some weight
Landlord’s at the door
And says the rent can’t wait
But I’m a dollar short
And two weeks late

The delicately folksy ‘Used’ (written with Sally Barris and previously included on Ashley’s digital release Satisfied) sings the praises of experience, comparing it to cherished old possessions.

The catchy but lyrically controversial ‘Weed Instead Of Roses’ is an enthusiastic endorsement of walking on the wild side of life with the protagonist’s love interest (and the drugs are the least of it, with Ashley calling for her lover to get out the “whips and chains”). Musically, this is great, but I can’t imagine it on the radio. The overt S&M references here are repeated more circumspectly with a reference to Fifty Shades Of Grey in the fabulous ‘You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)’, a wittily tongue-in-cheek duet with Blake Shelton with an ultra-traditional feel musically. It’s the best thing Blake has done in years, and was clearly written especially for him with its allusions to The Voice TV show. It is one of two songs Ashley wrote with Vince Gill; the other is the lively tale of teenage criminal on the run, ‘Monroe Suede’, which is unexpectedly upbeat and highly enjoyable.

I was a little bored by ‘You Got Me’, an AC-sounding co-write with Karen Fairchild with a rather dreary minor-keyed melody, organ replacing steel guitar, a heavy-handed string arrangement and Little Big Town on surprisingly muddy backing vocals. Also on the more contemporary side, but making more impact, is the introspective ‘The Morning After’, written with Lori McKenna and Liz Rose about the depressing aftermath of a drunken teenage night when the protagonist “lost everything that mattered”. Jon Randall and Andrea Zonn harmonize.

The most disappointing thing about Ashley Monroe’s new album is that there are only nine tracks, which seems unnecessarily mean. This is a fine record, but I’m not sure how commercially viable it is. I really hope it does well, because Ashley is one of the most interesting young artists around, and I want to hear more from her.

Grade: A-

Single Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Fastest Girl In Town’

The third single from Four The Record finds Lambert revisiting familiar territory as the gun-touting tough girl brought to life in “Kerosene” and “Gunpowder and Lead.” Both of those hits succeed because they were fully formed statements of both artistic and personal fury, fueled by infidelity and pent up rage. The formula also worked wonders when refined into “White Liar” and, to a lesser extent, “Baggage Claim.”

Now, it just seems silly. Co-written with fellow Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley, “Fastest Girl In Town” is the most immature of these singles yet, opting for regression over growth in an attempt to add another dimension to her well-worn persona – she’s a fast driver with a lead foot. Problem is, Lambert cannot be badass behind the wheel without explaining why. Without probable cause for her actions, none of this has a purpose.

When she sings “My reputation follows me around, just makes me want to give them more to talk about” in the second verse, it’s like she’s responding directly to anyone who feels her rise at country radio has compromised her artistic integrity. She’s surely displayed her vulnerability more often than not lately, but its helped her grow artistically credible and kept her from being pigeonholed. (We’ve all seen what being pigeonholed has done to artists over the years – Gretchen Wilson, anyone?)

If she’s out to prove she’s still a tough cookie, couldn’t she found a better way to say it than this? I mean who would’ve thought Lambert would sing such lines as:

I see the blue lights, we better run

Throw out the bottle and I’ll hide the gun

If he pulls us over I’ll turn on the charm

You’ll be in the slammer and I’ll be on his arm

Call it growing up, a new maturity, or whatever you want but the Lambert we all know would never turn on the charm for a police officer. She’d be in the slammer long before settling as his arm candy.

But if there’s a bright side, she got the packaging right. If country has to go in a rocker direction, this is honestly the best production we could ask for. At least the aggressive guitars are called for this time around and though they’re loud (and a far cry from traditional country) they never hinder Lambert’s vocal. It’s just too bad she didn’t deliver a more substantive lyric worth being heard.

Couldn’t her label have chosen “Mama’s Broken Heart” instead?

Grade: C

Occasional Hope’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While it wasn’t a great year for country music, there were some definite signs of life, and some very good songs made their way across the airwaves. A few were even hits. Here are my favorite singles this year:

10. ‘Look It Up – Ashton Shepherd’
Ashton comes across like a modern Loretta Lynn in this scornful rejoinder to a cheating spouse. Forgiveness is not an option. Although it was a top 20 hit and just about her biggest to date, I expected more commercial success from this sassy number, written by Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley with Robert Ellis Orrall.

9. ‘Colder Weather’ – Zac Brown Band
The Georgia band is one of the most artistically adventurous acts in country music, and this is one of their finest records. A complex lyric depicts a couple separated by the man’s driving job; she seems keener than he does on their being together. It was inspired by co-writer Wyatt Durrette’s own thwarted romance with a girl who struggled with the travel demanded by a music career. The production neatly marries an understated piano-led first verse with rock elements as the protagonist’s emotions rise. It was another #1 hit for the band.

8. ‘In God’s Time’ – Randy Houser
Rich-voiced singer-songwriter Randy Houser released his finest effort to date this year with this gently understated expression of faith in God, whatever may happen. A gentle piano-led accompaniment provides effective support. This was intended to be the lead single for Houser’s third album for Show Dog Universal, but it did not do as well as hoped, and Houser has now left the label. He has since signed to indie label Broken Bow, so hopefully he will be able to continue releasing mauic of this caliber.

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Album Review: Pistol Annies – ‘Hell On Heels’

Much has been made lately about the lack of solo female artists charting top 30 singles. An alarm was sounded bringing attention to just how few genuine female superstars are working in the genre today. But instead of focusing on the lack of female artists charting big singles, we should be talking about and putting the spotlight on those female artists (solo or not) who are making music that matters whether they receive airplay or are left in the dust.

One of those artists commanding attention is Miranda Lambert’s new trio Pistol Annies. Their debut album Hell on Heels is without a doubt one of the best country albums of 2011 because the attention to detail in the lyrical content rivals anything being released on a major label in Nashville today. Throughout the ten-song project, intricate phrases abound elevating simple stories into pieces of art. Hell On Heels is a listening experience like none other you’ll have all year.

They debuted with the title track earlier this year, an introduction as good as any. I have a little trouble with its three artist structure, but the verse sung solo by Ashley Monroe always bring forth a smile. She’s just delightful and one of the best-kept secrets in Nashville today. But the rest of the album is as good but much better than that song.

Not since Mary Chapin Carpenter released “House of Cards” as the third single from Stones in the Road in 1995, has anyone spoken so honestly and introspectively about life behind closed doors. They’ve stood up and given voice to the women who can’t take it anymore from the men who haven’t got a clue.  No song exemplifies this better than “Housewives Prayer,” which employs a simple yet dark lyric to convey the pain of quiet desperation. One of the best songs of the year, it’s a cautionary tale from a woman fed up with the status of her life – she’s been thinking about going off the deep end because she’s “burning up with all the words she ain’t been saying,” and at her boiling point, she washes pills down with beer and contemplates setting her house on fire.  Inspired by “Holler Annie” Angaleena Presley’s divorce, “Prayer” proves the point that you don’t need much to pack a wallop. Presley’s lead vocal acts as a portal for the audience to feel her pain and the moody musical accompaniment, complete with haunting steel guitar front and center, adds another dimension to her sadness.

“Lemon Drop,” another down on your life song, uses a clever metaphor to sell its central message – you have to endure the bad to get to the good. Using examples of curtains purchased on credit and owning a TV that will take ten years to pay off, it serves as a reminder to anyone going through tough times to remember “they’ll be better days ahead.” The light mix of acoustic guitars and gentle procession coupled with the blending of their voices, gives the song a rather sweet quality, which contrasts with the placement of a lemon in the title, but suggests the optimism the protagonist is holding onto. You come away feeling her situation isn’t a reflection on her because no matter how dire the circumstances may be, she isn’t letting them define her.  When listening to the song, I had to actually stop and think what “life is like a lemon drop” meant. When was the last time that happened? It’s so rewarding not to be able to take lyrics at face value, where you already know what the song’s about because the lyrics are so predictable. This is one of those times I actually like having to work at fully understanding my country music.

“Beige,” another track that made me think, is by and large my favorite song on the whole album. The movie-like nature of the story won me over first, but it was the presentation of that story that blew me away. The song finds a woman on her wedding day, with child, “marrying some boy” in a wrinkled shirt. She’s praying no one will notice her weight gain since a “bride shouldn’t be 
4 months and 3 weeks.” She’s wearing beige because “everyone in this place knows I didn’t wait.” The situation is unfortunate and the song contains some of my favorite lines on the whole album, from her being daddy’s pride and joy to no one “having a ball at the reception hall.”

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Album Review: Ashton Shepherd – ‘Where Country Grows’

Ashton Shepherd was the youngest of the artists we spotlighted last year as the “new New Traditionalists”. At last, three years after she emerged on the scene, she has released her second album, which marks a serious bid for mainstream success by a talented young singer-songwriter. It is produced, like her first record, by Buddy Cannon, who does a fine job balancing contemporary and traditional elements of Ashton’s sound and emphasizing her unique voice.

The insistent lead single ‘Look It Up’ (written by Angaleena Presley and Robert Ellis Orrall), which I reviewed at the end of last year, has Ashton coming on scornfully like a modern Loretta Lynn. This works tremendously well, and it is a shame it was not a monster hit for Ashton rather than peaking just inside the top 20 – although that made it her biggest hit to date.

It is one of only two tracks not written by Ashton. She is developing well as a songwriter, and I am pleased to see her working with other writers to hone her own gifts, building on the untutored natural talent she showed on her debut three years ago.  Former artist and recent Sugarland collaborator Bobby Pinson helps writing a couple of country-living themed numbers. The title track and current single is a bit predictable as Ashton pays tribute to her rural roots, but the up-tempo ‘More Cows Than People’ on the same theme is quite entertaining, with colorful details rooting the song in a specific reality. This one isn’t a generic southern small town. I also like the relaxed but catchy ‘Beer On A Boat’. Written by Marv Green, Ben Hayslip and Rhett Akins, some of the lyrics might sound leering sung by a man, but Ashton makes it wholesome and charming. These four originally appeared on an EP earlier this year, which Razor X reviewed in anticipation of the album.

The best of the new songs is the sultry ‘That All Leads To One Thing’, one of Ashton’s solo compositions. It has a southern gothic Bobbie Gentry feel. A tormented married woman addresses the husband who is obviously cheating. With a vibe too dark for today’s country radio, it is one of the highlights on the record.  The upbeat ‘Tryin’ To Go To Church’ (written with Shane MacAnally and Brandy Clark) is lively and entertaining tune about struggling to live right in the face of various temptations (like the “husband-stealing heifer” she has to “set right”), and is reminiscent of ’70s Linda Ronstadt.

‘I’m Just A Woman’ is a ballad about being a woman, and specifically a wife and mother; the lyrics are not particularly deep or insightful, but the extraordinarily intense vocal makes it sound better than it is. The ballad ‘While It Ain’t Raining’ is equally intense to the point of verging on the over-dramatic, and although the song itself is well written (by Ashton with Troy Jones) a slightly more understated approach might have been more effective. Both tracks have backing vocals from Melonie Cannon (Buddy’s daughter and an exceptional talent in her own right).

‘I’m Good’ is a fine song which Ashton wrote with Dale Dodson and Dean Dillon. Like ‘Look It Up’, it is presented from the point of view of a woman refusing to forgive the man who has hurt her, but with a mellower feel musically as she concentrates on affirming her own strength and moving on. Her enunciation is oddly over emphasized – a feature of her vocals some criticized on her first album, which seems to have been intensified on this track in particular. ‘Rory’s Radio’ fondly recalls teenage memories of listening to the radio while driving with her older brothers, and has some slightly awkward phrasing.

I thought Ashton’s debut was enormously promising, the voice of a fresh new talent while still unmistakably country. This is more commercial, and will hopefully gain her some radio play, but although this is an encouraging step forwards, I feel she is still a work in progress, with her best yet to come.

Grade: B+

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