My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dan Wilson

Album Review: Natalie Maines — ‘Mother’

For most of this decade, the story of Dixie Chicks has been one of separate lives, at least as far as recordings are concerned. Martie & Emily have released two albums as Court Yard Hounds and Natalie Maines released her own solo record, Mother, in 2013.

Maines has said the album came together serendipitously through sessions with Ben Harper. She has gone on to say she had no idea they were even making an album until they had ten recorded songs. In truth, this isn’t the first time Maines ventured outside Dixie Chicks. In 2008 she appeared alongside Neil Diamond for the spellbinding ballad “Another Day (That Time Forgot)” and she also contributed a version of Beach Boys “God Only Knows” for the final season of the HBO drama Big Love.

Mother is a pop-rock album that makes offers no apologies about its lack of anything even remotely resembling country music. Maines even went as far as to distance herself from country music, saying she never really liked the genre at all and said she found Fly unlistenable because she hated her accent on the songs. This all came from Rolling Stone Magazine, which exaggerates everything for personal gain, so her comments have to be taken with a grain of salt.

The album itself isn’t very imaginative at all, with the ten songs consisting mostly of cover tunes with only a couple originals. The selections themselves are great, but one would’ve liked Maines to let loose a bit with her own pen, especially since it had been seven years since she entered a studio to record anything for herself.

Being mostly a country music fan, I’m not overly familiar with most of these songs. Her version of the title track doesn’t deviate too much from Pink Floyd’s original. I do really like her take on Dan Wilson’s “Free Life” and her interpretation of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” is very good.

A highlight for me is the blistering “Silver Bell,” which was the title track of Patty Griffin’s unreleased album where Maines found both “Truth No. 2” and “Top of the World.” The track, while overly loud, is a delight.

Another notable selection, “Come Cryin’ To Me” is an outtake from the writing sessions for Taking The Long Way. The song, which was co-written by the trio with Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, was deemed too rock to appear on the album. Maines had said she wanted to have her bandmates appear on the album, as co-writers, at least once. The lyric is excellent, although I can’t really decipher the meaning of the lyric:

Dragging around

The sins of your father

Handed on down

From one to another

Spinning new wheels

From lover to lover

Afraid to come now

From under the covers

 

When the world’s on your shoulders

And you just feel like hiding

When there’s nowhere to run to

You can come crying

Come crying to me

You know how to fly

On the wings of disaster

 

You try to stand still

But you keep going faster

And faster

You thought it’d be easier

In California

The tables will turn

And they won’t even warn you

 

When the world’s on your shoulders

And you just keep on sliding

When there’s nowhere to run to

You can come crying

Come crying to me

 

When the night seems colder

But the sun’s gonna shine

I won’t leave you behind

No you won’t stay behind

My issue with Mother isn’t that it’s a pop/rock recording. Maines is excellent vocally throughout and it doesn’t feel like a country artist suppressing their twang to fit into a bigger musical landscape. My problem is the album is sonically horrid. The arrangements are very muddled and extremely loud, with no real way to decipher between instruments. This just doesn’t feel like a cohesive album as much as a collection of songs and I don’t hear much masterful artistry in the recording as a whole.

Mother honestly could’ve been so much more. Dixie Chicks put so much into Taking The Long Way and Martie and Emily put effort into Court Yard Hounds. I just wish it had extended here with Maines. Mother could’ve been great. As it stands, it’s just an odd and very strange missed opportunity.

Grade: C

Advertisements

Album Review: Dixie Chicks – ‘Taking The Long Way’

The storm of protest and counter-protest which followed the incident in London completely derailed the Chicks’ country music stardom. We can only wonder what might have been musically had they remained accepted by genre fans and the industry. As it was, there was a hiatus in recorded music.

The album (produced by Rick Rubin) marked a sea change in their musical style, a deliberate focus on their own compositions and very personal subject matter, and a defiant unwillingness to kowtow to country radio expectations. Every song is credited to the three women together with an assortment of non-Nashville co-writers, most frequently rock songwriter Dan Wilson.

The first shot was actually conciliatory lyrically, with ‘I Hope’, a gospel-infused song written with bluesman Keb’ Mo’ as a charity single to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina in the South in 2005. It is definitely not a country song, but it is pretty good, and has an optimistic message:

It’s okay for us to disagree
We can work it out lovingly

But this was not the path taken by the Chick’s new album, finally released in 2006.

The lead radio single was explosive, stating their refusal to bow down. ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’ was uncompromising and undoubtedly powerful as it angrily recounts the aftermath:

Forgive – sounds good
Forget – I’m not sure I could
They say time heals everything
But I’m still waiting
I’m through with doubt
There’s nothing left for me to figure out
I’ve paid a price
And I’ll keep paying

I’m not ready to make nice
I’m not ready to back down
I’m still mad as hell and I don’t have time
To go round and round and round
It’s too late to make it right
I probably wouldn’t if I could
Cause I’m mad as hell
Can’t bring myself to do
What it is you think I should
I know you said
“Can’t you just get over it?”
It turned my whole world around
And I kinda like it

I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don’t mind sayin’
It’s a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they’d write me a letter
Saying that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over?

The single’s reception reflected the riven nature of contemporary debate, with those who had agreed with Natalie’s original statement acclaiming it, and those offended unimpressed. It received tepid airplay, peaking at #36 on the country chart, but sold exceptionally well, better than any previous single. This was reflected in responses to the album as a whole – decent sales, albeit lower than their previous albums since recruiting Natalie, but losing much of their country fanbase. They would never again make the top 40 on country radio. Going back to the single a decade on, and trying to view it divorced from the controversy it remains a very strong piece of work with the raw emotion still alive.

The next single, ‘Everybody Knows’, written with Gary Louris of alt-country group the Jayhawks, was not a good choice as it was rather dull and forgettable. The semi-title track, ‘The Long Way Around’ is better, again reflecting fiercely and unrepentantly on choice and consequence with nods to some of their past music:

It’s been two long years now
Since the top of the world came crashing down
And I’m gettin’ it back on the road now
But I’m taking the long way
Taking the long way around

I fought with a stranger and I met myself
I opened my mouth and I heard [or hurt?] myself
It can get pretty lonely when you show yourself
Guess I could have made it easier on myself
But I – I could never follow

‘Voice Inside My Head’, the album’s last theoretical attempt at a single, was a rock ballad written with Wilson and Linda Perry. I can’t imagine it ever succeeding as a single even in better times for the band, as although not completely explicit the subject matter appears to be the controversial one of a past, and perhaps regretted, abortion:

I was only a kid when I said goodbye to you
Ten summers ago
But it feels like yesterday
Lost, scared and alone
Nothing I could give to you
I tried, I really did
But I couldn’t find another way
And I want – I need somehow to believe
In the choice I made
Am I better off this way?

I can hear the voice inside my head
Saying you should be with me instead
Every time I’m feeling down
I wonder what would it be like with you around


I’m forever changed
By someone I never knew
Now I’ve got a place
I’ve got a husband and a child
But I’ll never forget
What I’ve given up in you

It’s not a subject I’m comfortable with myself and it seems like a deliberate provocation to choose as a single, especially after all the prior issues.

Motherhood is also the subject of ‘So Hard’, which bewails problems trying to conceive and the toll taken on the marital relationship. ‘Lullaby’ is a delicately pretty song cooing love for, I think, a new baby, surely the happiest and least contentious song on the album, with some lovely fiddle.

‘Bitter End’, written with Louris, is about the end of a fair weather friendship and has a pleasant Celtic feel.

‘Lubbock Or Leave It’ is Natalie’s vicious diss of the hypocrisy of her conservative home town, and features some echoey autotune.

‘Silent House’ is about Natalie’s grandmother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and is clearly heartfelt but musically dreary. ‘Favorite Year’, written with Sheryl Crow, is quite mellow but not very memorable. ‘I Like It’ is poorly written and boring, and ‘Baby Hold On’ is pedestrian. ‘Easy Silence’ is a tribute to a husband offering respite from the turmoil outside (perhaps ironic given that all three of the marriages in existence at the time have now ended).

Even a dozen years on, the shadows of The Incident hang heavily over this album. To my ears it doesn’t really stand up on its own merits. With the exception of ‘Lullaby’, the strongest moments (e.g. ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’, ‘The Long Way Around’) are entirely rooted in their time and place. The production and songwriting both mostly fall outside country music, and on the whole only the group’s most devoted fans will truly enjoy this record.

Grade: C+

Single Review: Sara Watkins – ‘Move Me’

press-photo-3---maarten-deboer_wide-79824be5a7ea39f2c8e7c62723edf8d34ca632e9-s800-c85Ponder this: it’s been sixteen years since Sara Watkins first entered our consciousness with the gorgeously plucky “Reasons Why.” She was already an assured vocalist at nineteen, brilliantly playing off Chris Thile as the female nucleus of Nickel Creek. Her confidence grew with the band’s output so it was only natural she’s one day strike out on her own.

It’s been seven years since her eponymous debut, a somewhat cautious (but impeccably executed) affair that gave us her brilliant rendition of Tom Wait’s ‘Pony.’ Watkins positioned herself as an astonishing country artist, a notion she quickly dispelled with Sun Midnight Sun in 2012. Her synthesizer-drenched version of Dan Wilson’s “When It Pleases You” changed our perception of her artistry. Loud and brash, Watkins exuded a self-assurance that announced her arrival as a fully formed solo entity.

Our inaugural taste of her third album, Young In All The Wrong Ways builds on that confidence. “Move Me” is her primal scream for attention, an act of despair from a woman stuck in first gear trying frantically to break free of the gridlock mucking up her path. She refers to the project as a ‘break-up album’ with herself, a chance to ‘turn the page’ and reevaluate where she is in her life.

It’s obvious that “Move Me” is her anthem. ‘Every step’s been shown to you, like all those years of school’ she opens, behind an ear-catching stomp. It’s the life my generation leads, one I whole-heartedly relate to. We’re on this path towards graduation, and, then what? As millennials, it’s the most critical question we ask ourselves on a daily basis as weeks become months become years. ‘Adulting’ isn’t merely a cutesy excuse; it’s a true-to-life concept.

The sonic playground of ‘Move Me’ is an adventurous mix of loud and soft that borderlines thunderous as Watkins emotes her not-so-quiet desperation in the chorus. “Move Me” doesn’t purport to be a country song nor has Watkins ever declared herself a country singer. But this does fit squarely within the Americana realm, which is the cloth she and her Nickel Creek bandmates helped sow all those years ago.

I just I can’t excuse the fact the overall record is a loud one. Watkins tones it down a little on the verses, but she doesn’t give the song much, if any, breathing room at all. Although, she is attempting to musically illustrate suffocation and in that sense the production is spot on.

This incarnation of Watkins’ career, like all of them, is sure to be an interesting one. My musical tastes have grown significantly through the years, which aids in my ability to appreciate a song like ‘Move Me’ in a way I wouldn’t have as a young adult. I’m greatly looking forward to hearing what the rest of Young In All The Wrong Ways has in store.

Grade: B+

You also can preorder the album and hear the song at NPR

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+  

Predictions for the 48th annual ACM Awards

Unknown-5Now that we’ve turned the clocks forward an hour and our calendars from March to April, it’s time to turn our attention to Las Vegas and the annual Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. CBS is carrying the show live Sunday Night (April 7) and it promises to be an eclectic mix of mainstream country music; hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. Look for Tim McGraw to sing his latest “Highway Don’t Care” with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, while Jason Aldean is rumored to be involving Joe Diffie in his performance of “1994.” Kelly Clarkson will be singing “Don’t Rush” and Bryan plans to debut a new single, “Crash My Party.” But I’m most excited to see what promises to be a buzzed about moment – Garth Brooks and George Strait collaborating for the first time to pay tribute to show producer Dick Clark.

Here are the nominees and predictions:

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Miranda Lambert

· Blake Shelton

· Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo 

As a fan voted award, the logic would be on Taylor Swift to take this home. And while she’s the likely winner, I’m wondering if Blake Shelton’s Voice popularity may propel him to the podium instead. There has to be a chance someone besides Swift could take this home, right? Well, I’m not betting on it, but Shelton seems the most likely one to do it.

Unknown-1Male Vocalist of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Eric Church

· Toby Keith

· Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo 

It’s nice to see Keith sneak in a nod here, as he’s still a gifted vocalist and “Hope On The Rocks” proves it. Aldean is just too weak a singer to make much of a significant impact and I can’t see the Academy embracing Church. So this as a two-way race between show co-hosts Shelton and Bryan, and I only see the ACM awarding it to Bryan if they want to shake it up. But they may see him as an eventual winner (like after he releases his next album) and go with Shelton again.

The 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards - ArrivalsFemale Vocalist of the Year

· Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Martina McBride

· Kacey Musgraves

· Taylor Swift

· Carrie Underwood

While I would love to see Musgraves take this home, she’s too new for such a prestigious honor. McBride’s a broken record at this point – she hasn’t had an impactful hit single in years and while Underwood is releasing some of the most ambitious songs of her career, she’ll likely be seen as old hat by this point. This is Lambert’s award to lose and Swift’s dominance in a completely different genre market isn’t going to change that.

images-2Vocal Duo of the Year

· Big & Rich

· Florida Georgia Line

· Love and Theft

· Sugarland

· Thompson Square – Jonathan Pappalardo 

If Florida Georgia Line wins this award, I’m done. “Cruise” may’ve been one of the biggest hits of last year, but popularity hardly denotes quality. Thompson Square should repeat here and even though they aren’t as strong as they could be, they’re the best of this bunch outside of Sugarland.

imagesVocal Group of the Year

· The Band Perry

· Eli Young Band

· Lady Antebellum

· Little Big Town – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Zac Brown Band

After their come out of nowhere Grammy win in February, Little Big Town are the darlings of Nashville and that will continue with a win here. Their success is long overdue, as is a win in this category. Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry can have fun duking it out for second place.

Unknown-2New Artist of the Year

· Florida Georgia Line – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Brantley Gilbert

· Jana Kramer

This is really a toss up. Any of these three could win although Kramer has proven the most country minded of the nominees. She’s my favorite, but I’m not counting out Florida Georgia Line. It’s another fan voted award and “Cruise” is insanely popular.

TornadoAlbum of the Year [Award goes to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· Blown Away – Carrie Underwood (19/Arista Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright

· Chief – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· Red – Taylor Swift (Big Machine Records), Produced by: Jeff Bhasker, Nathan Chapman, Dann Huff, Jacknife Lee, Max Martin, Shellback, Taylor Swift, Butch Walker, Dan Wilson

· Tailgates & Tanlines – Luke Bryan (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright, Jeff Stevens

· Tornado – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

A good list of mainstream albums. Chief would seem the frontrunner since it already won the CMA Award, but this is the first race to include Little Big Town’s superstar making set. I’m going out on a limb and say Tornado will take this home.

Unknown-6Single Record of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band (Republic Nashville), Produced by: Mike Wrucke

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert (RCA), Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf

· “Pontoon” – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes (Atlantic/WMN), Produced by: Hunter Hayes, Dann Huff

“Pontoon.” It won the CMA, a Grammy, and reversed the fortunes of a band too talented for the oblivion it was heading for. There’s no way they’ll lose, but if they do it’ll go to Hayes and his sophomore single “Wanted.”

Unknown-7Song of the Year [Award to Composer(s)/Publisher(s)/Artist(s)]

· “A Woman Like You” – Lee Brice, Composers: Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford, Jon Stone, Publishers: 3JB Music (BMI), Adios Pantalones (SESAC), Hears That Skyline Music (SESAC), Sixteen Stars Music (BMI), Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (BMI)

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band, Composers: Will Hoge, Eric Paslay, Publishers: Cal IV Songs (ASCAP), Will Hoge Music (BMI)

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert, Composers: Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Publishers: Pink Dog Publishing (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI) – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Composers: Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell, Publishers: Bug Music (BMI), Ole Purple Cape Music (BMI), Sinnerlina (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI)

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes, Composers: Hunter Hayes, Troy Verges, Publishers: Happy Little Man Publishing (BMI), Songs From The Engine Room (BMI), Songs Of Universal Inc. (BMI)

“Over You.” The ACM will follow in the footsteps of the CMA and bring Lambert and Shelton to the podium. Two genre superstars are just too hard to ignore. Their only competition, Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Merry Go ‘Round’ wasn’t even nominated, so I just don’t see anyone else taking this home.

Unknown-8Songwriter of the Year

· Rodney Clawson

· Dallas Davidson (Already won, off-camera award) 

· Josh Kear

· Luke Laird

· Shane McAnally

Davidson has already won; this is an off-camera award. But I would’ve gone with McAnally who seems to be on fire right now. His collaborations with Brandy Clark are killer.

Unknown-3Video of the Year [Award to Producer(s)/Director(s)/Artist(s)] *(Off Camera Award) [TIE]

·” Creepin'” – Eric Church, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Peter Zavadil – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Merry Go ‘Round – Kacey Musgraves, Producers: Perry Bean, Kacey Musgraves Director: Perry Bean

· “Tornado” – Little Big Town, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Shane Drake

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes Producers: Stephanie Reeves, Eric Williams Directors: Traci Goudie, Patrick Hubik

· “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – Taylor Swift, Producer: John Nguyen Director: Declan Whitebloom

· “The Wind” – Zac Brown Band, Producer: Ben Kalina Director: Mike Judge

Most of Zac Brown Band’s videos are distracting, with annoying concepts that take away from the song completely. “The Wind” is no exception. The Swift clip is awful and does nothing to portray her maturity and “Wanted” isn’t special enough to stand out from this pack. Church deserves this the most, as both the song and video for “Creepin’” are completely original. This is where he should get some much-deserved hardware. 

Unknown-9Vocal Event of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company] *(Off Camera Award)

· “Don’t Rush” – Kelly Clarkson Featuring Vince Gill (19/RCA/Columbia Nashville) Produced by: Dann Huff

· “Easy” – Rascal Flatts Featuring Natasha Bedingfield (Big Machine Records) Produced by: Dann Huff, Brian Kennedy, Rascal Flatts

·”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney (Duet With Tim McGraw) (Blue Chair/BNA) Produced by: Buddy Cannon, Kenny Chesney  – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Let It Rain” – David Nail Featuring Sarah Buxton (MCA Nashville) Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell

· “The Only Way I Know” – Jason Aldean With Luke Bryan & Eric Church (Broken Bow) Produced by: Michael Knox

What a terrible, terrible bunch of songs that equate to nothing more than empty opportunistic pandering. The only worthwhile songs here are “Don’t Rush” and “Let It Rain” and they are hardly ‘events.’ I bet Chesney/McGraw will take this home but if it wasn’t an off-camera award, than I’d say Aldean/Bryan/Church. The latter would make for ratings gold on stage, but it would be a wasted opportunity off-camera. In truth, though, I couldn’t care less about these nominees if I tried.

Album Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Home’

It was inevitable that Dierks Bentley’s follow-up to 2010’s Up On The Ridge would be a more radio-friendly project; I was slightly fearful that he would offer up a collection of mindless party songs in the vein of “Sideways” in order to get back in the good graces of country radio programmers.  What I didn’t expect was an album that was more mainstream while retaining many of the bluegrass-flavored elements of its predecessor.  This is likely the handiwork of Jon Randall, who produced Up On The Ridge, and who is back on board to share production duties with Luke Wooten and Dierks’ longtime producer Brett Beavers.

The similarities to Up On The Ridge are immediately apparent from the first notes of the opening track “Am I The Only One”, (reviewed by Occasional Hope last April) which reached #1 last September.   It starts off with a prominent banjo track, though the slightly too loud electric guitars take over by the time the song ends.   “Gonna Die Young” takes a similar approach, though this song works less well overall; the production is a little more heavy-handed and there is a slight hip-hop rhythm to the lyrics. “5-1-5-0” and “Heart of a Lonely Girl” both sound as though they could have been recorded during the Up On The Ridge sessions.

One of the album’s highlights is the title track and current single, which was selected as the official song of Dierks’ native Arizona’s Centennial Commission.  Written by Dierks with Brett Beavers and Dan Wilson in response to the shooting of U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last year, the song breaks from the rock-grass formula of the album’s first three tracks. It currently resides at #6 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. I reviewed the single back in October. Since that time, former Drive-By Truckers member Jason Isbell has accused Bentley of plagiarism, citing similarities between “Home” and his own “In a Razor Town”. Listen here and decide for yourself.

Things take a less serious turn when Dierks advises a friend who is about to get engaged, about the slippery slope he’s embarking on, in “Diamonds Make Babies.” I’d like to see this one become a single, but I’m inclined to think that the generic, play-it-safe “In My Head” will be the next track sent to radio. On the bluesy “When You Gonna Come Around”, Dierks is joined by Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild. Though their voices blend well together, the tune itself borders on bland. As the least country-sounding track on the album, it too could be a contender for a future single release.

Dierks saves the best for last. The closing track “Thinking of You” is a beautiful acoustic number, which at just over seven minutes is too long. After an extended instrumental break, it fades out after about five and a half minutes, only to fade back in several seconds later with a verse sung by a very young child, presumably Dierks’ daughter. Some will find this precious, but I could have done without it.

Not every track is stellar. “Tip It On Back”, about finding an escape from life’s daily trials and tribulations, and “Breathe You In” are both throwaways, but overall, Bentley succeeds in creating a sound that is contemporary while deeply rooted in country and bluegrass. There is plenty here to appeal to country radio, without alienating longtime fans.

Grade: B+

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Top Ten Singles of 2011

While 2011 was a bland and boring year for mainstream country music where anthems to dirt roads, tales about being someone’s honey bee, and odes to plastic party accessories were all over the radio, it did feature some bright spots. There was even one artist I thought was so constantly strong, two of their singles made my top ten for the year. I would’ve added this person’s latest as a third, but two in one top ten is more than enough.

So in addition to complaining about those songs that seem to have taken country music off track, let’s take a moment and celebrate what was good about country music in 2011. And judging by my list, you have to remember that just because a song spent four or five weeks at #1, doesn’t mean it’s of good quality. So here’s my list of favorite songs, all released as singles in 2011.

I’ll have the rest of my list, numbers 11-45, on my own blog later this month.

10. Randy Houser – “In God’s Time”

The balance between religion and spirituality in American popular culture is often shaky – there are those who believe in the teachings derived from texts and others who choose to let a higher power guide them, but don’t necessarily tie it to a particular faith. As there are those who happily merge the two.

Houser’s tale of letting life work itself out by surrendering to a greater force is the ultimate definition of spirituality, the study of the soul. In realty, “Time” is a fundamental lesson in how to live your life – “But no one knows, not you or me, it might be tomorrow or it might never be. Oh, but don’t lose faith. Put it in His hands. ‘Cause it might be that He might have a bigger plan. Than you had in mind. Miracles happen, in God’s time.”

Very rarely does a singer emerge from the shadows to clearly leave their mark by just a song, but Houser has here. Not only is he among the greatest living of all country singers, but also he may be the best trying to have chart success today.

“Time” is nothing short of a masterpiece, a classic and iconic statement from a living profit. Problem is, Houser occupies his time with distracting southern rock – a decision marking his downfall. If he only understood that he was put here to create songs like this, he would sour into the heavens, and fill the shoes of the ilk in his wake.

Read more of this post

Single Review: Dierks Bentley – ‘Home’

Patriotic songs have long been a staple of country music, and in recent years, we’ve heard quite a few of them. Too much of anything can wear thin after a while, and even the most patriotic country music fans are bound to have grown weary of the steady diet of “God and country” songs they’ve been fed since the September 11th attacks a decade ago. But just when we’ve begun to think that the songwriters have run out of new ways to sing America’s praises, Dierks Bentley proves otherwise in his latest single.

Written by Bentley with Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers, “Home” is a tastefully produced record that avoids jingoism or overt references to the USA. Instead, he focuses on the country’s natural beauty, “from the mountains high to the wave-crashed coast” and acknowledges the challenges facing the nation, while maintaining a sense of optimism that these challenges will eventually be overcome. The production is fairly stripped down in the beginning, and slowly builds up to a more anthemic feel by the beginning of the second verse, without succumbing to the temptation of bombastic overproduction. “Home’s” message is simple — “it’s been a long hard ride, got a ways to go, but this is still the place that we all call home” — and it’s a refreshing change from the more confrontational or support-the-troops pro-America songs that have dominated the airwaves for the past ten years.

Grade: A