My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Dave Rawlings

EP Reviews: Lori McKenna – ‘Heart Shaped Bullet Hole’ and Punch Brothers – ‘Ahoy!’

A commanding drum beat and cheeky 1980s-style electric guitars greet the listener on “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole,” a Disney jam session meets “Down At The Twist and Shout” confection that anchors Lori McKenna’s EP of the same name, her six-song follow-up to last year’s highly emotional Lorraine. It’s by far the most experimental thing she’s ever done, and the results are phenomenal. In this instance, taking creative risks pays off in spades.

McKenna then goes on to incorporate these creative instincts in the other tracks, showcasing a willingness to step beyond the familiarity of the lush acoustic sound she’s honed for the better part of her career. These differences, sometimes far subtler than others, make most of the EP an enjoyable listen.

An electric guitar penetrates the musical bed of “Whiskey and Chewing Gum,” a Troy Verges co-write, while the acoustic guitar underpinnings of “All It Takes” (co-written with her ‘sixth child’ Andrew Dorff) gives the track a fun, folksy vibe. Both songs are also standouts lyrically, with more than an abundance of memorable lines.

Kicking off with three such strong forward thinking songs, the rest of the EP sounds a bit like a retreat back to the comfortable with McKenna sticking firm to her coffeehouse roots. That isn’t necessarily a bad choice on her part, but I wanted more, especially since she’s surrounded herself with such ear-catching songs. The lush arrangements actually get in the way of two tracks – “Sometimes He Does” and “This and the Next Life,” which are both excellent songs in their own right, but feel predictable, with the latter a bit too slow for me to fully engage with.

I had similar thoughts with her Ashley Ray co-write “No Hard Feelings,” but the hook is strong, and their twist on the classic break-up ballad (“Once it’s gone it’s gone/So no hard feelings”) is stunning – they leave the listener hanging –  wondering how is she able to break off their love so cleanly? Did she ever really love him at all? That simple mystery gives the track its allure.

Punch Brothers, one of the coolest – and criminally underrated – bands making music today take similar strides, serving up Ahoy! their companion EP to February’s masterwork Who’s Feeling Young Now?, one of my favorite albums of 2012. Consisting of five tracks, the project brilliantly displays Chris Thile’s continued growth since Nickel Creek, proving why he so richly deserves his MacArthur Grant.

Thile is seemingly unmatched as both a mandolin virtuoso and effective vocalist, but Ahoy! proves he and his band mates are also equally skilled as musical interpreters, turning the set’s three cover songs into completely reimagined takes on the originals. The vastly different tunes, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ “Down Along The Dixie Line” and Noise Rock group Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus” all feel right at home in the progressive folk settings Punch Brothers frame them in.

Ritter’s ethereal “Another New World,” a slightly ambiguous epic, is the least transformed, staying true to the original. But the addition of Thile’s mandolin and the accents of fiddle give the track grounding, adding dimension to the somewhat tragic story. “Down Along the Dixie Line,” from Welch’s 2011 The Harrow and the Harvest is the complete antithesis, morphing from a southern gothic ballad into a fiery romp. Both are effective readings, although Punch Brothers barely give the lyric room to breath, nearly suffocating the story by speeding it up a little too fast.

The real delight is “Icarus Smicarus,” a noise rock disaster turned progressive bluegrass delight. One of Punch Brothers’ core appeals is their left of center oddity, which is fully explored in this song’s brilliant eccentricity. The lack of any significant narrative structure, let alone the usual verse/chorus/verse/bridge pattern of country songwriting will alienate anyone in search of tangible meaning, but the connectedness of the group cannot be denied.

“Moonshiner,” the traditional folk song made famous with versions by The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan is my personal favorite on the set, showcasing the band’s wicked instincts with a killer narrative. The lone original is the wonderfully titled “Squirrel of Possibility,” an elegant mandolin and fiddle driven instrumental.

As a whole, both McKenna and Punch Brothers have turned in some exquisite work, each exploring different facets of their creativity all the while staying true to themselves as visionaries. I still would like to see McKenna challenge herself even more, with further exploration of songs in the vein of “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole.” Her ballads are still effective but are too frequent and beginning to fade into sameness, thus stripping them of their potent emotion.

Luckily Punch Brothers seem nowhere near the peak of their artistry, and Ahoy! shows a band built on taking daring risks that more often than not feature big pay offs for the listener. I can only dream about where the coming decades will take them, and if they stay as crisp and in tune as they are now, it’s going to be one heck of a prosperous musical odyssey.

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole

Grade: B

Listen on Spotify.

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Ahoy!

Grade: A

Listen on Spotify.

Buy it at amazon.

Album Review – Kathy Mattea – ‘Love Travels’

Three years after Walking Away A Winner returned Kathy Mattea to the upper reaches of the charts, she returned with Love Travels, an eleven-song collection that saw her return to exploring her Celtic roots, while still trying to have hits at radio.

The most successful of the album’s singles was “455 Rocket,” a Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings composition featuring a decidedly pop-country arrangement indicative of the era. A CMA Video of the Year Winner, the song peaked at #21 in the states but fared better in Canada where it peaked at #16. I’ve always liked the song, and was surprised to learn Americana darlings Welch and Rawlings wrote it, but would not rank it among Mattea’s most impactful material. I quite like “I’m On Your Side,” the non-charting second single because of its infectious attitude, and upbeat persona.

The #36 peaking title track, a fabulous Celtic-inspired mid-tempo ballad, was the final single and shows the disconnect between Mattea and country radio. Mattea has always been a bit too smart for her own good, and while that makes for fantastic music, it keeps radio somewhat at bay. It’s too bad, too, because Love Travels contains some of the best music of her commercial days. Lionel Cartwright’s “If That’s What You Call Love” is an excellent somewhat pop flavored ballad Mattea wears beautifully. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album, and I love how the bed of steel guitar frames her delicate vocal.

Jim Pitman and Tom Kimmel’s Gospel flavored “The Bridge” is somewhat jittery in execution, but Mattea pulls it off with ease. While she does a great job with the song, I can only help but wonder how Wynonna Judd, a far better gospel-tinged vocalist, would blow the song out of the water. Another standout is Welch’s sonically brilliant “Patiently Waiting,” a groovy acoustic guitar led number that works because of Mattea’s confident vocal, the missing element from “The Bridge.” Recalling her mesmerizing “Knee Deep in A River,” “Sending Me Angels” shows she’s grown as a vocalist in the preceding five years and works wonders thanks to Mattea’s throaty vocal and use of steel as a framing technique. Cheryl Wheeler’s “Further and Further Away” finds Mattea tackling an airy vocal on a mid-tempo ballad that would’ve been stronger had the tempo been increased just a little. As it is, the track is too slow to be fully effective, but the combination of Mattea and Wheeler’s voices saves the song from being a complete washout.

The most powerful track on the album is the closer “Beautiful Fool” written by Don Henry. The song is a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr, a remembrance of the American legend often forgotten by most people. Like her seminal classic “Where’ve You Been” (which Henry co-wrote), “Beautiful Fool” relays its powerful message in an understated manner, down to the acoustic arrangement. Janis Ian, of “At 17” fame, and Mattea’s husband Jon Vezner wrote “All Roads To The River,” another Gospel inspired tune that ranks among my least favorite on the album because it takes Mattea too far out of her country sensibilities. While I’m all for singers trying something new, the way she has to stretch her voice on this song doesn’t work for me. “At The End of the Line” is a first-rate pop song and Mattea delivers a first-rate pop vocal. Unlike “All Roads to the River” she sounds natural and finds a nice groove with the tempo. It may not be the most country of all the tracks, but it still works.

Overall, Love Travels is a very strong album from one of country’s premier vocalists. It may have been the final release during her radio years, but it came at a time when her fellow contemporaries Patty Loveless, Suzy Bogguss, and Pam Tillis also saw their fortunes dissipate. It’s not surprising as smart intelligent country music has a short life in mainstream culture. But that doesn’t make Love Travels any less of a fine album and one worthy of a listen

Grade: A – 

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Four The Record’

Miranda Lambert is by and large my favorite contemporary female artist because of her intrinsic ability to blend both the artistic and commercial sensibilities of country music on her records. She appeals to country radio with singles ready for heavy rotation yet restrains from populating her albums with gutless filler like her fellow artists.

Four The Record was recorded in six days, the week following her wedding to Blake Shelton.  Sessions began at 10am and lasted until midnight each day. Lambert has said she likes getting into a vibe and hunkering down to complete a record. This technique works in her favor, making the album every bit as cohesive as diverse. Plus, she’s using it to further her individuality. It sounds like nothing else coming out of Nashville right now and the uniqueness sets her apart from her peers.

Lambert is also a prime example of the quintessential songwriter. She knows how to write a killer song yet has a knack for selecting outside material from some of the most unique and interesting songwriters. Its one reason why listening to a Lambert album is such a joy. Four The Record features many such moments from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings gorgeous “Look at Miss Ohio” to Brandi Carlile’s folksy “Same Out You.”

I love the Welch/Rawlings ballad for it’s captivating story. Lambert has a way of making everything she sings sound interesting and she succeeds here. The air of mystery holds together the brilliant lyric – she’s running around with her ragtop down to escape the pressures of getting married. She’s fleeing her obligations to do the right thing, yet we never really know why she’s bolting to Atlanta. She’s reclaiming her independence but not without the guilt of what she’s leaving behind. It’s a story song for the ages, made even more appealing by the understated production and backing vocals by Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town.

“Same Old You,” another understated winner, fell into Lambert’s lap after Carlile felt she couldn’t sell it like Lambert. I love the folksy vibe of the production here – the gentle strum of the lead guitar sets it apart from the rest of the album. But what brings the song to new heights is the Loretta Lynn-like quality of Carlile’s lyric. (Lynn is the common dominator the bonds Lambert’s friendship with Carlile). It’s refreshing when the narrator finally sees what’s in front of her – that no matter what day of the week, he’s just the same old person and he’s never going to change. When Lambert sings about how hurt his mama’s going to be when she finds out there won’t be any wedding to cap off this relationship, it shows her maturity. I like how she’s drawn to songs that bring new depths to her feistiness. She’s every bit the same woman, but doesn’t have to resort to killing off her man to prove it.

Another track to display this growth is Don Henry and Phillip Coleman’s “All Kinds of Kinds.” A sweeping ballad about diversity, it not only defines the link binding all the songs together, but spins a unique angle on acceptance. The beautiful flourishes of Dobro give the song a soft quality I find appealing and the metaphor of circus acts as a means of driving home the main point showcases the songwriters’ cleverness in crafting their story.  Read more of this post

Album Review: Various Artists – ‘The Lost Notebooks Of Hank Williams’

In his lifetime Hank Williams was keen to be recognised as a songwriter and grateful for pop covers f his work. in the years since his tragic and self-induced death, his songs have been covered from artists across the This album presents a dozen songs based on lyrics or scraps of lyrics left by Hank Williams, which have been completed by contemporary artists. It is an interesting project if a controversial one, and I would have liked it to be clearer what each participant contributed to the creative process. The tunes are all newly composed; the lyrics apparently range from completed lyrics which need only the music to be added (‘The Love That Faded’, the original manuscript lyric for which is the only one to be reproduced in the liner notes) to just a couple of lines serving as springboard for a modern songwriter’s inspiration. Each artist also uses his or her usual producer and their own selection of studio musicians.

The results range from the excellent to the dire, with some in between. The artists include both country singers-songwriters and those from other genres with a longstanding appreciation for country music and Hank Williams in particular, with Bob Dylan the first to be approached. Perhaps unsurprisingly those artists with a deeper grounding in country music have produced results more in keeping with the original, and more to my personal taste.

The best track is Alan Jackson’s ‘You’ve Been Lonesome Too’, which opens the set and manages to sound genuinely inspired by Hank, helped along by Keith Stegall’s sensitively authentic production, the excellent recreation of the Drifting Cowboys by the likes of Stuart Duncan and Paul Franklin and Alan’s straightforward reading. It really doesn’t feel like pastiche, but a genuine unknown Hank Williams song, and one which stands up in its own right as an excellent song.

Vice Gill and Rodney Crowell collaborated on ‘I Hope You Shed A Million Tears’, and perform the song together. The Drifting Cowboys’ Don Helms provides added authenticity by guesting on steel on what must have been one of his last recording sessions (he died in 2008). Gill’s sweet vocal is interspersed with Crowell’s narration – the latter sounds more authentically Hank, but Gill sounds lovely and the final result is a fine song in its own right. I loved Crowell’s line, “I loved you like there’s no tomorrow, then found out that there’s not“. Merle Haggard tackles Hank’s religious side, giving a simple retelling of ‘The Sermon On The Mount’ an attractive melody.

Patty Loveless and husband Emory Gordy Jr carried out the writing duties on, and Patty sings the up-tempo ‘You’re Through Fooling Me’, which is highly enjoyable and sounds convincingly like a hillbilly song from the late 1940s if not necessarily a Hank Williams song. It would have fitted in well on either of her last two albums.

These four songs are the ones for country fans to download if going the digital route, and are all well worth adding to your digital library.

Hank’s grand daughter Holly Williams gives the family’s seal of approval to the project, and is repsosible for another highlight, although like a number of the artists included, her melody, while perfectly attractive, does not sound quite like a Hank Williams song. She delivers a smoothly sultry vocal on ‘Blue Is My Heart’, which is a very strong song in its own right, supported by her father on (uncredited) harmony. Norah Jones’s song, ‘How Many Times Have You Broken My Heart’ has a jazz-based tune and a stripped down production set to the acoustic guitars of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who also add tasteful harmonies. It is pleasant listening but ultimately lightweight, without the emotional intensity the lyrics demand. Lucinda Williams’s effort, ‘I’m So Happy I Found You’, has the opposite problem – a positive love song which sounds more like a dirge.

I was bored by Sheryl Crow’s ‘Angel Mine’ on first listen, but the multi-tracked vocals give it a folky feel which works quite well. Levon Helm’s distinctive vocal on ‘You’ll Never Again Be Mine’ (co-written with Helm’s producer Larry Campbell) has a nice old-time feel, backed up nicely by the backing vocals of Amy Helm and Teresa Williams, but is not the most interesting song.

The songs completed and sung by Bob Dylan (‘The Love That Faded’) and Jack White (‘You Know That I Know’) suffer from both gentlemen’s limited (to put it kindly) vocal ability, although they are both good songs. I would have really enjoyed ‘You Know That I Know’, an accusatory cheating song, if only a more competent singer had been allowed to front the performance, as White is awful. Dylan is not much better, but the sensitive production of his track is some recompense. His son Jakob is an unimpressive and bland vocalist and the melody of his song, ‘Oh Mama, Come Home’, lacks the urgency of the lyric.

Multi-artist tributes or concept albums always tend to be hit and miss, and this is no exception. There are enough tracks which work for this to be worth hearing.

Grade: B

Growing older gracefully

Reba McEntire’s latest single, the loud and over-produced ‘Turn On The Radio’, has her firmly following the latest trends. We often bemoan the youth mania which has overtaken country radio in recent years and made it hard for an older artist to get radio play. Reba definitely defied the odds when she made her successful comeback last year well into her fifties, but it’s a shame that she felt she needed to follow the template cut out by today’s young pop-country stars in order to compete with them. Obviously it worked for Reba, who achieved her 24th #1 single with ‘Consider Me Gone’, but personally I preferred the lyrically mature follow-up single, ‘I Keep On Loving You’, where Reba played her age.

No career lasts forever, and only a handful of Reba’s contemporaries can still hope for radio play: George Strait, Alan Jackson, the about-to-retire Brooks & Dunn, are all seeing success in their 50s, but most of their contemporaries, however talented or however bright their star was in earlier years, now struggle to compete with attractive young faces in an increasingly image-conscious era. Female singers in particular struggle to get radio play once they hit their forties, even if, like Reba and Sara Evans, they try to record radio friendly material. Lee Ann Womack is trying to balance radio-friendly material with quality, with some success. Yet the perception than country music is more open to older artists is at the root of the influx of artists from other genres.

Some artists who are no longer selling as well as they did in their heyday have responded by embracing the greater artistic freedom which comes with an independent label and lower expectations, and taken unexpected new routes. Patty Loveless produced her masterpiece Sleepless Nights and last year’s bluegrass project Mountain Soul II, and Kathy Mattea released the acclaimed concept album Coal. Emmylou Harris ventured into Americana territory and gained much critical acclaim. Others turn to religious music. Many stars have done so at the height of their careers (most recently Alan Jackson with his labor of love Precious Memories), and it is even more common to include a religious track on a mainstream album. Others have waited until their star has begun to fade. Randy Travis, once the biggest star in country, released five religious records in six years in the 2000s, and gained a new following in Christian music, although he has since returned to secular music.

Taking the long view, though, country music has historically been kinder to older artists than the youth fixated pop world. Buck Owens’ first retirement, at around 50, was thought premature by fans, and he staged a successful minor comeback a decade later thanks in part to his admirer Dwight Yoakam. Vern Gosdin didn’t have his first solo hit until his 40s and had his greatest success in his 50s in the late 1980s, although his is an extreme example. Our current Spotlight Artist George Jones had his biggest hit, ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, in his late 40s, and was still charting, at least occasionally, at 70. Other veterans like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson, both now in their 70s, may be missing from radio playlists, but their new recordings are greeted with the respect they deserve. Gene Watson – never as big a star as he should have been – is still making great music and released my favourite album of 2009.

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