My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chris DeStefano

Album Review: Carrie Underwood – ‘Storyteller’

Carrie_Underwood_-_Storyteller_(Official_Album_Cover)Of all the criticisms I can level at mainstream country this year, the most unnerving is the brazen shamelessness of artists who’ve gone out of their way to change everything they’re about in order to chase a bigger high that doesn’t exist. More than adapting to changing trends, artists like Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry have abandoned their earnestness and sold their souls to Scott Borchetta, who interfered with their artistry in order to fill his pockets.

Carrie Underwood, luckily, isn’t on the Big Machine Label Group. That being said, I was still nervous about the direction of Storyteller. To compete in a tomato-smeared world, how much would she have to veer from the sound that made her a household name?

As much as I admire Underwood’s music, I cannot help but feel her output has been geared toward the right now, with songs that don’t stand the test of time. A lot of her music, especially the rockers, just isn’t strong enough to carry the nostalgia we now feel for the 1990s country we all love. She’s an incredible vocalist, and when she’s on point, no one can hold a candle to her.

That’s why I’m always excited when she releases new music. I’m even more pleased she and Arista Nashville added Jay Joyce and Zach Crowell as producers alongside Mark Bright. Underwood and Bright have been a well-oiled machine going on ten years, but it’s time to change it up for the sake of variety.

Our first taste of the switch-up is the Joyce produced “Smoke Break,” a rocker Underwood co-wrote with Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsay. It’s easily one of the most country songs on the radio right now, with Underwood’s natural twang carrying the somewhat generic story quite nicely. I only wish Joyce had dialed it back on the chorus, going for a more organic punch than the screaming rock that drowns Underwood out.

Likely second single “Heartbeat,” which features Sam Hunt and was produced by his orchestrator Crowell, finds Underwood in a field with her man ‘dancing to the rhythm of [his] heartbeat.’ The track, which Underwood and Crowell co-wrote with Ashley Gorley, is a pleasant pop ballad that finds Underwood nicely subdued.

She also co-wrote four other tracks on the album. “Renegade Runaway” kicks off Storyteller with bang. The rocker, co-written with her “Smoke Break” comrades, is slinky and fun but suffers from a god-awful chorus that renders the song almost unlistenable. Mike Elizondo, best known for his work with Drake and Eminem, was brought in collaborate with Underwood and Lindsay on club thumper “Chaser.” The results are immature at best and showcase Underwood at her most watered down.

Fortunately, Underwood rebounds with her final two co-writes. Underwood and Lindsay turned to David Hodges to write “The Girl You Think I Am,” an ode to her father in the vein of “Mama’s Song” from Play On. It’s a beautiful prayer about acceptance, from a daughter who wants to overcome her insecurities to live up to her father’s expectations.

The other, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” is the centerpiece of Storyteller even though it closes the album. Underwood isn’t an artist who normally looks from within for inspiration, so it’s rare when she finds inspiration in her own life for a song. The results aren’t spectacular – she could’ve gone a lot deeper lyrically and found even a little hint of country music in the execution – but she’s gotten her feet wet for future moves in this direction.

Storyteller wouldn’t be an Underwood album unless she revisits the murderous themes that have become her touchstone. These songs have grown into bigger productions in the ten years since “Before He Cheats” and usually suffer from a lack of subtlety. That doesn’t change much here, although they are kind of fun to listen to. “Choctaw County Affair” showcases Underwood’s growth as a vocalist with a delicious story about a woman’s mysterious death. “Church Bells” is an excellent backwoods rocker about domestic abuse. “Dirty Laundry,” on the other hand, is juvenile and revisits themes already too well worn. “Mexico,” about bandits on the run, isn’t the island song you’d expect but a typical Underwood rocker.

On every Underwood album there’s one song that stands out from the rest, a likely non-single that’ll always be a much-appreciated deep album cut. On Storyteller that distinction goes to sensual ballad “Like I’ll Never Love You Again,” written by the CMA Song of the Year winning team behind “Girl Crush.” Underwood delivers flawlessly, while the lyric is the strongest and most well written on the whole album.

“Relapse” is nothing more than a blown out pop power ballad that does little to advance Underwood’s artistry beyond the fact she showcases new colors in her voice. “Clock Don’t Stop,” another ballad, suffers from a hip-hop inspired chorus that relies far too heavily on drawn out one syllable words and yeahs in place of actual lyrics.

Storyteller is an odd album. I refuse to judge its complete lack of actual country music as a flaw even though it hurts the proceedings quite a bit. There are some listenable pop songs here, like “Heartbeat,” but most of this music is below Underwood’s talent level. The deliciousness of “Choctaw County Affair” saves it from the scrap heap while the articulate lyric of “Like I’ll Never Love You Again” is very, very good. But there isn’t much here that doesn’t feel like poorly written middle of the road pop/rock passing as modern country.

I give Underwood complete credit for changing up her sound and trying something new. It just isn’t to my taste at all. I much prefer the powerhouse who gave us the one-two-punch of “Something In The Water” and “Little Toy Guns.” That’s the Carrie Underwood I could listen to all day.

Grade: B-

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Predictions for the 50th annual ACM Awards

To celebrate their 50th anniversary, The Academy of Country Music Awards is being held at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, TX  this Sunday on CBS. Blake Shelton is returning for his fifth year as host while Luke Bryan will co-host for the third consecutive time. Notable performers include George Strait, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and Dierks Bentley along with the usual mainstream country suspects. Nick Jonas and Christina Aguilera will also take the stage as part of unique duets.

Along with the regular awards, the ACM will also be handing out specially designed 50th anniversary Milestone Awards to Taylor Swift, Kenny Chesney, Miranda Lambert, Brooks & Dunn, Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks and George Strait. (Swift is expected to accept in person despite distancing herself from the genre).

Check out the nominations, here.

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks, who has six previous wins, is nominated for the first time since 2001 in a year that saw him break ticket sale records, but underwhelm with his Man Against Machine album. The absence of Taylor Swift, George Strait and Tim McGraw left the category open for some fresh blood, resulting in Florida Georgia Line’s first nomination.

Should Win: Garth Brooks – he continues to show how it’s done, twenty-five years after his debut.

Will Win: Luke Bryan – he’ll ride his CMA momentum all the way to the finish line, scoring his second win in three nominations.

4e35192a48a8e1409d2f92873a0dbab7Male Vocalist of the Year

Despite eight previous nominations with five wins, it’s not shocking to see Brad Paisley included here. But after such an underwhelming year, it’s still surprising to see him included in a six-way tie. Dierks Bentley scores his second nomination in ten years, while half of the remaining four consist of previous winners. Jason Aldean has taken home this award for the past two years.

Should Win: Dierks Bentley – His only previous nomination came in 2005, while he was still in the promotional cycle for his sophomore album. His stature has only risen in the years since, with critical acclaim and consistent support from country radio, making him long overdue for his turn in the spotlight.   

Will Win: Luke Bryan – He’s arguably the biggest male artist in country music right now, eclipsing Aldean, Eric Church, and Blake Shelton with his stadium show, fast rising singles, and immense popularity. There’s little chance he’ll walk away empty handed, taking home his first win on his third consecutive nomination.

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Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A