My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Doug Lancio

Album Review: Mandy Barnett — ‘Strange Conversation’

The last time we heard from Mandy Barnett was 2013, when she released I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson. It’s taken five years for her to follow it up and she does so with an album that finds her exploring uncharted territory in her 22-year career.

As Barnett puts it frankly, Strange Conversation isn’t a country album. She recorded it in Muscle Shoals, and through inspiration from the area’s classic sound, she plays instead under the umbrella and within the sonic textures of modern-day Americana and she’s enlisted drummer Marco Giovino and guitarist Doug Lancio to serve as her producers. The former has worked with Robert Plant and Buddy Miller while the latter has collaborated with John Hiatt and Patty Griffin.

Strange Conversation opens with “More Lovin,’” an excellent cover of the song originally recorded by Mabel John. The groove, created by a nice mixture of upright bass and crashing percussion, gives the song an appealing jazzy groove. She travels back to the 1960s for her R&B and soul-infused version of “It’s All Right (You’re Just In Love),” which originates with the Alabama-based band The Tams.

“Dream Too Real To Hold” jumps ahead to 1997 and came to Barnett via Greg Garing, who among his many contributions, worked with Kenny Vaughn to revitalize Lower Broadway in Nashville some time ago. It’s another excellent song, with nice jazzy undertones. The title track is a pleasant ballad which finds Barnett turning in a sultry vocal performance.

The album continues with “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” originally recorded and released by Sonny & Cher in 1972. Barnett mostly keeps the song within the same vein as the original, retaining Hiatt to sing on it with her. They work fine together and the lyric is good, but I hate the fuzzy and cluttered arrangement, which unnecessarily drowns them out. I know it’s in keeping with how the song was intended when written, but it’s very unappealing to my ears.

Tom Waits originally released “Puttin’ On The Dog” in 2000. The lyric, a sexual innuendo, is slinky and the song is downright obscure. Like the Sonny & Cher cover that preceded it, it’s also not to my taste. “All Night” is pure lounge and torch, as though it comes straight from an old smoky jazz club. It fits perfectly within Barnett’s classic wheelhouse.

Neil Sedaka pitched “My World Keeps Slipping Away” to Barnett directly. She evokes Rosanne Cash, who I could easily hear covering this song, on the sparse ballad, which she knocks out of the park. “The Fool” is not a cover of the Lee Ann Womack classic, but rather a tune written by legendary country and pop singer Lee Hazlewood. The barroom anthem, one of the album’s best tracks, revives Barnett’s classic sound and gives the latter half of the Strange Conversation some much-needed pep and variety. She closes the ten-track album with a cover of Andre Williams’ “Put A Chain On It,” a slice of straight-up R&B that features backing from the McCrary Sisters.

Besides insisting Strange Conversation isn’t a country album, which it most certainly is not, Barnett also says it purposefully doesn’t rely on the full-power of her voice. This choice, which makes use of her sultry lower register, gives the music a different feel from her previous albums, which I like. I certainly appreciate Barnett’s artistry and feel the end result is the album she set out to make. The tracks are on YouTube and I highly recommend you go check out the album for yourself.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Gretchen Peters – ‘Hello, Cruel World’

Anyone who has followed country music closely during the past twenty years is familiar with Gretchen Peters, or will at least recognize some of her songs.  Most country music fans, however — myself included — are relatively unfamiliar with Gretchen Peters the performer, despite the fact that she has released nine albums over the past fifteen years.  Her latest effort, released this past January, is far removed from the realm of country music. It is more accurately described as a vanity project with no ties to a particular genre and not intended for mass appeal; in other words, “singer/songwriter.”  Those expecting to hear her take on her compositions that became hits for other artists will be disappointed; no such examples appear here.  Nor are there any songs that are likely to become mainstream hits for others in the future.

It’s interesting to hear how very different Peters’ own recordings are from the mainstream fare that did so much for the careers of the likes of Pam Tillis, Patty Loveless, George Strait, Martina McBride, and Trisha Yearwood.   As the title suggests, this is not a particularly happy album; it is a serious, introspective and often bleak affair, that unfortunately is at times quite tedious to listen to.  Peters wrote or co-wrote all of the album’s songs and co-produced the project with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh.  The mid-tempo title track was released as a single — Gretchen’s first in 16 years — but it failed to chart.

Not surprisingly, the album’s main strength is its well-written songs, which are quite literate and tastefully produced.  However, I found myself enjoying them more as works of poetry, reading the lyrics in the liner notes than I did actually listening to them.  There is little variety in tempo throughout the album, and like most people who fall into the “singer/songwriter” category, Gretchen is a much better at writing songs than she is at singing them.   Her limited vocal ability doesn’t make it any easier to enjoy songs that I’m not particularly drawn to in the first place.

One song that I did enjoy very much is “Five Minutes”, told from the point of view of a downtrodden waitress taking a cigarette break and reflecting on a life that hasn’t quite turned out the way she planned.  While I felt little empathy for the characters in most of the album’s songs, the story in “Five Minutes” is told quite skillfully, and the listener is immediately drawn in.  It’s a song that I couldn’t help but tune into and pay close attention.  Other songs, though far removed from the mindless fluff dominating the mainstream airways, are confusing and are sometimes borderline pretentious.   “St. Francis”, co-written with Tom Russell, talks about the saint walking on water, playing the role of a beggar, a shepherd and a guest taking a cup of tea at a stranger’s table — all themes that have been used in songs countless times before,  but why St. Francis was chosen to fulfill a role that has almost always been used to refer to God or Jesus, is unclear.   Even more confusing is the bizarre “Idlewild”, told from the point of view of a child riding in the backseat of a car that is en route to the airport on the day of John F. Kennedy’s assassination.  The song’s gratuitous use of a racial epithet earned the album an “explicit” warning from both iTunes and Amazon, and quite possibly other vendors as well.

It’s quite likely that some crisis in Peters’ personal life inspired these songs, and perhaps knowing the backstory would make them easier to relate to.  But one shouldn’t have to have all the inside baseball knowledge in order to enjoy an album.  There is very little here to appeal to most country fans, unless they are also die-hard Gretchen Peters fans or enjoy spending 52 minutes listening to tales of unabated misery, in which case Hello, Cruel World may be just the ticket.

Grade:  C