My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Brendan Benson

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘Sparrow’

It’s often particularly disheartening when an artist one has seen as a bright spot in a generally dismal music scene changes his or her style significantly. In the case of Ashley Monroe’s latest album, we can’t ascribe it to selling out as I can’t really see this new style getting her any more radio interest than her more traditional country music. Dave Cobb’s production is not only not remotely traditional, I find it hard to detect anything recognisably country at all on most of the record. She admits herself that she doesn’t know what genre this album might fall into. To my ears it draws on later 1960s pop with heavy use of strings and an almost psychedelic sound, shading into 70s Glen Campbell-Jimmy Webb arrangements. That’s not to say that it’s a bad record per se, just not what I was personally hoping for.

Lead single ‘Hands On You’ (a co-write with Jon Randall), a sexy, sultry song of regret for an encounter that never happened, has a hypnotic quality which grew on me somewhat over repeat listens. Randall also co-wrote ‘I’m Trying To’ with Ashley and Kassi Ashton, a pensive low key ballad about pretending a breakup isn’t hurting. This is one of the tracks I do like quite a bit, and the production is at least fairly restrained.

The two best songs come at the end of the set. Ashley wrote ‘Daddy I Told You’ with her Pistol Annies bandmate Angaleena Presley and Josh O’Keefe. It is a poignant message to Ashley’s late father, who died when she was only 13, set to a gentle melody. ‘Keys To The Kingdom’, a co-write with Waylon Payne, has a similar reflective vibe with a dreamlike poetic lyric.

The pretty sounding but lyrically incisive ‘Mother’s Daughter’, written with Brendan Benson and Ryan Beaver, which paints a portrait of a woman who cannot sustain a relationship.

The backings tend to overwhelm otherwise strong songs like the mid-paced ‘Hard On A Heart’ which is just too busy. ‘Wild Love’ is plain dreary underneath its dramatic sweeping strings, as is ‘Paying Attention’. ‘She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me)’, addressed to Ashley’s daughter, is also rather dull and not at all country sounding.

‘This Heaven’ (written with Miranda Lambert’s ex Anderson East and Aaron Raitiere) has a subdued churchy arrangement which is quite nice.

‘Orphan’, written with Moak and Gordie Sampson, the song which provides the album title, has a mournful underpinning and another poetic, questioning lyric. Ashley’s voice soars beautifully over the solemn cello-dominated arrangement. ‘Rita’, written with Nicole Galyon and Paul Moak, has a similar vibe.

Ashley’s songwriting is stronger than ever, and I like her sweetly vulnerable vocals here too. But the arrangements are really not to my taste, and I doubt I will revisit this album much. Gie it a try to see if it works for you.

Grade: B

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘The Blade’

the bladeAshley Monroe’s second Warner Brothers release has been among my most-anticipated albums this year. While it lacks the immediate charm of the wonderful Like A Rose, the Vince Gill/Justin Niebank-helmed set has substance and beauty which grows on repeated exposure to reward the listener. Ashley’s delicately pretty voice is perfect for the vulnerable emotions expressed in many of the songs.

Ashley co-wrote every song but one. That outside contribution is the title track, written by Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin. It is a truly outstanding song about the disillusonment of finding one has always loved more than one’s partner, and is now left high and dry:

I let your love in, I have the scar
I felt the razor against my heart
I thought we were both in all the way
But you caught it by the handle
And I caught it by the blade

That’s the risk you run when you love
When you love and you give it all you’ve got to give
Knowing all along there’s a chance
There’s a chance you’ll reach and they won’t
You’ll bleed and they don’t

For you, it’s over; for me, it’s not
I kept tryin’ and you just stopped
Now I know how you can sound so brave
Cause you caught it by the handle, baby
And I caught it by the blade

Gill and Niebank’s understated production perfectly backs up Ashley’s hushed vocal. The whole thing is quite stunning.

The exquisite ballad ‘Has Anybody Ever Told You’ (written with Tyler Cain) is a charming love song supported with lovely steel guitar.

Another highlight is one of two songs written by Ashley with Chris Stapleton and Jessi Alexander, the traditional country lament ‘If The Devil Don’t Want Me’, in which a broken heart fails to find comfort anywhere:

I’ve heard stories ’bout honky tonk angels
Pickin’ up pieces of broken strangers
I’m at rock bottom with a smoke and a sin
When the party is over, then I’m lonely again

If the devil don’t want me
Where the hell do I go?
If I can’t see the light
In the neon glow
If there ain’t enough whiskey
To kill the fire in my soul

This writing partnership also produced the rapid paced bluesy rock ‘Winning Streak’, backed with wild honky tonk piano, on a similar theme, down and out with not even the devil interested. This is less to my taste musically than the other song, but well written and performed.

Alexander also co-wrote the contemporary ballad ‘If Love Was Fair’ with Ashley and with Steve Moakler. Miranda Lambert joined Ashley and Jessi to write the closing track, ‘I’m Good At Leavin’’, another excellent country tune, this time about an unapologetic rambling soul and free spirit, given a Celtic style arrangement.

Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann of the dup Striking Matches joined Ashley to write two songs. The gently pretty ‘From Time To Time’ has a tender lullabyish mood, while the memorable up-tempo ‘Dixie’ has a retro feel and a dramatic southern Gothic storyline:

It was the mines that killed my daddy
It was the law that killed my man
It was the Bible Belt that whipped me
When I broke the Fifth Command
I don’t hate the weather
I don’t hate the land
But if I had it my way I’d never see this place again

When I cross that line, man I’ll sing a brand new song
Instead of sitting here by the railroad tracks whistlin’ Dixie all day long
And I’m so tired of paying, praying for my sins
Lord get me out of Dixie Land
Jesus’ name, Amen

When I tread out of these parts
Look me up on the other side
Cause I’ll be damned if I go down in Dixie when I die

‘Bombshell’, written with Steve McEwan and Gordie Sampson, is about facing the guilty decision to tell a lover she is leaving, and knowing there is never going to be a good time to do it. Very good indeed.

Producer Gill co-wrote ‘Weight Of The Load’, a nice song about sharing the burdens of doubt and fear. Ashley’s friend Brendan Benson of the rock band The Raconteurs helped her with the pretty folky ballad ‘Mayflowers’. The first single, the upbeat and catchy ‘On To Something Good’ is agreeable listening if one of the lighter tracks.

The one track I didn’t much care for was the repetitive minor-keyed moody ‘I Buried Your Love Alive’ (a co-write with Matraca Berg), and even this grew on me a bit.

Overall, this is a great album which should raise Ashley Monroe’s profile.

Grade: A