My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dan Huff

Album Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘Playing with Fire’

JN_ART_ALBUM_PWF_Cover_2016.03.02_FNL_1_67b07e04-f0ad-4db5-bb6c-9d0a73d70a65_2048x2048Our first taste of Playing with Fire came a year ago when Jennifer Nettles debuted the dobro-driven “Sugar.” The depth-defying track displays Nettles at her most cunning, wrapping a stern message to the country music industry in a deceptively easy-to-swallow package:

Don’t You Go a Changin’

Cause They Only Like You One Way

Oh But This Girl You See

Is Only Pieces of Me

And I’m More Than Just A Toppin’

“Unlove You,” which I reviewed unfavorably back in January, is a classic example of the Jennifer Nettles the industry has shaped over these past eleven years. Those moldings actually work in the song’s favor, a track I must confess I’ve changed my tune on. After repeated listenings, I’ve come to hear the striking vulnerability in the lyric, which Nettles conveys in spades through her vocal performance.

“Unlove You,” more than anything, is the bridge from which we journey from the Jennifer Nettles of old to a newfound risk taker with bold ambitions. She’s out for blood, literally playing with fire, fearless and confident. Nettles co-wrote the majority of the album with Brandy Clark, her tour mate for the past two years. They collaborated on seven of the album’s twelve tracks.

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Soundtrack Review: Various Artists – ‘Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me’

GC_ART_COVER_IllBeMe_Soundtrack_2015.01.15_FNL-2After going public with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2011, Glen Campbell embarked on a final tour in support of his then recently released Ghost On The Canvas album. Director James Keach followed Campbell, capturing the journey for his film Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me.

The documentary, released last August, centers on Campbell’s struggles with the disease and goes behind the scenes of the tour. An EP co-produced by Dann Huff, consisting of five tracks, including three by Campbell himself, accompanied the film. A full-length soundtrack was released earlier this month.

The album includes “I’m Not Gonna Miss You,” which Campbell wrote with the soundtrack’s co-producer Julian Raymond. His final studio recording, the track took home the Best Country Song Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar while its music video will compete for an ACM Award in April.

An aching piano ballad “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is the haunting reflection of a man with a fading memory, singing to the wife he’ll leave behind. With that premise the hook is rather unapologetic, which matches his bluntly authoritative vocal performance.

Campbell also has four other songs on the soundtrack. “All I Need Is You” is an AC leaning string-soaked ballad while “The Long Walk Home” harkens back to his classic work with beautiful flourishes of gently strummed acoustic guitar.

The other two songs come from an historic concert Campbell gave at The Ryman Auditorium. “A Better Place” is a beautiful mid-tempo number while the other is a soaring rendition of “Wichita Lineman.” Campbell gives a deeply effecting vocal performance on his classic tune, even ending with a haunting wail of “and I’m doing fine,” which has the audience erupting in cheers.

Apart from the man himself, the soundtrack features a revelatory turn by The Band Perry on a cover of his 1967 hit “Gentle On My Mind.” The band shines with the banjo drenched backwoods arrangement that nicely modernizes the tune without sacrificing the unique qualities that endeared it to audiences more than forty-five years ago. The track appears in two versions, which are both excellent. I prefer the ‘single version,’ though, because it leads off with the banjo (opposed to a solo vocal opening by Kimberly) and gets to the goods much faster.

Campbell’s daughter Ashley takes the lead on the soundtrack’s remaining two songs. “Remembering” is beautiful autobiographical ballad, accentuated with ribbons of dobro and acoustic guitar, about her promise to keep her father’s fading memories alive. “Home Again” picks up the pace, with gently rolling banjo, and tells the tale of a daughter that has seen the world and now desires to go back to where she came from.

The highlight of Ashley’s tracks is how the production perfectly frames her voice, which has a sweet quality not unlike that of another Ashley (Monroe). The rest of the record is excellent, too, because it serves as the perfect snapshot of a man’s poignant reflections as he’s robbed of the life he’s always known.

Grade: B+

Album Review – The Band Perry – ‘Pioneer’

“Daddy rocked us to sleep with the Rolling Stones; Mama woke us up with Loretta Lynn. So we get it honest” – Kimberly Perry

300999_laIt’s no secret that “If I Die Young” is one of my favorite singles of this decade, no matter how much airplay it receives. Nathan Chapman’s simple production combined with Kimberly’s sweet vocal is an irresistible combination, difficult for me to resist.

So about a year ago now, I was thrilled when The Band Perry announced they’d be working with Rick Rubin on their sophomore album. The veteran producer who famously resurrected Johnny Cash’s career in the final two decades of life, he also produced the final Dixie Chick record Taking The Long Way, possibly my favorite album from them. In addition, they expressed their intent to work with songwriting genius (and Semisonic front man) Dan Wilson based on his involvement with “Someone Like You” and “Don’t You Remember” from Adele’s 21 (He also had a lot to do with the genius of the Chicks’ album). The Perry siblings even spoke openly of their love for those two songs, which made me very excited, as I love them, too.

So, what the heck went so horribly wrong? Well, it seems like the their label had other ideas. Kimberly has explained that Rubin “in his current incarnation” is a minimalist, but “we also knew that to accommodate all of the goals that we had, the best producer was Dann Huff.” One can assume, reading between the PR fog, that Republic Nashville didn’t approve of Rubin’s artistry, and wanted the band to go with a producer that would keep them firmly within the good graces of country radio. In other words, an intelligently articulate record wouldn’t be supported in today’s Nashville in the same ways an overproduced Huff-led record would.

And is Pioneer ever overproduced. Huff works his usual magic, suffocating the songs until they are one click away from needing life support. The rock production has even affected Kimberly’s voice, the band’s crowning instrument, which is now sadly showing the wear of extreme overuse. I wasn’t expecting to hear such breathy vocals from her, and like Carrie Underwood’s newly acquired rasp, it’s kind of sad. What ever happened to simply singing?

Pioneer is what happens when country music becomes too commercial. Every aspect of the product is grossly overdone in an attempt to appeal to the arena and stadium crowd, and while the songs may work well live; they fail as a listening experience on an album. Luckily, though, this isn’t the atrocious mess it could’ve been and they did find (and write) some decent songs, even if nothing here lives up to the singles from their debut.

I quite like “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” despite the somewhat muffled production and “I Saw The Light” is possibly my favorite song on the whole project. The title track is as folksy as they seem to get, and “Back To Me Without You” is nicely restrained although it gets a bit power ballad-y by the end. I don’t have a huge issue with thick production at all when it’s done correctly (here’s looking at you, Eric Church). Huff’s style actually works well on “Forever Mine Nevermind,” which has noticeable country elements in the choral melody.

I’m also enjoying the tender “Mother Like Mine,” which the trio wrote as a declaration of what the world would look like if everyone had been raised by their mom:

So the wars would all be over

‘Cause she’d raise us all as friends

And no one would ever wonder if somebody wanted them

We’d walk on grass that’s greener

And our cares would all be freer

If the world had a mother like mine

The no wars line is a bit predictable, and Kimberly’s vocal shows the wear of shouting too much on stage, but overall it’s a very touching song that would work well as a single. Their southern gothic tribute “End of Time” isn’t as revelatory as I would’ve liked, but it’s probably closest to the sound on their debut. “Night Gone Wasted” is a mess in this form, but I can hear the honky-tonk elements beneath all the noise, especially on the chorus. If any song ever called for an acoustic makeover, this would be it.

The rest is just plain dreck. I do get why some would praise “Chainsaw” for being a country romp, but it sounds to me like something Huff would’ve done with Rascal Flatts circa 2004. There’s just nothing new in the production to peak my interest. The lyric is typical Band Perry but the melody sounds very dated. Even the Target exclusive tracks are marred by unintelligent choices in both vocals and production, and can hardly be appreciated for the quality songs they probably are.

To call me disappointed in Pioneer would be an understatement. I’m thankful this isn’t an obvious clichéd attempt at commercialism, but this record could’ve been and deserved to be so much more. The songs are there but you wouldn’t know it based on all the distracting elements hindering overall enjoyment. Pioneer will rightfully get The Band Perry to that next level they so deserve to ascend to, but it comes at far too big a price for the fans that loved the simplicity of their debut. Hopefully, they’ll be able to find a happy medium next time.

Grade: C+  

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Chrome’

Trace Adkins’ first album of the new millennium, released October 2001, was the first to showcase his pivot from ’90s crooner to the eventual second stage of a career now filled with forgettable anthemic singles. To his credit, Adkins had seen little chart success following the neo-traditional format, and while Chrome features flashes of the singer’s past sounds, it is mostly a stepping stone to later testosterone-filled ditties. Trace enlisted the production of Dan Huff and Trey Bruce to separately produce the album’s tracks, and all the single releases come from Huff’s half.  This time out the singles would fare much better than those from his previous album with 2 top 10 hits here and another top 20, and the album would also add to his collection of precious metal with a gold-sales certification.

Lead single “I’m Tryin'”, a first-person account of a man with many problems, a demanding job and more demanding ex-wife not the least of them, is recounted to a soaring 70s rock production, complete with Guitar Hero-worthy licks and layers of percussion. Adkins authoritative voice finds its way through the production and effectively delivers Anthony Smith and Jeffrey Steele’s well-written lyric.  “Help Me Understand” is one of Adkins’ best releases in his career, even if it is marred a bit by Huff’s heavy-handed production. Akin to Tanya Tucker’s gorgeous ballad “(Without You) What Do I With Me”, it clearly captures the hurt, but also the confusion, that comes with the abrupt end of a relationship, and was the only one of the album’s three singles not to reach the top 10, stalling out at #17.

The title track impacted radio as the third and final single, and just 10 seconds in, when the electric guitar begins to moan softly and Adkins’ throaty scatting begins, it becomes apparent this is a song with more groove than goods. And it is. The Chevelle-driving girl whose “favorite color is chrome”, and who will appear repeatedly in future Adkins singles, makes her first one-dimensional appearance here, and provided the singer with another top 10 radio hit.

It’s interesting that two producers independently helmed these tracks since nearly all of them fall into the same medium tempo pace and nearly every one outside the singles have an interchangeable melody.  Some songs break through the shuffle, buoyed by the songwriting or the singer’s commanding performance. “Come Home”, written by Ed Hill, Bob DiPiero and Mark D. Sanders, is a mid-tempo delight in the neo-traditional mold. Trace plays the part of a man full of “I’m sorry’s” trying to put back together a broken relationship. The hackneyed subject matter is elevated by verses full of the narrator’s broken thoughts and a tinkling piano track throughout.  “I’m Paying It For It Now” is another mid-tempo, but with fiddles and a prominent steel guitar built around a fairly weak hook and plotline.

Others are just forgettable. The mid-tempo quasi-rock “Thankful Man” serves as a written thank-you to the narrator’s father for his blue-collar ways, and more thank-you’s to the Lord above that he followed the same path. “Scream” sounds much like the title track and finds the singer longing to “scream at the top of his lungs” in sheer love-fueled delight.  The obligatory country boy out-of-place in the big city tale comes in “I’m Going Back”, wherein our narrator is leaving a world full of “lunatics” (a lady with unconventional hair color and a cross dresser) for one of “windmills and dirt roads and bean fields“.  And so the album goes for the remaining tracks.

I’d be remiss to say these new lecherous-party boy attitudes, the slick guitar work, pounding drums and all aren’t directly responsible for his climb to country music A-lister.  He’d eventually hit much lower lows than this, and there are a handful of great songs to be plucked here, but Chrome was when Trace Adkins jumped completely over the shark and into the deep, dark water of musical nothingness.

Grade: C-

Buy it at amazon.

Single Review: Reba McEntire – ‘If I Were A Boy’

Reba McEntire has made a continuing habit of covering pop hits from the past, adding her own distinctive vocal stamp to what is usually a countried-up version of the song in question.  Reba turned more than a few heads when she recorded the R&B classic ‘Respect’ in 1988 and performed it on that year’s CMA telecast, at a time when she was the leading female new traditionalist.  Throughout the 1990s, McEntire continued to mine the pop charts of the past, and these became some of her most memorable hits.  To my ears, Reba is the definitive singer of songs like ‘Fancy’, ‘Cathy’s Clown’, and ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia’.

Lately, her practice of dusting off chestnuts from the past has disappeared as the covers Reba has chosen have become more current, and it’s back to putting a country spin on pop, rock, and R&B songs.  Most recently from her Duets album in 2007 was a song that had just 2 years prior been one of the most-played songs in the world.  Now for her first new single of 2011, here’s one of the best radio singles of 2008 in the form of the lead single from Beyonce’s I Am … Sasha Fierce album ‘If I Were A Boy’.

On the surface, this seems like a can’t-miss idea.  You pair a masterful vocalist like Reba McEntire with a candid look at gender gaps in relationships like ‘If I Were A Boy’ and she’ll pour on just enough country instruments to make it palatable, and then sing the fire out of it.  And she does all these things here.  Reba and co-producer Dan Huff start the song off in an almost-acoustic fashion before hitting power ballad mode.  They even bury a steel guitar among the leading electric guitar swells in the chorus.

The real problem with this track is that it’s hard to fault the singer or the material individually.  The song’s two verses offer up the narrator’s desires to turn the table on the boys that have hurt her – ‘I’d put myself first and make the rules as I go/Cause I know that she’ll be faithful, waiting for me to come home’ – while the soaring chorus reveals all these things to be in pursuit of better understanding her man. But despite all McEntire’s vocal swoops and swells, despite her wringing her lower register for all its melancholy glory at times, I still can’t believe her in this character.  The voice that sold me on needing a little respect, being a high-falutin’ prostitute, and a trigger-happy little sister just can’t be sitting around still trying to understand boys.  And shouldn’t she be looking for grown men at this point anyway?

Reba’s knack for picking great songs is overshadowing her talent for effectively delivering them.

Grade: C

Songwriters: BC Jean and Toby Gad

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘All The Women I Am’

The moon controls the tides, your taxes are due April 15th, and Reba McEntire is having hits on the country charts.  These are some things we’ve become accustomed to.  For her 26th studio album – and 2nd for the Valory Music Co. – Reba has enlisted the help of current hit-making producer Dan Huff, whose production credits run as deep as McEntire’s own career, but is known in country circles for hits by Keith Urban, Faith Hill, and Carrie Underwood.  The ever-evolving redhead has kept it relevant for what is three decades now, and shows no real signs of wear and tear just yet.  She effortlessly glides through the 10 tracks on this set, hitting spine-tingling notes when the need arises, and more often than not, nailing every emotional aspect of the lyrics with precision.  The songs themselves are certainly a step above her current work, and reflect her maturity a little better.  All the women that make up these characters are seasoned at life, looking back with hard-won wisdom or jumping head-first, all the while knowing the risks.

The title track is a jaunty, twangy trip into the psyche of an everywoman.  Though it’s mostly sewn together from the kind of empowerment statements usually reserved for bumper stickers – “I burn brighter than a candle but I melt in the right hands” – and the fact that it comes from a songwriting team of three men, it’s hard to take it for more than a feel-good number without any real message.  A jazzy saxophone solo at the end and lines like “I can light up New York city with my red hair and rhinestones” increase the fun-factor by two however.  And in that regard, it can succeed.  ‘A Little Want To’ follows the same sound template as the title track, yet offers even less in the lyrics, leaving it little more than an up-tempo jam with the guitars mixed way too loud.

‘When Love Gets Ahold Of You’ features the kind of soaring chorus you can almost sing along to on the first listen.  But that’s probably because it sounds like a hybrid of the past 4 pacy Keith Urban hits.‘The Bridge You Burn’ is another earworm, wherein a woman is discovering her own self worth after a bad relationship. Reba makes it hard to dislike either of these songs with engaging performances, but these kind of melodies always make you feel a bit guilty for enjoying them too much.

Reba’s reading here of the Beyonce hit ‘If I Were A Boy’ seems timid compared to her CMT Unplugged performance that was a viral video hit over the Summer.  Pairing a voice like Reba’s with a marvelous lyric like the gender-gap realizations of ‘If I Were A Boy’ was a stroke of genius, and even without all the fancy vocal work of the live version, she does not disappoint.  Then it’s back to coasting through tracks like the album’s closer ‘When You Have A Child’ and ‘Somebody’s Chelsea’, written by Reba with Liz Hengber and Will Robinson, a sweet love song with the obligatory advice-from-a-wise-old-man. (Ever the jet-setter, Reba meets her wise old man on a plane.) Neither offers anything substantial besides a tug at the old heart-strings, and the singer’s performance sounds like she knows these are filler songs.

The real stand-outs come when the songstress gets ahold of a lyric worthy of her talents. She does this best with ‘Cry’ and ‘The Day She Got Divorced’. The first is vintage Reba, a strong woman weeper that quickly turns to power ballad mode, where it remains. ‘The Day She Got Divorced’ is wickedly awesome in its frank storytelling. The story revolves around the activities of a woman on the day she goes to court to dissolve her marriage. We follow her to a motel where she continues an ongoing affair with her boss and then on to a house that needs cleaned and is filled with “hungry-mouthed kids”. It’s full of great one-liners and features a funky guitar riff after reach repeat of the title line. Both songs come from the pens of Brandy Clark and Shane MacAnally, with Mark D. Sanders co-writing on ‘Divorced’.

An album full of gutsy, emotional songs like ‘Cry’ and ‘Divorced’ would have served the 55 year-old better than covers of recent pop hits side by side with fluffy radio-friendly fare, but Reba is obviously hell-bent on staying at the top of the hit-making heap.  Certainly, a handful of these cuts could find their way to the top of the page of the country singles chart.  As with the songs and themes found on All The Women I Am, the results are varied, but are more enjoyable than not.

Grade: B+

Buy it anywhere.

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Shine’

image-11For her tenth studio album, Martina McBride decided it was time to switch out Paul Worley, whom she had been working with since what seems to be the dawn of time. His replacement? Dan Huff. Just the sound of that name triggers many alarms in country fans all over the world. The result is, as expected, one of Martina’s poppiest albums, but also, shockingly one might add, a really good one.

The set opens with the 80’s rock-esque track “Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong”, an empowering theme about living life to the fullest. What’s surprising is that it’s actually really well written, as opposed to the new Jo Dee Messina single. Martina’s also oddly “silent”, meaning that she’s not belting all the time. This actually goes for the entire album, with a few exceptions, one being the second track, “I Just Call You Mine”, a big pop number. Martina could possibly take this all the way to #1 on the AC charts, because this song isn’t just pop, it’s good pop.

The next track, “Sunny Side Up” is a rather bland track not flattered by Huff’s production. Martina manages to sound interesting however, so it’s not a total loss. It’s followed by another song “Walk Away”, that’s just as suited for the AC charts as “I Just Call You Mine”, but just like that song, it’s also really good.

The real shocker on this album is track five – ‘I’m Trying’, which is a haunting song about a couple dealing with a man’s alcoholism. The track, which is almost acoustic, shocks on behalf of Dan Huff because of the sparse production, but also on behalf of Martina, whose singing has never been more nuanced and restrained.

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