My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Gillian Welch

Classic Rewind: Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch – ‘Green Pastures’

Album Review: I’m With Her – ‘See You Around’

I’m With Her is a folk supergroup. Sara Watkins, a founding member of Nickel Creek, has been reaping the rewards of solo success since releasing her eponymous album in 2009. Sarah Jarosz began releasing albums that year as well. The final member is Aoife O’Donovan, lead singer of the Bluegrass band Crooked Still and the daughter of Brian O’Donovan, host of A Celtic Sojourn on WGBH Radio here in Boston.

The trio came together for an impromptu performance at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2014 and released their two-song EP, Crossing Muddy Waters/Be My Husband in 2015. They gathered in Los Angeles and Vermont once their solo careers had slowed down a bit to record See You Around, which was produced by Ethan Johns in a tiny village near Bath, England at a recording studio owned by Peter Gabriel. The trio co-wrote the album together.

The album is rich with their tightly-woven harmonies and ear for crafting songs completely unique to themselves, that come together to create a wonderfully fully-formed record. The album begins strong, with the mid-tempo title track. “See You Around” crafts a tale of pain, with vivid imagery:

A constant ringing bell

Or the ocean in a shell I held up to my ear

While everything else

 

Is breaking like the waves down on the coastline

Breaking like the wine-stained glass that held my drink

Breaking like the heart that’s stuck inside my skin

Will it ever beat again

 

Or just go on bleeding ’til it’s empty

‘Til I fill it up again

I feel you baby

These aren’t fighting words, just a declaration

I feel you

So I guess I’ll be going now

I know you’re looking out for new eyes in the crowd

I’ll see you around

The gorgeous “Game To Lose” is a perfectly accentuated ballad anchored by Jarosz’s mandolin and Watkins’ warm and familiar fiddle. Watkins’ rich vocal tone is the centerpiece of “Ain’t That Fine,” while her falsetto leads the way on “Wild One.” The former is the sparse look at a budding relationship, while the latter is a cautionary tale and possibly my favorite song on the album. I also love “Waitsfield,” a jaunty and engaging instrumental.

Another standout moment is “Overland,” a striking lament on the promise of a new life far away from your current circumstances:

Goodbye brother, hello railroad

So long, Chicago

All these years, thought I was where I ought to be

But times are changing

This country’s growing

And I’m bound for San Francisco

Where a new life waits for me

“I-89,” which is an interstate that runs through both New Hampshire and Vermont, is actually an ode to finding an alternate escape route:

Waitin’ for the sight of headlights flashin’

Fussing with the dial on the radio

Burning through the pages of the Rand McNally

Fire in my belly gonna keep you warm

If there was another way out I’d take it

If there was another way down I’d go

If there was another way other than the highway

Show me on a map, point out the road

Two fiddle-laced ballads grace the back half of See You Around. “Crescent City” rides along at mid-tempo and relays the timeless message to make each moment of your life truly count. “Close It Down” is a tale of regret, with the protagonist falling for the charmer who has cast their spell on many a resident of the town where they reside.

“Ryland (Under The Apple Tree)” stands with “Ain’t That Fine,” in its depictions of the idyllic beginnings of a new relationship, but it strikes an ominous tone with the constant refrain: “under the apple tree, I planted for my love and me.” The final track is Gillian Welch’s “Hundred Miles,” which they perform with minimal accompaniment and partly a cappella.

It took me a bit to warm up to See You Around, but the nuances the trio brings to these songs are unique and captivating. This is clearly a record all their own, a great one indeed and well worth checking out.

Grade: A

Retro Album Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Crazy Ex Girlfriend’ (2007)

crazy ex girlfriendBack in the days writing for the 9513 Blog, I would post occasional reviews on Amazon. We are republishing updated versions of some of those reviews here.

Miranda Lambert is a brave singer, exploring the dark crevices of life and romance. This is territory that other female singers may explore for an occasional song, but not for an entire album. Needless to say, most of the album is about romance gone wrong.

My two favorite cuts, however, are not about romance at all. “Dry Town”, written by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, is the most traditional country sounding track, a humorous song about wanting a cool one and finding that liquor sales are banned where you are. “Famous In A Small Town” is one of those neat little ‘slices of life’ songs dealing with the realities of life in a very small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and ‘everyone dies famous in a small town’.

The rest of the CD is about the down side of romance (I certainly hope Ms Lambert’s real life isn’t as bleak as depicted here – she penned or helped pen eight of the songs on the album). The opening cut “Gunpowder & Lead” is unfortunate choice to open the album as it (a) isn’t country” and (b) isn’t very good, the one misfire on the album. Hopefully listeners will work through this track to get to the good stuff. If they do, they are immediately rewarded with the lighter fare of “Dry Town” and the lighter “Famous In A Small Town”.

After that it’s back to the main theme. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” didn’t get much airplay in my area but it’s an interesting number with some nice banjo work by Mike Wrucke. The self-penned “Love Letters” about letters written (I presume) on tear-drenched paper is a song with the depths of despair and desolation Hank Williams found in “Alone and Forsaken”.

“More Like Her” is a wistful song about her beau returning to his former girlfriend whom he realized was really what he wanted anyway. The remaining songs deal with loss of self-respect, recriminations and regrets.

The album closes with the classic “Easy From Now On” penned by Carlene Carter & Susanna Clark that was a hit for Emmylou Harris back in 1978 – a classic about getting oneself readjusted after the end of a romance. I hoped they would issue this track as a single.

In the hands of a less capable singer, this almost unremitting collection of “emotional downers” would be hard to stomach. Since the songs are well written and the singer so expressive, it is well worth the time spend listening to it. I originally rated the CD on amazon as 5 stars since it is a hair better than 4.5 stars, but if allowed fractional ratings I’d have given it 4.75 stars with the major deduction for the opening track. Today (2016):

Grade: B

Album Review: Della Mae – ‘Della Mae’

DM_cover_5x5_300RGB2015 has already been an exceptional year for releases from roots and Americana based artists. Sets from Rhiannon Giddens, Punch Brothers, Gretchen Peters, Alison Moorer, and Shelby Lynne are some of the year’s strongest; with more standout moments then one can count off hand. The eponymous third album from Della Mae, out last month on Rounder Records, is worthy addition to that hallowed list.

The Boston-bred Della Mae, who formed in 2009, consist of Celia Woodsmith on guitar, Kimber Ludiker on fiddle, Jenni Lyn Gardner on mandolin, and Courtney Hartman on guitar and banjo. The foursome shares the vocal duties on the album, which was produced by Jacquire King.

The album is anchored by Woodsmith’s distinctive voice, deep and swampy, like a preacher sent from a higher power to deliver upon us a message we can’t help but want to hear. Her songwriting prospective is just as sharp, beautifully evidenced on five of the album’s very diverse tunes co-written with Hartman.

Nowhere is the power of her voice more evident then on album closer “High Away Gone,” a gospel-tinged number that recalls Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss’ duet of “I’ll Fly Away” from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Rude Awakening” blends mandolin, guitar, and fiddle quite sadistically, while serving as a battle cry for eliminating stagnation from one’s tired life. “Can’t Go Back” is a softer ballad featuring gentle acoustic guitar with the thought-provoking hook, “if you never go, you can’t go back again.”

“Shambles” is a stunning folksy kiss-off about a girl carrying on with her life, while her man continues to dig himself into an increasingly deeper hole. “Take One Day” is a sunny banjo-driven change of pace, and one of the best straightforward bluegrass numbers I’ve heard in a long time.

The album’s standout track, “Boston Town,” is the first single. Woodsmith, who penned the track solo, has the guts to create a modern-day workingwoman’s anthem the dives headfirst into wage equality. She beautifully structures the lyric to juxtapose the physical pain of the work with the emotional ruin of disrespect. She drives her message home without hitting us over the head, a fine achievement for anyone tackling a hot-button issue.

Hartman takes the lyrical reins on “For the Sake of My Heart,” a tender ballad about reconnecting with one’s homeland. She also teams up with Sara Siskind for “Long Shadow,” a mid-tempo number beaming with acoustic texture.

To round out the album, the band looked to outside inspirations including covering two tracks previously done by other country artists. They managed to outshine Emmylou Harris with their take on The Low Anthem’s “To Ohio,” which was more grounded then Harris’ wispy 2011 recording. They were less successful on a cover of The Rolling Stones’ “No Expectations.” It wasn’t terrible, but Nanci Griffith proved the song, in her 1997 version, deserves more imagination than they brought.

The album rounds out with Phoebe Hunt and Matt Rollings “Good Blood,” the second true uptempo number on the album, and a vocal showcase for Gardner. Woodsmith has an incredible voice with enough color and nuance to wrap around just about anything and make it her own, but Gardner’s pure twang is just as powerful and a welcomed change of pace.

Della Mae is a very strong album that traverses a wide expanse of ground in a quick thirty-eight minutes. Woodsmith proves she’s not only an incredibly gifted foundation for the group vocally, but she has a sharp pen as well. In a world where there is an embarrassment of riches with regards to banjo, fiddle, and mandolin based groups it’s easy to overlook Della Mae. But to ignore them is to miss out on tight musicianship and four women with unique substantive perspectives.

Grade: A

Album Review: Ralph Stanley & Friends – ‘Man Of Constant Sorrrow’

man of constant sorrowJust after the release of the very similarly titled tribute I reviewed recently comes another project, this one featuring the man himself, produced by Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale. Mostly the guests sing lead with Dr Ralph harmonising, but some are true duets too.

There is some overlap in personnel (of those associated personally and professionally with Dr Ralph) but almost none with songs. The smooth-voiced Nathan Stanley duets with his grandfather on ‘Rank Stranger’ to great effect. Ricky Skaggs shows up again here with Carter Stanley’s ‘Sweethearts In Heaven’ and combines plaintive emotion with a solid driving rhythm.

The big country names all do a fine job. Josh Turner delivers a solid lead vocal on the joyful ‘We Shall Rise’. Dierks Bentley is excellent and sounds very authentic on the high lonesome ‘I Only Exist’. Lee Ann Womack is exquisite leading on ‘White Dove’.

The producers join Ralph on a three part harmony on ‘I Am The Man, Thomas’ with Stanley on lead vocal. Americana favourites Gillian Welch and David Rawlings join Dr Ralph on the traditional ‘Pig In A Pen’, which is very enjoyable.

I’m not much of a fan of Robert Plant, but his voice combines surprisingly well with Ralph’s on the ethereal ‘Two Coats’, and the effect is very haunting. Rock singer Elvis Costello has never had much of a voice, and while his duet with Ralph on ‘Red Wicked Wine’ isn’t at all bad, it is more or less saved by Stanley’s emotional heft, and the fact that Costello mostly doesn’t get to sing solo.

Fellow bluegrass veteran Del McCoury joins Ralph on the Jesse Winchester tune ‘Brand New Tennessee Waltz’. Modern jug band Old Crow Medicine Show join Ralph on ‘Short Life Of Trouble’.

‘Hills Of Home’ is a mostly-spoken eulogy to Ralph’s late brother, the troubled Carter Stanley, which is genuinely moving.

This release is currently a Cracker Barrel exclusive but hopefully it will get a wider relase at some point.

Grade: A

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘Lonely Runs Both Ways’

lonelyOver the course of their career, Alison Krauss & Union Station have been both torchbearers for traditional bluegrass and trailblazers who have stretched the genre’s boundaries. 2004’s Lonely Runs Both Ways combines elements of bluegrass with folk, gospel and traditional country, but thankfully does not venture as far into mainstream pop as their previous album New Favorite did. By now, they had fine-tuned their approach of combining different musical styles, with Alison taking the lead on the more progressive, middle-of-the-road type songs, while Dan Tyminski and Ron Block tackle the more hardcore bluegrass numbers. The list of contributing songwriters will also be familiar to most fans, with Robert Lee Castleman, Jerry Douglas, David Rawlings, Gillian Welch, and Sidney and Suzanne Cox supplying much of the material.

The commercial success of AKUS has owed little to the support it received from country radio. The group typically releases three or four singles from each album, one of which usually reaches the lower rungs of the chart, while the others fail to to chart at all. Lonely Runs Both Ways is no exception. “Restless”, “Goodbye Is All We Have” and “If I Didn’t Know Any Better” were all released to radio, with only “Restless” enjoying some limited chart success, landing at #36.

The opening track, Robert Lee Castleman’s “Gravity” is pretty but a bit dull; it is my least favorite of the four Castleman compositions. I greatly prefer “Restless”, “Crazy As Me”, and “Doesn’t Have To Be That Way”, all of which are exquisitely sung by Alison. Alison truly shines, however, on the closing track “A Living Prayer”, written by Union Station’s banjoist Ron Block.

When it’s time for Union Station to kick up its heels, the lead vocal duties are primarily turned over to Dan Tyminski, who does a first-rate job interpreting classics such as Del McCoury’s “Rain Please Go Away” and Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty”. He also sings the lead on the uptempo “Crazy As Me”, one of Alison’s rare original compositions, co-written with Alison Brown. Ron Block sings the lead on his own “I Don’t Have To Live This Way”, and “Unionhouse Branch” is the obligatory instrumental Jerry Douglas number.

Despite a lack of radio support, Lonely Runs Both Ways climbed to #6 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart and earned gold certification. The album doesn’t hold any surprises; fans of Alison Krauss & Union Station will not be disappointed, while those who don’t care for bluegrass will find little here to win them over.

Grade: A

Album Review: Alison Krauss & Union Station – ‘New Favorite’

akusBy 2001 Alison Krauss had become well known outside the world of bluegrass and had begun incorporating elements from other genres into both her solo albums and her collaborations with Union Station. As a result, New Favorite is a more eclectic collection than the band’s earlier work. It attempts to blend traditional bluegrass with pop and mainstream country. At times the experimentation works and at other times it does not, and while it may have earned the band some new fans, its a-little-bit-of-something-for-everybody approach must have left bluegrass purists slightly disappointed.

The album produced three singles, two of which were written by Robert Lee Castleman, who had provided the band material in the past. Both “The Lucky One” and “Let Me Touch You For A While” are more contemporary country than bluegrass. The latter reminds me a lot of Lee Ann Womack’s later recording “Last Call.” The title track, a dreamy number written by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, was the final single. Of the three singles, only “The Lucky One” charted, landing at #46. Alison sings the lead on all three. The two Castleman numbers are quite enjoyable, but I found “New Favorite” to be rather dull and dreary, in spite of Alison’s lovely singing. The band’s cover of Dan Fogelberg’s “Stars” is likewise a misstep.

Fortunately, the rest of the album is much better. Dan Tyminski provides a soulful lead vocal to the traditonal “Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn” about a lazy young farmer who seems to be incapable of harvesting a crop before it is destroyed by frost. This song would not be out of place on a SteelDrivers album. Tyminski gives the Bob Lucas composition “Momma Cried” a similar treatment and it is equally effective. “Bright Sunny South”, another Tyminski-led number, is more traditional bluegrass, as is the album’s best track “Take Me For Longing”, which features Alison on lead vocals. Banjo player Ron Block provides a Ricky Skaggs-like lead vocal on “It All Comes Down To You.”

New Favorite is a less cohesive effort than previous AKUS albums, partly because of the different musical styles it incorporates, but also because Alison, for the most part, sings the more crossover-minded songs, while the rest of the band handles the more traditional material. As such it comes across as a slightly disjointed album that is part Alison Krauss and part Union Station, as opposed to a collaborative Alison Krauss and Union Station album from start to finish. Its moments of brilliance largely outweigh the missteps, but overall it doesn’t hold its own against the group’s earlier albums.

Grade: B+

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.

Buy at amazon.

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

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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The 25 best albums of the decade

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been compiling a list of our favorite albums of the past decade. We each prepared a list of our 10 favorites, and then we attempted to trim the combined list down to 25 and rank them. There was surprisingly little overlap, and I think it’s safe to say that the final list is quite different from what any of us would have come up with individually. So, without further ado, here are the 25 best albums of the decade, as we see it:

25. Elizabeth Cook — Hey Y’all (Warner Bros, 2002)

Elizabeth Cook was too country for country even in 2002 with her engaging major-label debut. My favourite track is ‘You Move Too Fast’, followed by the charming ‘Everyday Sunshine’, the comparison of her career to that of ‘Dolly’, the sweet ‘Mama, You Wanted To Be A Singer Too’, the singalong about the ‘Stupid Things’ love will make you do, and the irrepressibly optimistic ‘God’s Got A Plan’. — Occasional Hope

24. Wynonna — Her Story: Scenes From a Lifetime (Mercury/Curb, 2005)

Wynonna took an autobiographical approach to her 2005 tour, and the show was filmed and recorded for a live DVD/CD combo set. Beginning with her musical journey as one half of The Judds, Wynonna affectionately recalls her days on the road with her Mom, before moving on to the solo side of her music career, revisiting classic Judds hits like ‘Girls Night Out’ and ‘Love Can Build a Bridge’. The banter in between the songs is reason enough to own the set, but Wynonna’s live take on her own songs like ‘That Was Yesterday’, ‘I Want To Know What love Is’, and ‘Is It Over Yet’ are flawless. — J.R.

23. Bobby Pinson — Man Like Me (RCA, 2005)

This was the richest debut album of the decade, although few record buyers agreed, and singer-songwriter Bobby soon lost his deal with RCA. His gravelly voice had genuine character and emotional depth; perhaps it was too much of an acquired taste for radio beyond one minor hit single. Great overlooked tracks include the reflective title track, showing how hard experiences made the man, the testimony of a sinner saved by a woman’s love in ‘One More Believer’, ‘Ford Fairlane’, perhaps my favorite song of all time about a car, and the wry ‘Started A Band’ about struggling to make it as a musician. — Occasional Hope

22. Brad Paisley — Time Well Wasted (Arista, 2005)

After three promising but somewhat uneven albums, things finally came together with Paisley’s fourth release. This was the first album he released that I felt compelled to buy. It opens with the obligatory novelty tune (“Alcohol”) but it also contains one of the strongest entries in his catalog to date, “When I Get Where I’m Going” which features beautiful harmony vocals by Dolly Parton. — Razor X

21. Sugarland — Love On The Inside (Mercury, 2007)

Masterpiece. That’s the best word I can find to decribe this album. But mere words cannot begin to explain how much I love this album, or how many times I’ve played it in the past 18 months. Jennifer Nettles said it was a set of songs that would play well from ‘Saturday night to Sunday morning’, but I have to disagree. I can’t think of any day of the week, or any time of day this near-perfect set doesn’t play well. With sharp songwriting set among a myriad of subjects, while Nettles wraps her distinctive pipes around the always-catchy lyrics, Love On The Inside is still the best studio album I’ve heard in my years listening to country music, with songs like ‘Genevieve’, ‘Very Last Country Song’, and ‘Fall Into Me’ all getting hundreds of spins in my library. I’ve liked all the singles sent to radio too. — J.R.

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