My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Jessie Jo Dillon

Review: new tracks from Craig Morgan – ‘The Journey – Living Hits’

the journeyCraig’s second release for Black River Entertainment was a reworking of some of his past hits so the new label could cash in, together with four completely new tracks.

Two of the new songs were released as singles, but as is commonplace in such cases they were considerably less successful than the previous singles had been. Top 20 hit ‘Wake Up Lovin’ You’, written by Josh Osborne, Matt Ramsey and Trevor Rosen, is about love outlasting the presence of its object, and while lyrically strong is rather boring melodically, notable only for its opening sounds of an alarm clock. A full blooded vocal does its best to give the song some life, struggling against somewhat cluttered, uninspired production. It was Craig’s last real radio hit to date.

‘We’ll Come Back Around’ a better song, did not crack the top 40. Written by Rosen again, with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, it is a mid paced tune about a couple who fight but always make up again. I could do without the na-na-na-nas, which always sound as if the writer ran out of inspiration, and the production is a bit muddy, but otherwise this is a solid song which was too adult for contemporary radio:

Put your fist through the wall
Say you’re through with it all
Baby I’m through too
Let’s throw a log on the fire of the heat of the moment
Put your key in the car
Jerk it right outta park
Flip a big F-you

You say you won’t come back
I say amen to that then I lock that door
But I know you got a key
And I’m gonna leave a light on

‘If Not Me’ is a beautifully written and sympathetically sung song about a young man taking the step of joining the military, which must have struck a chord with veteran Morgan, although the song is written (by Tom Douglas and Lee Thomas Miller) from the point of view of the boy’s parents. I’m surprised this wasn’t a single.

‘Party Girl, on the other hand, is a dreadful throwaway bro-country number complete with electronic distortion.

Grade for the new tracks: B-

Advertisements

EP Review: Shelley Skidmore – ‘Shelley Skidmore’

shelley skidmoreKentucky-born Shelley Skidmore co-wrote (with Brandy Clark and Shane MacAnally) a song I loved a few years back when Joanna Smith recorded it – ‘We Can’t Be Friends’. Now she has released her own five track EP (produced by Paul Worley), and proves to have a fine voice with a smooth tone, and a genuine country sensibility. In a recent interview she cites her favorite albums of all time as Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Comes From and Patty Loveless’s When Fallen Angels Fly – definitely an indicator of someone who loves traditional country music and knows great songs when she hears them.

The excellent ‘White Picket Fences’ was written by Shelley with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon, and it’s a very typical Clark story song. It paints a scathing picture of the guilty secrets lying behind both a small town’s respectable surfaces, which are not so very different from the open sins of the dreaded big city:

It’s all white picket fences
It’s all pink and purple pansies
Its the face of small town grace
The perfect place to raise a family
We’re all scandal
We’re all scripture
We’re all smiling for the picture
It’s alright because it’s all white picket fences

A little bit of tasteful brass adds a jocular air.

This is the only song on the set Shelley had a hand in writing – it’s a shame she didn’t include her own version of ‘We Can’t Be Friends’.

The very best song on the album is another Brandy Clark song, this time a co-write with Troy Verges. ‘Pawn Shop’ is a modern classic of a story song, as a woman pawns her wedding ring to raise the money for a bus ticket away from her bad marriage:

It ain’t stolen
It ain’t hot
Someone told me it cost a lot
Man ain’t that the truth
I thought I’d wear it my whole life
It never even crossed my mind
Back when it was new
It’d end up in a pawn shop on Charlotte Avenue

A musician then hands over his beloved guitar, and with it gives up his dreams. And the dreams of both love and music will pass to other dreamers in their turn. This is beautifully written and sung, and deeply moving.

Shelley’s husband, Greg Bates, had a shortlived career with one hit a few years back. Greg never released an album despite a top 5 single, and seems not to have enjoyed the touring aspects of being a star. He duets with Shelley on the ballad ‘What You Need From Me’, a beautiful sad song about a failed relationship written by Jon Randall, Jessi Alexander, and Phillip White:

Woman: You need a trophy on your arm
So you don’t look so lonely
Someone to get you through the nights
Someone to start your morning coffee

Man: You need a man that you can count on
Someone who’ll finish what he started
Not a restless soul that comes and goes
And only leaves you broken hearted

Both: I’m so sorry that I’ll never be what you need from me

With regret they acknowledge their mutual failure to meet the other’s needs. Greg sounds very good here, and it’s enough to make me regret the loss of his career as a solo artist before it had really got going. The tasteful and understated arrangement is very traditional country, with some lovely steel and fiddle.

The one song that doesn’ t appeal to me is the jaunty ballad ‘Making Babies’, written by Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, and Matt Jenkins, about pressure from the in-laws to start a family. It is neatly written but the melody is the least country sounding on the album, and doesn’t quite work for me with the song.

The album closes with the quirky ‘Back In The Saddle’, a 20 year old Matraca Berg song which Berg recorded on her 1997 album Sunday Morning To Saturday Night Shelley’s version uses the same arrangement, with backing vocals from Berg, Deana Carter, Kathy Mattea and Brandy Clark. It’s very entertaining and ends the too-short set on a high.

This is a great EP I very much enjoyed. I only wish it was a full length album.

Grade: A+

Single Review: Jennifer Nettles – ‘Sugar’

SugarThe first time I heard Sugarland on the radio, I thought that they were the best band I’d heard in quite some time. Unfortunately, I grew to like them a little less with each subsequent album, with 2010’s The Incredible Machine being the last straw. It’s been five years since they released any new music and I can’t honestly say that I’ve missed them. My expectations for Jennifer Nettles’ new solo release, therefore, were low. But I was pleasantly surprised after hearing ‘Sugar’, her first single for EMI Nashville, which is to say, it’s actually pretty good.

‘Sugar’ was written by Nettles with Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon. While it’s still more pop than country, a healthy dose of dobro can be clearly heard above the fuzzy electric guitars, and this gives this piece of ear candy a rootsy feel. Although the production is a bit more heavy-handed than I would like, and the background vocals are particularly intrusive, the tune itself is infectious and Nettles is in good vocal form. This sounds a lot like something Sugarland would have released a decade ago, during the Twice The Speed of Life and Enjoy The Ride years, before they ventured off into steampunk and totally went off the rails. Nettles sounds positively gleeful as she flirts with her admirers and plays hard to get. Traditional it is not, but it’s a nostalgic look back at how mainstream country was not too many years ago before hick-hop and bro-country took hold. I never thought that I’d consider the music of Sugarland as part of the “good old days”, but if it came down to a choice between ‘Sugar’ and anything else that radio is playing these days, it’s a no-brainer. I’m cautiously optimistic about Nettles’ next full album. I sincerely hope that ‘Sugar’ is the beginning of a return to form and not just a one-off.

Listen to it here:

Grade: B+

Single Review: Sunny Sweeney – ‘Bad Girl Phase’

Sunny-Sweeney-Bad-Girl-PhaseIt’s a been while since Sunny Sweeney last released new music, so I was excited to find she had a new single out leading up to a new album due out in August.

She is in defiant mood, celebrating going through the titular “bad girl phase” in country rock style somewhat reminiscent of Miranda Lambert and the Pistol Annies. The production is a bit on the loud side, but not overwhelming by any means, and Sunny’s voice and energy cut through the backings with no problems. I was initially not quite sure about this direction for Sunny, but the song (written by Brandy Clark and Jessie Jo Dillon) is extremely well constructed and sung with real conviction which sells it, and the track wears well on repeated listens.

The protagonist is more than happy to be drinking, smoking and playing the field for a while:

My moral compass’s taking a break
I’m a good girl in a band girl phase
The devil on my shoulder wants a beer right now
And a cigarette and a new boyfriend or two
Cause one’s no fun and loves just a waste
On a good girl going through a gone wild stage


Good girls say no
Bad girls say “I’m there!”

The style is a little more in the contemporary direction than Sunny’s previous work, and I could see this getting some radio play with its combination of attitude and tempo, even though she is now going it alone. It’s a well written and performed song which I enjoyed quite a bit. It’s already available for download on iTunes.

Grade: B+

Listen here.

Album Review – Brandy Clark – ’12 Stories’

1052311_591462260874890_775508162_oIf you’ve been paying attention to country music in 2013, there’s likely one name on the tip of your tongue: Brandy Clark. The buzz about the songwriter behind such hits as “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Better Dig Two” has been at fever pitch, and it’s easy to understand why with just one listen to her debut record.

Clark has stolen the Linda Ronstadt rulebook that Trisha Yearwood and company made famous in the 1990s, rewritten it, and crafted an album that borrows from, yet improves on, the past, all while introducing an artist who is completely and uniquely herself. With 12 Stories Clark has re-drafted the textbook on how to evolve, and not change, the country genre.

At its core 12 Stories is an exercise in immaculate songwriting. Clark has an innate ability to take hefty subjects and morph them into delicious slices of black comedy, skewing the stories to forgo the ache in an effort to focus on creating little vignettes that play like some of the best episodes of television.

My favorite of these is “Hungover,” a Sara Evans-like co-write with Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon about a woman’s realization that her drunken man isn’t going to change. Also stunning is “The Day She Got Divorced,” a wonderfully addicting day-in-the-life about a woman’s itinerary the day her marriage officially ends. Reba had it on All The Women I Am and it was my favorite track on that project three years ago.

“Stripes”, the album’s lead single, is the new standard-bearer for cheating songs, with the woman declaring ‘there’s no crime of passion worth a crime of fashion” as she ponders killing her husband, stopping only because “I don’t look good in orange and I hate stripes”. Clark (along with McAnally and Matt Jenkins) has co-written one hell of a clever song, and while the premise is laid on a little thick it works surprisingly well.

“Crazy Women” was an excellent yet low-charting single for LeAnn Rimes (from Lady & Gentlemen), and Clark’s version is good, but lacks the punch of personality Rimes brought to her recording. In addition, “Get High,” the only song Clark wrote solo (and the oldest composition on the album) suffers from a weak hook (‘sometimes the only way to get by is to get high’) that leaves the chorus feeling underdeveloped.

What elevates 12 Stories into an echelon of masterworks is the emotional depth Clark brings to the project. She elegantly weaves a series of ballads between the vignettes that rank among the finest moments on a country album this decade.

Weeds-inspired “Pray To Jesus” is a timeless anthem for the working poor that doesn’t stereotype or judge. It acts an affirmation that we’re all just trying to better ourselves from within, because the fix doesn’t come from the outside world. It’s the lone socially conscious track on 12 Stories and currently the best song of its kind from this somewhat forgotten sub-genre.

“What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” is a reflection on the pull between right and wrong framed around two married individuals who are about to cheat on their spouses. Clark is able to get inside the woman’s psyche – “I don’t know what scares me most, the ride up, or the ride down” – in way that’s both ordinary and extraordinary; exercising both arguments while letting the listener make their own conclusions. The simple beauty recalls Matraca Berg’s “Lying To The Moon.”

Clark and “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” co-writer Mark Stephen Jones teamed up again on “Hold My Hand,” the story of a couple running into his alluring ex-lover, only to have his current love plead for definition in their relationship. Meanwhile “In Some Corner” spins another side of the “Last Call”/”Keep It To Yourself” drunken dialing saga that amazingly hasn’t been played out yet. It’s Clark’s turn to show her moment of weakness and she’s praying he doesn’t call, as she can’t refuse his advances.

The strongest track on 12 Stories comes at the end, with an all too common narrative about a woman who marries the mirror image of her always-absent father. “Just Like Him” (co-written with Dillon and McAnally) beautifully hits upon the unspoken truth that people marry at the level of their self-esteem, thinking they’re only worth the same-gender role models (or lack thereof) they grew up around. The conviction Clark brings to this song is remarkable, showcasing her incredible knack at crafting tales purely from observation – her dad is the antithesis of this character.

In truth Clark brings that conviction to the entire project. As a child of the 90s, I came of age in the era when music such as this was the rule and not the exception, when artists were allowed to have real problems that were bigger than which truck was going to transport some beer keg to lake whatever down some dirt road littered with bikini-clad country girls.

It makes me sick that every record label in Nashville (even two that confessed to loving it) passed on releasing 12 Stories but I’m glad an independent label in Texas picked it up. This is music that needs to be heard. I urge you to pick up a copy, as it’s well worth the money, and time spent listening. Clark is the most important singer/songwriter to come around in a long, long time and 12 Stories is the best album of its kind I’ve heard in many, many years.

Grade: A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Album Review: LeAnn Rimes – ‘Lady & Gentlemen’

When LeAnn Rimes made her impressive debut aged just 13, she did so with a vintage song originally written for Patsy Cline. Her career subsequently veered popwards, with LeAnn often not seeming to be certain of her own musical identity. Most recently she has been producing solid pop-country, but her chart career has been overshadowed by a tangled personal life. So I was intrigued to hear that she might be returning to country classics – at least, until I heard the first single. I hated LeAnn’s manically speeded up and overwrought version of John Anderson’s hit ‘Swingin’, and was left gloomy about the album’s likely direction, despite Vince Gill being named as the producer. (He is in fact joined in that task on the bulk of the record by Justin Niebank, Darrell Brown (LeAnn’s regular co-writer) and John Hobbs, with Gill, Brown and Leann responsible for the arrangements). Happily, the end result is much better than I feared it might be, with the awful, misconceived assault on ‘Swingin’ the only track I really dislike.

There are a couple of other tracks which don’t quite work for me: a horn-accompanied and passionately sung ‘16 Tons’ sounds great if you don’t listen to the words, but is completely unconvincing as a working man’s anthem. Her reworking of producer Vince’s great ‘When I Call Your Name’ as a jazz-soul song wanders too far from the original melody and emotion for me, but is very accomplished in its way and will appeal to some.

Freddy Fender’s Tex-Mex ‘Wasted Days And Wasted Nights’ in contrast has a lovely retro, slightly loungy feel, with lovely phrasing and a small section sung in Spanish. I also enjoyed a new, mature version of her own first hit ‘Blue’, featuring Vince Gill’s side band the Time Jumpers. I enjoyed LeAnn’s enthusiastic take on Waylon’s ‘The Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line’, given a gender rewrite as ‘The Only Mama That’ll Walk The Line’. The Waylon/Willie hit ‘A Good Hearted Woman’ is speeded up a bit too much, but still quite enjoyable, expressed in the first person. John Conlee’s ‘Rose Colored Glasses’ is well sung but lacks the intensity of emotion of the original, although the production is more tasteful.

There are three outstanding tracks. While she cannot quite match George Jones on the hallowed ground of ‘He Stopped Loving her Today’, she gives a beautifully understated reading which works extremely well, with Vince adding harmony on the chorus. This is the one which best reveals LeAnn’s growth as an interpreter. A measured, emotional version of Haggard’s depiction of being trapped in an unhappy marriage where ‘I Can’t Be Myself’ is superb. LeAnn’s seductive and emotional plea to ‘Help Me Make It Through the Night’ is almost as good.

Haggard’s ‘The Bottle Let Me Down’ (one of three afterthoughts produced by LeAnn with Darrell Brown) was a good addition to the tracklist. On first hearing I thought it paled in comparison to both the original and Emmylou Harris’s defiant cover, but over repeated listens, I have grown to appreciate the sense of defeat and regret in LeAnn’s version.

The other two are brand new songs, which have both been tried, and failed, as radio singles. They are out of place here, sounding much more contemporary, and they contradict the original conceit of the album, the idea that these were all “men’s songs” given a new interpretation by LeAnn. The aggressive Miranda Lambert style gender war of ‘Crazy Women’, written by Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally and Jessie Jo Dillon suffers from a cluttered modern production and rather limited melody, while the gentler but still contemporary ‘Give’, written by Jimmy Yeary and Connie Harrington has a well meaning message and is pleasant sounding but a little dull.

Interestingly, this is one of very few modern albums to get a vinyl release alongside CD and digital availability. Sales so far are reportedly low, which is a shame, because this is LeAnn’s best work for some time, and for me it fulfils for the first time the potential she had as a phenomenal teenager. Her vocals are great, and her sometimes muddy diction has also improved.

Grade: A-

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Twang’

twangThe title of George Strait’s 26th studio album for MCA suggests that it is a collection of hardcore honky-tonkers, so listeners may be a bit surprised to discover that Twang is one of the more eclectic offerings in his catalog, ranging from honky-tonk and Cajun to polished ballads and a Mexican folk song sung entirely in Spanish. With longtime co-producer Tony Brown once again on board, Strait attempts to step out of the box just a bit, with varying degrees of success. Strait seems to be walking a tightrope, making just enough concessions to fit in with radio’s demands, without sacrificing artistic integrity or alienating longtime fans.

The lead single, “Living For The Night”, which is currently rising up the charts, is noteworthy because it marks the first time iin his major-label career that Strait has had a hand in co-writing one of his singles. In fact, it marks the first time he’s recorded one of his own compositions since 1982’s “I Can’t See Texas From Here”, which appeared on his second album Strait From The Heart. The song was co-written with Srait’s son Bubba, and Dean Dillon, who has written countless George Strait hits over the past 28 years. The song is somewhat less traditional and a little more slickly produced than what we normally expect from Strait. It is not my favorite song on the album and probably would not have been my choice as the single to launch the album, but it has performed well on the charts. It is currently at #7 in Billboard and rising.

Read more of this post