My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Clay Mills

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Me’

meJo Dee’s latest album, released last year on her own label after she was released from her longstanding contract with Curb Records, was crowdfunded thanks to a Kickstarter campaign by her fans. It is broadly in keeping with Jo Dee’s work on Curb, contemporary pop-country which sounds positively understated compared to some of the current fare, but lacking even token nods to more traditional country instrumentation.

The lead single ‘Peace Sign’ is an assertive response to a breakup, with the protagonist cheerfully calling herself “dumb” for falling for the kind of man who dumps her by e-mail. While not the subtlest of songs, it should appeal to Jo Dee’s fans. It is one of two songs co-written by Jo Dee’s former Curb labelmate Amy Dalley, the other being ‘Breakin’ It Down’, another well-written (though unfortunately over-produced and sung) breakup song with an upbeat edge, although this time she is the one breaking away.

The assertive second single, ‘A Woman’s Rant’, is a self-penned plaint about the specific difficulty of modern life for women trying to juggle motherhood and career while getting paid less than male counterparts:

There’s so many things I can’t begin to understand
The differences that are between a woman and a man
You see, women they do twice the work and get half the pay
Men they climb the ladder while the women pave the way
They say that we’re the weaker sex
I’d have to disagree
I’d walk a mile in his shoes if he’d walk a half a mile in these

This is one of the best songs on the album, and it may be excessively self-deprecating to call it a rant, although it’s certainly unapologetically feminist.

In contrast, Jo Dee also wrote ‘Say Goodbye To Superman’, my favorite track on the album. This tearjerker is about a woman trying to explain to her young son why his idolised daddy isn’t coming home any more. It begins gently sad, building into a big ballad.

Jo Dee wrote two songs here with Alyssa Bonagura, daughter of Kathie Baillie and Michael Bonagura of 80s group Baillie & The Boys. The defiant country-rock opener ‘Not Dead Yet’ is about being a survivor, possibly addressed to her former label as she declares,

You’re the one who stopped believin’
While I’m still in the chase.
You shattered my feelings,
But you won’t shatter my faith

The other Bonagura co-wrote, ‘He’s Messed Up’, is more pop-rock than country of any variety, and it comes as no surprise to learn that it was written for rocker Pink. It is rather too loud and shouty for my taste, although I think there’s a decent lyric buried there, warning girls against a player (apparently based on a real life example).

Bonagura’s mother co-wrote the title track with Jo Dee. It is a pretty melodic tune about feeling inadequate. Jo Dee also co-wrote ‘Love On A Maybe’, a busily produced pop-rocker about a potential relationship with a guy paying hot and cold, and the rather boring ‘I’m Free’.

‘Strong Shot Of You’, written by Australian country singer-songwriter Sherrie Austin with Clay Mills and Weston Davis is energetic pop-rock-country with over-processed vocals. ‘Take It’, written by Hillary Lindsey, Brett James and Angelo Petraglia is even more horribly processed and more or less unlistenable. The wistful ‘Like A Kid Again’, written by Adrienne and Keith Follese and Tammy Hyler is better.

The arrangements and production aren’t the kind of country music I personally like, but it is very well done, with Jo Dee singing well on some strong material. I do applaud her for making the kind of music she wanted to, and fans of Jo Dee’s 90s/early 2000s peak should find much to like about this record.

Grade: B

Advertisements

Single Review: Darius Rucker – ‘I Got Nothin”

The third single release from Charleston, SC 1966 and his seventh solo single overall is Darius Rucker’s most country effort to date; one in which he explores the tried and true theme of a relationship at the breaking point and one man’s desperate last-ditch attempts to salvage it. In the opening lines, we learn that the protagonist and his wife or girlfriend have been up all night talking, and likely shouting and crying as they find themselves at a crossroads. She’s packing her things and is getting ready to leave; he’s trying his best to find the right words to talk her out of it, but he’s coming up short. Well written and nicely produced with just enough fiddle and steel to keep traditional fans happy without alienating mainstream radio, “I Got Nothin'” has all the makings of a hit and in the hands of a more capable vocalist it could be a very good record.

Unfortunately, the glue that should hold the whole thing together — Rucker’s performance — is as inadequate as the main character’s efforts to convince his wife/girlfriend to stay. The lyrics are emotionally charged and worthy of a performance that tears the listener’s heart out — think George Jones singing “The Grand Tour” or Gene Watson singing “Farewell Party”. But Rucker sounds strangely disconnected and plods through the song paint-by-numbers style. At the end of the song we don’t learn whether his lady love stays or goes, but I suspect she leaves just out of sheer boredom. In an environment that demands very little innovation or originality from artists, “I Got Nothin'” will likely garner enough airplay to propel it into the upper realms of the charts, but those of us who can remember a time when we could routinely expect better than this will find little to get excited about.

Written by Darius Rucker and Clay Mills

Grade: B-

Album Review: Trisha Yearwood – ‘Inside Out’

In 2001, Trisha took another break from working with Garth Fundis, choosing to co-produce Inside Out with Mark Wright. It is one of her most pop sounding productions, with heavy use of string sections and a punchy sound, but the material is strong and Trisha’s vocals cannot be criticized. On the whole I think it is a vast improvement over Real Live Woman, my least favorite of Trisha’s albums. Lyrically the tone of the record leans towards survival in the face of adversity, and refusal to regret past choices.

After the disappointing chart performance of the singles from Real Live Woman, it must have been a relief when the debut single from the new project stormed to the top 5. That was ‘I Would’ve Loved You Anyway’, a strongly sung ballad where Trisha defiantly declares in the painful aftermath of a failed relationship that yes, she would do it all again if she had the choice. The production is a bit heavier than necessary, but Trisha’s interpretation is effective at subtly conveying the emotion.

The title track stalled outside the top 30. It is one of Trisha’s more pop-leaning records, a love song written by the unusual combination of rocker Bryan Adams and Gretchen Peters, with jerky rhythms and features a guest vocal from Don Henley. It is a far cry from the magic of Trisha’s previous collaboration with Henley, the classic ‘Walkaway Joe’.

The third and last single was one of my favourite tracks, but sadly did not perform as well on radio as it deserved to do. The intense ‘I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners’, written by the talented Rebecca Lynn Howard with Trey Bruce, is an excellent big ballad with a metaphorical lyric about discovering self-sufficiency and survival, with an intense vocal from Trisha with Vince Gill supporting on harmony:

I never knew just how far a soul could fall
Like a rock, couldn’t stop, didn’t try
I locked myself behind shades of misery, yeah,
But when I let you go I set myself free

And I don’t paint myself into corners anymore
In a brittle heart of clay
I threw my brushes away
The tools of the trade that chained your memory to me are out the door
I don’t paint myself into corners anymore

Howard had recorded this song herself on her debut album the previous year, and Trisha picked up another great song from that record, the weeper ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Tom Douglas and the legendary Harlan Howard. This portrays woman who has lost her lover and is lost herself as a result. She wanders around the country trying to find a path for herself, and we learn in the hushed last verse:

Now and then I go back to Biloxi
Whenever I feel brave
Visit that little country church down there
Lay some flowers on your grave
You sure got a hold on me
I don’t know what to do
I ain’t got no future
I can’t see my future without you

This is the highlight of the album, with Trisha’s delicately understated vocal supported by a tasteful string arrangement, and both these tracks stand amongst Trisha’s finest moments.

I also very much like Jude Johnstone’s wistful piano-led ‘When We Were Still In Love’ about lost hopes, which closes the album on an emotional low but a musical high. Another very fine track, but one with the opposite message, is the optimistic ‘Second Chance’, written by Irene Kelley, Clay Mills and Tony Ramey. Trisha’s vocal is superb on a song which tempts the listener to think it might have been addressed to Garth Brooks, with whom she was just embarking on a relationship following their respective divorces:

Here is your second chance
Take it and fly

Another highlight is a faithful cover of Rosanne Cash’s sophisticated and melodic ‘Seven Year Ache’ (a #1 from 1981), with Rosanne herself on harmony and the odd solo line.

‘Harmless Heart’ is another fine AC sounding ballad, written by Kim Patton Johnston and Liz Rose with a fine and subtle vocal perfectly interpreting the lyric, and tasteful strings. Trisha’s character has been rebuffed in love by a man afraid of commitment, and is hurt but not vindictive, as she gently tells him:

I meant every word I said
But what’s the use?
You believe whatever you want to…

You set me up to fail the test
And prove that you were right
“Everyone lets you down”

Matraca Berg and Ronnie Samoset’s ‘For A While’ is a mid-tempo number about the process of gradually getting over someone, which is uncompromisingly turn-of-the-millennium contemporary both in its lyrical details and in its musical setting; not really to my personal taste but very professionally done.

There are some tracks where the heavy production is too much, particularly the very pop/rock opening track ‘Love Alone’ (although it has an interesting lyric about self-reliance and the expected strong vocal) and the echoey ‘Love Me Or Leave Me Alone’. Hugh Prestwood’s lonesome bluesy wailing ‘Love Let Go’ gets a heavy production which totally overwhelms Prestwood’s typically poetic lyrics; I think I would have liked this if it had a more stripped down or acoustic treatment but as it is it stands as one of my least liked of Trisha’s recordings.

The album hit #1 on the country album charts, and has been certified gold. However, after the failure of the last single, Trisha took a break from making music for the next few years and concentrated on her personal life.

Grade: B

Album Review: Darius Rucker – ‘Charleston, SC 1966’

The best thing about Darius Rucker’s second country album is what was most marked about his first: the singer’s gravelly yet flexible voice. More notable this time is the solid and often inventive contemporary country production helmed by Frank Rogers, who is rapidly becoming one of my favorite mainstream producers, with an excellent ear for the right instrumentation for any given song, and balancing commercial considerations with artistic merit. Rogers also currently produces Josh Turner (whose latest, Haywire, sounds gorgeous despite some lacklustre material) and Brad Paisley, who makes a guest appearance here. Where it falls down a little is with the lack of ambition and limited emotional palette, and it is interesting that all of these artists (each of them lucky enough to be happily married in real life) seem to have a reluctance to tackle much heartbreak or darkness in their music. Darius co-wrote every song, most frequently collaborating with Rogers, and although the material is pretty good, and more consistent than that on Learn To Live, there are no modern classics here. Possibly a few outside songs would have raised the bar. The album’s title (Darius’ place and date of birth) is an obvious nod to Radney Foster’s superb Del Rio, TX, 1959 – a rather rash idea, as it raises expectations it cannot deliver. Instead of aiming for excellence, Darius is apparently happy to settle for something that is merely good: well-performed, mainly mid-tempo, mainly positive, radio-friendly material in the center of today’s country music. And he does succeed in that rather better than many of his contemporaries.

Opening track ‘This’ is very reminiscent of much of Brad Paisley’s recent material, a paean to current domestic happiness along the lines of ‘Bless The Broken Road’:

Thank God for all I missed
Cause it led me straight to this

Written with Rogers and pop writer (and outgoing American idol judge) Kara DioGuardi, it is a perfectly competent and aurally pleasing but perhaps rather unambitious number which really epitomises this album. Also rather Paisleyesque in its domesticity is the sweet married love song ‘Might Get Lucky’ which Darius wrote with his hero Radney Foster and Jay Clements. This has a warmth and genuineness which is rather appealing. Both songs should find a ready home on country radio. ‘The Craziest Thing’ is another love song to a wife, which is less successful, managing to make walking on fire sound rather dull, despite a bouncy production. Paisley himself duets with Darius on the mildly witty carefree vacation song ‘I Don’t Care’, which the two wrote together with Chris DuBois; this breaks no new ground but is likeable and a surefire hit single in the making for next summer.

There is a welcome change of pace, and equally welcome move to something more emotionally ambivalent, with the languid ballad ‘Whiskey And You’, a love song which compares the protagonist’s need for his woman to a need for alcohol:

Ain’t nothing I can do
But come crawling back to
Whiskey and you
I never asked you to love me
I never begged you to stay
But I never want you to leave me

Also very good, and a bit more complex emotionally than the rest of the album, is ‘Things I’d Never Do’, written by Darius, Rogers and Clay Mills, with its wistful feel. The mortified protagonist, stuck in a hotel room, regrets past choices to do the kind of the things he would never have thought himself capable of:

I’d never leave the perfect girl
Or rip apart the perfect world
Just up and leave in the middle of a song

This is very effectively and subtly done, and my favorite track. Mills also cowrote ‘I Got Nothin’, a resigned response to a failing marriage where there just might be something to revive, which I also like. ‘We All Fall Down’, written with Kim Tribble, is a subdued and rather downbeat acknowledgment of inevitable and universal failure, which is another highlight for me, although it is certainly not commercial.

Closing track ‘In A Big Way’, written with Casey Beathard, expresses a traveler’s longing for home and family, and sounds possibly autobiographical (and it’s nice to hear someone namechecking Charley Pride alongside George Jones rather than one of the usual suspects). The tuneful and good-humored ‘Southern State Of Mind’, written with Ashley Gorley and Chris DuBois, is partly another homesick ode to home,

“where they drink sweet tea and they raise you to be polite”

and partly a declaration that he takes his southernness with him wherever he goes.

Lead single and #1 hit ‘Come Back Song’, written with Chris Stapleton and Casey Beathard, is quite a nice plea for forgiveness and reconciliation. I like it more than Darius’s last few singles, but it is not one of the more memorable songs on this album. ‘Love Will Do That’ is a nice example of Frank Rogers’ production, with some nice banjo from Bela Fleck and mandolin from Sam Bush, but is lyrically uninteresting. ‘She’s Beautiful’ is flat out boring and might have been dropped from the set with no ill effect.

This is in many ways a safe record. It is well made, pleasant to listen to, and should yield another brace of hits for Darius, but he doesn’t really take any chances with the material. I’m not sure I’ll remember it all that long after it’s left my current releases playlist. It seems disappointing in comparison to what I believe Darius is capable of (or to Del Rio, TX, 1959), but taken purely on its own merits it’s a pretty good record, particularly when set against many of his chart rivals.

Grade: B

Album Review: Easton Corbin – ‘Easton Corbin’

I’ve become somewhat jaded in the past few years and no longer expect to like new artists trying to break into mainstream country music. Country radio has gotten so bad, I haven’t listened to it in over two years. As a result, I’m not always up to date on the latest crop of new artists. I’d read a little bit about Easton Corbin on some of the other country blogs, but after hearing about his traditionalist leanings, I avoided reading too much about him until I could hear his music for myself and form my own opinion.

I initially cringed upon learning that Corbin’s debut single was titled “A Little More Country Than That”, expecting it to have come directly out of Jason Aldean’s playbook. It was a relief to learn that this wasn’t another redneck anthem. Instead of a defiant declaration of Southern pride and boasting about his tractor and pickup truck, Corbin makes use of the imagery of rural living while making a declaration of love (and possibly a proposal) to his sweetheart. In some respects, it is reminiscent of the Charley Pride classic “All I Have To Offer You Is Me”. Clearly tailor-made for radio, it’s a pleasant if somewhat fluffy song with slightly cliched lyrics. Written by Rory Lee Feek, Don Poythress, and Wynn Varble, it’s not a song that makes the listener stop in his or her tracks and listen, but it’s better than what is typically offered on country radio these days.

The album was produced by Carson Chamberlain, who has also produced Mark Wills and Billy Currington, but I won’t hold that against him since he has written some of my favorite Alan Jackson songs. Chamberlain had a hand in writing six of the album’s eleven songs, while Easton himself co-wrote four. The production choices are stellar; I can’t remember the last time I heard the pedal steel featured so prominently on a mainstream artist’s debut release. Corbin and Chamberlain don’t pander to radio’s current pop leanings and wisely avoids the production excesses that have marred so many contemporary country releases.

Corbin has been criticized for sounding too much like George Strait, and the similarities in their vocal styles is undeniable. Many of the songs, such as “Someday When I’m Old” and “Don’t Ask Me About A Woman” sound as if they came from the Strait catalog. “Someday When I’m Old”, written by Nashville tunesmiths Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo and Troy Verges is my favorite song on the album and “A Lot To Learn About Livin'” written by Liz Hengber, Sonny LeMaire and Clay Mills, is an example of a beach song done properly. Kenny Chesney, please take note. On the other hand “I Can’t Love You Back” doesn’t quite work. The lyrics are somewhat problematic and a bit confusing:

Girl, I love you crazy
It comes so easy, after all we had
I could love you with all my heart
But the hardest part is
I just can’t love you back

The first time I heard the chorus, it didn’t make sense to me. I thought why can’t he love her back, thinking that “love you back” meant “love you in return.” It wasn’t until the second verse that I finally realized that the protagonist’s love interest is gone, and Easton is lamenting that he can’t bring her back, which might have been a better way to phrase the sentiment.

Overall, the album is pleasant, but not particularly memorable. The material is mostly lightweight and the album would have benefited from the inclusion of one or two more substantial songs, as well as a little more variety in tempo. Corbin will also have to develop a more distinctive vocal style in order to avoid being dismissed as a George Strait wannabe. I have no doubt that he can do this; after all, Clint Black was mistaken for Merle Haggard when his first single hit the airwaves, and Owen Bradley was reluctant to sign Loretta Lynn because she sounded too much like Kitty Wells. That didn’t stop Black or Lynn from successfully developing their own styles. If Corbin can do the same, and can find some weightier material the next time around to build upon this solid debut, he has the potential to become a huge star in his own right.

Grade: B