My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Chris Isaak

Album Review – Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – ‘Raising Sand’

raising_sandI remember the instance where I logged onto CMT.com in August 2007 and saw a story about Alison Krauss teaming up with Robert Plant for a duets project. Having immersed myself in country music since I was a kid, I had no idea who Plant was, although I had heard of Led Zeppelin. Like everything Krauss does, I eagerly anticipated the album knowing it would result in a musical journey worth taking.

The genesis of Raising Sand came during a Lead Belly tribute at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in which the two singers performed together for the first time. O, Brother Where Art Thou mastermind T-Bone Burnett produced the sessions, taking place in both Los Angeles and Nashville. The album consists mostly of cover tunes, with Plant and Krauss acting out a role reversal – he tackles her trademark bluegrass while she embraces the bluesy style that penetrates his solo work.

A faithful to the original cover of the Everly Brothers “Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On)” preceded the project, allowing Plant to lead with his signature wail. The version is excellent, with some gorgeous lead guitar riffs and drumbeats to give the track a distinctively lively yet retro feel. The pair won The Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals Grammy for the track in 2008.

The second single was “Please Read The Letter,” an original tune that Plant released as a collaboration with Jimmy Page in 1998. This version is wonderful, with Plant once again taking lead, and Krauss turning in an intoxicating fiddle solo reminiscent of Martie Maguire’s work with Dixie Chicks. Plant’s vocal is a bit shaky so Burnett was smart to employ a minimal production that allowed the pair’s harmonies to take center stage. The track was named Record of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

The third and final single was “Rich Woman,” a nice enough track but my least favorite of the three thanks to a rocking beat and choral refrain that grows grating after repeated listenings. It isn’t a bad song at all, just not to my personal taste. Like it’s predecessors, “Rich Woman” also won a Grammy, taking home Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals in 2009.

“Killing The Blues,” written by Rowland Salley of Chris Issak’s band Sivertone is my favorite track on the project, a rootsy country masterpiece drenched in steel guitar. The track is simply gorgeous, and very much deserving of the Best Country Collaboration with Vocals Grammy it won in 2009. Possibly even better then “Killing The Blues” is the Tim Burton-esque “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us,” a Krauss-led number with a fabulous banjo driven arrangement written by female singer-songwriter Sam Phillips. I love the twisty Halloween-esque vibe of the track, creepy and strange, anchored by Krauss’ crystal-clear vocal. Both songs are worth the price of the album, hands down.

Doc Watson and Rosa Lee Watson co-wrote “The Long Journey,” the project’s lone spiritual number that has a surprisingly sing-song-y feel. The track closes the album, which makes sense, because it feels more produced than the other numbers and has more of a shimmer to it. Come from nowhere is a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’” which shakes up the pace of the project with a loud electric guitar driven sound that helps it stand out, for the wrong reasons. It’s a good song lyrically, which a more understated arrangement would’ve made clearer. Mel Tillis wrote “Stick With Me Baby,” another track christened by The Everly Brothers in the 1960s. Plant and Krauss’ version is mellow and slow, almost a bit sleepy.

Unfortunately, nothing else from Raising Sand stood out to me. As a whole the project is kind of uneven but that’s likely do to my need to hear more steel and banjo to appreciate what everyone involved was going for here. But the best tracks (which I highlighted) are near incredible, making Raising Sand a unique album on the musical landscape and a bright spot when it first came out six years ago. In addition to the Grammys for individual tracks, the record itself won Best Contemporary Folk/Americana Album and the overall Album of The Year (a first for Rounder Records) categories in 2009. All involved reunited for a follow-up shortly after their Grammy Sweep, but those sessions proved unsuccessful. It’s too bad, because I would like to hear more from this duo. I saw them when they toured off the record and it proved they still had more up their sleeve (the live show was much better then the album). But if Raising Sand is all we get, this is a fine collaboration from two worthy talents.

Grade: B

Album Review – Jerrod Niemann – ‘Free The Music’

Since debuting with Judge Jerrod and the Hung Jury in 2010, Jerrod Niemann has rightfully earned his reputation as one of the genre’s strongest mainstream assets, someone who respects tradition but is modern enough to exist in the current marketplace. I loved his 2010 top 5 “What Do You Want From Me” so much, I couldn’t wait to dig in and see what Free The Music had in store.

For someone who counts themselves among Lefty Frizzell’s biggest fans and openly admits to studying the history of country music back to the 1920s, I was taken aback at Niemann’s desire to push the limits with his new album Free The Music. The inclusion of R&B and Hip-Hop accents seems to go against his personal mantra and makes it difficult to believe his stance that he wants to be known as a country singer through and through.

At its best, Free The Music is somewhat of a feel good album, as shown with the fabulous lead single “Shinin’ On Me.” But even though Niemann wants to party and have a good time, it’s always with purpose, like mending a broken heart. He exemplifies this best on “I’ll Have To Kill The Pain,” a horn heavy standout highlighting his every guy persona. The same is true for “It Won’t Matter Anymore” a lyrically amusing ode to letting go of taxing jobs and bad relationships in favor of kicking back on the beach. Both are excellent earworms showcasing Niemann’s lighter side, one of his stronger qualities as an artist, while the former begs to be released as a single.

Niemann only gets trendy once on Free The Music and it comes courtesy of his co-write with Houston Phillips, “Real Women Drink Beer.” The market for beer centric tunes is overly saturated, while references to “denim on the rear” are a dime a dozen. But he manages to infuse the track with a Dwight Yoakam-like vocal sensibility and strict country arrangement that is actually endearing. In much the same way, it’s his vocal that rescues the jazzy “Honky Tonk Fever.” What could’ve been very cheesy is at least made interesting by his inflections and the way he uses his voice to play with the listener. Niemann and co-producer Dave Brainard do a wonderful job of utilizing the piano as well, using it to underscore the melodies and move each track along nicely.

Another standout is the brilliant yet sonically progressive tour de force “Guessing Games,” a break up ballad where Niemann channels “Wicked Games” era Chris Isaak. The track is one of my favorites and easily the strongest lyric (Neimann co-wrote it with J.R. McCoy) on the album. I wish I could say the same for the soft rockish “Only God Could Love You More,” a fan favorite. The lyric and vocal are fine, but Niemann downplays the country elements of the track a bit too much for my taste. A better love song is “All About You” is duet with Colbie Caillat that gets the romanticism right despite falling into cliché territory with the coral line “It’s all about the way/You kiss me baby.” Like Jason Aldean and Kelly Clarkson’s duet, Niemann and Caillat’s voices blend well together on a much subtler song.

The title track, more hip-hop than anything else, falls victim to similar non-country trappings although I do really like the chorus. It’s a cool sounding song, and I sort of understand his message about freeing music from constrictions, but overall it just doesn’t come together for me. I do love the last line – “If you’re sitting alone with a bottle of jack/listening for traditions skip to the next track.” That he understands, and even addresses the lack of country music on the song proves he understands balance, which is more than can be said for many of his peers. He’s also outside the country realm with “Get On Up,” but the cool funky vibe saves it from obscurity.

The traditional song he references on the title track is the excellent “Whiskey Kinda Way,” the purest country song on the album. A 90s country throwback (but with horns in place of steel guitar), it’s one of the strongest mainstream lyrics released all year. I wish “Fraction of a Man” Niemann’s self penned introspective closing track was much the same, but I can’t get passed the song’s jarring structure and enjoy the lyric underneath.

But more than the songs themselves, it’s the inclusion of horns that’s going to make Free The Music polarizing to the listener hoping for more steel in the mix. They don’t bother me, as they help much more than hinder the overall sound of the album. At its best, Free The Music is a strong album ripe with interestingly crafted and complete songs. Niemann may push the boundaries of tradition, but he does it in a way that’s not only cool but also thoroughly enjoyable.

Grade: A – 

Year In Review: J.R. Journey’s Top 10 Singles

The consensus among country bloggers and critics alike seems to be that 2009 was one of the weakest years in country music history.  I admit that I didn’t have to whittle my list down as much as I did last year, but it was still easy enough to find ten top-rate songs to call my favorites of the year.  My biggest problem was where to rank them, since I love all these songs.  I kept my list to songs that were released as singles this year – whether they charted or not.  Here’s hoping some of these are your kind of country too.

10. ‘Toes’ – Zac Brown Band

The feel-good hit of the Summer of 2009, the Zac Brown Band really won me over with this fun release.  I had already bought the album for ‘Whatever It Is’, but this third single from the group made me a huge fan.  It’s just not often we hear a fresh sound in country music these days, or acts willing to take chances with their lyrics.  With ‘Toes’, the Zac Brown Band did both, and delivered a mighty fine tune.

9. ‘Need You Now’ – Lady Antebellum

With its infectious melody and oh-so relatable lyric, Lady Antebellum had their biggest hit of the career so far with this song.  I’ll agree with the consensus that there’s not anything traditional about it, but country music has always had a place for the adult contemporary sound.  And I have too, as long as it’s quality music.  And this is quality music.

8. ‘Consider Me Gone’ – Reba

Reba’s 23rd Billboard #1 hit – and 34th overall – is a throwback to the classic 90s hits that made her a superstar.  The theme is a little tried and true, but the chorus still gives us some great lines and Reba delivers nothing less than a brilliant vocal.  This has fast become one of my favorite songs in her immense catalog.

7. ‘Reconsider’ – Charlie Robison

This dark chronicle of a relationship crumbling, which finds the narrator wondering if he’d done things different, would his lover still be with him comes from Robison’s ‘divorce album’, Beautiful Day – he was married to Dixie Chicks member Emily Irwin-Robison.  Though this track never charted on the country charts, it was released, and it’s a shame radio wouldn’t play it.  We sorely need deep, cerebral songs like this to balance out the top 40 playlists.

6. ‘Sing’ – Wynonna

The title cut, and only new track, on Wynonna’s most recent covers album, this Rodney Crowell-written tune sounds like it was written specifically for the singer.  It’s message of hope and looking on the bright side fits Wynonna’s daily platitudes for living lifestyle perfectly, while lines like ‘Sing it like you hear it/Like you have no need to fear it now’ remind us it’s from the pen of a master.

5. ‘Keep The Change’ – Holly Williams

Everybody loves ‘Mama’, the universally-acclaimed track from Williams’ critics-favorite Here With Me album.  I have to admit I was highly impressed and very surprised that I liked the album so much.  I just didn’t expect this much in the way of an alt.country album from the granddaughter of Hank Williams.  Guess I shouldn’t have underestimated that Williams bloodline.  Getting back to the song at hand, I was drawn more to this track than any other on the set because of its message of I’m-hitting-the-road.  The entire chorus is worthy of quoting, but I’ll just leave you with ‘It’s been a long time comin’/I’m jumpin’ off this reckless pity train‘ and hope you want to hear more.

4. ‘Even Now’ – Caitlin & Will

I just knew these two were destined for stardom when Sony released ‘Even Now’ to radio.  It was smart, well-performed, and had actual adult fare. Before it had a chance to climb, the duo was out on a radio tour promoting the single, when radio programmers supposedly flipped over the song ‘Address In The Stars’ a syrupy three-act story song about, you guessed it, death.  This prompted the label release that instead.  Too bad, since ‘Even Now’ was one of the best singles of the year, and one I think could have really made a name for the Can You Duet-winning duo.  Fate wasn’t on their side I guess, as even the second single – the one radio programmers flipped over – didn’t get any airplay either, and thus ended their recording career.  We haven’t heard anything from them since – and a quick glance at their website and MySpace page shows no news.

3. ‘Drunk Dialer’ – Miss Leslie

Miss Leslie has been one of my favorites since I got my copy of her last album, Between the Whiskey and the Wine.  This year, she didn’t release an entire album of new material, but she did give us this excellent tune about the friend who always calls you up, repeatedly, ‘begging you to join her at the local dive’.  Some of us relate as the dialing friend, and some as the friend on the receiving end of the calls.  Either way, it’s a great listen, and one of my favorites of the year.

2. ‘If You Want Fire’ – Terri Clark

Terri gave us one of the best albums of the year, so it’s only natural one of the singles from that release would find its way to the upper reaches of my singles list.  This melody-driven tune, released only in Canada, is just a real lyrical treat with a great hook. Spoken like someone who’s been burned a time or two herself, Terri imparts a bit of wisdom she’s picked up, ‘If you gotta have it, all that madness and  passion, then you’ll learn/If you want fire, it better be worth the burn.’

1. ‘Breaking Apart’ – Chris Isaak (with Trisha Yearwood)

The ‘rock star next door’ released his 13th album this year, titled Mr Lucky.  The finest track on that set is a sweet duet with Trisha Yearwood called ‘Breaking Apart’.  This also got zero love from country radio, but is as fine a country song as I’ve heard the past 12 months.  Yearwood’s smooth and always pitch-perfect harmonies compliment Isaak’s own, whether he’s in tenor or falsetto.  As the pair take turns trading lines on the verses, we find Yearwood in the company of the best duet partner she’s ever taken on IMO, and I’m sure the same can be said for Isaak.

Chris Isaak gets real with Trisha Yearwood

trisha-yearwood-chris-isaakFor the pilot episode of his new A&E series ‘The Chris Isaak Hour’, the California rocker wanted to open with a winner.  And he certainly accomplished that.  The hour-long show premiered tonight at 10pm on both A&E and its offspring network, the Bio Channel.  Yearwood was also a guest on Isaak’s Showtime sitcom/variety show ‘The Chris Isaak Show’ in the beginning of the decade.  And in between songs, the two sat down like old friends and talked about some very candid subjects.

The pair opened the show with a bluesy take on Yearwood’s ‘The Wrong Side of Memphis’.  Then, the interviewing began – this was the formula for the entire hour:  to talk a bit and then segue into a performance.  Isaak began by asking about Monticello, Georgia. Trisha happily recounted memories of her hometown and told him her family had cows, chickens, pigs, and a garden – which she and her sister regularly tended.  Talk turned to music next as Yearwood credits her Dad for introducing her to music through artists like George Jones, Hank Williams, and Patsy Cline. Another bit I found interesting was her admission that instead of a doll, she asked for a tape recorder for her birthday so she could record herself singing.  She says there are tapes around somewhere of her 11-year-old self singing mostly Cher tunes. (Yearwood apparently wanted to be Cher at the time.)

Trisha recounts Elvis as the first voice she remembers.  “I was always drawn to big voices that were really emotive,” she says.  Adding she was always a fan of singers who “really pull the listener in.”  This segues into another duet, this time on ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’.  Yearwood rips into the song, trading verses with Isaak in a playful take on the classic.

Her stint on a 1980s TV talent search called ‘You Can Be a Star’ – which she lost to a cab driver from Atlanta – was a sort of turning point. She quit her job as a receptionist at MTM Records and began recording demos full time after the show, she says. Recording demos not only eventually lead to her recording contract with MCA, but introduced her to the most important person in her life. “We were instant friends,” Trisha recalls of the first time she met Garth Brooks. They recorded a demo tape of a duet together for a mutual friend. She also recorded the demo for ‘If Tomorrow Never Comes’ before Garth had a record deal himself and was still pitching songs.

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