My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dave Cobb

Album Review: Dillon Carmichael – ‘Hell On An Angel’

20-something newcomer Dillon Carmichael from Kentucky (a nephew of John Michael Montgomery and Montgomery Gentry’s Eddie Montgomery) has just released his much-anticipated debut album, produced by Dave Cobb for Riser House, an Sony-backed independent label. His family pedigree suggests a mixture of traditional, 90s country and a bit of southern rock, and that is exactly what you get. Dillon co-wrote 8 of the 10 tracks, but the real star here is his rich deep baritone voice.
Initially I was a bit disappointed that it omits last year’s fabulous ‘Old Songs Like That’, a wonderful steel-laced tribute to great country songs of the past which I strongly recommend downloading in its own right. Also jettisoned but available separately is ‘Made To Be A Country Boy’ from early this year, a nice relaxed reflection on the influence of his childhood on him.

The album opens rather unexpectedly with the sound of a tornado warning siren as Dillon then launches into ‘Natural Disaster’, a brooding lonesome ballad about life’s failures. Written by Anthony Smith and Chris Wallin, it is one of only two tracks not co-written by Dillon, but makes for a magisterial introduction. The other outside song, Jon Pardi co-write Country Women’ is a lyrically cliche’d country rock number.

The title track ventures further into southern rock territory on the theme of ‘Mama Tried’, and is really not my cup of tea. ‘Old Flame’, which Dillon did write and is in fact his only solo composition here, is a slow, bluesy number which builds into southern rock.

Much more to my taste, the lead single ‘It’s Simple’ is a pretty ballad about the simple pleasures of life. ‘Dancing Away With My Heart’ is a lovely love song which I liked a lot.

Dillon’s mother helped him write ‘Hard On A Hangover’. This is a very good song about a man’s sneaking round which is punished when his wife leaves him:

I woke to the sound of a door slam
She left her wedding ring on the nightstand
With a note that told me it was over
That girl sure is hard on a hangover

I then realized my new-found freedom
And I pawned the wedding rings ’cause I don’t need ’em
And I blew the cash down at the Whiskey Barrel
And then I headed to the house, my honky tonk special

And then I woke to the sound of a tow truck
She said, “That car’s in my name, so you’re out ofluck”
I thought when she left, it was over
That girl sure is hard on a hangover

Even better and more traditional is ‘That’s What Hank Would Do’, a presumably autobiographical song about the life of an aspiring country songwriter which becomes a tribute to Hank Williams, set to a deeply authentic arrangement. This is really wonderful:

I pulled into Nashville writin’ songs for the radio
But chasin’ a sound didn’t work
I had to stick to what I know
And then I asked myself
What would Hank do?
He’d say “In with the old and out with the new”

He’d shoot you straight like his whiskey
Put pedal steel on everything
Write a song with three chords and the truth
Make you believe it when he sings like he’s talkin’ straight to you
That’s what Hank would do

’Might Be A Cowboy’ is the reflective and convincingly sweet love song of a rodeo rider:

I might be a cowboy, but I’ll never ride away

The record closes with ‘Dixie Again’, a slow bluesy piano ballad about losing and finding oneself:

I lost my direction but I kept pushin’ on
Took a left at the right and a right at the wrong
I’ve shot for redemption and I missed every time
Got to get back to someplace south of the line

This is an impressive debut from an artist with a great voice and some strong country instincts.

Grade: A-

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Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘Sparrow’

It’s often particularly disheartening when an artist one has seen as a bright spot in a generally dismal music scene changes his or her style significantly. In the case of Ashley Monroe’s latest album, we can’t ascribe it to selling out as I can’t really see this new style getting her any more radio interest than her more traditional country music. Dave Cobb’s production is not only not remotely traditional, I find it hard to detect anything recognisably country at all on most of the record. She admits herself that she doesn’t know what genre this album might fall into. To my ears it draws on later 1960s pop with heavy use of strings and an almost psychedelic sound, shading into 70s Glen Campbell-Jimmy Webb arrangements. That’s not to say that it’s a bad record per se, just not what I was personally hoping for.

Lead single ‘Hands On You’ (a co-write with Jon Randall), a sexy, sultry song of regret for an encounter that never happened, has a hypnotic quality which grew on me somewhat over repeat listens. Randall also co-wrote ‘I’m Trying To’ with Ashley and Kassi Ashton, a pensive low key ballad about pretending a breakup isn’t hurting. This is one of the tracks I do like quite a bit, and the production is at least fairly restrained.

The two best songs come at the end of the set. Ashley wrote ‘Daddy I Told You’ with her Pistol Annies bandmate Angaleena Presley and Josh O’Keefe. It is a poignant message to Ashley’s late father, who died when she was only 13, set to a gentle melody. ‘Keys To The Kingdom’, a co-write with Waylon Payne, has a similar reflective vibe with a dreamlike poetic lyric.

The pretty sounding but lyrically incisive ‘Mother’s Daughter’, written with Brendan Benson and Ryan Beaver, which paints a portrait of a woman who cannot sustain a relationship.

The backings tend to overwhelm otherwise strong songs like the mid-paced ‘Hard On A Heart’ which is just too busy. ‘Wild Love’ is plain dreary underneath its dramatic sweeping strings, as is ‘Paying Attention’. ‘She Wakes Me Up (Rescue Me)’, addressed to Ashley’s daughter, is also rather dull and not at all country sounding.

‘This Heaven’ (written with Miranda Lambert’s ex Anderson East and Aaron Raitiere) has a subdued churchy arrangement which is quite nice.

‘Orphan’, written with Moak and Gordie Sampson, the song which provides the album title, has a mournful underpinning and another poetic, questioning lyric. Ashley’s voice soars beautifully over the solemn cello-dominated arrangement. ‘Rita’, written with Nicole Galyon and Paul Moak, has a similar vibe.

Ashley’s songwriting is stronger than ever, and I like her sweetly vulnerable vocals here too. But the arrangements are really not to my taste, and I doubt I will revisit this album much. Gie it a try to see if it works for you.

Grade: B

Album Review: The Oak Ridge Boys – ’17th Avenue Revival’

The Oak Ridge Boys started out as a gospel quartet, and after many years in country music have returned to their roots for this latest album, produced by Dave Cobb.

In many ways this is more of a traditional southern gospel record than a country one. It’s pretty good in that respect, although the guys’ advancing age is rather obviously showing in their vocals, particularly on the solos, although the harmonies are still stirring and they still have plenty of energy.

The opening ‘Brand New Star’, a rousing farewell to a deceased friend, is still highly enjoyable despite the vocal deficiencies. I also quite liked the traditional ‘Walk In Jerusalem’. The upbeat ‘God’s Got It, however,’ is a bit too bluesy for my taste.

‘There Will be Light’, written by Jamey Johnson, Buddy Cannon and Larry Shell, is a slow, churchy ballad with piano accompaniment. There are reverent takes on the Southern gospel hymns ‘I’d Rather Have Jesus’ and ‘Where He Leads Me I Will Follow’ which are quite effective.

A cover of Brandy Clark’s ‘Pray To Jesus’ sounds great musically with some fabulous Jerry Lee Lewis style piano and the best vocals on the album, but the semi-ironic lyrics feel out of place on this project.

Much more appropriate is the record’s most country track, Vince Gill’s Ashley Monroe co-write ‘If I Die Drinkin’’, which is emotionally sung with a gentle piano-led arrangement. This is excellent.

Also good is a cover of folk-blues legend Leadbelly’s ‘Let It Shine On Me’, which makes for an effective closing track.

One final note of disappointment: there are only nine tracks, and a total playing time of less than half an hour.

Grade: B

Album Review: Jason Isbell and The 400 Unit – ‘The Nashville Sound’

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m always amazed at the frequency by which Jason Isbell releases new music, every two years, a pace largely unheard of for an artist of his ilk and prestige who isn’t bound by the regimental restrictions of mainstream country music. For most singer/songwriters, pouring their soul into an album feels like an exhaustive process, yet for Isbell, easily the most masterful artist in the Americana vein, it feels like a piece of cake. And yet, he only gets more nuanced and complex with each passing record.

The Nashville Sound, produced by Dave Cobb in RCA Studio A, has an urgent aggression that puts sound to the deep political divide that has risen in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President. Isbell began writing and recording this past January, which allowed him to tackles this unrest from different angles while exploring varying perspectives.

Isbell’s observations often veer personal, as on “White Man’s World,” a bluesy rocker in which he uses his wife and daughter as a catalyst for conveying his fears about the future under the male dominant Trump administration. The track brilliantly traverses these feelings both externally and internally, jumping from disappointment (“I thought this world could be hers one day, but her momma knew better”) and anger (“I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation, I think the man upstairs must’a took a vacation”) to optimism (“I still have faith, but I don’t know why maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes”).

“Hope The High Road” generalizes the anger with words of encouragement, providing an anthemic message to anyone who feels they fell on the losing side of 2016. His message, that he hopes “the high road leads you home again, to a world you want to live in,” is heightened by his smart admission – he’s singing as much to himself as he is to them.

No matter how positively he spins the message, “Hope The High Road” bleeds with the same blistering anger that drives the majority of The Nashville Sound. It suggests hope as a process, not an absolute or a right. Isbell also knows the hope can seem distant, especially when a person’s reality is limited by circumstance. “The Cumberland Gap,” one of Isbell’s trademark character sketches, lays bare the struggles of a man suffocated by the extensive promise and bleak reality of mountaintop coal mining. Isbell’s brilliance is how masterfully he’s able to paint dire circumstances around men with smart moral compasses. Andy was undoubtedly the friend we all wish was in our lives. This man, who remains nameless throughout, is a son for the ages. He’s desperate for greener pastures but thinks how his mom would react. He’s the only family member left to care for her.

Another such illustration, “Tupelo,” examines the hopes we hold onto to get us through life, as told through the story of a drunk who imagines a better life with a woman in the titular Mississippi town. Isbell never allows us insight into whether or not the woman is real or a made-up construct in the man’s mind, allowing us to feel this guy’s struggle alongside him.

Isbell brings his internal struggle to the surface on “Last of My Kind,” which examines his first person perspective on trying to find his place in this world. This thought process continues on “Anxiety,” a brutally honest look at how fear can paralyze our psyche and contribute to feeling restless and lost.

As much as The Nashville Sound confronts our desire for a sense of place, it also seeks to examine personal relationships. A friendship with Ryan Adams led to “Chaos and Clothes,” a song about his 2016 divorce from singer and This Is Us actress Mandy Moore.

“Something To Love,” which Isbell wrote for his two-year-old daughter Mercy, is a rare moment of levity, anchored by the sunny fiddle played by his wife, fellow singer-songwriter Amanda Shires. That Nashville Sound isn’t necessarily a strict country album, but “Something To Love” is no doubt a country song.

As if it’s even possible, there is one song on The Nashville Sound that ranks above the rest and belongs in the upper echelon of Isbell’s legacy. That track is “If We Were Vampires,” a stunning love song about a couple’s appreciation for one another knowing that time will ultimately tear them apart:

If we were vampires and death was a joke

We’d go out on the sidewalk and smoke

And laugh at all the lovers and their plans

I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand

 

Maybe time running out is a gift

I’ll work hard ’til the end of my shift

And give you every second I can find

And hope it isn’t me who’s left behind

 

It’s knowing that this can’t go on forever

Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone

Maybe we’ll get forty years together

But one day I’ll be gone or one day you’ll be gone

“If We Were Vampires” is Isbell at his best, giving the world a song that stands up to “Elephant,” which I’ll always consider his crowning achievement as an artist. His best songs, ten of which appear here, are like punches to the gut in all the best ways. The Nashville Sound is a brilliant album from beginning to end.

Grade: A+

Album Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Welcome Home’

The Zac Brown Band, always eclectic, took that spirit rather too far in their last, terrible, album. Evidently chastened by fans’ lack of enthusiasm for their new direction, they have returned to more organic (though not necessarily paticularly country) sounds on their latest release, their first for Elektra. They have turned to Dave Cobb to produce the album.

The overarching theme is one of home, and family, a mood set by the charming lead single, ‘My Old Man’. A touching tribute to Zac’s late father set to a gentle melody, this is a true delight. The piano-led ‘Real Thing’ is also very good, with a nostalgic look back to a father or grandfather who teaches Zac you can’t substitute for the best, a lesson which he applies to other things in life. (Coca cola, most associated with the title phrase, is not mentioned by name, but the band’s Atlanta background makes it an inescapable point of reference – if Zac’s lucky he might get this picked up for a commercial; if he’s unlucky he could get sued.)

‘Family Table’ is a fond ode to a welcoming home, which I liked. ‘2 Places At 1 Time’ is about the competing lures of home and away, and is a nicely delivered wistful ballad. ‘Long Haul’ is quite pleasant but a little forgettable, with a 70s country-rock-AC ballad feel.

All but one of the songs were composed by the writing team of Brown, Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti, with occasional outside help, not necessarily for the better. Indeed, it is with the co-writes that the album gets off course. Band member Coy Bowles co-wrote the opening tune, ‘Roots’. This is a good but ironically slightly over produced big ballad about the lure of music and a musician’s life. ‘Start Over’, co-written with rapper/producer Pharrell, is one of the band’s signature Caribbean styled tunes, which (although not really my cup of tea) is quite well suited to the lyric (about getting away to the beach as a way of reconnecting with an ex). Some introductory yelping, however, should definitely have been dispensed with – it sets my teeth on edge every time I hear it.

‘Your Majesty’ is a pretty love song, written by the guys with Kenny Habul (an Australian race car driver and solar power entrepreneur, who was mixed up in Zac Brown’s 2016 drugs bust), marred by slightly annoying production, particularly annoying ah-oh interjections. Aslyn, a female pop singer-songwriter from Atlanta with a powerful voice, co-wrote and duets on rock ballad ‘Trying To Drive’. The song is nothing special and not country at all), and the production too heavy, but the vocals are strong in their own style.

The album closes with a fine cover of John Prine’s ‘All The Best’, a pained and subtly bitter farewell to a former love:

Well I guess love
Is like a Christmas card
Decorate a tree
And throw it in the yard
It decays and dies
And the snowman melts
Well I knew love
I knew how love felt

I knew love
Oh, love knew me
When I walked around
Love walked with me
But I got no hate
And I got no pride
Well I got
So much love
That I cannot hide

This is a definite highlight.

This is less of a return to form than I had hoped, and there are few standout moments other than ‘My Old Man’ and ‘All The Best’. Those two tunes are definitely worth downloading, and the whole thing is probably worth checking out if you’re a fan. There is also not much variation in tempo. One cannot help wondering if the band’s hearts are really elsewhere.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘From a Room: Volume 1’

Ever since he swept the 2015 CMA Award and his career-defining performance with Justin Timberlake at that show, Chris Stapleton has been regarded by many as the savior of country music, who will lift the genre out of its creative doldrums and set it back on a path towards traditionalism. The great irony is that Stapleton’s music is really not that traditional for the most part. Roots-oriented, organic, and substantive yes, but he’s hardly the modern day equivalent of Randy Travis in 1986. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the genre has benefited from his success. He has a powerful voice but his style owes more to blue-eyed sound southern rock than traditional country. His style is not usually my cup of tea, but I actually like Chris Stapleton quite a lot and have ever since he was the lead singer for The SteelDrivers. And regardless of whether or not one likes his vocal style, one can’t help but root for someone who can have commercial success while bypassing the cesspool that is country radio.

The follow-up to his immensely successful debut album Traveller was originally envisioned as a two-disc set, but Mercury apparently had some reservations about a double album and opted to release From a Room in two volumes, with the second set tentatively slated for an autumn release. One of the unfortunate consequences of his is that the first volume consists of a mere nine tracks. No album should consist of less then ten songs, in my opinion. I was annoyed when RCA trimmed back its albums to nine tracks in the 1980s and the practice, though rare nowadays, still does not sit well with me. Surely there were more songs recorded that could have been used to flesh out the album a bit. That criticism aside, From a Room is, for the most part, an outstanding collection.

Like Traveller, From a Room: Volume 1 was co-produced by Stapleton and Dave Cobb and recorded in RCA Studio A. Eight of its nine tracks were co-written by Stapleton (many apparently from his extensive back catalog), the sole exception being a stunning version of “Last Thing I Needed, First Thing This Morning”, which was a #2 hit for Willie Nelson in 1982. It tells the story of a morning in which everything goes wrong: the delivery of a past-due bill notice, an alarm clock that fails to go off on time, a spilled pot of coffee, among other things, culminating in the narrator’s wife or girlfriend calling an end to their relationship. Stapleton’s wife Morgane Hayes-Stapleton provides the harmony vocals.

Another tune that will be familiar to many listeners is “Either Way”, which was originally included on Lee Ann Womack’s Call Me Crazy album in 2008. A ballad about a relationship taking its last dying breaths, it is the perfect vehicle for Stapleton’s powerhouse voice. Wikipedia lists it as the current single. Don’t expect to hear it the radio.

“Up to No Good Livin'”, the sole traditional track on the album, is my favorite. Again featuring Morgane signing harmony, it is a pedal-steel drenched up-tempo number about a reformed hell raiser whose wife refuses to believe that he’s mended his ways:

Wish I could come home from workin’
And not have her checking my breath
I’m tired of her turning her questions
Into the Gettysburg Address
There’s no reason why she shouldn’t trust me
The fact that she don’t makes me mad
Can’t count all the times that I’ve begged her
Honey, just let my past be the past

I used to drink like a fish and run like a dog
Without a whole lotta sh*t not committed by law
People called me the Picasso of painting the town
I’ve finally grown up
I’ve finally changed from that someone I was
To somebody I am
But she finds it hard to believe that she’s turned me around
So I’ll probably die before I live all my
Up to no good livin’ down

It’s no surprise, given Stapleton’s reputation as one of Nashville’s best songwriters, that From a Room: Volume 1 consists of very well-crafted and well executed songs. The sole dud is “Them Stems”, a tongue-in-cheek number about a marijuana user who has come to the end of his stash and desperate for a fresh supply. It’s catchy, but songs about drug use make me uncomfortable and as a result, I really can’t get into this one. One throwaway track on an album is no big deal but it’s a little harder to overlook when there are only nine songs in total.

From a Room: Volume 1 is sure to be one of 2017’s best sellers, and deservedly so. I’ve already played it several times and actually prefer it to Traveller. I’m looking forward to hearing the second volume in a few months.

Grade: A

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘My Old Man’

The Zac Brown Band have always maintained that they are not a strictly country band; however, they they have been one of the few (mostly) bright spots at country radio over the past decade.  With the release of the polarizing Jekyll + Hyde album, they ventured into the world of EDM and reggae.  It didn’t seem to hurt them commercially but it did alienate many of their fans.  The Band now seems to be extending an olive branch to those fans with their new release, “My Old Man”.

Written by Zac Brown with Niko Moon and Ben Simonetti, “My Old Man” is the latest in country music’s long-standing tradition of honoring one’s parents.  It channels old chestnuts as “Coal Miner’s Daughter”, “Daddy’s Hands”, “That’s My Job” and “Love Without End, Amen” and delivers essentially the same message as those classic songs.  While it doesn’t break any new ground, it does take the initial steps needed to get country music in general – and the Zac Brown Band in particular – back on track artistically.

A sparsely arranged ballad consisting of acoustic guitar, a little fiddle, a subtle string arrangement and the Band’s trademark harmonies, “My Old Man” opens with the narrator’s boyhood reminiscences of his father.  In the second verse, the narrator is grown with a son of his own.  The third verse reveals that the narrator’s father has passed away.  The narrator expresses hope that he can live up to the example that was set for him, and looks forward to an eventual reunion with his father in the afterlife.

“My Old Man” was produced by Dave Cobb, best known for his work with Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson.  It’s the refreshing glass of water that  fans have been crying out for during a long drought in the bro-country desert.  I look forward to hearing the Band’s forthcoming album.

Grade:  A

Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘The Bird & The Rifle’

lori_mckenna_cover_sq-8bf01c93fab9c51c99c2845e5912678475452f65-s300-c85The Bird & The Rifle comes on the heels of Lori McKenna finally achieving the level of songwriting success she’s so richly deserved since Faith Hill plucked her from obscurity in 2005. This record, her tenth, positions her at the next level – the masterful Dave Cobb produced it.

She’ll likely always be known more for songwriting cuts by other artists, which is a shame, since she’s a powerful artist in her own right. I’ll always be a bit biased, as McKenna is a local in my neck of the woods here in Massachusetts.

McKenna smartly included her own version of “Humble & Kind” among these ten tracks, which will hopefully draw some attention to the album. Given her local status I first heard the song when Little Big Town invited her on stage at the South Shore Music Circus in 2014. She also sang on Almost Famous, the local music show on my radio station 95.9 WATD-FM, long before Tim McGraw released it on Damn Country Music. Her version of “Humble & Kind,” which she wrote to impart wisdom to her children, is gorgeous and far more homespun than the one McGraw brought to #1.

The album, as one would expect, does go beyond that song. While she doesn’t treat us to “Girl Crush,” thank goodness, she does give us nine more original numbers. The album kicks of with the self-aware “Wreck You,” which Heidi Newfield recorded on What Am I Waiting For in 2008. The song, co-written with Felix McTeigue, details a shift in McKenna’s most important relationship:

I don’t know how to pull you back

I don’t know how to pull you close

All I know is how to wreck you

****

Somethin between us changed

I’m not sure if it’s you or me

But lately all I do seems to wreck you

McKenna also solely wrote a number of the album’s tracks. “We Were Cool” is nostalgia at its finest, reliving in brilliant detail, carefree times with great friends. Pessimism grips “Giving Up On Your Hometown,” a critical view of change in the place you grew up. “If Whiskey Were A Woman” is the perfect bookend to “Wreck You,” a darker take on a concept conceived by Highway 101 twenty-nine years ago. McKenna imagines, through a killer vocal, how much more sinister the bottle would be as a relationship partner than her, for her husband.

The Love Junkies, masterminds behind “Girl Crush,” reunite for a couple of tracks on The Bird & The Rifle. “Always Want You,” a lush waltz, deals with sameness and the idea that no matter what happens in this world, she’ll always want her man. Mid-tempo rocker “All These Things” was co-written by two-thirds of the trio (McKenna & Liz Rose) and while I love the melody, it offers little lyrically beyond a laundry list of different signifiers.

The morning after never sounded so beautifully regretful as it does on “Halfway Home,” a co-write with Barry Dean and easily one of the album’s strongest tracks. “Old Men Young Women” is brilliant commentary on the phenomenon of third wives that are often years their husband’s junior. A Modern Family rerun, in which Claire and Hailey in which the pair consider companion tattoos, inspired the title track. McKenna co-wrote the lovely ballad with Caitlyn Smith and Troy Verges.

The most apparent takeaway from The Bird & The Rifle is how little McKenna has changed in the face of momentous success. She clearly has a solid sense of self, which undoubtedly continues to serve her well. While the album does feature songs stronger than others, it’s still one of the year’s top releases and not to be missed. McKenna’s pen and Cobb’s production make for a fruitful marriage I hope continues in the years to come.

Grade: A

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘The Things That We Are Made Of’

marychapincarpenter_cvr_sq-64e4729aa565e3a4b0d11d91ba98a2f2477f41a6-s300-c85Mary Chapin Carpenter wasn’t sure who would be interested in producing her fifteenth album, The Things That We Are Made Of, as she rarely keeps up with current trends. She met with Dave Cobb at the suggestion of her publicist and, although no musical ideas were exchanged, the pair agreed to work together. Cobb’s blind faith has resulted in Carpenter’s most interesting album in more than a decade.

The Things That We Are Made Of explores the universal truth of self, the good and bad ingredients that make us who we are as people. Carpenter begins by looking at the two sides of life and how they live congruently with one another on the gorgeous “Something Tamed Something Wild.” She follows with “The Middle Ages,” a brilliant manifesto on aging where she ponders the clarity of the past and the murkiness of the future.

She grounds those feelings in reality on the contemplative “What Does It Mean to Travel” by examining the concept of space and the transformative nature of place. Trekking often means passing through those in between places as she does with “Livingston,” a reflection on the loneliness of the journey, which she did while traversing a long stretch of highway between Montana and Denver.

Carpenter returns to the human condition on “Map of My Heart,” a jaunty exportation of resiliency. There are cracks in her façade on “Oh Rosetta,” a conversation drenched in the self-doubt that arises when we question everything, wondering what it’s all for. We learn on “Deep, Deep Down Heart” that those questions don’t have answers because at our core, human beings are flawed. I found it freeing when I realized we’ll never ‘know it all.’ Life is a constant learning process with mistakes put before us as our greatest teachable moments.

The haunting “Hand on my Back” arises from knowing human connection is the grounding force that gives us permission to stop searching. It’s the bonds with other people that help us solidify our sense of place, of belonging, the comfort in knowing we’re not alone. It’s never a permanent fix, though, as we need the restlessness (in some fashion) to keep growing.

These same themes creep up again on “The Blue Distance,” a song inspired by Icelandic writer Roni Horn. Carpenter says that Horn describes the universe as ‘blue at it’s edges and it’s depths … the color of that distance is the color of emotion, the color of solitude and desire … the color of where you are not. And the color of where you can never go …’ I couldn’t extract the way “The Blue Distance” builds upon “Hand on my Back” in terms of the vital need for human interaction in our lives, but I do understand where she’s coming from conceptually.

There’s venerability at the core of “Note On A Windshield” that gives the song a purpose. We’d like to believe we’re all that person brave enough to go out on a limb, fight the fear of exposure, and take the risk. The song is about choosing a life with even the smallest intent, making sure you still have that something to believe in, the thing giving your days meaning.

The final cut, the title track, is a classic Carpenter ballad – slow and steady with her voice barely quivering above a whisper. It’s her signature technique, an art she’s perfected for more than thirty years. “The Things That We Are Made Of,” in Carpenter’s eyes, is the themes of the record. She brings the album full circle, proving that life is ever changing. We may figure some things out, but they’re not meant to stay that way forever.

The Things That We Are Made Of is a fully formed perfectly sequenced whole being best enjoyed in one sitting. It’s a journey worth embarking on, as Carpenter dispenses universal truths from a place of wisdom, as a woman who’s lived a life rich with experience. This isn’t a return to her country form, nor is it without dense production values overwhelming the second half. But it is Carpenter’s most exquisite piece of original work in more than a decade. She has something to say and has found an articulate way of expressing it. I certainly cannot fault her for that.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘Southern Family’

southern familyMixed artist compilations can often be hit and miss. This concept album based on life in the American South, produced by Dave Cobb, is no exception. The concept itself hangs together a little vaguely, and the artists come from country and Americana with a side of (white) soul and rock. However, if it is intended to represent the South as a whole, it is rather lacking in the ethnic diversity of participants.

Jason Isbell is normally more Americana than country, but ‘God Is A Working Man’ is definitely a country song, and an excellent one to boot. The lyric pays tribute to a working class family with lots of colourful details about a Pentecostal preacher and his son. The melody and rustic vibe remind me of ‘Grandpa Was A Carpenter’, as recorded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and John Prine on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Part II. I like it better than any of Isbell’s past recordings.

Brent Cobb is producer Dave’s cousin (actually, first cousin twice removed). His track, ‘Down Home’, is quite pleasant without being very memorable. I also quite enjoyed Holly Williams’ ‘Settle Down’, about starting a new family.

I tend to prefer Miranda Lambert when she isn’t rocking it up, so I enjoyed her song, ‘Sweet By And By’ – not the gospel classic but a reflective depiction of rural life and family philosophy which sounds as though it was written for the prompt of the album concept. The old fashioned folky lyric and vocal are charming, although a more stripped down arrangement would have been even better.

‘Learning’, by Miranda’s new boyfriend, Anderson East, an Americana/R&B artist based in Nashville, is not my style of music, but is pretty good of its kind. Shooter Jennings’ ‘Can You Come Over’ is in similar vein, but more listenable. Rich Robinson of the rock band the Black Crowes offers a loud and boring number.

John Paul White’s former duo the Civil Wars were much admired by many critics, but they were never quite my thing, and I’m afraid I strongly disliked White’s whispery tune here, ‘Simple Song’.

Not all the songs here are new. Zac Brown (who appears to have lost the plot on his last album) is back on form here with a nice cover of Skip Ewing’s ‘Grandma’s Garden’. Lee Ann Womack adds a sweet harmony. Jamey Johnson wrote the tender ‘Mama’s Table’ for the Oak Ridge Boys a few years ago, and revives it here himself. The song remembers childhood happiness. Brandy Clark has recorded the affecting ‘I Cried’, about a family funeral, before, but it fits neatly in the theme for this collection, and she sings it beautifully.

Morgane Stapleton, wife of Chris, once had her own record deal, although nothing was ever released. She has a very pretty voice in the vein of Lee Ann Womack or Dolly Parton, so I was disappointed that her contribution (backed by Chris) was not really to my taste. It is a dramatically slowed down blues/rock take on the oldie ‘You Are My Sunshine’ which sounds suicidally depressed.

This is a bit too varied for me as a whole, but there are several worthwhile tracks.

Grade: B

Album Review: Chris Stapleton – ‘Traveller’

imagesUpon learning that Chris Stapleton had penned a solo deal with Mercury, I assumed that the resulting album would be an eclectic and decidedly non-commercial one in the Americana vein – the sort of thing I like to listen to occasionally for a change of pace but not on a regular basis. Now that Traveller has finally been released I have to say that it comes as a somewhat of a surprise — and a pleasant one at that. While he does cover a number of musical styles, it is a much more polished affair than what I was expecting. Afew years ago it would have been considered a mainstream effort, though Stapleton’s voice is a bit too rough to enjoy widespread commercial success in any era.

Produced by Dave Cobb, Traveller consists of a generous 14 tracks, twelve of which were written or co-written by Stapleton. Among the two that he didn’t write are a bluesy cover of “Tennessee Whiskey” and “Was It 26”, a Don Sampson composition that sounds like it would have been at home on Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song album. Although his rendition of “Tennessee Whiskey” isn’t quite in alignment with my taste, Stapleton deserves credit for putting his own stamp on the song rather than doing a note-for-note reproduction of George Jones’ classic 1983 recording.

Longtime readers will not be surprised to hear that my favorite tracks are the more country-leaning ones. I particularly liked the stripped-down “Whiskey and You”, “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore”, and “Nobody To Blame” which sounds like a rediscovered Travis Tritt recording from the 90s. The album’s best track is “More of You” a beautiful mandolin-laced ballad which features a harmony vocalist that sounds a lot like Emmylou Harris. I’m a little less enthusiastic about the Southern rock numbers “Parachute”, “Might As Well Get Stoned” and “Outlaw State of Mind”, although I can’t actually say that I didn’t enjoy these songs.

I don’t expect Traveller to spawn any big radio hits but I think it’s one of those albums that might sell well despite a lack of airplay. I certainly hope so because it deserves to be heard.

Grade: A

Album Review: Jamey Johnson – ‘The Guitar Song’

Jamey Johnson’s much-anticipated follow-up to That Lonesome Song was finally released last week, laying to rest the fears expressed by some that he would be unable to match that dark 2008 masterpiece. The two discs in the set are grouped loosely by theme into the “black” and “white” albums, the former supposedly comprised of darker, more menacing songs like its predecessor, and the latter made up of more positive fare. In reality, this seems to be more marketing hype than anything, as the definition of what is dark and menacing as opposed to positive turns out not to be so — well, black and white, if you’ll pardon the pun. After listening to a digital copy of the first disc, I wasn’t quite sure if I’d just heard the black or white album. The issue of which songs belong on which disc, however, is a minor quibble that in no way detracts from the listener’s enjoyment.

Like its predecessor, The Guitar Song is made up of mostly original material — Johnson wrote or co-wrote 20 of the 25 tracks — and a handful of covers of country classics. His band, The Kent Hardly Playboys are once again present and credited as producers, with Dave Cobb and Arlis Albritton listed as co-producers on a few selected tracks.

The black album opens with “Lonely At The Top”, written in 1988 by Don Cook, Chick Rains and the late Keith Whitley. A demo of Whitley’s version exists, but as far as I’m aware, this is the first time the song has been commercially recorded and released. It tells the tale of a rising country music star who complains about the pressures of fame and fortune to a stranger in a bar. The stranger accepts the singer’s offer of a drink, responding:

… Thanks, I’ll have a double
I’ve worked up a powerful thirst
Just listening to all your troubles
And while he makes that drink,
I’ll smoke one, if you’ve got ’em
It might be lonely at the top
But it’s a bitch at the bottom.

The next track, “Cover Your Eyes”, written with Wayd Battle and Bobby Bare, is decidedly darker fare, in which the protagonist breaks up with his girlfriend over the telephone. “Poor Man Blues” is sounds like something David Allan Coe would have sung back in his heyday. The tune, though not the lyrics, are reminiscent of Coe’s 1983 hit “The Ride.” Next is Johnson’s tribute to the late, great Vern Gosdin, a cover of “Set ‘Em Up Joe”, the highlight of the first disc.

“Can’t Cash My Checks”, which Jamey wrote with James Otto, Jason Cope, and Shannon Lawson, is a timely tale of a man struggling in hard economic times, to which many listeners will unfortunately be able to relate. Of all the tracks on the first disc, this one seems the most likely to be released as a single at some point.

Nothing on the black disc was as bleak and desperate as the songs on That Lonesome Song. Based solely on the marketing hype, I was expecting to want to slash my wrists after listening to it; however, I found it much more enjoyable than I had expected. I didn’t think that the white disc could possibly live up to the high standards set by the black disc and after hearing the first track on Disc 2, the slightly disappointing “By The Seat Of Your Pants” — which is a bit more Southern Rock for my taste, it appeared that I was correct. However, things began to improve with track #2, “California Riots” — which seems like it should have been on the black disc — and the unusual “Dog In The Yard”, which I really liked. The title track, on which Johnson is joined by co-writer Bill Anderson, is a gem. It is followed by the best song in the collection, “That’s Why I Write Songs”, a stripped-down song consisting solely of Johnson singing lead vocals and playing an acoustic guitar. Recorded at The Ryman Auditorium, it gives the listener a rare glimpse of Johnson’s sensitive side, as he pays tribute to the great songwriters who inspired him — a list that includes Harlan Howard, Bob McDill, Whitey Shafer, Bill Anderson, and Hank Cochran.

Things swing back into Southern Rock mode with “Macon” and back into Outlaw Country with “Good Times Ain’t What They Used To Be”, on which Johnson channels Waylon Jennings. This is followed by a surprisingly good cover version of “For The Good Times”, the Kris Kristofferson classic made famous by Ray Price. It’s worth listening to if only for Eddie Long’s magnificent steel guitar work.

Overall, this is a very satisfying album, without the pop pretensions and overwrought production that mar so many contemporary country releases. The utilization of Johnson’s road band gives the album a more live feel than most studio recordings. The band often breaks into lengthy jam sessions at the end of certain tracks — a bit too lengthy at times, bordering on self-indulgence. Fans of bubble-gum pop country will find little here to appeal to them, but those who yearn for the type of country music that Nashville used to produce with regularity, will be more than satisfied. This is without a doubt one of the best albums of 2010, and one that deserves a home in any country fan’s collection.

Grade: A