My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Annie Roboff

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Burn’

Jo_Dee_Messina-BurnAfter making history as the first woman to score three consecutive multi-week number one hits, bringing a cover of an old Dottie West tune to number two, and winning the CMA Horizon Award, expectations were unbelievably high for whatever Jo Dee Messina would do next.

The world got their answer in May 2000, when the decidedly very pop “That’s The Way” was shipped to country radio. The track, which was soaked in mandolin, soared to #1. Penned by Annie Roboff and Holly Lamar, “That’s The Way” is undeniably infectious and one of the strongest examples of turn-of-the-century pop-country done right.

When Burn hit stores in August, it became Messina’s first record to top the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. Produced once again by Byron Gallimore and Tim McGraw, Burn was distinctively different than it’s predecessors in that it favored bright hooks that would help Messina appeal to a more mainstream audience.

The epic title track, a stunning mid-tempo power ballad, hit radio in October. Written by Tina Arena, Steve Werfel and Pam Reswick, “Burn” was a cover of Arena’s 1997 single, which exploded in her native Australia. Messina took her version to #2.

The third single, “Downtime,” returned Messina to uptempo territory. Written by Phillip Coleman and Carolyn Dawn Johnson, the track peaked at #5. Like “That’s The Way,” “Downtime” succeeds on it’s infectious melody, which is more reliant on drums and guitars than her previous upbeat single. It’s excellent none-the-less.

Messina would return to #1 with the fourth single, a lush pop ballad entitled “Bring On The Rain.” A song about not surrendering to grim circumstances, the Billy Montana and Helen Darling penned number is probably most notable for finally teaming Messina with McGraw, who provides a harmony vocal that gives the song the perfect amount of added texture.

Final single “Dare To Dream,” which came as the album cycle was dying down, fared the worst peaking at #23. Another rollicking uptempo, “Dare To Dream” employs the wall-of-sound production technique and even though Messina sells it hard, it’s not a very strong song.

When Burn came out fifteen years ago, I actually wrote a pretend review for it and noted the album had a heavy reliance on uptempo tracks, which I viewed as a negative for the overall listening experience. I still agree with that assessment. Burn is the type of album where once you’ve heard one uptempo, you’ve really heard them all. The lack of variety might work from a commercial prospective, but it drags the album down.

That being said, my favorite album cut is George Teren and Tom Shapiro’s “If Not You,” another infectious pop-country rocker not to far removed from the singles in this vein. There’s nothing spectacular about the lyric or anything, but the song has stuck with me all these years.

It’s very easy to see why Burn is such a let-down in the wake of Jo Dee Messina and I’m Alright. With significant effort dedicated to eradicating the depth she showed on her previous projects, Burn becomes nothing more than a pandering mainstream product.

What ultimately saves it, though, is the crispness of the production and Messina’s commitment to give her all on every track. There’s nothing overly loud or obnoxious about Burn. Do drum machines replace fiddles and steel guitar? Of course they do. But this is turn-of-the-century commercial country music at it’s finest. What you see is what you get, a time capsule of the sounds that drove the genre in 2000.

Grade: B

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Evolution’

evolutionFollowing the release of “Cry on the Shoulder of the Road”, the final single from Wild Angels, Martina McBride made a couple of guest appearances on other artists’ records. The first was “Still Holdin’ On”, a duet with Clint Black (written by Black with Matraca Berg and Marty Stuart) that peaked at #11. The second was a guest vocal on “Valentine” by adult contemporary/New Age pianist Jim Brickman, which reached #3 on the adult contemporary chart. Both tracks were included on Martina’s next album, 1997’s Evolution, a project which saw her moving further away from traditional country sounds in favor of slicker, more heavily layered production. The album, which Martina co-produced with Paul Worley, was the most successful of her career, selling more than three million copies in the US. It opens with a clip of a home-recording of a seven-year-old Martina singing Little Jimmy Dickens’ “I’m Little But I’m Loud” before moving on to more contemporary fare.

Though her albums had sold quite well up to this point, Martina’s success at radio had been very hit or miss. Evolution was the turning point for her as far as singles success is concerned. Disregarding the Clint Black and Jim Brickman collaborations, the album’s first single was “A Broken Wing”, which became her second #1 hit in early 1998. The gospel-flavored mid-tempo number found her once again telling the story of an abuse victim, although this time around the abuse was psychological rather than physical. Whether the victim escaped or committed suicide at the end of the song is open to interpretation.

Meanwhile, “Valentine” has been enjoying some unsolicited airplay on country radio, prompting RCA to release a more countrified version to country stations. The single version, which contains a prominent pedal steel guitar track, is not the version that is found on the album. It reached #9 on the country singles chart. Though criticized by some for its Hallmark-esque sentiments, it is a pretty song that I quite like.

Up to this point, Martina had never had more than two Top 10 singles from the same album. She managed to break the cycle of two hits followed by a few misses when “Happy Girl”, a Beth Nielsen Chapman and Annie Roboff composition, landed at #2. It is actually one of the album’s weakest tracks and my least favorite. I greatly prefer the next release, “Wrong Again”, a beautifully performed ballad and one of the finest singles of Martina’s career, which made it all the way to #1. The album’s final single, “Whatever You Say” is more in the power-ballad vein. Though it is probably the album’s most heavily produced track, Martina knocks it out of the park. The tune finds her confronting an uncommunicative lover, and giving him an ultimatum. It just missed the chart’s top spot, peaking at #2. Sara Evans contributed to the backing vocals on this track.

As far as the album cuts go, there is much to like and not much filler, though “Keeping My Distance” and “Here In My Heart” are on the weak wide. My favorite among the non-singles is “One Day You Will”, a Richard Leigh co-write with Shane Teeters, that is spiritual without being overtly religious. Not commercial enough to release to country radio, I think this song could have found success on the Contemporary Christian charts.

Despite its pop leanings, I think that Evolution contains some of Martina McBride’s best work. Like most country artists who enjoy a degree of crossover success, she would eventually go too far into pop territory (with her next album as it so happens), but with Evolution she managed to find that delicate balance that allowed her to expand her horizons without alienating her country fans. With the exception of Timeless, it is her last truly great album. It is essential listening for Martina McBride fans, and easy to find if you’ve managed to miss hearing it up to this point.

Grade: A

Album Review: Steve Wariner – ‘Faith In You’

Steve’s third and last Capitol album was released in 2000. The overall style leans towards the contemporary end of country, with Steve’s smooth vocals and guitar skills to the fore. He wrote or co-wrote all the songs, played various guitars, and also produced the record. The overall style leans towards the contemporary end of country, and it is mostly successful.

The lead single was a duet with Clint Black on ‘Been There’, a likeable but rather throwaway number with a brass section. Clint also produced this track, co-wrote the song, and contributed a generous helping of his trademark harmonica. The song was the album’s only big hit, peaking at #5, and had already appeared on Clint’s 1999 D’lectrified, an all-acoustic return to form for the latter.

The title track was a sweet declaration of true love written with veteran Bill Anderson, with a tasteful string arrangement and tender vocal. It performed surprisingly poorly as the second single, barely cracking the top 30, but is a low-key gem. The last single saw Steve reunited with Garth Brooks on the jazzy ‘Katie Wants A Fast One’, which Steve wrote with Rick Carnes. It too failed to reach the top 20 despite the star assistance, and was his last hit. It’s not one I like much – all sound and no intensity, with the groove seeming more important than the song, and another horn arrangement.

Another famous friend, Rodney Crowell, helped to write the thoughtful ‘Longer Letter Later’, which portrays a man regretting his past decisions and struggling to put his feelings into words for his ex. A faintly Spanish feel to the arrangement, with accordion and castanets, adds musical interest to the quiet melody.

Bill Anderson co-wrote the infectious mid-tempo ‘Make It Look Easy’, which refers to various individuals who are great at what they do, and ruefully compares their skill to the protagonist’s failure to get over a failed love affair. The choice of superstars leans fairly heavily to sports stars; oddly no country singers are named (Ray Charles gets the sole singing spot, although Steve’s mentor Chet Atkins gets a nod for his guitar skills). I’m not sure the metaphor quite hangs together, but the song sounds pleasant enough. Bill, Steve, and Sharon Vaughn co-wrote the cheerful and irresistibly sing along love song ‘Blinded’, which should have been a single.

‘I Just Do’ (another love song) is a charming lightly swinging piece, which showcases the playing of “the Nashville Super Players”. This is the only solo composition, other than ‘Bloodlines’, the completely instrumental cut which closes the album. This is billed as a duet with Steve’s son Ryan and is very much a family affair, featuring Steve and Ryan on electric guitar, with Steve’s brother Terry adding support on baritone guitar, and only drummer Harry Stinson from outside the family.

I also like the attractive mid-tempo ‘It Wouldn’t Be Love’, written with Joe Barnhill, which reflects on the potential pain of love. ‘Turn In The Road’ is a melodic ballad (also with strings) about a mother’s comforting advice to her son in adversity, written with Jim Witter. These are nice but unexceptional songs lifted by Steve’s sensitive interpretation and beautiful voice, as is ‘Waiting In The Wings’ (written with Billy Kirsch). This is a story song about a youngest son marginalized in his own family, whose dreams sustain him.

Opening track ‘High Time’ is a rather dull pop-country number co-written by Steve with Marcus Hummon and Annie Roboff with intrusive backing vocals, but this is the only low point on the record, and even this does have a nice instrumental break to recommend it. Hummon’s songwriting is better showcased with the pensive reflection on relationship breakdown, ‘I Wish I Were A Train’.

Sales were as disappointing as radio play, and this was sadly to prove Steve’s final major label release.

Grade: B+

Cheap used copies are easy to find.

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Everybody Knows’

After four fine albums, Trisha’s fifth effort, released in 1996, was a bit of a disappointment for me. She was in her usual fine vocal form and Garth Fundis produced as usual, but the record overall feels just a little too tasteful at times. The overall mood leans towards AC, and is rather ballad-heavy with a few nods to radio.

The lead single was the radio-friendly ‘Believe Me Baby (I Lied)’, written by Kim Richey, Angelo, and Larry Gottlieb, which hit #1. The bright production belies the regret-filled lyric and passionate vocal as the protagonist admits she never really wanted her man to leave.

It was followed by the broadly similar #3 hit ‘Everybody Knows’, written by Matraca Berg and Gary Harrison, with the protagonist this time fighting with all her friends and family members’ well-intentioned advice about how to cope with her broken heart. Opening track ‘I Want To Live Again’ fits into the same sophisticated mid tempo contemporary radio friendly template with broad commercial appeal.

The third single, ‘I Need You’, flopped in the 30s. The downbeat ballad about a neglected wife pleading for her husband’s renewed attention is a fine song with a beautifully delivered vocal, but it was perhaps a little too subtle or bitter for casual listeners as she comments,

The television seems to be your life’s ambition

And begs for a return to:

That boy
The one that chose me over every other choice

I like all the singles, but my favorite track is the Kevin Welch story song ‘Hello, I’m Gone’, a fiddle-led number about a woman leaving a man in Texas with nowhere particular in mind to go, and nothing but one suitcase, a broken down pickup truck, and a gun:

Man, she’s just running
It don’t matter where
She figures she’ll know where she is when she’s there
And she didn’t leave nothin’ she can’t do without
That’s enough reason for leavin’ no doubt
She turns down the window, turns up a song
Laughs at the weather and says
Hello, I’m gone

Almost as good is the delicately sung AC ballad ‘Maybe It’s Love’, written by Annie Roboff and Beth Nielsen Chapman about the uncertain feelings at the start of falling in love with someone after a period of having frozen her heart. Trisha’s lead vocal and Vince Gill’s harmony are exquisite.

The other highlight is the bitter ‘A Lover Is Forever’, written by Fred Knobloch and Steve Goodman. This is a rejected lover’s diatribe against the man who is leaving her to wed another:

You think a ring upon your hand
Will solve your insecurity…

I know you think you’re so damn clever
You can marry any time you want
But a lover is forever

There is little overt to criticize with the remainder of the material, but it tends to blend together rather. Songs like the soothing ‘It’s Alright’, written by Jamie O’Hara and Gary Nicholson, with husband Robert Reynolds’ Mavericks bandmate Raul Malo on harmony, and ‘Little Hercules’ are the epitome of tasteful production, beautiful singing and thoughtful lyrics that somehow manage to end up less than the sum of their parts. A little more interesting is ‘Under The Rainbow’, written by Matraca Berg and Randy Scruggs about finding domestic contentment in the real world.

The international version of this album boasted three additional tracks, the delicately sung portrait of ‘Even A Cowboy Can Dream’, the boring ‘Find A River’, and the cheery up-tempo ‘The Chance I Take’ (my favorite of the three), but none of these really adds substantially to the album.

The album is easily and cheaply available.

Grade: B