My Kind of Country

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EP Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Re-Imagined’

While the craze of mainstream country stars collaborating with mainstream pop acts has garnered major attention, and rightfully so, another trend has been making waves but leaving far too little a wake. In August 2016, Suzy Bogguss released Aces Redux, a complete re-recording of her classic album in the lush acoustic style she favored in recent years. Dixie Chicks completely overhauled the arrangements on their songs for their MMXVI tour and companion concert album. Mary Chapin Carpenter reexamined parts of her back catalog on Sometimes Just The Sky this past March. Rodney Crowell has Acoustic Classics coming out the middle of next month.

Artists re-recording their hits have been going on since the beginning of recorded music. A recent cause for this is a little-known fact that when artists switch record labels, they don’t get to take the masters and rights to their discography with them. In other words, the artists entire back catalog is the sole property of their former home, especially if it was a major label.

Those re-recorded songs are typically sung as facsimiles of the original hit recording with the hopes a gullible music buying public won’t be able to tell the difference. Very often it’s those re-recordings that make their way onto digital platforms, especially if the artist’s original music hasn’t been licensed by their record label for release in that format.

What’s going on here is entirely different and completely by choice. These albums aren’t merely gimmicky cash grabs but thoughtful reexaminations of songs, and in this case of Rodney Crowell different songs entirely. For his new album, he completely re-wrote “Shame On The Moon.” He felt his original composition, which was a massive hit for Bob Seger and The Silver Bullet Band in 1982, wasn’t composed with the depth and complexity he would bring to the song today.

In the case of LeAnn Rimes and her new five-track EP Re-Imagined, she reworked these songs for her Remnants tour last year and decided to commit them to record. Although I’ve been somewhat of a rabid fan of her music since the very beginning, I haven’t been paying too much attention to her lately. This release broke the short drought, which I’m also sure it was intended to do.  

She opens the collection with “How Do I Live.” Her original version, from 1997, is still one of the cleanest and most masterful pop records I’ve ever heard. She transforms Diane Warren’s lyric into a piano ballad, which might work for some people, but it didn’t work for me. I really don’t care for Rimes in this style, which always comes off heavy, slow and prodding.

I had actually forgotten what the original version of “Can’t Fight The Moonlight” sounded like, the one featured on the Coyote Ugly soundtrack in 2000. Listening to it again, it’s clearly influenced by Britney Spears’ debut from a year earlier. I’m more familiar with the dance remix, which worked on an international scale as I’m sure Curb intended at the time. This new version, taken live from a concert, has more in common with the remix but features actually instrumentation.

Rimes’ original version of “Blue,” from 1996, is arguably still the greatest record she’s ever made. She gave it new life, in collaboration with The Time Jumpers, on Lady & Gentlemen in 2011. For this version, also taken live from a concert, she goes full-on jazz but doesn’t sacrifice the trademark yodel or the song’s traditional country roots.

The revelation, as far as her hit records are concerned, is “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” Rimes gives the song a gorgeously soft acoustic arrangement stripping the song of any smoke and mirrors. It’s truly impressive what she does with the song, alone, without backup singers to give her a lift. Rimes still has it more than 22 years later.

The final track is one of the two songs from Spitfire that elude to the cheating scandal that soured her reputation with the public and ended her first marriage. “Borrowed” was originally produced by Rimes’ long-time collaborator Darrell Brown, who also oversaw this EP. The track was already in this style so nothing about the arrangement really changed.

However, this version is a duet with Stevie Nicks. Rimes and Nicks harmonize throughout the song, which is a mistake given the lyrical content. I’m also a huge fan of Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, so I’m saying this with love, but Nicks’ voice isn’t what it used to be but either is Don Henley’s. The age on Nicks’ rasp, which is far too low now, is just unappealing.

The majority of this EP feels utterly unnecessary and in place of new music, not really worth much of anyone’s time. Rimes’ voice has changed, too, which she claimed in a 2013 lawsuit was the result of botched dental work. She still has incredible range, which I noted when I reviewed “How To Kiss A Boy” in November 2016, but the clarity is gone.

I still recommend checking it out, especially if you’re a fan of Rimes’ work, to hear this new addition to her musical legacy.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Today Is Christmas’

today is christmasLeAnn Rimes has often had one foot in country and one in pop, but as she has struggled to find her audience the last few years she has concentrated more on her country roots with the lovely Vince Gill-produced covers album Lady And Gentleman and the personal Spitfire. Unfortunately on her new Christmas album she has reverted to pop and jazz, and while some of it is well done (some isn’t), none of it is country, which is a disappointment for me . Very brassy production overwhelms a rather bizarre selection of material, although I do have to give her some credit for not repeating the same handful of songs which appear on every other Christmas album. It’s just a shame the result does not pay off better. Also featured instrumentally to better (though non-country) effect is the legendary Booker T Jones on B3 organ and Wurlitzer.

Particularly dreadful is ‘Must Be Santa’, a 1960 pop hit which is a noisy mess dominated by a brass section, and whose admittedly silly lyrics LeAnn dashes out so fast it sounds as if the whole track gas been speeded up artificially. The title track, newly penned by LeAnn and her regular collaborator Darrell Brown, is apparently this year’s Christmas theme for NBC’s Today show. It may work in context as a glorified jingle but it’s very irritating as a standalone song, even in a Christmas party setting.

A cover of Kenny Loggins’ seasonal 1970s soft rock hit ‘Celebrate Me Home’, performed as a duet with pop star Gavin De Graw, is inoffensive but exceptionally boring. A second new Rimes/Brown tune, ‘I Still Believe in Santa Claus’ is bearable but bland MOR. LeAnn’s version of ‘Little Drummer Boy’ is very well sung, but isn’t one of my favourite Christmas songs.

A perky version of ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ in medley with Frosty The Snowman’ is quite entertaining, with LeAnn showing off her jazz scatting. The brass instruments are jettisoned here. LeAnn recruits R&B star Aloe Blacc as her duet partner on ‘That Spirit Of Christmas’, originally recorded by Ray Charles. This mellow soul tune works very well, and I enjoyed it.

‘We Need A Little Christmas’ is a loungy ballad from Broadway musical Mame, which LeAnn sings very well, backed by a restrained piano and string arrangement. The similar ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ (originally composed for A Charlie Brown Christmas) is good too, with an accomplished and tender vocal and delicate arrangement. I really liked this.

My favorite track is Brandi Carlile’s ‘The Heartache Can Wait’, a beautiful, understated ballad about holding on to a relationship through one last Christmas. LeAnn’s vocal is excellent, bearing favorable comparison with the very best of her work, and is sympathetically backed by a tasteful string arrangement. It feels a bit out of place in the midst of the party atmosphere which dominates on the album, but is outstanding, and would work on a non-Christmas record. I would definitely recommend this track.

Scottish New Years tune ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and a medley of ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, ‘Angels We Have Heard On High’ and ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’ sound lovely aurally, although she takes too many liberties with the melodies, which are unrecognisable in places.

This is a jazzy pop album rather than a country one, so it wasn’t really to my taste as a whole, but there are some tracks I enjoyed.

Grade: B-

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Spitfire’

spitfireLeAnn Rimes’ chart fortunes have been wildly inconsistent since she emerged on the country scene as a 13-year old. Her turbulent private life has also exposed her to a great deal of public criticism in recent years with her romance with new husband Eddie Cibrian breaking up two existing marriages and the home of two small children. Her excellent Vince Gill-produced covers album reignited my interest in her as an artist, and now she returns with her first records of all-new material in some years. She wrote many of the songs with her co-producer and frequent collaborator Darrell Brown, and it is the most personal and honest material she has ever recorded. She acknowledges that on the album cover, giving it the subtitle “the truth, in no particular order”. In other words, it is effectively a concept album about her affair, divorce and remarriage – meaty reality-based material which makes it a rare example of its kind in today’s market. Musically it’s not as traditional as Lady And Gentlemen but it is recognizably country music, with breathing space for LeAnn’s vocals.

The best songs are the more reflective ones where she shows some self-awareness. Candid cheating songs used to be a staple of country music but have fallen out of favor in recent years. ‘Borrowed’ is a guilt-ridden cheating song set during the affair, this one addressed to her new lover and dealing with her jealousy of his wife.

The remorseful ballad ‘What Have I Done’ (perhaps the outstanding song on the album) addresses the wrong she has done to her first love, who is “not her last”. It is an excellent song with a beautiful melody, with Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski adding harmonies and subtle steel and fiddle.

What have I done?
I broke the sweetest heart
Of the only man that’s ever loved me

I don’t know what I’ve become
I need to get back to where I’m from
Gotta smash every mirror in this empty house
Cause like you I don’t want to see myself
Oh, what have I done?

Both of these songs were released as singles late last year, but have failed to chart.

The haunting ‘Where I Stood’ (written by Australian AC singer-songwriter Missy Higgins) tackles the same theme, opening with the words “I don’t know what I’ve done” as she faces the loss of her husband and contemplates his finding someone new.

A heavy drumbeat leads into the less subtle ‘I Do Now’, which again addresses her cheating, but with less evident remorse, with LeAnn taking comfort in listening to Hank Williams and Merle Haggard but unfortunately not borrowing from them stylistically, instead going for a rock-influenced mid-tempo sound without much melody.

‘A Waste Is A Terrible Thing To Mind’ is another fine song written by LeAnn, as she ponders over her choices. It is one of the most traditional sounding songs on the album. Her diction is a bit muddy on this one (a problem she has sometimes suffered from in the past) so it takes some concentration to decipher the story, but it recounts the protagonist’s regret at separating from husband or lover:

I threw him out like the trash one night
The dumbest thing I’ve ever done
He was the best thing that I’ll ever find
Yeah, a waste is a terrible thing to mind

Darrell Brown contributed ‘Who We Really Are’ (a co-write with Sarah Buxton), a pretty ballad on which Leann’s vocals sound nice but again the words (about discovering oneself through the vicissitudes of love) are hard to make out.

The aggressive ‘Spitfire’ lets loose against a rival in love, and is a little spiteful, calling her rival not only a “dirty little liar” but a brainless one. It’s a brave choice as the album opener and title track as it doesn’t paint LeAnn in the best light and the obviously autobiographical nature of the material elsewhere makes this open to interpretation as a personal attack on her husband’s former wife, so making it the entry into the album could antagonize some listeners (but perhaps those most offended won’t be listening anyway, on principle?). Divorced from its likely context, it’s not a bad song in assertive vein.

She definitely addresses her husband’s ex-wife elsewhere, claiming to be ‘Just A Girl Like You’, acknowledging “he may break my heart too”, but I didn’t like this one much – it feels a bit disingenuous, there is far too much vocal noodling and the instrumentation has a slightly tinny feel. ‘You’ve Ruined Me’ also sounds a bit over-produced and over-wrought vocally.

Buddy and Julie Miller’s frenetic ‘Gasoline And Matches’ is done as a duet with rock singer Rob Thomas, and is quite entertaining, although it definitely leans more in the rock direction than country; rock guitarist Jeff Beck also guests. In the context of this album, it presumably reflects the passion wrought by her relationship with her new husband.

The equally fast-paced ‘You Ain’t Right’ written by Liz Rose with another husband-and-wife team, Chris Stapleton and Morgane Hayes, has a hardworking woman complaining about her layabout man’s lack of effort. It’s a good song, but lacks melody and feels out of place thematically.

I assume the judgmental ‘God Tales Care Of Your Kind’ is an older song as it was written with Leann’s ex-husband Dean Sheremet; it too seems a curious choice for this record unless she is addressing it to herself. Finally ‘Bottle’ is surprisingly bland for a Gary Burr tune.

It seems fairly clear that LeAnn’s personal life has caused a backlash against her music, and this album (apparently her last for Curb) will probably not get the radio play it needs to do well commercially. However, it is a serious artistic work rooted in real life. Perhaps a little too much so at times.

Grade: B+

Single Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Borrowed’

borrowedWhereas many female artists in her situation would have chosen to ignore the elephant in the room, LeAnn Rimes has tackled the subject of her own infidelity head on with her latest single release. ‘Borrowed’, which was written by Rimes along with Darrell Brown and David Baerwald, is the advance single from her upcoming album Spitfire, which is slated to be released in the spring. It’s a bold move, and one potentially fraught with peril, as country radio and its audience may very well view the record as an attempt to capitalize on her recent tabloid notoriety.

‘Borrowed’ is sung from the point of the view of an unrepentant other woman, who knows her lover doesn’t belong to her, but she doesn’t want to give him back. Putting LeAnn’s personal conduct aside, and judging the song on its own merits, ‘Borrowed’ is the best single that she’s released in years. It’s a much more understated performance than we’re used to hearing from her, with an acoustic guitar and a gentle steel guitar providing the main instrumentation. There is the usual problem of LeAnn’s inability to clearly enunciate her words, but aside from that there’s little here that I can find fault with.

It remains to be seen if country radio will forgive Rimes for her transgressions, but even if they do, ‘Borrowed’ faces an uphill climb, as a quiet ballad sung by a female in atmosphere that prefers loud, redneck anthems sung by men. Another artist without LeAnn’s personal baggage might stand a better chance, but I suspect that there will be a backlash against this song, which is a shame because it’s the first thing that Rimes has done in quite some time that is even remotely interesting.

Listen to it here.

Grade: B+

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Lady & Gentlemen’

When LeAnn Rimes made her impressive debut aged just 13, she did so with a vintage song originally written for Patsy Cline. Her career subsequently veered popwards, with LeAnn often not seeming to be certain of her own musical identity. Most recently she has been producing solid pop-country, but her chart career has been overshadowed by a tangled personal life. So I was intrigued to hear that she might be returning to country classics – at least, until I heard the first single. I hated LeAnn’s manically speeded up and overwrought version of John Anderson’s hit ‘Swingin’, and was left gloomy about the album’s likely direction, despite Vince Gill being named as the producer. (He is in fact joined in that task on the bulk of the record by Justin Niebank, Darrell Brown (LeAnn’s regular co-writer) and John Hobbs, with Gill, Brown and Leann responsible for the arrangements). Happily, the end result is much better than I feared it might be, with the awful, misconceived assault on ‘Swingin’ the only track I really dislike.

There are a couple of other tracks which don’t quite work for me: a horn-accompanied and passionately sung ‘16 Tons’ sounds great if you don’t listen to the words, but is completely unconvincing as a working man’s anthem. Her reworking of producer Vince’s great ‘When I Call Your Name’ as a jazz-soul song wanders too far from the original melody and emotion for me, but is very accomplished in its way and will appeal to some.

Freddy Fender’s Tex-Mex ‘Wasted Days And Wasted Nights’ in contrast has a lovely retro, slightly loungy feel, with lovely phrasing and a small section sung in Spanish. I also enjoyed a new, mature version of her own first hit ‘Blue’, featuring Vince Gill’s side band the Time Jumpers. I enjoyed LeAnn’s enthusiastic take on Waylon’s ‘The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’, given a gender rewrite as ‘The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line’. The Waylon/Willie hit ‘A Good Hearted Woman’ is speeded up a bit too much, but still quite enjoyable, expressed in the first person. John Conlee’s ‘Rose Colored Glasses’ is well sung but lacks the intensity of emotion of the original, although the production is more tasteful.

There are three outstanding tracks. While she cannot quite match George Jones on the hallowed ground of ‘He Stopped Loving her Today’, she gives a beautifully understated reading which works extremely well, with Vince adding harmony on the chorus. This is the one which best reveals LeAnn’s growth as an interpreter. A measured, emotional version of Haggard’s depiction of being trapped in an unhappy marriage where ‘I Can’t Be Myself’ is superb. LeAnn’s seductive and emotional plea to ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ is almost as good.

Haggard’s ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’ (one of three afterthoughts produced by LeAnn with Darrell Brown) was a good addition to the tracklist. On first hearing I thought it paled in comparison to both the original and Emmylou Harris’s defiant cover, but over repeated listens, I have grown to appreciate the sense of defeat and regret in LeAnn’s version.

The other two are brand new songs, which have both been tried, and failed, as radio singles. They are out of place here, sounding much more contemporary, and they contradict the original conceit of the album, the idea that these were all “men’s songs” given a new interpretation by LeAnn. The aggressive Miranda Lambert style gender war of ‘Crazy Women’, written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon suffers from a cluttered modern production and rather limited melody, while the gentler but still contemporary ‘Give’, written by Jimmy Yeary and Connie Harrington has a well meaning message and is pleasant sounding but a little dull.

Interestingly, this is one of very few modern albums to get a vinyl release alongside CD and digital availability. Sales so far are reportedly low, which is a shame, because this is LeAnn’s best work for some time, and for me it fulfils for the first time the potential she had as a phenomenal teenager. Her vocals are great, and her sometimes muddy diction has also improved.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

Hillbilly DeluxeAfter the success of Red Dirt Road, the duo had issued a second volume of Greatest Hits, and unusually the new singles released from that (‘That’s What It’s All About’ and ‘It’s Getting Better All The Time’) had done very well. Their next studio album, 2005’s Hillbilly Deluxe, shares its title with a Dwight Yoakam album from the 1980s. Brooks & Dunn’s take focuses rather more on the second part of the title than Dwight’s, with a very glossy feel. The tracks featuring Ronnie Dunn on lead were co-produced with industry veteran Tony Brown, but the overwhelming impression of this album is that Brooks & Dunn had got into something of a rut, and this album offers yet more of the same.

The leadoff single, the rocked up and (unintentionally?) ironically titled ‘Play Something Country’ was certified gold in its own right, and was what now appears to be their last ever #1 single. The song was written by Ronnie with his favored writing partner Terry McBride, and was allegedly inspired by Gretchen Wilson. The pair also wrote the ballad ‘She’s About As Lonely As I’m Going To Let Her Get’, a pretty good song about resolving to be the new love of a woman encountered in a bar, which features a fine Ronnie Dunn vocal with slightly (and unnecessarily) amped up production. ‘Just Another Neon Night’ has a similar feel and another barroom theme. Less successful is the part-spoken and also heavily produced ‘Whiskey Do My Talking’, which is just not very interesting.

There was one departure from formula, in the shape of ‘Believe’, which Ronnie wrote with Craig Wiseman, and which was the album’s second single. Surprisingly, ‘Believe’ only reached #8 but had much more impact than that suggests. It sold in high numbers, also being certified gold, and was widely acclaimed as the duo’s best single in years, also winning the CMA Single of the Year award in 2006. The Academy of Country Music rewarded Ronnie and Craig by naming it Song of the year in 2005. It opens as a story song with a conversational low key vocal on the verses and a big chorus, with a churchy organ backing and gospel backing vocals at appropriate moments which support Ronnie rather than taking over as is sometimes the case when gospel choirs are used in country records.

The follow-up single, ‘Building Bridges’, featuring harmonies from Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, was an attractive song with a pretty tune. It was a Hank DeVito /Larry Willoughby song, versions of which had been unsuccessful singles for both Willoughby and DeVito’s ex-wife Nicolette Larson in the 80s. Brooks & Dunn’s version did much better, and reached #4, and it was named the ACM’s Vocal Event of the Year in 2007.

The title track was the last single, and performed more disappointingly, topping out at 16. The chorus talks about “slick pick up trucks”, and this frankly boring and formulaic Southern rock style track feels altogether too slick for comfort. Ronnie Dunn is a great singer, but he needs better material than this to let him shine. He got it with my favorite track, the sensitive lost-love ballad ‘I May Never Get Over You’. Almost as good is the tender Darrell Brown/Radney Foster song ‘Again’, about falling in love, which closes the album on a positive note. It’s a shame neither of these was released to radio.

Kix was largely sidelined here; he only got four lead vocals to Ronnie’s nine, none of them on particularly memorable songs, and three of his tracks were the original songwriter demo recordings. Most of the money invested in this album must have gone on some of the big production numbers on Ronnie’s tracks. The harmonica-led ‘My Heart’s Not A Hotel’, written by Rob Crosby and Allen Shamblin, and co-produced by Mark Wright, is quite a nice song with the kind of vulnerable lyric suited to Kix’s voice, about a man in love with a woman who is basically using him as a convenient option, but disappointingly he sounds rather uninvested vocally. Kix sounds better on the original demo of his own mid-tempo ‘One More Roll Of The Dice’, which he produced with co-writer Tom Shapiro, but the song is filler and once again the production is too heavy for my tastes. ‘She Likes To Get Out of Town’, written and produced with Bob DiPiero, is both generic Brooks & Dunn and over-produced.

The story song ‘Her West Was Wilder’ from the same team is more interesting, but would have been better still with more low key production. It tells of a woman who is just a little too much for the narrator to hold:

Every time I looked in those faraway eyes
I could see me getting left behind…
Where the wild wind blows and anything goes
As long as it’s over the line
I gave her my best
But her west was wilder than mine

While this was one of the duo’s less inspired efforts, there was enough here to appeal to their entrenched fanbase. The album reached #1 on the country charts and sold platinum.

Grade: C+