My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Hillary Lindsey

Album Review: Jo Dee Messina – ‘Me’

meJo Dee’s latest album, released last year on her own label after she was released from her longstanding contract with Curb Records, was crowdfunded thanks to a Kickstarter campaign by her fans. It is broadly in keeping with Jo Dee’s work on Curb, contemporary pop-country which sounds positively understated compared to some of the current fare, but lacking even token nods to more traditional country instrumentation.

The lead single ‘Peace Sign’ is an assertive response to a breakup, with the protagonist cheerfully calling herself “dumb” for falling for the kind of man who dumps her by e-mail. While not the subtlest of songs, it should appeal to Jo Dee’s fans. It is one of two songs co-written by Jo Dee’s former Curb labelmate Amy Dalley, the other being ‘Breakin’ It Down’, another well-written (though unfortunately over-produced and sung) breakup song with an upbeat edge, although this time she is the one breaking away.

The assertive second single, ‘A Woman’s Rant’, is a self-penned plaint about the specific difficulty of modern life for women trying to juggle motherhood and career while getting paid less than male counterparts:

There’s so many things I can’t begin to understand
The differences that are between a woman and a man
You see, women they do twice the work and get half the pay
Men they climb the ladder while the women pave the way
They say that we’re the weaker sex
I’d have to disagree
I’d walk a mile in his shoes if he’d walk a half a mile in these

This is one of the best songs on the album, and it may be excessively self-deprecating to call it a rant, although it’s certainly unapologetically feminist.

In contrast, Jo Dee also wrote ‘Say Goodbye To Superman’, my favorite track on the album. This tearjerker is about a woman trying to explain to her young son why his idolised daddy isn’t coming home any more. It begins gently sad, building into a big ballad.

Jo Dee wrote two songs here with Alyssa Bonagura, daughter of Kathie Baillie and Michael Bonagura of 80s group Baillie & The Boys. The defiant country-rock opener ‘Not Dead Yet’ is about being a survivor, possibly addressed to her former label as she declares,

You’re the one who stopped believin’
While I’m still in the chase.
You shattered my feelings,
But you won’t shatter my faith

The other Bonagura co-wrote, ‘He’s Messed Up’, is more pop-rock than country of any variety, and it comes as no surprise to learn that it was written for rocker Pink. It is rather too loud and shouty for my taste, although I think there’s a decent lyric buried there, warning girls against a player (apparently based on a real life example).

Bonagura’s mother co-wrote the title track with Jo Dee. It is a pretty melodic tune about feeling inadequate. Jo Dee also co-wrote ‘Love On A Maybe’, a busily produced pop-rocker about a potential relationship with a guy paying hot and cold, and the rather boring ‘I’m Free’.

‘Strong Shot Of You’, written by Australian country singer-songwriter Sherrie Austin with Clay Mills and Weston Davis is energetic pop-rock-country with over-processed vocals. ‘Take It’, written by Hillary Lindsey, Brett James and Angelo Petraglia is even more horribly processed and more or less unlistenable. The wistful ‘Like A Kid Again’, written by Adrienne and Keith Follese and Tammy Hyler is better.

The arrangements and production aren’t the kind of country music I personally like, but it is very well done, with Jo Dee singing well on some strong material. I do applaud her for making the kind of music she wanted to, and fans of Jo Dee’s 90s/early 2000s peak should find much to like about this record.

Grade: B

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Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Sundown Heaven Town’

Sundown_heaven_townTim McGraw got off to as bad a start as any could ever dream of when introducing his thirteenth album to the world this past winter. The first single, Mark Irwin, James T. Slater, and Chris Tompkins’ “Lookin’ For That Girl” was a smooth hip/hop meets R&B ballad with McGraw desperately pleading for relevance by pandering to trends in order to score airplay. Then came the album’s title, Sundown Heaven Town, which carries with it racial connotations so horrid, everyone in McGraw’s camp should’ve known better and avoided completely unnecessary controversy.

By the time “Meanwhile Back At Mama’s” dropped this spring, McGraw needed the course correction the single ultimately gave him. The elegantly sparse ballad, co-written by Tom Douglas, Jaren Johnson, and Jeffery Steele, is McGraw’s finest single in seven years thanks to an assist from Faith Hill and a charming tale about home. McGraw and Hill are deservedly vying for both Single and Musical Event of the Year at the upcoming CMA Awards.

Just this month Big Machine released the third single from the album, a Marv Green, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Verges penned tune entitled “Shotgun Rider.” The track, while it sounds good with a shuffle beat, is middle of the road at best and hardly memorable. The problem is keen McGraw fans will remember a different tune with the same name appearing on his Let It Go album in 2007. That “Shotgun Rider,” a duet with Hill, was far more country and less wordy than this tune.

McGraw treated fans to another of the album’s tracks, Canadian country singer/songwriter Deric Ruttan’s “City Lights” when he performed on The Voice this spring. The track is excellent, and while louder, recalls the best of his 90s/00s work. Also classic McGraw is “Overrated,” a sonically progressive muscular ballad penned by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Rivers Rutherford. The chorus is strong and memorable and he gives a nicely commanding performance reminiscent of “Unbroken” from 2001. Big Machine would be smart to release this as a single.

Newcomer Catherine Dunn, who also happens to be McGraw’s cousin, joins him on “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” a pure country album highlight that has a bit too much electric guitar, but adds a nice helping of steel about halfway through. While she’s regulated to singing harmony, Dunn adds a nice texture to the track that helps balance McGraw’s gruffness. It’s just weird to me he isn’t singing with Hill, who also would’ve been perfect here.

I also like “Words are Medicine,” a good pop-country number that I might’ve loved had someone like Jennifer Nettles sang it. As it is McGraw does well with it, but his vocal lacks a subtly a better song interpreter would’ve brought to it. “Last Turn Home” is just too loud and McGraw gives an annoying vocal performance on it, which is unfortunate.

“Portland, Maine” finds McGraw with a smoothed processed vocal that does little to give him any credibility. The lyric, by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, is idiotic, with the laughable hook of “Portland, Maine I don’t know where that is.” The track is ripe for parody and completely beneath McGraw’s talents. “Still On The Line” isn’t any better, with an arrangement that leans far too pop for my tastes.

Also terrible is “Dust,” an embarrassing slice of bro-country dreck unsurprisingly co-written by two-thirds of the Peach Pickers. McGraw co-wrote “Keep On Truckin’” with The Warren Brothers and Bill Daly. Like most of the dreck in mainstream country music, it’s another laundry list number that spends a lot of time saying next to nothing. Andrew Dorff’s “Sick of Me” isn’t awful, but McGraw’s vocal is grating and the song’s structure is annoying.

A deluxe edition of Sundown Heaven Town gives the listener an additional five tracks. McGraw gives a tender vocal on the piano ballad turned overproduced social conscious track “Kids Today,” he turns the volume up to eleven on “I’m Feeling You,” mixes organic country with too much rock on “The View” and ventures into Lady Antebellum territory with “Black Jacket.” I wanted to love the Kid Rock assisted “Lincoln Continentals and Cadillacs,” but the lyric was embarrassingly juvenile and the production far too progressive for my tastes.

As a whole, Sundown Heaven Town is a mixed bag, with McGraw getting a few things right, but still taking a lot of wrong turns along the way. I was a rabid fan of his from 1996-2007, but as the trends in mainstream country have changed, and he along with them, I’ve lost interest. He’s nicely evened out with Sundown Heaven Town, though, with the McGraw of “Truck Yeah” thankfully not showing up here. While he does need a new, far less rockified sound, this is his best album since Let It Go, which is saying a lot these days.

Grade: B-

Album Review – Lucy Hale – ‘Road Between’

Lucy-Hale-Road-Between-2014-1200x1200As predicted by Bob McDill twenty years ago, it’s not that uncommon anymore for artists to go country, especially those known for other career aspirations. It’s particularly true for television actresses, with Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale adding her name to the growing list that includes Jana Kramer and Julianne Hough.

Hale is no different than her contemporaries, having to fight to earn her country credentials just like Kramer and Hough before her. With ample fiddle and a cool yet catchy drumbeat, she sets off on the right foot with “You Sound Good To Me,” a sunny uptempo number written by Ashley Gorley, Luke Laird, and Hillary Lindsey. Hale brings a natural effervescence to the track that works well.

Hale brings a sinister vibe to “Goodbye Gone,” a dusty banjo-infused rocker written by J.T. Harding, Melissa Peirce and Andy Dodd. She may be caught up in the all-to-familiar tale of a woman ending things with her man, but Hale brings ferocity to the proceedings that help sell the track beautifully.

While the electric guitars may come on a little thick on “Lie A Little Better,” Hale’s confident vocal cuts through the noise just enough that isn’t as intrusive as it could be. “Kiss Me” is a lot softer and allows Hale the room to breathe and give a tender vocal that’s quite endearing. With neither of the songs overwhelm lyrically, Hale saves the day by injecting the right amounts of personality into her vocal performances. “Love Tonight” is another similar song in nature, but the handclaps in the melody are a bit addicting and make up for any weaknesses in the lyric.

“From the Backseat” is a nice mid-tempo number sonically reminiscent of Sara Evans’ Restless album written by Mike Daly, Jimmy Robbins, and Nicolle Clawson. The track had me until it went flavorless on the chorus, which employs the wall-of-sound production technique so much that it intrudes on the uniqueness of the song and Hale’s vocal.

The truest test for any singer on a debut album is the moments where the production is left sparse, where any vocal limitations will stand out like a sore thumb. Hale’s moment comes on Tom Douglas, James Slater, and Lindsey’s “Nervous Girls” and she passes with flying colors. The production may still lean country-pop, but she proves quite nicely that she can hold her own against any of her contemporaries.

Joe Nichols, back in traditional country mode vocally, joins Hale for “Red Dress,” a somewhat awkward moment that finds the two playing out the male and female aspects of a relationship. Kacey Musgraves co-wrote “That’s What I Call Crazy” and proves she’s adept at writing both artistic and commercially viable numbers. Hale’s only co-write comes in album closer “Just Another Song” and it’s one of the strongest numbers on the album thanks to a co-writing credit by Catt Gravitt, who helped write some of the best numbers on Kramer’s debut two years ago.

Listening to “Just Another Song” makes one wish Gravitt had contributed more here, as she thrives in this type of setting, writing songs for young female artists who may be looking for a voice. While there’s little revelatory about Road Between, it does showcase a budding talent that has the goods to extend her television career into one involving music. Hopefully she’ll be allowed to record a bit more substantive material going forward (really, how many numbers about kissing does one need on an eleven song album?) and further develop the strong potential she showcases on Road Between.

Grade: B+

Single Review – Little Big Town – ‘Sober’

kimberlyschlapman_simplysouthern_hWhen Little Big Town had their coming out last year with “Pontoon,” there was a collective sense of dread that the quasi-bluegrass band who’d built a solid reputation with excellent faire like “Little White Church,” “Boondocks,” and “Fine Line” had givin in to the pressures of modern Nashville and sacrificed their artistic integrity in favor of commercial viability. When The Reasons Why bombed they had to do something drastic or risk fading into oblivion, a fate worse then death for a group with their level of talent.

They’ve mostly gotten it right although Capitol has been leaning too heavily on Karen Fairchild, positioning her as the lead vocalist in a quartet where each member adds their own distinct richness to a song when they step out front. Thankfully they’ve finally regulated her to the background, allowing the criminally underappreciated Kimberly Schlapman to step out front for the first time.

When Tornado hit a year ago, critics and fans alike singled out “Sober” as the record’s highlight, a blend of their classic sound with Jay Joyce’s modern touches. At the time, I said (and still believe):

“Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how producer Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four-part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.”

“Sober” has gotten even better with age, showcasing the band at their best. Schlapman gives a pure country vocal that’s a delight, and the choral harmonies are intoxicating. I just hope country radio has room for a song this overtly country, one that oozes so much class. They’ve let me down before; let’s hope they rise to the occasion this time. “Sober” is one of the best singles of the fall season and needs to be heard.

Grade: A

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Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Waking Up Laughing’

waking up laughingIf Timeless was an encouraging reminder that Martina McBride was a real country singer underneath all the pop gloss, her next studio project was a disappointing regression in form.

Lead single ‘Anyway’ was much vaunted as Martina’s first venture into writing her own material, with the help of the Warren Brothers. Unfortunately, the would-be inspirational lyrics don’t get beyond the Hallmark level, and while no doubt heartfelt, overall it sounds like something written with more of an ear for big notes Martina could excel belting out than real depth of thought or emotion. She certainly sings the hell out of it, to the extent of oversinging at some points; this is not a song or performance with any notion of subtlety. The big contemporary piano-and-strings ballad was however what radio programmers expected and wanted from Martina, and it did much better than the singles from Timeless, giving Martina her first top 5 hit since 2003’s ‘In My Daughter’s Eyes’.

Another McBride co-write with the Warrens (plus pop-country writers Chris Lindsey and Aimee Mayo), the exceptionally forgettable, bland and overproduced ‘How I Feel’ peaked ten spots lower, at #15. It makes its predecessor sound a lot better in contrast.

Martina and the Warren Brothers also wrote (with Nick Trevissick) ‘Beautiful Again’ a frankly depressing tale of an abused girl turned single mother, set to an inappropriately perky and poppy tune. I didn’t like it at all, or find the protagonist’s cheery optimism in the face of all evidence to the contrary remotely credible. ‘Cry Cry (Til The Sun Shines)’ is well meaning but lyrically vapid. Other songs fitting the bland and boring template are ‘I’ll Still Be Me’ and ‘Everybody Does’.

The last single, the socially conscious ‘For These Times’, is a well sung and thoughtfully written Leslie Satcher song but the inevitable gospel backing vocals seem unimaginative. It crept into the top 40, but failed to get higher than #35.

Of the better songs, ‘If I Had Your Name’ (written by Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Steve McEwan) isn’t at all bad pop-country, with a vicious little stab at her soon-to-be-ex. ‘Tryin’ To Find A Reason’ has a pretty tune and touching lyric about a relationship on the rocks. Martina’s interpretation is subtle, and Keith Urban guests effectively on harmony. ‘House Of A Thousand Dreams’ is a beautifully delivered mature reflection on a dilapidated home and marriage. ‘Love Land’ is a delicate story song, written by Tom Douglas and Rachel Thibodeau, about a teenage marriage which survives the tragedy of losing a baby. These four are worth hearing.

Overall, though, this album’s principal failing is not that it is bad (she has produced worse, particularly Emotion), but rather too often it’s just plain boring. Martina seems to have been trying to playing things far too safe placating her contemporary fans after Timeless, but the end result doesn’t really deliver on either count. It looks as if fans agreed with my assessment of Martina’s downward trajectory. Timeless was her last platinum release, with this album topping out at gold, while more recent efforts have sold even more poorly.

Grade: C

Album Review: Gary Allan – ‘Set You Free’

set you freeGary Allan’s career seemed to be on a bit of slowdown, with his last top 10 single coming in 2007. Gary has responded by turning to a variety of producers, often a ploy of the artist in decline and desperate to get another hit, but on the whole it seems to have worked. The result is probably the artist’s most sonically adventurous album to date, which is a mixed blessing, but after an initial sense of disappointment on my first hearing, I’ve warmed to the record more than I was expecting.

His biggest hit single in years, the resigned ‘Every Storm Runs Out Of Rain’, is a good song in a contemporary vein. The production (overseen by Gary with Greg Droman) is adventurous and a long way from Gary’s earliest traditional leanings, but not unattractive (apart from an echo which I could do without but is only used a couple of times). It places Gary’s best plaintive vocal at the heart of the track, supported by an effective harmony from co-writer Hillary Lindsey. This is the song which give the album its title.

Gary and Droman also produced ‘You Without Me’, a weary reflection on dealing with having split from someone the protagonist still loves, which Gary wrote with John Lancaster and Rachel Proctor, with another fine vocal. ‘Sand In My Soul’, their third collaboration, on the other hand, is a boring Warren Brothers song about depression on the beach, with a weird echoey sound. The bluesy rocker ‘Bones’, written by Keith Gattis, has an interesting lyric but it sounds like a loud tuneless mess. Disappointingly it is one of the songs flagged on the CD packaging as a likely single.

Gary turned to Mark Wright to help with a further three tracks. The best of these is ‘Hungover Heart’ which is a solid number despite a sometimes heavy hand with the electric guitars. Gary’s vulnerable vocal is perfect for the song, written by Matt Warren and James Leblanc. Gary’s own ‘No Worries’ is bland and boring reggae-lite which sounds like a Kenny Chesney reject, with irritatingly whispery, echoey production. ‘Good As New’ closes the album with an air of philosophical resignation, and is okay but a little over-produced.

The producer with the biggest role is Jay Joyce, best known for his work with Eric Church, and although I was concerned that I wouldn’t care for his work with Gary, it turns out to be better then expected. The best track on the album is one of his production efforts, is the downbeat ‘It Ain’t The Whiskey’, which showcases Gary’s grainy voice and is reminiscent of his best work, and where the production choices are inventive in a mostly good way (although the last instrumental break is pointlessly loud). An unusual opening with the faint sound of an organ leads into the body of the song, in which Gary declares to an AA meeting “in the church of the broken people” that depression is the root of his addiction, and

It ain’t the whiskey that’s killing me

The song was written by Greg Barnhill, Jim Daddario and Cole Degges.

Joyce also does a good job with the chugging ‘Tough Goodbye’, about a commitment-phobe with some qualms about breaking up with his latest victim. Penned by Josh Thompson and Tony Martin, the song is pretty good and gets a committed delivery from Gary, with an interesting ending where he suddenly sounds more vulnerable and even regretful. It might make a good single.

‘Drop’, another likely single does have a compelling, sexy vocal, but the song is just okay and the instrumental arrangement and production don’t really appeal to me, although it might work on radio. The mid-tempo ‘Pieces’ (written by Gary with Odie Blackmon and Sarah Burton) isn’t bad but is a bit loud, while ‘One More Time’, written by Gary with Hillary Lindsey and Matt Warren, is inoffensive but boring.

Overall, I think this album is a distinct improvement over his last couple of albums, although the quality of the material is not up to his classic work.

Grade: B

Album Review – Martina McBride – ‘Greatest Hits’

220px-MartinaMcBrideGreatestHitsOne of the longest raging debates in the career of Martina McBride is the point in which her music took that pivotal turn from excellent to uninspired dreck. To an extent, it happened with Emotion, but I would argue the last truly great original music McBride has recorded came in the form of the four new tracks included on her Greatest Hits album.

In 2001 RCA saw fit to take stock of McBride’s career to date, releasing her first comprehensive career retrospective. The release came one week following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in an eerie parallel, McBride is seen wearing an American Flag tank top on the cover. McBride has stated that the cover wasn’t in response to the attacks (which would’ve been impossible given the CD and cover art were planned long before the release) but rather homage to her signature tune “Independence Day”.

For longtime fans the most intriguing aspect of the project wasn’t the music itself but the CD booklet, which featured ample liner notes from McBride and her producer Paul Worley discussing each track. It was great to read the stories behind the songs and gain insight into their thought processes. It’s kind of a shame most artists don’t take the time to do this, as the deeper level of appreciation I gained for McBride is invaluable.

Although the project itself is fairly typical, it only includes her top ten hits; the generous 18 tracks covering 69 minutes make it my favorite Greatest Hits album of all-time. And although it omits The Time Has Come and singles like “Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road,” it’s an excellent comprehensive overview of McBride’s career to date.

The new tracks show an artist experiencing an artistic uptick. All four, vastly different from one another, perfectly illustrate the different sides of McBride’s musical personality while concurrently displaying her measured growth as an artist.

“When God-Fearin’ Women Get The Blues,” penned by Leslie Satcher, was the lead single peaking at #8 in late summer 2001. A rocking story song, the track proved a departure for McBride both thematically and musically – with a mix of dobro and fiddles (as well as The Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother, Where Art Thou? providing backing vocals), it was the most traditional-leaning track she’d recorded in more than four years.

“Blessed,” a somewhat self-indulgent optimistic prophecy came next, topping the charts in early 2002. Her last #1 to date, the Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Vergas penned tune is far more pop than its predecessor, but she sings it well and I really like the vibe of contentment, a mirror of her personal life. Unfortunately the track sounded better back then. The addition of the drum machine feels very dated more than ten years later.

Far more consistent was the excellent third single, Rick Ferrell and Rachel Proctor’s “Where Would You Be.” By far the strongest of her relationship-turned-sour songs, McBride has never sounded better on record, turning the chorus into a rousing tour-de-force. The track peaked at a respectable #3, but fully deserved to follow “Blessed” to the top of the charts.

McBride hit another high note with Stephanie Bentley and Rob Crosby’s heartbreaking child-negligent tale “Concrete Angel.” Even with the grim subject matter, I’ve always loved the song – it was easily one of the strongest story songs at country radio in the fall of 2002. Bentley and Crosby execute every detail perfectly, from the teacher who ignores the signs to the night she’s killed at the hands of her mother. You feel for the little girl who slipped through the cracks, and it kind of makes you look at your life differently. Next to “Where Would You Be” this is my favorite of the four singles.

Sadly, I had very high expectations that McBride was destined to follow in Kenny Chesney’s footsteps and become huge with her albums to come. I thought this would mark the beginning of a McBride routinely nominated for Album of the Year trophies and selling out large concert tours. I wasn’t prepared for the reality of what did transpire, album after album of dreck (the next one had singles that were far lesser retreads of “Where Would You Be” (“How Far”) and “Concrete Angel” (“God’s Will”) that just didn’t measure up, but at least we have moments like these to remember when she was one of the best contemporary songstresses around.

Grade: A 

Single Review: Gary Allan – ‘Every Storm (Runs Out of Rain)’

After nearly two years of inactivity following a shake-up at UMG Nashville, Gary Allan’s label home, the singer has finally returned with new music. “Every Storm” is the lead single from a new album titled Set You Free due early next year.  Early in his career, Allan fashioned himself as country music’s resident dark horse, singing songs of the underdog with a delivery that is equal parts been-there conviction and gravelly determination.  That formula translated to magic with songs like “Smoke Rings In The Dark” and “Life Ain’t Always Beautiful”. But can it also sell a light at the end of the tunnel message? Apparently so.

There’s a low-key organ framing the first verse for the obligatory melancholy in a Gary Allan single which gives way to a chorus of inspirational messages. Fortunately, the song latches onto its groove with a steady back beat in the second verse.  Likewise, the female backing vocals remind me of Levon Helm’s contribution to Martina McBride’s “Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road”, adding a weathered texture to Allan’s somewhat lifeless delivery.

Grade: B+

Songwriters: Gary Allan, Hillary Lindsey, Matt Warren

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Album Review – Little Big Town – ‘Tornado’

You’d think the combination of irresistible four-part harmonies and a keen sense of song would be the makings of country music royalty, but Little Big Town has had more starts and halts in the past ten years than just about any mainstream act. They more than won the respect of the industry, but never quite caught on with the fans or country radio.

Their fifth album, a deliberate attempt to reverse those fortunes, is the group’s first to utilize producer-of-the-moment Jay Joyce, a smart decision that presents the quartet in a new and exciting light. Thanks to a stellar collection of songs tastefully sang and framed, Tornado blows recent releases by Dierks Bentley, Carrie Underwood, and Zac Brown Band out of the water and is easily the best mainstream country album since Eric Church’s Chief (also helmed by Joyce) came out a year ago.

Tornado works because it tampers with their core formula without sacrificing the qualities that have endeared them to the country audience for the past ten years. Platinum selling lead single “Pontoon,” a Luke Laird, Natalie Hemby, Barry Dean co-write about summertime fun on the water got them off on the right foot, and recently became their first number one hit. Anchored by Karen Fairchild’s commanding lead vocal and a slinky ear-catching beat, the song works because it isn’t a mid-life ploy at reclaiming adolescence, but rather three minutes of harmless fun aboard a boat. The second verse should’ve been developed more fully, but it works really well as a concept, and the arrangement is one of my favorites of any single this year.

Tornado matches the exuberance of “Pontoon”, but in most cases exceeds it. I’m really enjoying the album’s opening four tracks, each one a showcase for a different member of the group. Jimi Westbrook takes the lead on “Pavement Ends,” Fairchild on “Pontoon,” Kimberly Schlapman on “Sober” and Phillip Sweet on “Front Porch Thing.”  Westbrook, the thinnest vocally of the group, is adequate on “Pavement Ends,” Jason Saenz and Brent Cobb’s rollicking ode to dirt road partying, one of the more exciting songs on the subject matter. His male counterpart, Sweet (one of my favorite male vocalists in contemporary country), is excellent on “Front Porch Thing,” a wonderful banjo-led song about kicking back on a front porch with an old guitar and a song to sing.

But Schlapman is a revelation on the beautiful “Sober,” easily the album’s standout number. Written by Liz Rose, Hillary Lindsey, and Lori McKenna, the mandolin centric track is a sweet ballad about being drunk on love. I thoroughly enjoy how producer Joyce masterfully stands back and uses a less is more approach, allowing the gorgeous four-part harmonies, and stunning chorus, to steal the show.

Other album highlights include the first-rate title song and second single, a sinister Bobbie Gentry-like ballad about a woman seeking vengeance on her cheating boyfriend. Written by Hemby and Delta Maid, and effectively sung by Fairchild, the track blows away Underwood’s latest (which tackles a similar theme) and works thanks to the tasteful spooky guitars and moody vibe.  I also love the Westbrook fronted “Leavin’ In Your Eyes,” which is turned into a 1970s inspired soft rock opus, complete with a simple driving beat. The use of Fairchild and Schlapman on harmony vocals was a brilliant decision, as it helps to make the song more interesting than if the foursome sang together.

“Can’t Go Back,” written by Hemby with Kate York and Israeli-born Rosi Golan is another striking ballad and a fine showcase for the band’s signature harmonies, while album closer “Night Owl,” written by the band with Hemby, is a gorgeous reverse of “Leavin’ In Your Eyes” in which Fairchild and Schlapman take the lead while Westbrook and Sweet take the harmonies. “Night Owl” is another of my favorites sonically and nicely frames the group’s delicate vocals with lush acoustic guitars

Not all the tracks work, however. Sung as a duet by husband and wife Westbrook and Fairchild, “Your Side of the Bed” is a rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed,” down to the story of a failing marriage under the microscope in the bedroom. I’m having a difficult time believing the couple’s pain and the use of harmonies in the chorus. A better decision would’ve been to have Westbrook or Fairchild sing it solo, as the harmonies dilute the song’s emotional heft. I love the idea of the track as a duet, but it plain doesn’t work for a four-part group.  “On Fire Tonight” is an attempt at amped-up rock that’s well-presented and sung, and should work wonderfully in a live setting. But on record the Laird co-write with band comes off as underwhelming and a bit subpar for the group that has proven (even on this album) they can do a lot better.

I’m also having trouble getting into “Self Made,” which probably has a nice message, but is overtaken by a disastrously cluttered production that’s so bombastic its hard to hear what the group is singing. Joyce, who should’ve kept with the rest of the album and continued with the less is more approach, failed Hemby and Jedd Hughes’s co-write with Westbrook and Fairchild.

All and all, Tornado is an excellent mainstream country album and the strongest so far this year, bar none. I’m finding it impossible to drum up excitement for mainstream country these days but Little Big Town has managed to do that for me. I was so afraid they were on the path to compromising themselves at the price of commercial viability, but thankfully I was wrong.

Tornado isn’t a masterwork like Kathy Mattea’s Calling Me Home, but I’m confident in saying it stands next to the likes of Sugarland’s Love On The Inside, Miranda Lambert’s Revolution, and Trisha Yearwood’s Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love as some of the best mainstream fare released in the past five years.

Grade: A 

Album Review: Edens Edge – ‘Edens Edge’

New Big Machine trio Edens Edge is built around the distinctive piercing twangy lead vocals of Hannah Blaylock. The production, helmed by Mark Bright and Dann Huff, is unfortunately cluttered with too much going on most of the time. The talented band members play a variety of instruments (Cherrill Green comes from a bluegrass background, and plays mandolin and banjo, while Dean Berners plays dobro and guitar), and a more natural, less processed, sound woul allow them to shine more.

The band’s debut single ‘Amen’ (a top 20 hit last year) is a pretty good song gloating over the departure of a romantic rival, and is one of the few tracks to successfully balance country radio’s demands of a glossy finish with an attractive organic yet contemporary country feel. It is one of three songs here co-written by Hannah, this one with Skip Black, Catt Gravitt and Gerald O’Brien. Danny Myrick teamed up with Blaylock and Gravitt for ‘Last Supper’, a rather intense pop country ballad about an impending breakup. It’s heavily over-produced, but is a good song underneath, with some interesting lyrical choices. I quite liked the quirky ‘Who Am I Drinking Tonight’, which was written by Hannah with Laura Veltz, comparing the guys she meets and their choice of drinks to country stars, but I would have preferred a significantly scaled-back production

‘Skinny Dippin’ (not the Whitney Duncan song but a new one written by Veltz, band member Dean Berners, and Vince Melamed) is a self-conscious attempt at playful charm which more or less comes off. Remniscent of the Pistol Annies, the first half of the song is quite catchy with a bright acoustic arrangement, but Huff and Bright can’t resist the temptation of throwing in weird processing on the backing vocals and too much sound in general, and it all derails. This trio also contributed ‘Cherry Pie’, a very cluttered sounding number looking back at a happy childhood, which would be a lot better with half the amount of instrumentation or less. Cherry Pie, incidentally, is the name of Hannah’s real life childhood pony. As it is largely unlistenable after the low-key and pretty first verse and the sweet lyrics and genuine emotion are crushed by an unnecessary wall of sound.

Veltz wrote the album’s best track, the pain-filled ‘Liar’, with Andy Stochansky. The narrator is hiding her pain as the man she loves, and who thinks of her as just a friend, is set to marry another girl. She pretends to be happy for him, but admits in the song she is “the biggest liar in the world”. Production here is for once restrained enough to let the song breathe. The narrator’s heartbreak is very convincingly conveyed by Blaylock’s vulnerable vocal, with the unfortunate girl even having to help choose and try on the engagement ring.

A close second is ‘Swingin’ Door’ (written by Terry Clayton, Brett James and underrated singer-songwriter Ashley Monroe), which was cut by the Australian Catherine Britt on her outstanding RCA album a few years back. Hannah’s version sounds a little less fragile, as she invests a lot of determination rejecting the lover trying to use her. It’s an excellent song, and a thoroughly enjoyable track.

‘Too Good To Be True’, written by pop-country stalwarts Hillary Lindsey, Gordie Sampson and Troy Verges, sounds just like a Carrie Underwood track, with belted-out, almost shouted, vocals, frequent nonsensical syllables, lots of attitude but not much melody, and no subtlety. Naturally it’s the current single. ‘Feels So Real’, another Lindsey song (written with Angelo and Tia Sillers), is more interesting, but very poppy sounding and oversung.

The acappella ‘For Christ Alone’ (written by the band’s mentor Steve Smith, who brought them together in their home state of Arkansas) is one of the few occasions where the vocals of Hannah Blaylock’s bandmates Dean Berner and Cherrill Green are really distinct as they don’t have to fight against the overwhelming backing, and although it sounds like a hymn with choral styled harmonies rather than a country song, it really shows how ill-served the group has been by their producers.

Edens Edge is a group with a lot of potential, but they have compromised too much to fit into country radio for this album to fulfil it for me.

Grade: B

Album Review: Terri Clark – ‘Pain To Kill’

Released in 2003, after the relatively disappointing commercial performance of Fearless, Pain To Kill marked a change in producer for Terri, with the recruitment of Byron Gallimore, perhaps the leading commercial country producer of the day. It looks as though the label was hedging its bets with regards to the direction of the album, with Gallimore working on half the album, and old standby Keith Stegall being brought back in for the remainder of the material. Byron Gallimore applied a fairly sophisticated pop-country sound to mainly outside songs, and successfully balances Terri’s voice with a radio-friendly sheen.

Keith Stegall, meanwhile, tackled the bulk of Terri’s own songs, with a sound more in keeping with her past work. Gallimore’s tracks front load the set listing (and provided all three of the singles), with most of the Stegall tracks relegated to the second half of the set. Throughout the album, Terri’s vocals sound great and very committed to the material, and there is an overarching theme of relationship troubles and moving on which helps give a cohesive feel to the set as a whole.

The contemporary sounding lead single, ‘I Just Wanna Be Mad’, written by Kelley Lovelace and Lee Thomas Miller, made a good start with radio, peaking at #2 in 2002. It is my favorite of the single choices from this album with its convincing and mature lyric about a couple married for seven years (when “some days it feels like 21”) and squabbling over the little things, while affirming the underlying strength of their relationship:

I think I’m right
I think you’re wrong
I’ll probably give in before long
Please don’t make me smile
I just wanna be mad for a while

The woman-on-the-verge-of-leaving whose story is conveyed in ‘Three Mississippi is less successful. While well sung, it’s a rather pop-leaning song written by Hillary Lindsey, Troy Verges and Angelo, whose rather uninteresting tune and overdone production drains the emotion from the lyric. It was closer to a flop, only just making the top 30. The life-affirming ‘I Wanna Do It All’ is better, if not very memorable. It took Terri back to the upper reaches of the charts, peaking at #3.

The title track is a radio-friendly mid-tempo number written by Tom Shapiro and Steve Bogard, with a cheery approach to partying away the troubles of life. The very contemporary Matraca Berg/Randy Scruggs song ‘Working Girl’ (comparing an ordinary working woman’s life to glossy media images) was previously recorded by Loretta Lynn. It suits Terri better than it did Loretta, but is still one of my least favorite Terri Clark recordings.

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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: Taylor Swift – ‘Fearless’

When Taylor Swift released the best song she’s ever sang, and one of my personal favorites, it became her lowest charting single ever. For some reason ‘Fifteen’ wasn’t massive, but Swift follows it up with the title track and fifth single from her sophomore album, Fearless.

After ‘Fifteen’, ‘Fearless’ is just so juvenile. Sure, teenage girls will connect with wanting to be kissed in the rain, but I honestly have no intention of doing so as an adult male. The message of the song is about being fearless in love, but Swift’s past singles have dealt with the same theme in much better ways. ‘You Belong With Me’ was real and engaging, while “Love Story” had the whole Romeo and Juliet motifs going for it: ‘Fearless’ is just less by comparison.

This song is catchy and fun, and Swift sings it fine (as well as she can), but I just feel like she has better versions of this song out there. This song is definitely more pop than country, but who would expect anything different? Regardless, she can do better than this.  And has.

Grade: C+

‘Fearless’ was written by: Taylor Swift, Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey and can be purchased at iTunes and streamed at Last FM.