My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dan Knobler

Album Review: Caroline Spence — ‘Mint Condition’

I was first introduced to Caroline Spence when I reviewed her and Robby Hecht’s sublime collaborative album, Two People, last summer. I was immediately hooked on her voice and couldn’t wait to hear more. That “more” has arrived in the form of Mint Condition, her third full-length solo album, produced by Dan Knobler, which is her debut for Rounder Records.

The narratives of personal relationships, which Spence says she’s always been drawn to from a writing perspective, dominate the album thematically. She opens strong with “What You Don’t Know,” in which she hasn’t yet told her man how she truly feels about him. Spence is in a bar with an empty glass in her hand wondering “Who’s Gonna Make My Mistakes,” which she answers by saying ‘it might as well be me.’

She shows a beautiful venerably on “Sit Here and Love Me,” in which she confesses to her boyfriend what she needs from him. The sparse ballad, her real-life story, is stunning:

Like the moon in the sky

In the afternoon in July

A little darkness hangs there above me

I know you hate to see me cry

Don’t wanna look you in the eye

I just need you to sit here and love me

 

I’m alright, my dear

I’ve been this way as long as I’ve been here

I don’t need you to solve any problem at all

I just need you to sit here and love me

 

At the bottom of this well

Sometimes it’s hard to tell

If you’re up there or if you can see me

I’m still someone you know

Please recognize my shadow

This is the same place from where I love you deeply

 

I’m alright, my dear

I’ve been this way as long as I’ve been here

I don’t need you to solve any problem at all

I just need you to sit here and love me

Spence, who admits to suffering from anxiety, continues down the same path on “Who Are You,” in which she feels perplexed by her man, who always seems to find her when she’s enduring her darkest moments:

I take comfort in my silence

In an empty house

In leaving town

I take comfort in knowing

It’s not my time yet

But then you show up

 

Have I been betting on the wrong cards my whole life?

Trying to make a fire with the rain outside?

Hiding behind the line between black and white?

You got me asking questions

 

Asking who are you?

Who could know me

But my only one?

Oh, who are you?

 

I don’t take kindly

When you remind me

That I should lighten up

Show myself a little love

I don’t take kindly

To the way you can find me

When I’m trying to hide

And give up the fight

Spence finds herself exploring love on “Till You Find One,” an intriguing waltz, in which she attempts to convince herself she can’t stop fate. The title track came out of a writing exercise, in which she strived to write something good enough for Emmylou Harris to sing. She drew inspiration from her grandmother to craft the gorgeous acoustic ballad, which details a love too good to see fade away. In a twist of fate, Harris joins Spence on the track with her captivating harmonies.

My favorite song on Mint Condition is the album’s emotional centerpiece, “Wait On The Wine,” a soaring ballad where Spence uses the titular beverage to gain enough courage to tell her man how much she loves him. Another favorite, “Song About A City” is a Mary Chapin Carpenter-esque mid-paced number she co-wrote with Ashley Ray. It details her struggle with immortalizing places in her songwriting:

I used to take the train

Upstate to see the colors change

Nothing’s falling quite the same

No matter where I land

This New York City rooftop bar

Just looks up at the same old stars

Thought that I had come so far

But it doesn’t matter where I am

 

I took two steps in Austin

One back in Boston

Tried to love something new

I found a lonesome highway

Brand new skyline

But nothing could change my tune

Wish I could write a song about a city

Instead of songs about you

 

I thought I’d find a brand new leaf

Drive on out to Joshua Tree

Dry those tears in desert heat

But the silence was too loud

I wish that I could make the most

Of the magic on this coast

Can’t see the beauty through the ghost

That I’m still dragging around

Spence managed to do just that on “Angels to Los Angeles,” a sweet ballad detailing a classic runaway narrative about a girl with a dream who’s on her way to do something big to make it a reality. She realizes the reality of that dream on the uptempo “Long Haul,” where she puts her own spin on the life of a musician:

Town after town and it’s all the same

They say expecting something different’s the definition of insane

But here I go, I follow those highway stripes leading the way

Down that fine line between making a living and digging your grave

 

But I just shut up and drive

What else am I gonna do tonight?

I crossed my t’s, I dotted my i’s

And sold my soul to the 1-4-5

Never was looking for the glamour

Know I won’t find it here in Texarkana

Just trying not to lose my mind

‘Cause I’m in it for the long haul

Just feels like a long haul tonight

 

Same thing that keeps you up at night, gets you out of bed

Same thing that keeps you stuck, gets stuck in your head

It’s a funny little addiction with no cure in sight

So I keep breaking everything I’m fixing so I can be fixing to do it tomorrow night

Her long haul has led her to Mint Condition, a captivating collection of personal narratives articulated beautifully. She could’ve varied the tempo a bit throughout and thrown the listener some variety sonically, but what she’s given us is nothing to complain about. Spence is a female singer-songwriter in the truest form, and a woman with a perspective worth celebrating.

Grade: A-

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Album Review – Rodney Crowell – ‘Tarpaper Sky’

TarpaperSkyAfter a decade spent making legacy albums, churning out two long anticipated collaborative projects, and writing his memoir, Rodney Crowell has reunited with his late 80s / early 90s brethren (Stuart Smith, Michael Rhodes, John Hobbs, and Eddy Bayers) for his new album. Tarpaper Sky is stunning as a result, consisting solely of original compositions that return Crowell to the straightforward sound that gained him fame in his heyday.

At 63 Crowell’s vocal tone has weathered with age, creating richness that ads reverence to everything he sings. He uses it to his full advantage, along with his genius as a wordsmith, to reflect on life through universal truths.  

“The simple life tastes sweeter now, we have no need to roam,” he sings on “Long Journey Home,” the strum-centric album opener. He’s lamenting on the quieter life he seeks now after a life of living out the self-proclaimed freedom he sought in his younger days. The excellent track is as much an inward expression as a mission statement, drawing the listener into Crowell’s mindset for the whole of the record.

He echoes the virtues of that simpler life on “Grandma Loved That Old Man,” his beautiful commentary on true love. Through vivid imagery, and his brilliance as a storyteller, Crowell brings the couple to life – warts and all – linking their story with the mutual affection that bonds their lives together. The melody, lush with acoustic guitar and organ, has a fabulous bootleg quality to it that takes the song to new heights, making you feel like you’ve stumbled upon something special.

Its clear Crowell is in the midst of a creative resurgence, which, for a man who’s been steadily crafting genre-defining work for more than forty years, is remarkable. “Oh, What A Beautiful World,” a Dylan-era inspired folk tune laced with harmonica, is a biting take on the circle of life that could only come from someone with a lot of life in their years. Crowell certainly fits the bill as he sings, “It’s the truth and the lie, is to live and to die.

Nowhere is Crowell’s wide-eyed soul on fuller display than his magical “The Flyboy and the Kid,” a brilliant hymn about one man’s adoration for his best friend. Crowell lays out his wishes (days filled with honest work, easy answers to all life’s questions, etc) with gorgeous sincerity resonated by the mid-tempo mandolin and upright bass filled melody, which ranks as my favorite on Tarpaper Sky.

The standout number on Tarpaper Sky, and the instance where the album title was born, is “God I’m Missing You,” the Mary Karr Kin co-write done on that project by Lucinda Williams. The wordy ballad, stylistically reminiscent of “Open Season On My Heart,” is a tender masterpiece about the impressions people leave on us in this life, and how they never really go away in death. The mournful ache Crowell brings to the number is pitch-perfect, exceeded only by the lyric, which never falters in fully developing the emotional undertones. “There’s a sanded down moon, in a tarpaper sky” may be my favorite line on the whole album.

Crowell may be in a contemplative mood for much of Tarpaper Sky, but he detours into other territories, too. Lead single “Frankie Please” is a rapid-fire pistol-whip about a man’s blink-and-you-missed-it courtship and subsequent marriage “that happened so fast, they said it wouldn’t last” to a woman named Frankie. Crowell, along with Smith and Dan Knobler, give the tune a 50s shuffle feel complete with Memphis inspired electric guitars. It’s a great song with Crowell deserving credit for keeping up with the vibrant energy of the track.

“Fever On The Bayou,” a co-write with frequent collaborator Will Jennings, has been twenty-years in the making, finally finished when the last verse was born out of an airport run in with songwriter Byron House. The tune is excellent, painting a picture of the Bayou life and the women who live there.

Tarpaper Sky only missteps occasionally, either by general pedestrian-ess or melodies that just weren’t to my taste. “Famous Last Words of a Fool In Love” and “I Wouldn’t Be Me Without You” are fine songs, but the ballads seem too generic for an album with this much thematic heaviness. “Somebody’s Shadow” (a co-write with Quinten Collier) and the self-penned “Jesus Talked To Mama” are too heavy with electric guitars for me to fully enjoy them. But they’re not bad songs at all, just weak spots on an otherwise masterful album.

When I read that Crowell began recording Tarpaper Sky in 2010, I was taken aback since this album feels born as much from the recent resurgence in Americana as his creative rebirth in the wake of Kin and Old Yellow Moon. Crowell’s insistence on going back to basics works in his favor, too, although Tarpaper Sky is a fully modern album and not a retread of Diamonds & Dirt. He’s still a songwriter at the peak of his abilities and after more than forty years, that’s wonderful to see. At it’s best Tarpaper Sky is brilliant in its songcraft and one of the strongest songwriting projects to emerge in quite a long time.

Grade: A-