My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Ashley Ray

Album Review: Caroline Spence — ‘Mint Condition’

I was first introduced to Caroline Spence when I reviewed her and Robby Hecht’s sublime collaborative album, Two People, last summer. I was immediately hooked on her voice and couldn’t wait to hear more. That “more” has arrived in the form of Mint Condition, her third full-length solo album, produced by Dan Knobler, which is her debut for Rounder Records.

The narratives of personal relationships, which Spence says she’s always been drawn to from a writing perspective, dominate the album thematically. She opens strong with “What You Don’t Know,” in which she hasn’t yet told her man how she truly feels about him. Spence is in a bar with an empty glass in her hand wondering “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes,” which she answers by saying ‘it might as well be me.’

She shows a beautiful venerably on “Sit Here and Love Me,” in which she confesses to her boyfriend what she needs from him. The sparse ballad, her real-life story, is stunning:

Like the moon in the sky

In the afternoon in July

A little darkness hangs there above me

I know you hate to see me cry

Don’t wanna look you in the eye

I just need you to sit here and love me

 

I’m alright, my dear

I’ve been this way as long as I’ve been here

I don’t need you to solve any problem at all

I just need you to sit here and love me

 

At the bottom of this well

Sometimes it’s hard to tell

If you’re up there or if you can see me

I’m still someone you know

Please recognize my shadow

This is the same place from where I love you deeply

 

I’m alright, my dear

I’ve been this way as long as I’ve been here

I don’t need you to solve any problem at all

I just need you to sit here and love me

Spence, who admits to suffering from anxiety, continues down the same path on “Who Are You,” in which she feels perplexed by her man, who always seems to find her when she’s enduring her darkest moments:

I take comfort in my silence

In an empty house

In leaving town

I take comfort in knowing

It’s not my time yet

But then you show up

 

Have I been betting on the wrong cards my whole life?

Trying to make a fire with the rain outside?

Hiding behind the line between black and white?

You got me asking questions

 

Asking who are you?

Who could know me

But my only one?

Oh, who are you?

 

I don’t take kindly

When you remind me

That I should lighten up

Show myself a little love

I don’t take kindly

To the way you can find me

When I’m trying to hide

And give up the fight

Spence finds herself exploring love on “Till You Find One,” an intriguing waltz, in which she attempts to convince herself she can’t stop fate. The title track came out of a writing exercise, in which she strived to write something good enough for Emmylou Harris to sing. She drew inspiration from her grandmother to craft the gorgeous acoustic ballad, which details a love too good to see fade away. In a twist of fate, Harris joins Spence on the track with her captivating harmonies.

My favorite song on Mint Condition is the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Wait On The Wine,” a soaring ballad where Spence uses the titular beverage to gain enough courage to tell her man how much she loves him. Another favorite, “Song About A City” is a Mary Chapin Carpenter-esque mid-paced number she co-wrote with Ashley Ray. It details her struggle with immortalizing places in her songwriting:

I used to take the train

Upstate to see the colors change

Nothing’s falling quite the same

No matter where I land

This New York City rooftop bar

Just looks up at the same old stars

Thought that I had come so far

But it doesn’t matter where I am

 

I took two steps in Austin

One back in Boston

Tried to love something new

I found a lonesome highway

Brand new skyline

But nothing could change my tune

Wish I could write a song about a city

Instead of songs about you

 

I thought I’d find a brand new leaf

Drive on out to Joshua Tree

Dry those tears in desert heat

But the silence was too loud

I wish that I could make the most

Of the magic on this coast

Can’t see the beauty through the ghost

That I’m still dragging around

Spence managed to do just that on “Angels to Los Angeles,” a sweet ballad detailing a classic runaway narrative about a girl with a dream who’s on her way to do something big to make it a reality. She realizes the reality of that dream on the uptempo “Long Haul,” where she puts her own spin on the life of a musician:

Town after town and it’s all the same

They say expecting something different’s the definition of insane

But here I go, I follow those highway stripes leading the way

Down that fine line between making a living and digging your grave

 

But I just shut up and drive

What else am I gonna do tonight?

I crossed my t’s, I dotted my i’s

And sold my soul to the 1-4-5

Never was looking for the glamour

Know I won’t find it here in Texarkana

Just trying not to lose my mind

‘Cause I’m in it for the long haul

Just feels like a long haul tonight

 

Same thing that keeps you up at night, gets you out of bed

Same thing that keeps you stuck, gets stuck in your head

It’s a funny little addiction with no cure in sight

So I keep breaking everything I’m fixing so I can be fixing to do it tomorrow night

Her long haul has led her to Mint Condition, a captivating collection of personal narratives articulated beautifully. She could’ve varied the tempo a bit throughout and thrown the listener some variety sonically, but what she’s given us is nothing to complain about. Spence is a female singer-songwriter in the truest form, and a woman with a perspective worth celebrating.

Grade: A-

EP Reviews: Lori McKenna – ‘Heart Shaped Bullet Hole’ and Punch Brothers – ‘Ahoy!’

A commanding drum beat and cheeky 1980s-style electric guitars greet the listener on “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole,” a Disney jam session meets “Down At The Twist and Shout” confection that anchors Lori McKenna’s EP of the same name, her six-song follow-up to last year’s highly emotional Lorraine. It’s by far the most experimental thing she’s ever done, and the results are phenomenal. In this instance, taking creative risks pays off in spades.

McKenna then goes on to incorporate these creative instincts in the other tracks, showcasing a willingness to step beyond the familiarity of the lush acoustic sound she’s honed for the better part of her career. These differences, sometimes far subtler than others, make most of the EP an enjoyable listen.

An electric guitar penetrates the musical bed of “Whiskey and Chewing Gum,” a Troy Verges co-write, while the acoustic guitar underpinnings of “All It Takes” (co-written with her ‘sixth child’ Andrew Dorff) gives the track a fun, folksy vibe. Both songs are also standouts lyrically, with more than an abundance of memorable lines.

Kicking off with three such strong forward thinking songs, the rest of the EP sounds a bit like a retreat back to the comfortable with McKenna sticking firm to her coffeehouse roots. That isn’t necessarily a bad choice on her part, but I wanted more, especially since she’s surrounded herself with such ear-catching songs. The lush arrangements actually get in the way of two tracks – “Sometimes He Does” and “This and the Next Life,” which are both excellent songs in their own right, but feel predictable, with the latter a bit too slow for me to fully engage with.

I had similar thoughts with her Ashley Ray co-write “No Hard Feelings,” but the hook is strong, and their twist on the classic break-up ballad (“Once it’s gone it’s gone/So no hard feelings”) is stunning – they leave the listener hanging –  wondering how is she able to break off their love so cleanly? Did she ever really love him at all? That simple mystery gives the track its allure.

Punch Brothers, one of the coolest – and criminally underrated – bands making music today take similar strides, serving up Ahoy! their companion EP to February’s masterwork Who’s Feeling Young Now?, one of my favorite albums of 2012. Consisting of five tracks, the project brilliantly displays Chris Thile’s continued growth since Nickel Creek, proving why he so richly deserves his MacArthur Grant.

Thile is seemingly unmatched as both a mandolin virtuoso and effective vocalist, but Ahoy! proves he and his band mates are also equally skilled as musical interpreters, turning the set’s three cover songs into completely reimagined takes on the originals. The vastly different tunes, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ “Down Along The Dixie Line” and Noise Rock group Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus” all feel right at home in the progressive folk settings Punch Brothers frame them in.

Ritter’s ethereal “Another New World,” a slightly ambiguous epic, is the least transformed, staying true to the original. But the addition of Thile’s mandolin and the accents of fiddle give the track grounding, adding dimension to the somewhat tragic story. “Down Along the Dixie Line,” from Welch’s 2011 The Harrow and the Harvest is the complete antithesis, morphing from a southern gothic ballad into a fiery romp. Both are effective readings, although Punch Brothers barely give the lyric room to breath, nearly suffocating the story by speeding it up a little too fast.

The real delight is “Icarus Smicarus,” a noise rock disaster turned progressive bluegrass delight. One of Punch Brothers’ core appeals is their left of center oddity, which is fully explored in this song’s brilliant eccentricity. The lack of any significant narrative structure, let alone the usual verse/chorus/verse/bridge pattern of country songwriting will alienate anyone in search of tangible meaning, but the connectedness of the group cannot be denied.

“Moonshiner,” the traditional folk song made famous with versions by The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan is my personal favorite on the set, showcasing the band’s wicked instincts with a killer narrative. The lone original is the wonderfully titled “Squirrel of Possibility,” an elegant mandolin and fiddle driven instrumental.

As a whole, both McKenna and Punch Brothers have turned in some exquisite work, each exploring different facets of their creativity all the while staying true to themselves as visionaries. I still would like to see McKenna challenge herself even more, with further exploration of songs in the vein of “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole.” Her ballads are still effective but are too frequent and beginning to fade into sameness, thus stripping them of their potent emotion.

Luckily Punch Brothers seem nowhere near the peak of their artistry, and Ahoy! shows a band built on taking daring risks that more often than not feature big pay offs for the listener. I can only dream about where the coming decades will take them, and if they stay as crisp and in tune as they are now, it’s going to be one heck of a prosperous musical odyssey.

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole

Grade: B

Listen on Spotify.

Buy at amazon.

Ahoy!

Grade: A

Listen on Spotify.

Buy it at amazon.