My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Gwyneth Paltrow

Album Review: Holly Williams – ‘The Highway’

the highwayBeing the grand-daughter of Hank Williams (and to a rather lesser extent the daughter of Hank Jr) is a lot for a young singer-songwriter to live up to. Holly’s first two major label albums had some fine songs, but I was not quite convinced she was a fully formed artist. Now in her 30s, she has made the leap and produced a truly excellent collection of songs, released on her own label. Holly’s sultry alto voice is compelling as she portrays a variety of characters or bares her own soul. In a vague modern Americana singer-songwriter style with frequent use of a cello giving a richer, less sweet sound than the more familiar fiddle, it is tastefully produced by the artist with Charlie Peacock, best known for his work with critical favourites The Civil Wars.

Among the best songs is the bleak ‘Giving Up’, which she announces as “the saddest damn story you’ve ever seen”. It is a weary plea addressed to an alcoholic friend who keeps on claiming to be tackling her problem, a wife and mother so far gone, “the doctor said you’d die if you had another drink”. But that doesn’t seem to get her beyond platitudes, and Holly notes, incisively:

Well, I wonder if it scares you
I wonder if you think about
The daughter that you’re leaving
The man you used to love
And the son that cries for you
..
Well I guess this is it
Oh yeah, you must be giving up

You put us all through a living hell
A thousand excuses for your liquor trail
But my compassion is fading fast
Another rehab, and you break another glass

Bottles in driers
Bottles in shoes
There are even bottles in the baby’s room
You’re losing everything that you ever had
Your life is one thing all that money can’t buy back

This hits very hard, and sounds as if it was inspired by a specific person.

The powerful, pained ‘Drinkin’ tackles a drinking, cheating, abusive husband to ask him why, and is another of the strongest songs, with Holly’s compelling vocal grabbing attention.

Another highlight is ‘Waiting On June’ a tender reimagining of Holly’s maternal grandparents’ love story, which is very touching, with added poignancy from the death of the grandfather’s WWII comrade. The acoustic arrangement and actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s backing vocals give it a homespun feel.

Also based on her family, the quietly mournful ‘Gone Away From Me’ is a beautifully observed recollection of a small town childhood blighted by the loss of family members, and is another highlight. Jackson Browne sings backing vocals, but it is Holly’s emotional vocal which really bring this alive.

‘Railroads’ picks up the tempo with a disconcertingly upbeat tone musically belying the dark first-person story of a sinful preacher’s wild son.

‘Happy’ is a mournful reverie about a past relationship the protagonist now regrets throwing away, with the cello sounding almost menacing as Holly bemoans:

The truth is I loved you all the same
That night I broke your heart
And the day you cursed my name
And the truth is I never really knew
You were everything to me
Until it was much too late
Cause you’re the only one who makes me
The only one who makes me happy

Like the stripped-down acoustic bluesy folk ‘Let You Go’, it is written by Holly with Chris Coleman, her rock drummer husband. With Cary Barlowe, the pair also wrote ‘Til It Runs Dry’, a cheerful-sounding mid-tempo number featuring Dierks Bentley’s backing vocals.

‘Without You’, written with Lori McKenna, looks back to past searching for love and life, from a position of fulfilment. Jakob Dylan sings backing vocals, and a stately cello gives a mature feel befitting the literary allusions in the lyric. Sarah Buxton co-wrote ‘A Good Man’, a sweet love song with a striking acappella first verse and stately melody.

The title track was the least compelling song, but the weakest song on an album this strong is still pretty good. here Holly fondly recalls the period she was on the road with her music.

This is an excellent set which should appeal to fans of literate female singer-songwriters with country and Americana connections, like Matraca Berg, Lori McKenna and Mary Chapin Carpenter, but for my money this is the most appealing record of its kind I’ve heard in a long time.

Grade: A

Single Review: Faith Hill – ‘Give In To Me’

The Country Strong franchise may not make a country star out of Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays the embattled chanteuse in the film.  But it’s certainly bringing some of country music’s own leading ladies back to the charts.  Sara Evans had the first single from the movie’s soundtrack and that sits inside the top 30 this week – her first appearance there since 2008 – while Paltrow’s title song enters the top 30 as well.  Now, the soundtrack has given us the first Faith Hill chart appearance in over 3 years.

Hill has certainly kept her visibility high during her downtime from releasing new music: she launched her fragrance line in 2009 and is seen by millions every Sunday night on NBC.  She’s also currently said to be working with noted pop and rock producers for a new album due out this year.  But for now it’s back to the country airwaves.  ‘Give In To Me’ isn’t going to draw the kind of rave reviews Fireflies garnered, nor should it.  Her most recent foray into country music found the singer reinventing herself completely, shedding almost all the illegitimate uptown image she had hung on herself.  Now, for this track at least, it seems that Faith Hill has picked up where she left off with Cry.  Fortunately, ‘Give In To Me’ follows the template of the best tracks on the mostly ill-fitting Cry.  It’s an acoustic pop ballad, the kind Faith Hill shines brightest with.

Slicy electric guitar licks fill up the space left by the elegant lead piano track on what is mostly a lyrically bare song.  All we really hear are the narrator’s desires – ‘My heart is set on you, I don’t want no one else‘ – while the chorus echoes her confidence that all she wants will happen. Meanwhile, Hill pours on her buttery vocals to the song’s lyrics as if it were a hot biscuit.  While it lacks the fiery passion of ‘Breathe’ and the emotional intensity of ‘Cry’, ‘Give In To Me’ succeeds in ably revisiting the sound Faith Hill has come to own.

Grade: B

‘Give In To Me’ doesn’t seem to be available as a digital download just yet, but can be purchased as part of the Country Strong Soundtrack.

Listen here.

Album Review: ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack

The newest country-themed film, Country Strong is due out next January, with an early release just before Christmas in Nashville and LA. The music is much more mainstream than it was in Crazy Heart, the last such movie, and indeed two singles are currently in the lower reaches of the country charts. The tracks are all new recordings, some from actors in the film, others from a selection of country artists. A variety of producers have been used, and the music ranges from traditional to pop country.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a successful country singer in the movie, sings four of the songs. Her singing is perfectly competent, if a little colorless; it’s hard to say without seeing the film whether this is in character with the part she’s playing. The theme tune is one of the two radio singles. It’s a pleasant enough generic contemporary song, produced by Byron Gallimore, which makes it perfectly convincing as a hit single. Vince Gill and Patty Loveless sing backing vocals but are too far back in the mix to be heard. ‘Coming Home’ is a rather boring and awkwardly phrased pop-country ballad written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, and drowned in strings. Gwyneth rocks out Gretchen Wilson-style in ‘Shake That Thing’ (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins), and while this is yelled and tuneless, it should be pretty convincing in the context of the movie. She duets with Tim McGraw (who also has a role in the film) on the breakup-themed rock ballad ‘Me And Tennessee’, written by Paltrow’s real-life rock star husband Chris Martin, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track.

Oddly, McGraw does not get any solo cuts here; maybe Curb wouldn’t allow it. Starlet Leighton Meester (best known for her TV role in Gossip Girl) covers a Rascal Flatts song, ‘Words I Couldn’t Say’, which is less histrionic than the original, but not particularly interesting, and Leighton’s vocals sound rather processed and like a slightly more tuneful Taylor Swift. The best of the actors’ songs is the gruff-voiced Garrett Hedlund who is very effective on ‘Chances Are’, a very good song written by Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. I understand Hedlund’s role is as a singer-songwriter, and he certainly sounds the part here on this drawled, half-rueful confession of a man’s inadequacies:

I used to give a damn
I used to try real hard but I’ll give in tonight, chances are
One foot on the narrow way and one foot on the ledge
Sifting through the devil’s lies for what the Good Book says
If I’m going anywhere
I’ll probably go too far
Probably away from you, chances are

This track was the real surprise package on this record.

Country fans will be most interested in the new tracks from established artists. We’ve already heard Sara Evans’ latest single, ‘A Little Bit Stronger’, a pleasant but rather bland positive ballad about coping with adversity, which has grown on me since it was first released as the lead single for both this album and Sara’s long-awaited next solo album (said to be entitled Stronger and possibly now due early next year). Her voice at least sounds lovely on this Tony Brown-produced and Luke Laird/Hillary Lindsey/Hillary Scott-penned number. Like Sara, Faith Hill has been silent for some time, and returns here with a forgettable AC-leaning ballad, ‘Give In To Me’, produced by Jay Joyce, which is soothing and sounds as though it will be background music for a love scene, and goes on a bit too long.

Chris Young and Patty Loveless team up on a duet written by Marv Green and Troy Olsen, and was produced by James Stroud, which must have been the original theme song. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ was the original title for the movie, and it is a decent song, but not a particularly memorable one. It feels like a waste of this pairing of two of the best voices in country music. Trace Adkins reminds us he really can sing well on the reflective Natalie Hemby/Troy Jones song ‘Timing Is Everything’. Nicely produced by Kenny Beard with some lovely fiddle from Larry Franklin, this fine song about the role of chance in our lives is sensitively interpreted by Trace, and rather better than most of the material on his current album.

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Single Review: Gwyneth Paltrow – ‘Country Strong’

“Country Strong” is a very conventionally-produced power anthem, with fluffy lyrics performed by a beautiful blonde singer. In other words, it has all the trappings of a potential smash hit. Having grown weary of the steady onslaught of outside-the-genre celebrities trying to crack the country music market in recent years, I was initially more than a bit skeptical upon learning that Gwyneth Paltrow was releasing a single to country radio. Therefore, I was a pleasantly surprised after listening to the song to discover that Paltrow proves herself to be a competent, if non-distinctive, vocalist, though admittedly the excellent harmony vocals provided by Vince Gill and Patty Griffin help to camouflage Paltrow’s vocal shortcomings. I may revise my opinion of Gwyneth’s singing depending on how her live performance on the upcoming CMA Awards show goes, but in the studio, at least, she is definitely up to the task.

Written by Jennifer Hanson, Tony Martin and Mark Nesler, and produced by Byron Gallimore, “Country Strong” is the title track of a new soundtrack album being released by RCA this week, to promote the upcoming motion picture of the same title. In the film, Paltrow portrays a fallen country star, struggling to recover from alcoholism and rebuild her career. Tim McGraw co-stars as her manager and husband.

There is nothing particularly memorable or interesting about this record, and in fact, a strong case can be made that the last thing country radio needs right now is another generic, relentlessly positive female empowerment anthem. However, since the track’s purpose is solely to act as a promotional tool for a movie, and since Gwyneth Paltrow is not normally known as a singer, I’m prepared to cut her and the record a little slack. And since, presumably, Paltrow’s character triumphs over her adversities by the end of the film, the positive message is entirely appropriate.

A music video of “Country Strong” can be viewed on YouTube. The single can be downloaded from iTunes and Amazon. The soundtrack album, which also contains contributions from Chris Young and Patty Loveless, Ronnie Dunn, Sara Evans, Trace Adkins, Lee Ann Womack, and others is also available from Amazon.

Grade: B

Single Review: Sara Evans – ‘A Little Bit Stronger’

It’s been five years since Sara Evans released a full-length studio album or had a Top 10 hit. She seemed to be getting back on track artistically with 2005’s Real Fine Place, only to falter again with the four new tracks that were included on 2007’s Greatest Hits package. Last year’s “Feels Just Like A Love Song” died at #59 and dropped off the charts entirely after only two weeks. The album which “Feels Just Like A Love Song” was to have led was delayed and is now more than a year overdue. That’s a career slump by almost any measure. For her comeback, Evans needs to knock one out of the park with a record that is strong, bold, catchy and memorable. Unfortunately, none of those terms applies to her new release “A Little Bit Stronger”.

I had hoped that Evans would take advantage of her sabbatical from the airwaves following the failure of “Feels Just Like A Love Song” to reassess her career and get back in touch with her roots. But instead of changing directions and trying something different, she’s offering up more of the same. “A Little Bit Stronger” was written by Hillary Scott along with Luke Laird and Hillary Lindsay, and it’s possible that Evans thought the link to Lady Antebellum would garner some attention from radio programmers. That seems like a long shot considering how mundane both the lyrics and melody are.

“A Little Bit Stronger” is about a woman who is getting over a bad break-up, a theme that has been revisited countless times in country music. But unlike such classics as “‘Ti I Can Make It On My Own” or “For My Broken Heart”, “A Little Bit Stronger” never allows the listener to feel the depths of the protagonist’s pain. All we’re told is that she brushed her teeth, drove to work and is feeling a little better now. Likewise, it lacks the spunk of other getting-over-you songs such as Tammy Wynette’s “Another Chance” or Evans’ own ‘Cheatin’.

A catchy melody can make up for dull lyrics, but unfortunately the melody here just plods along until reaching an almost bombastic stage at the bridge with some over-the-top electric guitar riffs along with some traces of pedal steel that seem to have been thrown into the mix as an afterthought.

A Little Bit Stronger’ was produced by Tony Brown and will appear on the soundtrack album to the upcoming film Country Strong starring Tim McGraw and Gwyneth Paltrow. It is also supposed to appear on Evans’ next studio album, now slated for an early 2011 release, though it is unclear whether this is the same album that was supposed to have been released last year or if a new album has been recorded in its place. Either way, “A Little Bit Stronger” inspires very little confidence that Sara Evans’ career is once again on track.

Grade: C-

Listen to ‘A Little Bit Stronger’.