My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Jay Joyce

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘The Breaker’

the-breakerI sit here in amazement that five years have come and gone since Little Big Town scrapped Wayne Kirkpatrick for Jay Joyce and ensured they wouldn’t face the commercial disappointment that greeted 2010’s The Reasons Why ever again. They’ve since proven themselves to be a shameless mainstream act out for success at the expense of creative credibility.

You cannot deny they’ve achieved their greatest success in these years, winning every Vocal Group of the Year award for which they’ve been nominated. “Girl Crush” was another triumph, but disastrously overblown. I do like the song, but I’m more than glad to see its reign has come to an end at long last.

I last reviewed Pain Killer, which was easily among the worst mainstream country albums this decade. Their pop detour last spring, Wanderlust, was even worse. But I’ve been a fan of theirs for eleven years since I first heard “Boondocks” in 2005. I don’t know what keeps me coming back, especially in this era of their career, but here I am again.

Little Big Town has reunited with Joyce for The Breaker, their bid to regain their country momentum, which has proven successful thus far. Lead single “Better Man” is their fastest rising, zipping up the airplay chart at a breakneck speed unusual for them. It doesn’t hurt that the ballad, penned by Taylor Swift, is the best they’ve ever recorded. “Better Man” doesn’t break any new ground for Swift, she’s actually retreading much of what she’s already written, but I’m thrilled to see her finally return to form, if even for a one off. “Better Man” has the substance missing from her pop catalog.

The Breaker finds Little Big Town in the post-”Girl Crush” era, one in which they double down on Lori McKenna, in hopes of lightening striking twice. The album features no less than five of her writing credits. In anticipation of the album, they previewed “Happy People,” which she wrote with Hailey Waters. The track, mid-tempo pop, generalizes the characteristics of happy people, with a laundry list of signifiers:

Happy people don’t cheat

Happy people don’t lie

They don’t judge or hold a grudge, don’t criticize

Happy people don’t hate

Happy people don’t steal

Cause all the hurt sure ain’t worth all the guilt they feel

 

Happy people don’t fail

Happy people just learn

Don’t think that we’re above the push and shove

We just wait their turn

They always got a hand

Or a dollar to spare

Know the golden rule what you’re goin’ through

Even if it never been there

“We Went to the Beach” was the album’s second preview, is a refreshing change of pace with Philip Sweet on lead vocals. The track may seem like it has much in common with “Pontoon,” “Day Drinking” and “Pain Killer,” but it’s nowhere near as vapid. The ballad has a wonderfully engaging melody that perfectly frames Sweet’s buttery voice.

The third and final preview, “When Someone Stops Loving You,” is another of McKenna’s co-written offerings. The tastefully produced ethereal ballad is a showcase for Jimi Westbrook, who elevates the 1970s soft rock undertones with his smooth yet pleasing vocal turn.

McKenna is one of four writers on “Free,” a sonically adventurous ballad celebrating the not-so-novel idea that the best aspects of life don’t cost anything. “Lost In California,” is the only contribution solely by the Love Junkies, who co-wrote “Girl Crush.” The song, which should definitely be a single, is an excellent sultry ballad and one of the album’s strongest tracks outside of “Better Man.”

Karen and Kimberly join the Love Junkies on “Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old,” is a pleasant ballad with interesting finger snaps and their gorgeous harmonies. They continue to slow the pace on “Beat Up Bible,” an acoustic guitar-led ballad showcasing Schlapman singing lead. The track is very good albeit a bit bland. The title track, another one with Sweet singing lead, has a nice lyric but could’ve used a bit more life in the production.

The main difference between The Breaker and previous Little Big Town albums is the suppression of uptempo material, which is surprising given the current climate of mainstream country. The album isn’t devoid of such songs and numbers like “Night On Our Side,” aren’t not only terrible, they’re out of place. “Driving Around” isn’t much better and harkens back to a Little Big Town this album works so hard to leave behind. “Rollin,’” in which Westbrook sings lead, doesn’t even sound like them.

The Breaker is the beginning of a new chapter for Little Big Town, one that finds the band slowing the pace to highlight the substance they’ve brought back to their music. The Breaker is far from a perfect album, but it is a step in the right direction, even if that step has more in common with 1970s soft rock than country music.

Grade: B

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Single Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Love Can go To Hell’

love can go to hellHaving loved Brandy Clark’s Twelve Stories, I was disappointed by some of the musical and arrangement choices producer Jay Joyce made for her current album, although her strong songwriting continues to shine. While the arrangement on new single ‘Love Can Go To Hell’ is more cluttered than it needs to be, fortunately it does not detract from the song, which Brandy wrote with Scott Stepakoff (a rock singer turned Nashille songwriter). It doesn’t sound bad – just a touch too busy.

A bitter post-breakup musing on the nature of love and pain sees Brandy reflecting on a recent breakup. She claims, not entirely convincingly, not to blame her ex:

Heaven knows
I only wish you well

I don’t blame you at all
No, I don’t hate you at all
It’s all love’s fault

But she is unable to move on:

I can get drunk on a Saturday night
And try to fall for someone new
But I’d just wake up hungover
Cursin’ the day I fell for you

The mid paced tune is redolent to me of 90s contemporary country, the kind of song Trisha Yearwood or Matraca Berg might have recorded (with a more subtle backing). Brandy is a fine singer as well as an excellent songwriter, with a voice capable of expressing strong emotions, and she performs this song well.

Curb artist Ashley Gearing also released the song as a single this year, but it failed to chart for her. Hopefully it will do better for its writer.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Brandy Clark – ‘Big Day In A Small Town’

promoted-media-optimized_56fe8b2ad785eIn recording 12 Stories Brandy Clark said she made a concept record about a small-town woman and her journey through our world. The finished product didn’t completely fulfill that vision (the song sequence was changed), but it did introduce us to a compelling and complex heroine framed with sonic touches that made 12 Stories an album that respected the past in order to create the future.

Big Day In A Small Town ultimately builds upon its predecessor by giving our heroine a backbone formed on the foundation of experience woven by Clark’s eye for detailing the emotional complexities of everyday life with razor-sharp precision. Our main character reached this authoritative state (elevated with an eclectic sonic backdrop spearheaded by Jay Joyce) by having lived and come out the other side with a clear picture of how she wants to move forward with her life. Her circumstances will never be without turmoil, but for her to live as her authentic self means she has to embrace who she is at her messiest while attempting to establish some type of order to her state of affairs.

To fully understand her newly enlightened state, we need to fill the gaps in her back-story. Those details come courtesy of the brilliant “Homecoming Queen,” in which she finds herself at twenty-eight realizing she’s holding onto a superficial falsity that is as empty as the dead-end town she calls home:

Too bad love ain’t a local parade

In your uncle’s Corvette on a Saturday

With all the little girls waiting on you to wave

When you’re 17

You don’t know

That you won’t always be

Homecoming queen

It’s worth reiterating that our heroine isn’t a single construct but a composite sketch of women everywhere. She’s the one-time “Homecoming Queen” as much as she’s the mother with “Three Kids No Husband.” Both scenarios find her living out the reality of her situation including the latter, a co-write with Lori McKenna that beautifully details the laundry list of different people our heroine has become to keep her family running smoothly.

Her backbone manifests as a take-no-prisoners frankness that unapologetically stings any man who crosses her path. This change in her attitude is best exemplified by the subtle twist in “You Can Come Over,” a lush slice of piano pop that finds the man able to visit but not allowed inside. Cyclone-wrapped “Girl Next Door” shoves the man to the curb, instructing him to look to the neighbor for his idea of the perfect woman.

That feistiness is even more fully formed on “Daughter,” an outstanding takedown in which the woman wants karma to bite him in the ass by his own offspring. The track is modern day Loretta Lynn at her finest, down to a 1960s inspired arrangement and bold lyric that pushes even Lynn’s stretchiest envelope.

Through it all she still has weaknesses, and they take the form of the deliciously banjo-drenched “Love Can Go To Hell.” Once she realizes what it’s like to be alone, that life might not be all she imagined when she kicked him to the curb. The up-tempo number (my favorite amongst the eleven tracks) is the album’s most commercial, but its infectiousness is more Dixie Chicks than Bon Jovi.

Clark travels even further into classic country on the wonderful “Drinkin’ Smokin’ Cheatin,’” the proof that through it all morality still wins. As much as playing the good girl makes her miserable, our heroine can’t help but draw a line she won’t cross.

By the end of Big Day In A Small Town, our heroine isn’t any better or worse off than she was three years ago. Clark closes the album on a sober note, with the slow-burning ballad “Since You’ve Gone To Heaven,” a striking look at life in the wake of a father’s death. It’s the album’s sole break in the story and one of its most vivid tracks.

It would be easy to compare Big Day In A Small Town to 12 Stories, but to do so would be unfair to the distinctive characteristics that make each album uniquely their own. If Clark set out to prove anything it’s that she didn’t have to sacrifice her unique individuality while working with a producer very much the antithesis of Dave Brainard. Joyce’s choices do overwhelm a couple of songs, but he mostly stays out of Clark’s way, letting her narratives take center stage and command our complete and undivided attention.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Eric Church – ‘Mr. Misunderstood’

MisunderstoodThere’s a quote from Marty Stuart that says the most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is play actual country music. I’d go on to add that the second most rebellious thing you can do in Nashville is to record and release an album of your own volition on a major label without any executives getting in your way.

For his fifth album, the spellbinding Mr. Misunderstood, Eric Church was able to accomplish that second feat. In a handwritten letter published upon the album’s surprise release last November, he relayed a touching story about finding inspiration through a guitar his son had named late last summer and the music that poured out of it as a result. In a brisk 30 days, Church had recorded the ten tracks that would comprise the strongest mainstream country album of the decade thus far.

Mr. Misunderstood triumphs on the strength of Church’s willingness to mature as an artist and songwriter. He’s letting the music speak for itself, forgoing egotistical pretense, and highlighting Jay Joyce’s strength at elevating lyrical compositions without bombarding the audience with needless noise.

Nowhere is the pair more masterful then on “Knives of New Orleans,” the album’s blistering centerpiece. Written by Church, Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman, the song tells the tale of a fugitive wanted for a brutal murder he mercilessly committed without remorse:

Yeah, tonight, every man with a TV

Is seeing a man with my clothes and my face

In the last thirty minutes

I’ve gone from a person of interest

To a full-blown manhunt underway

 

I did what I did

I have no regrets

When you cross the line

You get what you get

 

Tonight, a bleeding memory

Is tomorrow’s guilty vein

Your auburn hair on a faraway sea wall

Screams across the Pontchartrain

I’m haunted by headlights

And a crescent city breeze

One wrong turn on Bourbon

Cuts like the knives of New Orleans

It’s far and away my favorite song on the project. I also equally adore Church’s solo-penned “Holdin’ My Own,” an unapologetic acoustic masterclass in introspection. In just under four minutes, he brilliantly traces his career trajectory and stands firm against anyone who wants a piece of him:

Always been a fighter scrapper and a clawer

Used up some luck in lawyers

Like Huck from Tom Sawyer jumped on my raft

And shoved off chasing my dreams

Reeling in big fishes

I had some hits a few big misses

I gave em hell and got a few stitches

And these days I show off my scars

 

With one arm around my baby

And one arm around my boys

A heart that’s still pretty crazy

And a head that hates the noise

If the world comes knockin

Tell em I’m not home

I’m finally holdin my own

 

I’ve burned up the fast lane

Dodging drugs and divorce

If I’m proof of anything

God sure loves troubadours

Sometimes late at night

I miss the smoke and neon

Sneak out of bed grab a six string

Play what’s still turnin me on

Like that tight old time rock n roll

Or that right down home country gold

I miss blues and soul

But not more than I miss being home

Also outstanding is “Three Year Old,” a tender ballad Church wrote about his son Boone with Casey Beathard and Monty Criswell. It follows “Holdin’ My Own” in showing a more mellow side of Church, the man behind the sunglasses and electric guitars. The trio relies on personal observances to frame the story:

Use every crayon color that you’ve got

A fishing pole sinks faster than a tackle box

Nothing turns a day around like licking a mixing bowl

I learned that from a three year old

 

A garbage can is a damn good spot to hide truck keys

Why go inside when you can go behind a tree?

Walking barefoot through the mud will knock the rust right off your soul

I learned that from a three year old

 

You can be a cowboy on the moon

Dig to China with a spoon

Talk to Jesus on the phone

Say “I love you” all day long

And when you’re wrong, you should just say so

I learned that from a three year old

Church balances the self-examination with some primed-for-radio hits. “Round Here Buzz” is about the self-destruction after she’s left the hometown he’s hell-bent on staying in. He’s also without his woman on “Record Year,” but instead of turning to alcohol he’s drowned his sorrows in a ‘three-foot stack of vinyl.’

On his last tour, Church won raves for including artistic-driven Roots and Americana artists as his opening acts. The mutual admiration continues with Rhiannon Giddens joining Church for powerful background vocals on “Kill A Word,” a slice of social commentary about destroying words that aren’t good for our society. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a full-fledged duet with Susan Tedeschi that mixes blues and rock. It’s not my favorite track on the album, but it is very good.

I also have mixed emotions about “Mistress Named Music,” which Church also wrote with Beathard. The vibe of the track is very good, Church gives a powerful vocal performance and the use of organ wonderfully sets the tone for the moody ballad. I just don’t seem to go back to it that often. The same goes for “Chattanooga Lucy,” which I flat out don’t get. It’s easily the most esoteric track on the whole album. I don’t hate the title track, either, but it has grown repetitive on repeated listenings. That said, I fully stand behind the song’s message.

The only thing truly misunderstood about Church is the whole point of his musical journey over the past ten years. He hasn’t won any favors with country purists nor has he gone out of his way to please those put off by his egotism. But he has built a career on real music that bucks every trend. He stands out because he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Church isn’t dumb nor is he a maniac. At the end of the day he’s an authentic artist releasing his own music. He’s getting massive airplay for songs that shouldn’t even be breaking through at all. He’s the last real country singer standing in mainstream Nashville. He may have an edge, but he can stand tall with the best of them. Mr. Misunderstood proves that in spades.

Grade: A

Album Review: Carrie Underwood – ‘Storyteller’

Carrie_Underwood_-_Storyteller_(Official_Album_Cover)Of all the criticisms I can level at mainstream country this year, the most unnerving is the brazen shamelessness of artists who’ve gone out of their way to change everything they’re about in order to chase a bigger high that doesn’t exist. More than adapting to changing trends, artists like Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry have abandoned their earnestness and sold their souls to Scott Borchetta, who interfered with their artistry in order to fill his pockets.

Carrie Underwood, luckily, isn’t on the Big Machine Label Group. That being said, I was still nervous about the direction of Storyteller. To compete in a tomato-smeared world, how much would she have to veer from the sound that made her a household name?

As much as I admire Underwood’s music, I cannot help but feel her output has been geared toward the right now, with songs that don’t stand the test of time. A lot of her music, especially the rockers, just isn’t strong enough to carry the nostalgia we now feel for the 1990s country we all love. She’s an incredible vocalist, and when she’s on point, no one can hold a candle to her.

That’s why I’m always excited when she releases new music. I’m even more pleased she and Arista Nashville added Jay Joyce and Zach Crowell as producers alongside Mark Bright. Underwood and Bright have been a well-oiled machine going on ten years, but it’s time to change it up for the sake of variety.

Our first taste of the switch-up is the Joyce produced “Smoke Break,” a rocker Underwood co-wrote with Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsay. It’s easily one of the most country songs on the radio right now, with Underwood’s natural twang carrying the somewhat generic story quite nicely. I only wish Joyce had dialed it back on the chorus, going for a more organic punch than the screaming rock that drowns Underwood out.

Likely second single “Heartbeat,” which features Sam Hunt and was produced by his orchestrator Crowell, finds Underwood in a field with her man ‘dancing to the rhythm of [his] heartbeat.’ The track, which Underwood and Crowell co-wrote with Ashley Gorley, is a pleasant pop ballad that finds Underwood nicely subdued.

She also co-wrote four other tracks on the album. “Renegade Runaway” kicks off Storyteller with bang. The rocker, co-written with her “Smoke Break” comrades, is slinky and fun but suffers from a god-awful chorus that renders the song almost unlistenable. Mike Elizondo, best known for his work with Drake and Eminem, was brought in collaborate with Underwood and Lindsay on club thumper “Chaser.” The results are immature at best and showcase Underwood at her most watered down.

Fortunately, Underwood rebounds with her final two co-writes. Underwood and Lindsay turned to David Hodges to write “The Girl You Think I Am,” an ode to her father in the vein of “Mama’s Song” from Play On. It’s a beautiful prayer about acceptance, from a daughter who wants to overcome her insecurities to live up to her father’s expectations.

The other, “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted,” is the centerpiece of Storyteller even though it closes the album. Underwood isn’t an artist who normally looks from within for inspiration, so it’s rare when she finds inspiration in her own life for a song. The results aren’t spectacular – she could’ve gone a lot deeper lyrically and found even a little hint of country music in the execution – but she’s gotten her feet wet for future moves in this direction.

Storyteller wouldn’t be an Underwood album unless she revisits the murderous themes that have become her touchstone. These songs have grown into bigger productions in the ten years since “Before He Cheats” and usually suffer from a lack of subtlety. That doesn’t change much here, although they are kind of fun to listen to. “Choctaw County Affair” showcases Underwood’s growth as a vocalist with a delicious story about a woman’s mysterious death. “Church Bells” is an excellent backwoods rocker about domestic abuse. “Dirty Laundry,” on the other hand, is juvenile and revisits themes already too well worn. “Mexico,” about bandits on the run, isn’t the island song you’d expect but a typical Underwood rocker.

On every Underwood album there’s one song that stands out from the rest, a likely non-single that’ll always be a much-appreciated deep album cut. On Storyteller that distinction goes to sensual ballad “Like I’ll Never Love You Again,” written by the CMA Song of the Year winning team behind “Girl Crush.” Underwood delivers flawlessly, while the lyric is the strongest and most well written on the whole album.

“Relapse” is nothing more than a blown out pop power ballad that does little to advance Underwood’s artistry beyond the fact she showcases new colors in her voice. “Clock Don’t Stop,” another ballad, suffers from a hip-hop inspired chorus that relies far too heavily on drawn out one syllable words and yeahs in place of actual lyrics.

Storyteller is an odd album. I refuse to judge its complete lack of actual country music as a flaw even though it hurts the proceedings quite a bit. There are some listenable pop songs here, like “Heartbeat,” but most of this music is below Underwood’s talent level. The deliciousness of “Choctaw County Affair” saves it from the scrap heap while the articulate lyric of “Like I’ll Never Love You Again” is very, very good. But there isn’t much here that doesn’t feel like poorly written middle of the road pop/rock passing as modern country.

I give Underwood complete credit for changing up her sound and trying something new. It just isn’t to my taste at all. I much prefer the powerhouse who gave us the one-two-punch of “Something In The Water” and “Little Toy Guns.” That’s the Carrie Underwood I could listen to all day.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Little Big Town – ‘Pain Killer’

1035x1035-lbt-pain-killer-coverLittle Big Town and producer Jay Joyce approach Pain Killer with red hued wild abandon, unapologetically subverting convention in favor of experimentation. If they thought of it, they used it, no matter how outlandish the result.

More often than not Pain Killer devolves into heavy rock, often smothering the individual tracks. “Turn The Lights On” is a progressive mess. “Stay All Night” and “Things You Don’t Think About” drown their harmonies in crashing drums. “Faster Gun” turns up the sexy factor with a filter on Phillip Sweet and Jimi Westbrook’s vocal that renders them indistinguishable. “Save Your Sin” is more heavy metal than anything; a waste of what could be a shining moment for Kimberly Schlapman. “Good People” is just more of the same, with rock and pop colliding, but not meshing at all.

The band is slightly more enjoyable on “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” which is catchy, but rests its fortunes on a terribly unintelligent lyric. Lead single “Day Drinking,” which actually has structure and audible mandolin, is a step up from there.

For the remaining tracks, Little Big Town is good, if not great, or excellent. I love the title track, even though it features elements of the album at its worst, because the chorus is excellent and the band sounds engaged like nowhere else on the project. Second single “Girl Crush,” which only could’ve been written in this day and age, is an inventive lyric and one of Karen Fairchild’s most committed vocal performances. I do wish “Live Forever” retained more a country sound, but Joyce should be credited for a beautifully breathable harmony-centric production bed that’s too lush, but still a showcase for the band. Eerily similar is “Silver and Gold,” which keeps the harmonies in the forefront, but could’ve been a bit more interesting if Joyce had borrowed from “Shut Up Train,” one their strongest ballads.

Pain Killer is the blandest album of Little Big Town’s career. The elements of rock, pop, and metal do nothing to elevate their sound and are thus a distraction that deflects from their talent instead of enhancing it. The record is not without its bright spots, like Eric Church’s Joyce-produced The Outsiders. But I find it difficult to derive pleasure from wading through the dense forest to find them.

Grade: C-

Single Review: Zac Brown Band – ‘Homegrown’

homegrownEven though their music is not always strictly country, the Zac Brown Band has been one of the few bright spots at country radio in recent years. Much of their music to date has been a hybrid of country and the type of pop played on Top 40 radio stations back in the 70s. With “Homegrown”, their first release since joining forces with Big Machine, they seem to be branching out in a slightly different direction.

Whether it’s due to the label change or new co-producer Jay Joyce, this record sounds a bit different than the others. For one thing, the production is a bit louder with heavy emphasis in the intro on drums and fuzzy electric guitars. I couldn’t help feeling a bit disappointed upon hearing those opening notes, fearing that it would be another one of country radio’s typically dull and overloud offerings. Things improve, however, once the song gets underway with Zac Brown’s unmistakable voice. There’s a little banjo and fiddle thrown into the mix, but neither is featured prominently. Sonically, it isn’t structured like a country song at all, but the tune is very catchy and before you know it you’ll be tapping your toes in spite of yourself. The lyrics, about a protagonist who is more than content to smell the roses and enjoy his lot in life, are on the light side, but at least provide a theme that is country, even if the sound isn’t.

Written by Zac Brown with Niko Moon and bandmate Wyatt Durrette, seems more like a feel-good summertime record rather that a January release, but it’s apparently struck a chord with both radio and fans. It currently resides at #4 on the charts, only ten days after its release. It looks like it’s going to be a monster hit. I wouldn’t rank it among the Zac Brown Band’s best work, but there is nothing terribly objectionable about it — and these days, that’s a big plus.

Listen to it here.

Grade: B

Concert Review: Little Big Town at the South Shore Music Circus

IMG_3747They may be from the Boondocks, But Little Big Town have sailed their Pontoon into a rock and roll Tornado.

If their recent show at the South Shore Music Circus proves anything, it’s that the quartet known for simple backwoods arrangements complimenting their airtight harmonies have morphed into a band solely focused on succeeding in the current “country music” landscape.

They made their way to the rounded stage like rock stars filing into a stadium, Kimberly Schlapman’s head of tight blond curls visible a mile away. Karen Fairchild, modeling denim short-shorts, knee high leather boots, and a gold sparkle jacket launched into pulsating set opener “Leave The Light On,” a track from the band’s upcoming Pain Killer due Oct 21. The band and crowd embraced a little “Day Drinking” shortly thereafter, which worked in the environment despite missing the snare drums utilized in award show performances of the track.

The foursome focused most heavily on their work produced by Jay Joyce, a response to the lukewarm reception of their most recent Wayne Kirkpatrick-produced set, 2010’s The Reason Why. Apart from down playing their country credentials, their work with Joyce is far more guitar heavy, which afford them to gave the banjos and mandolins a break for most of the evening.

Pain Killer got a generous showcase, a risk seeing as no one, not even me, has heard the album yet. They played more than half the album and while most of the tracks ran together, I could hear something special in the title track and Schlapman’s vocal showcase on “Save Your Sin.”

Tornado made up the majority of what was left and tracks like “Pavement Ends,” “Front Porch Thing,” and “On Fire Tonight” fit in perfectly with the vibe of the evening. “Pontoon” had the whole crowd singing along and “Your Side of the Bed” was as effective live as on the album. “Sober,” which I expected to be treated more acoustically, was a slight disappointment, but the magic of the track shone through. Fairchild traded her sparkle coat for long leathery fringe to croon “Tornado,” a set highlight.

I did appreciate how they sprinkled in subtle nods to the past ten years, gifting the crowed with “Little White Church” and “A Little More You.” I had completely forgotten about “A Little More You” and was happy when they resurrected it. “Boondocks,” easily the band’s signature song, came towards the end of the evening with a drum heavy beginning that rendered the track almost unrecognizable at first.

At one point Fairchild commented on this being their second ever performance on a revolving stage (they played the Cape Cod Melody Tent the night before) and how they were nervous about letting down the audience with their lack of production.

After introducing their band, the group commented on their history as a band and how 2014 marks twenty-five years together. The women talked about how IMG_3751Fairchild and Jimi Westbrook went to college together and their first meeting with Phillip Sweet. Instead of logically launching into “I’m With The Band,” which they didn’t play, they gave us a couple of tracks that influenced them. First was a stripped down almost bluesy cover of the Oak Ridge Boys classic “Elvira” that got such an inventive take from the band, it took until the chorus before I knew what they were singing. The other track that influenced them was Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain,” a logical choice seeing as they’re always being compared. In fact, when I was playing Fleetwood Mac’s The Dance live album a while back, I thought it was Little Big Town on opener “The Chain.”

At the encore they turned the spotlight on Lori McKenna, who helped write tracks on their most recent albums. Hailing from Stoughton, MA, McKenna is ours as much as she is a nationally recognized singer/songwriter. She was brought on stage to sing a new song “Humble and Kind.”

Just because the show was steeped far more in rock and roll than what most would consider country music didn’t mean it wasn’t enjoyable or a huge disappointment. Did I long for them to grace us with an acoustic set? Yes, I did. But they are still exceptionally talented and perfectly showcased it during their set. Little Big Town worked the stage brilliantly, a job mostly regulated to Sweet who threw many a guitar pick into the crowd and was, no pun intended, sweet to the audience the whole show. I was thrilled that I finally got to them, and it was an added bonus that it occurred at my favorite music venue, a place I would’ve deemed far too small for them at this point in their careers.

Singer/Songwriter Sara Haze opened the show with a thirty-minute set focused on originals and “Riot,” a song she had cut by Rascal Flatts on their latest album. Haze, who had a guy accompanying her on guitar, was very good although a little too indistinctive. Haze also joined Little Big Town on stage during the encore.

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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Predictions for the 48th annual ACM Awards

Unknown-5Now that we’ve turned the clocks forward an hour and our calendars from March to April, it’s time to turn our attention to Las Vegas and the annual Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. CBS is carrying the show live Sunday Night (April 7) and it promises to be an eclectic mix of mainstream country music; hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan. Look for Tim McGraw to sing his latest “Highway Don’t Care” with Taylor Swift and Keith Urban, while Jason Aldean is rumored to be involving Joe Diffie in his performance of “1994.” Kelly Clarkson will be singing “Don’t Rush” and Bryan plans to debut a new single, “Crash My Party.” But I’m most excited to see what promises to be a buzzed about moment – Garth Brooks and George Strait collaborating for the first time to pay tribute to show producer Dick Clark.

Here are the nominees and predictions:

UnknownEntertainer of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Miranda Lambert

· Blake Shelton

· Taylor Swift – Jonathan Pappalardo 

As a fan voted award, the logic would be on Taylor Swift to take this home. And while she’s the likely winner, I’m wondering if Blake Shelton’s Voice popularity may propel him to the podium instead. There has to be a chance someone besides Swift could take this home, right? Well, I’m not betting on it, but Shelton seems the most likely one to do it.

Unknown-1Male Vocalist of the Year

· Jason Aldean

· Luke Bryan

· Eric Church

· Toby Keith

· Blake Shelton – Jonathan Pappalardo 

It’s nice to see Keith sneak in a nod here, as he’s still a gifted vocalist and “Hope On The Rocks” proves it. Aldean is just too weak a singer to make much of a significant impact and I can’t see the Academy embracing Church. So this as a two-way race between show co-hosts Shelton and Bryan, and I only see the ACM awarding it to Bryan if they want to shake it up. But they may see him as an eventual winner (like after he releases his next album) and go with Shelton again.

The 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards - ArrivalsFemale Vocalist of the Year

· Miranda Lambert – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Martina McBride

· Kacey Musgraves

· Taylor Swift

· Carrie Underwood

While I would love to see Musgraves take this home, she’s too new for such a prestigious honor. McBride’s a broken record at this point – she hasn’t had an impactful hit single in years and while Underwood is releasing some of the most ambitious songs of her career, she’ll likely be seen as old hat by this point. This is Lambert’s award to lose and Swift’s dominance in a completely different genre market isn’t going to change that.

images-2Vocal Duo of the Year

· Big & Rich

· Florida Georgia Line

· Love and Theft

· Sugarland

· Thompson Square – Jonathan Pappalardo 

If Florida Georgia Line wins this award, I’m done. “Cruise” may’ve been one of the biggest hits of last year, but popularity hardly denotes quality. Thompson Square should repeat here and even though they aren’t as strong as they could be, they’re the best of this bunch outside of Sugarland.

imagesVocal Group of the Year

· The Band Perry

· Eli Young Band

· Lady Antebellum

· Little Big Town – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Zac Brown Band

After their come out of nowhere Grammy win in February, Little Big Town are the darlings of Nashville and that will continue with a win here. Their success is long overdue, as is a win in this category. Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry can have fun duking it out for second place.

Unknown-2New Artist of the Year

· Florida Georgia Line – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Brantley Gilbert

· Jana Kramer

This is really a toss up. Any of these three could win although Kramer has proven the most country minded of the nominees. She’s my favorite, but I’m not counting out Florida Georgia Line. It’s another fan voted award and “Cruise” is insanely popular.

TornadoAlbum of the Year [Award goes to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· Blown Away – Carrie Underwood (19/Arista Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright

· Chief – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· Red – Taylor Swift (Big Machine Records), Produced by: Jeff Bhasker, Nathan Chapman, Dann Huff, Jacknife Lee, Max Martin, Shellback, Taylor Swift, Butch Walker, Dan Wilson

· Tailgates & Tanlines – Luke Bryan (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Mark Bright, Jeff Stevens

· Tornado – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

A good list of mainstream albums. Chief would seem the frontrunner since it already won the CMA Award, but this is the first race to include Little Big Town’s superstar making set. I’m going out on a limb and say Tornado will take this home.

Unknown-6Single Record of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company]

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band (Republic Nashville), Produced by: Mike Wrucke

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert (RCA), Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf

· “Pontoon” – Little Big Town (Capitol Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church (EMI-Nashville), Produced by: Jay Joyce

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes (Atlantic/WMN), Produced by: Hunter Hayes, Dann Huff

“Pontoon.” It won the CMA, a Grammy, and reversed the fortunes of a band too talented for the oblivion it was heading for. There’s no way they’ll lose, but if they do it’ll go to Hayes and his sophomore single “Wanted.”

Unknown-7Song of the Year [Award to Composer(s)/Publisher(s)/Artist(s)]

· “A Woman Like You” – Lee Brice, Composers: Phil Barton, Johnny Bulford, Jon Stone, Publishers: 3JB Music (BMI), Adios Pantalones (SESAC), Hears That Skyline Music (SESAC), Sixteen Stars Music (BMI), Warner-Tamerlane Publishing Corp. (BMI)

· “Even If It Breaks Your Heart” – Eli Young Band, Composers: Will Hoge, Eric Paslay, Publishers: Cal IV Songs (ASCAP), Will Hoge Music (BMI)

· “Over You” – Miranda Lambert, Composers: Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Publishers: Pink Dog Publishing (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI) – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Composers: Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Ryan Tyndell, Publishers: Bug Music (BMI), Ole Purple Cape Music (BMI), Sinnerlina (BMI), Sony ATV/Tree Publishing (BMI)

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes, Composers: Hunter Hayes, Troy Verges, Publishers: Happy Little Man Publishing (BMI), Songs From The Engine Room (BMI), Songs Of Universal Inc. (BMI)

“Over You.” The ACM will follow in the footsteps of the CMA and bring Lambert and Shelton to the podium. Two genre superstars are just too hard to ignore. Their only competition, Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Merry Go ‘Round’ wasn’t even nominated, so I just don’t see anyone else taking this home.

Unknown-8Songwriter of the Year

· Rodney Clawson

· Dallas Davidson (Already won, off-camera award) 

· Josh Kear

· Luke Laird

· Shane McAnally

Davidson has already won; this is an off-camera award. But I would’ve gone with McAnally who seems to be on fire right now. His collaborations with Brandy Clark are killer.

Unknown-3Video of the Year [Award to Producer(s)/Director(s)/Artist(s)] *(Off Camera Award) [TIE]

·” Creepin'” – Eric Church, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Peter Zavadil – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· Merry Go ‘Round – Kacey Musgraves, Producers: Perry Bean, Kacey Musgraves Director: Perry Bean

· “Tornado” – Little Big Town, Producer: Iris Baker Director: Shane Drake

· “Wanted” – Hunter Hayes Producers: Stephanie Reeves, Eric Williams Directors: Traci Goudie, Patrick Hubik

· “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together” – Taylor Swift, Producer: John Nguyen Director: Declan Whitebloom

· “The Wind” – Zac Brown Band, Producer: Ben Kalina Director: Mike Judge

Most of Zac Brown Band’s videos are distracting, with annoying concepts that take away from the song completely. “The Wind” is no exception. The Swift clip is awful and does nothing to portray her maturity and “Wanted” isn’t special enough to stand out from this pack. Church deserves this the most, as both the song and video for “Creepin’” are completely original. This is where he should get some much-deserved hardware. 

Unknown-9Vocal Event of the Year [Award to Artist(s)/Producer(s)/Record Company] *(Off Camera Award)

· “Don’t Rush” – Kelly Clarkson Featuring Vince Gill (19/RCA/Columbia Nashville) Produced by: Dann Huff

· “Easy” – Rascal Flatts Featuring Natasha Bedingfield (Big Machine Records) Produced by: Dann Huff, Brian Kennedy, Rascal Flatts

·”Feel Like a Rock Star” – Kenny Chesney (Duet With Tim McGraw) (Blue Chair/BNA) Produced by: Buddy Cannon, Kenny Chesney  – Jonathan Pappalardo 

· “Let It Rain” – David Nail Featuring Sarah Buxton (MCA Nashville) Produced by: Chuck Ainlay, Frank Liddell

· “The Only Way I Know” – Jason Aldean With Luke Bryan & Eric Church (Broken Bow) Produced by: Michael Knox

What a terrible, terrible bunch of songs that equate to nothing more than empty opportunistic pandering. The only worthwhile songs here are “Don’t Rush” and “Let It Rain” and they are hardly ‘events.’ I bet Chesney/McGraw will take this home but if it wasn’t an off-camera award, than I’d say Aldean/Bryan/Church. The latter would make for ratings gold on stage, but it would be a wasted opportunity off-camera. In truth, though, I couldn’t care less about these nominees if I tried.

Singles Round-Up: Pistol Annies, Little Big Town, and Carrie Underwood

Hush-HushPistol Annies – “Hush, Hush”

 If “Hush, Hush” proves anything, it’s that the Pistol Annies sure know how to cultivate a brand. They’re hell bent on taking the redneck woman from deep in the holler thing as far as it’ll take them, whether it means they take risks thematically or not.

The finished product is good, but the slightly too loud electric guitar compromises the vocals a little too much. Angaleena Presley’s voice is a little thin for this type of thick production while Miranda Lambert sounds as though she’s on twang overdrive; almost overcompensating to prove she’s still a country girl. Only Ashley Monroe sounds perfectly comfortable here and she proves it with a confident vocal that makes Presley and Lambert sound amateurish.

Hell on Heels is going to be a tough act to follow. They may be up to the challenge, but “Hush, Hush” needed a bit more polish before it was ready for release. I’m digging the overall feel of the track but the story seems predictable from them. They’ve set the bar impossibly high, and while they almost reach it, they never quite get there all the way.

Grade: B

Your-Side-of-BedLittle Big Town – “Your Side of the Bed”

Let’s get it out of the way. “Your Side of the Bed” is a direct rip-off of Gretchen Wilson’s “The Bed” from Here For The Party. Wilson’s song wasn’t a single, but the similarities between the songs are hard to ignore – both songs cover the same ground almost identically.

Little Big Town has turned the concept into a duet between married band members Karen Fairchild (once again singing lead on a LBT single) and Jimi Westbrook. Trading off the verses, they exude the right amount of desperation to make the story work. Jay Joyce also helps by framing them in a hauntingly understated 1970s soft rock tinged production that works nicely in their favor. The track is gorgeous, and the most sonically interesting mainstream single since Zac Brown Band’s “Goodbye In Your Eyes.”

I’m just having a trouble with the seemingly obligatory choral harmonies. They delude the pain Fairchild and Westbrook bring to the song by overcrowding the moments of greatest emotional impact with third parties not connected with the verses. A bit less vocal clutter, and this could’ve been one of the year’s best singles – a direct rip-off or not.

Grade: B+ 

15gsfbaCarrie Underwood – “See You Again”

At first glance there’s nothing wrong with this song at all. “See You Again” has an engaging melody, the strong type of vocal performance that Underwood excels at, and the track is a quintessential earworm, listen a few times, and you’ll be singing it all day.

So where’s the problem? Well, for starters, “See You Again” is classic power pop and bares no resemblance to country music whatsoever. That doesn’t help matters any as the choruses have been reduced to a muffled and bombastic mess that leaves Underwood no choice but to screech her way to next verse and bridge. This was the point in the Blown Away album cycle to change it up, with a “Do You Think About Me” for instance, opposed to sticking with more of the same. Safe filler like this doesn’t do a career any justice in the long term.

At least we’ve been spared “Cupid’s Got A Shotgun,” “One Way Ticket” or “Nobody Ever Told You” getting released. It isn’t saying much, but at least there’s that.

Grade: B-

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: Emmylou Harris – ‘Hard Bargain’

Beginning with the release of the rock-oriented Wrecking Ball, Emmylou’s music has been very hit or miss for me. I disliked that 1995 project, which Emmylou herself describes as her “weird album”, and I was similarly disenchanted with 2000’s Red Dirt Girl and 2003’s Stumble Into Grace, although all three albums did have their bright spots. All I Intended To Be, which reunited her with Brian Ahern, was a step back in the right direction for those of us who had longed for another Brand New Dance or Cowgirl’s Prayer, but anyone who thought that her 2008 album was the beginning of a journey back to more traditional country music will perhaps be slightly disappointed with her newest offering Hard Bargain.

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this album, so I came to it without any preconceived notions about the style of music. Having listened to it a few times, I’m not sure how to classify this genre-defying project except to say that by and large, it isn’t country. It’s not the sort of music I generally enjoy listening to, but nevertheless, I found Hard Bargain to be a quite pleasant listening experience. Emmylou wrote the majority of the songs, and only three musicians play all of the instruments on the album: Jay Joyce, who produced the project, Giles Reaves, and Emmylou herself. Although there are some production missteps along the way, the extremely limited number of musicians participating helps them to avoid falling into the trap of wall-of-sound overproduction, such as the kind that plagued Wrecking Ball.

Nearly forty years after she was recruited by Gram Parsons, her mentor still casts a long shadow over Emmylou’s music, as evidenced in the album’s opening track and lead single “The Road”, which talks about the time they spent touring together:

I can still remember
Every song you played
Long ago when we were younger
And we rocked the night away
How could I see a future then
Where you would not grow old
With such a fire in our bellies
Such a hunger in our soul.

… I still think about you
Wonder where you are
Can you see me from some place
Up there among the stars

One of the more heavily-produced tracks on the album, “The Road” has some Daniel Lanois Wrecking Ball-esque production flourishes. It has not charted and is not likely to garner much airplay from country radio.

More stripped down are “Home Sweet Home” and “My Name Is Emmett Till”, a 60s-style folk number that tells the story of a 14-year-old hate crime victim in pre-Civil Rights era Mississippi. “New Orleans”, which Emmylou co-wrote with Will Jennings deals with the floods that ravaged that city after Hurricane Katrina. It’s a surprisingly upbeat-sounding song given the subject matter, and somewhat distracting to listen to due to the way the recording was mixed. The track is somewhat heavy on percussion, and Emmylou’s voice sounds very faint, as if it were recorded through a telephone line. This same flaw plagues the title track and “Cross Yourself”, but not to the same extent as “New Orleans”.

Emmylou is well known for her animal rescue work,a subject that is near and dear to my own heart, and one that is the topic of “Big Black Dog”, a homage to a rescued canine. Large black dogs are the least likely to adopted from shelters, but as Emmylou correctly points out, they can make wonderful pets:

Big black dogs they’re everywhere
Lookin’ for a home they’re hungry and scared
All they need is food and attention
They’ll give you back love
Sometimes redemption I swear
You could find it there
In a big, black dog.

Despite the somewhat somber lyrics, this is an upbeat, almost happy-sounding and surprisingly catchy number.

The most poignant song in this collection and my favorite is “Darlin’ Kate”, Emmylou’s tribute to her good friend and frequent collaborator, the late Kate McGarrigle, who died last year. The, the simple lyrics and acoustic arrangement enhanced by Jay Joyce’s ganjo (six-string banjo) playing, give the track a more country feel than most of the others songs on the album.

I seem to be a sucker for bonus tracks; for some reason they usually end up being some of my favorite tracks, and “To Ohio”, which appears on the deluxe version of Hard Bargain, is no exception. Breaking with the three-musicians-only formula of the rest of the album, Emmylou is joined on this track by the folk band The Low Anthem, who provide very nice duet and harmony vocals. There aren’t any musician credits for this track in the CD booklet, but the production is a little more filled-out on this track, so I suspect the band members are playing some of the instruments.

Overall, while I enjoyed this album quite a bit, it doesn’t quite stack up with the very best of Emmylou’s past work, which admittedly, is a very high standard. Though I would have preferred another All I Intended To Be, or better yet, something closer to the type of albums she regularly released in the 70s, Hard Bargain rates higher than most of Emmylou’s post-1995 work, and should satisfy most of her longtime fans.

Grade: B

Hard Bargain can be purchased from Amazon and iTunes.

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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