My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Lori McKenna

Occasional Hope’s Top 10 Singles of 2014

what we ain't got

jake owenEvery year the pickings on country radio seem to get slimmer and slimmer, with fewer slots available for anything really country, or for material with any lyrical depth. But there are still some gems out there, and a few of them are even hits. So here is my personal pick of the year’s singles.

10. All Alright – Zac Brown Band
The arrangement is a bit rock-oriented for my taste with fuzzy guitars but this is a great song with a very strong melody and plaintive vocal from Zac, so it just squeezes into my top 10 ahead of Josh Turner’s current single ‘Lay Low’ which I liked a lot but didn’t feel had a lot of depth. ‘All Alright’ underperformed on country radio, just scraping into the top 20, perhaps because the band have cut their ties with Atlantic and lost some promotional muscle.

9. Bad Girl Phase – Sunny Sweeney
Sunny rocks out and exercises her wild side.

brandy clark8. Hungover – Brandy Clark
One of the best songwriters in Nashville (she also co-wrote ‘Bad Girl Phase’), Brandy is also a fine singer, and this single comes from my Album of the Year of 2013. A jaundiced depiction of a marriage failing thanks to one party’s drinking, while the other moves on, unnoticed, it is a brilliantly observed slice of life. Brandy has recently signed a deal with Warner Brothers which may get her music wider recognition.

7. I’ll Be Here In the Morning – Don Williams
One of the biggest stars of the 1970s and 80s revives a deeply romantic song reminiscent of his best, written by the legendary Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. Warm and tender in all the right ways.

dreamers6. That’s What Dreamers Do – Travis Tritt
The 90s star at his ballad-singing best, with a sensitive and thoughtful lyric about rising past hard times. It was written for a Walt Disney biopic, but its genuinely inspirational message is universal. Tritt’s vocal is excellent, sweet and tender, and backed by a tasteful arranagement.

5. What I Can’t Put Down – Jon Pardi
The young country-rocker’s third single (written by himself with Brice Long and Bart Butler) peaked just outside the top 30 – a disappointment following his top 10 breakthrough in 2013. The singer’s youthful energy sells the cheerful confession of over indulgence in sinful pleasures. Highly likeable.

ronnie dunn4. I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes – Ronnie Dunn
Technically this came out at the end of 2013 (and Razor X listed it in his top 10 singles for that year), but I’m counting it as a 2014 single. A melancholy reflection on growing older which was written by Lori McKenna, Luke Laird, and Barry Dean, Dunn’s vocal is perfectly judged with a wistful yearning for the lost innocence and carelessness of youth, “When I didn’t know what wasn’t good for me, but I knew everything else for sure”. Unfortunately it was far too good, and adult, for country radio to give it the time of day.

3. Girl In A Country Song – Maddie & Tae
This smart and funny satirical take on bro-country was a big surprise, coming from a pair of unheralded teenagers. It’s still on the poppy side aurally – but the clever and punchy lyrics work so well I don’t care about that for once (and the production is relatively restrained). They remind me quite a bit of the shortlived Wreckers. I’m interested in seeing what they come up with in future – and this song making it big on country radio is a great sign.

2. Blue Smoke – Dolly Parton
A delightful confection from another veteran who still has the goods. Dolly wrote the bluegrass-tinged tune as well as performing it with her customary zest.

1. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen
This is a beautifully understated and philosophical sad lost love song written by Travis Meadows based on his own bitter experiences. Jake has gone on record to declare this the best song he has ever recorded, and he is dead right. It’s also the best mainstream single by anyone for quite some time. It’s still rising slowly up the charts, and may not be the smash hit it deserves to be: but it’s the song of the year as far as I’m concerned.

Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘Numbered Doors’

lm_albumEver since Faith Hill plucked her from obscurity in 2005, Lori McKenna has been one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters and a delightful artist in her own right. She’s scored major radio cuts by the likes of Hunter Hayes and Little Big Town and even secured a major label deal that resulted in a single collection far more upbeat than her usual fare.

Most songwriters in her enviable position would focus on the big time, but McKenna has maintained her small-town Massachusetts roots all the while continuing to keep one foot in music city. Her music, as a result, has maintained its uniqueness; no one is as astute in crafting such simple lyrics about the eccentricities of small town life. Her “Grocery Store,” an Angaleena Presley co-write from her American Middle Class focuses on the act of standing in a checkout line, but reveals its brilliance in the quiet pondering of both fellow customers and the checkout clerk’s life story.

In September, McKenna returned the focus to herself with her eighth LP, the experimental Numbered Doors. This time around she wrote with an outsider’s perspective, crafting songs from other people’s stories instead of self-absorbed personal narratives. It doesn’t mean she detours from her comfort zone too much sonically. The tracks are still clothed in the trademark lush instrumentation she’s famous for leading to few surprises but still providing a delightfully ear catching experience for the listener.

The extraordinary title track, a mandolin soaked manifesto on quite desperation, served as the promotional single. Few paint extreme hopelessness as vividly as McKenna who gives voice to women paralyzed by the rabbit hole they can’t dig themselves out of. These women are often the byproduct of long marriages where, as the lady in “All A Woman Wants” can attest, longs to take away the breath of the husband who renders her sexually and emotionally starved. They’re also painfully self-aware, able to recognize the lack of life in their years, lamenting over “All The Time I’ve Wasted” on a relationship that couldn’t be saved. Their inwardly reflective pity-party only serves to make the situation worse, and without an exit, makes their prognosis seem pretty grim.

McKenna sings from the other side, too, turning “Livin’ On Love” on its side with “Good Marriage,” a tune about life’s daily struggles dissolving into a fight where the couple “take back every word that’s said” before heading to bed. Hope continues with “God Never Made One of Us To Be Alone,” a track about how the daily struggles will always be there but we’re not meant to face them without companionship and love. Said company isn’t always a significant other, as the woman with “Three Kids No Husband” can confirm with a ‘broken home [that] ain’t no fairytale.’

The ever present brokenness seeps back in with “Starlight,” which uses the old rhyme “starlight star bright” to convey a woman’s inner desire to wish for a life consisting of more than ‘kitchen tiles [that] used to be white.’ McKenna has long danced around the subject of extramarital affairs from “Stealing Kisses” to “If You Ask,” but she’s never tackled the subject head on like she does while playing a woman confronting the best friend who’s “The Stranger In His Kiss.” Erin Enderlin passively sat next to the forthright woman screwing her man, saying nothing, but McKenna drives said mistress to tears during a late-night rendezvous. When she reveals ‘you were standing right there beside me when he said, “till the day he dies,”’ the listener feels the true intensity of the woman’s pain. “The Stranger In His Kiss” is the crown jewel of an album beaming with specifically crafted studies of emotional depth.

If I can fault McKenna for anything, it’s her ability to craft albums basking in lyrical and sonic repetition. There’s no denying her masterful ability to craft material from the perspective of a woman living a small-town life. But a whole album worth of these type songs, typically immaculately produced ballads, is too weighted down and begins to get old very quickly. As individual compositions each of the ten tracks are truly incredible. I just wish she’d give a little thought to diversifying each project to ramp up the overall listening experience. That doesn’t mean I don’t highly recommend Numbered Doors because I do. There’s hardly a stronger collection from a prominent female singer-songwriter released this year. It just doesn’t come without a one slight flaw, an issue with a very easy fix.

Grade: A

Album Review: Angaleena Presley – ‘American Middle Class’

angaleena-presley-album-american-middle-class-2014-08-1000pxFor her solo debut, Pistol Annie Angaleena Presley took the unconventional approach of self-producing the album along with her Husband Jordan Powell. Released earlier this month on Slate Creek Records, American Middle Class is one of the most authentic creations of self-expression you’ll likely hear all year.

Presley, who hails from Beauty, Kentucky, faced an uphill battle in Nashville where she couldn’t get signed to a major label. Then she landed her big break as ‘Holler Annie’ in the trio also consisting of Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. As a songwriter, her “Fastest Girl In Town” was a top 5 hit for Lambert and Ashton Shepherd took her co-write “Look It Up” into the top 20.

I’ve always been a fan of Presley’s direct approach to songwriting, where she refuses to mince words in effort to make a point. Her Pistol Annies cuts have been some of my favorites from the trio, and while she doesn’t have the flashiest vocal tone, it works in her favor here.

Presley, who co-wrote the whole album, composed five of the album’s songs solo. “Ain’t No Man” is a brilliantly biting ballad with stunning turns of phrase while “All I Ever Wanted” sets a religiously confrontational lyric to an ear catching shuffle beat. The mix of Presley’s strong vocal with her prominent background vocalist renders “Pain Pills” too cluttered, distracting the listener from the tale of Jimmy, who’s drowning his sorrows in booze and narcotics in an effort to cope with his life.

Presley is at her best when her storytelling prowess remains the focus of a song, and American Middle Class abounds with prime examples. Her self-penned “Better off Red” is a masterpiece of perception, a beautiful reflection on one’s place in our world. Equally powerful is Lori McKenna co-write “Grocery Store,” three minutes of observations culled from a checkout line. The deceptively simple track is filled with gorgeous articulations of our mundane everyday lives and comes together as a dazzling work of art almost too good to be true.

“Life of the Party” teams Presley with her hero Matraca Berg for another mouth-watering creation, this time the pedal steel soaked story of a woman facing the light of day after a night spent with another man. The pair is an irresistible songwriting force, with Berg turning in a co-write on par with the myriad of classics she churned out in the 1980s and 1990s, a feat in of itself.

On “Drunk” Presley and co-writer Sara Siskind cover identical ground as Presley’s labelmate Brandy Clark did on “Hungover,” and they turn out equally as delicious a tune about unappreciative men and their selfish ways. “Knocked Up,” co-written with Mark D. Sanders, is the prequel to “Drunk,” a banjo driven number about an unplanned pregnancy and shotgun wedding that plays like a delightful dark comedy.

“Dry Country Blues,” which Presley also co-wrote with Sanders, paints the gritty glory of small town life down to the drunk boys out to get laid and their female counterparts trying not to turn into meth whores. The self-penned title track, which covers the same ground, boarders on preachy and falls dangerously close into a pandering flag-waving anthem, but she makes it work by bringing in Patty Loveless for a harmony vocal that gives the track an added texture that works well with the formidable arrangement.

“Blessing and a Curse,” co-written with Bob DiPiero, is one of the more mainstream-leaning lyrics on American Middle Class with a bluesy arrangement that works beautifully with Presley’s voice. Even the electric guitar, which dominates, isn’t a hinder but rather an assist to the track’s overall splendor. Another such track is “Surrender,” the record’s closing number and a co-write with Luke Laird and Barry Dean. The ballad is as lush and exciting as it is assessable, and Presley turns in an elegant vocal.

American Middle Class is easily a highlight of 2014 with Presley’s fine tuned prospective on the world expressed through sharp songwriting and immaculate choices in instrumentation. Her decision to co-produce with her husband has given the album an added authenticity that gives the record an artists’ touch, an obvious missing link in the majority of mainstream music today. Presley, who’s the real deal, has filled my heart with a joy I haven’t felt in a long, long time.

I cannot recommend this nearly flawless album enough.

Grade: A+

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: Ronnie Dunn – ‘I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes’

Ronnie-DunnSince parting ways with Kix Brooks in 2010, Ronnie Dunn has struggled to remain commercially relevant in an era when veteran artists are under-appreciated. After one solid solo album, he also cut ties with his longtime label Arista Nashville and started his own label. To say that his first two self-released singles, “Country This” and “Kiss You There” were disappointments would an understatement on a massive scale. But just when I was about to write Dunn off, he has redeemed himself nicely with his latest effort “I Wish I Still Smoked Cigarettes”, a tune penned by Lori McKenna, Luke Laird, and Barry Dean.

Though the title suggests that Dunn is tempted to resume a long-conquered vice, he is actually waxing nostalgic for lost innocence and a time when life was less complicated. The lyrics evoke images of fast cars, carefree youth and dreams going up in smoke. Unlike Dunn’s previous two efforts, the production is tasteful; the electric guitar is the track’s dominant instrument, but it is not intrusive or overly loud, and it is accompanied by some gentle, understated pedal steel. It is a lyrical masterpiece, that sounds like something Brooks & Dunn might have done in their heyday. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Dunn’s voice is showing no signs of deterioration. From a creative standpoint, Dunn seems to have found his niche; whether country radio is willing to embrace an independent record with politically incorrect references to smoking from a 60-year-old artist remains to be seen. I suspect it will be an uphill climb, but at this stage of his career, Dunn no longer needs to prove himself commercially. I hope that his upcoming album will contain more music like this song and less of the “Country This” and “Kiss You There” type.

Great songs seem to be rarer than hens’ teeth these days, so when one comes along, it is the duty of fans to support it. I strongly encourage everyone to visit iTunes and download this very worthwhile recording.

Grade: A

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

Listen

Album Review: Ashley Monroe – ‘Like A Rose’

like a roseAlthough shes’s still in her 20s, it’s been a long haul for Ashley Monroe, who has been one of the best kept secrets in country music for far too long. Signed to Sony while still in her teens, her singles failed to make much headway, even when she duetted with Ronnie Dunn. Her album for Sony was critically acclaimed but only released digitally in 2009 in a half-hearted kissoff by the label a couple of years after they had dropped her. Teaming up with superstar Miranda Lambert and songwriter Angaleena Presley as the Pistol Annies has definitely raised her profile among country fans.

Her return to a major label, Warner Brothers, was one of the most exciting pieces of news last year, and I have been eagerly anticipating this album. Vince Gill produces with Justin Niebank, and they do a great job showcasing Ashley’s pretty voice. She co-wrote every song here.

The autobiographical title track and current single, which Ashley wrote with Guy Clark and Jon Randall, has an inspirational sweetness about overcoming the pain instilled in her family by the death of her father when she was 13. It is a charming track, but sadly does not appear to have made much headway with radio. The melancholic ‘She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind’, also written with Jon Randall, is another highlight, sounding like a lost-love country classic.

The ironic ‘A Dollar Short And Two Weeks Late’, a co-write with Shane McAnally, sounds sweet (especially with Rebecca Lynn Howard’s harmonies) but has a lyrical edge which would have made it a good fit for Ashley’s work with the Pistol Annies. Here Ashley portrays a young woman living in a conservative town who finds herself pregnant by her now-absent lover:

When you’re living in sin I guess
Sometimes that’s just what you get

So the man is gone
What a damn cliche
And my mama says
Looks like I gained some weight
Landlord’s at the door
And says the rent can’t wait
But I’m a dollar short
And two weeks late

The delicately folksy ‘Used’ (written with Sally Barris and previously included on Ashley’s digital release Satisfied) sings the praises of experience, comparing it to cherished old possessions.

The catchy but lyrically controversial ‘Weed Instead Of Roses’ is an enthusiastic endorsement of walking on the wild side of life with the protagonist’s love interest (and the drugs are the least of it, with Ashley calling for her lover to get out the “whips and chains”). Musically, this is great, but I can’t imagine it on the radio. The overt S&M references here are repeated more circumspectly with a reference to Fifty Shades Of Grey in the fabulous ‘You Ain’t Dolly (And You Ain’t Porter)’, a wittily tongue-in-cheek duet with Blake Shelton with an ultra-traditional feel musically. It’s the best thing Blake has done in years, and was clearly written especially for him with its allusions to The Voice TV show. It is one of two songs Ashley wrote with Vince Gill; the other is the lively tale of teenage criminal on the run, ‘Monroe Suede’, which is unexpectedly upbeat and highly enjoyable.

I was a little bored by ‘You Got Me’, an AC-sounding co-write with Karen Fairchild with a rather dreary minor-keyed melody, organ replacing steel guitar, a heavy-handed string arrangement and Little Big Town on surprisingly muddy backing vocals. Also on the more contemporary side, but making more impact, is the introspective ‘The Morning After’, written with Lori McKenna and Liz Rose about the depressing aftermath of a drunken teenage night when the protagonist “lost everything that mattered”. Jon Randall and Andrea Zonn harmonize.

The most disappointing thing about Ashley Monroe’s new album is that there are only nine tracks, which seems unnecessarily mean. This is a fine record, but I’m not sure how commercially viable it is. I really hope it does well, because Ashley is one of the most interesting young artists around, and I want to hear more from her.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Holly Williams – ‘The Highway’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

Keeping your ears warm: a slacker’s playlist

slacker playlist2December means list-making for lots of people. For Christmas shoppers. said list reminds you to buy Aunt Dorothy that bottle of Evening In Paris perfume and to likewise pick up those all-important token trinkets for every friend, relative, and passing acquaintance in your life. It’s the time of year for giving, after all.

And for music bloggers, it means whittling down the year’s releases into a tidy list of the best of the best. If you’re like me, you’ve waited until December to really start the process of putting them in order. I’ve kept a revolving list of my favorites since January, in no particular order. So for the past week I’ve been revisiting, adding new songs, and eliminating the middling music. In the meantime, I’ve found some great songs – new and old – to keep my ears warm when I’m not re-evaluating the best of 2012. Thanks to my handy Spotify account, I’ve got a pre-made list of my top 10 played songs during the past week. I’ll share them with you below – a sort of procrastination edition of the ever-popular iPod check – and invite you to share your own in the comments.

  • Kasey Musgraves – “Merry Go Round”
  • Don Gibson – “Oh Lonesome Me”
  • Lori McKenna – “Sometimes He Does”
  • Elvis Presley – “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”
  • Kelly Clarkson – “People Like Us”
  • Linda Ronstadt – “Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind”
  • Ray Charles – “I Can’t Stop Loving You”
  • Bobbie Cryner – “Leavin’ Houston Blues”
  • Rick Trevino – “Running Out of Reasons To Run”
  • Kelly Clarkson featuring Vince Gill – “Don’t Rush”

Spotify users can listen to my top 10 playlist.

What’s tops on your playlist right now? Share your top 10 (or 20 or 30) tracks with us.

EP Reviews: Lori McKenna – ‘Heart Shaped Bullet Hole’ and Punch Brothers – ‘Ahoy!’

A commanding drum beat and cheeky 1980s-style electric guitars greet the listener on “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole,” a Disney jam session meets “Down At The Twist and Shout” confection that anchors Lori McKenna’s EP of the same name, her six-song follow-up to last year’s highly emotional Lorraine. It’s by far the most experimental thing she’s ever done, and the results are phenomenal. In this instance, taking creative risks pays off in spades.

McKenna then goes on to incorporate these creative instincts in the other tracks, showcasing a willingness to step beyond the familiarity of the lush acoustic sound she’s honed for the better part of her career. These differences, sometimes far subtler than others, make most of the EP an enjoyable listen.

An electric guitar penetrates the musical bed of “Whiskey and Chewing Gum,” a Troy Verges co-write, while the acoustic guitar underpinnings of “All It Takes” (co-written with her ‘sixth child’ Andrew Dorff) gives the track a fun, folksy vibe. Both songs are also standouts lyrically, with more than an abundance of memorable lines.

Kicking off with three such strong forward thinking songs, the rest of the EP sounds a bit like a retreat back to the comfortable with McKenna sticking firm to her coffeehouse roots. That isn’t necessarily a bad choice on her part, but I wanted more, especially since she’s surrounded herself with such ear-catching songs. The lush arrangements actually get in the way of two tracks – “Sometimes He Does” and “This and the Next Life,” which are both excellent songs in their own right, but feel predictable, with the latter a bit too slow for me to fully engage with.

I had similar thoughts with her Ashley Ray co-write “No Hard Feelings,” but the hook is strong, and their twist on the classic break-up ballad (“Once it’s gone it’s gone/So no hard feelings”) is stunning – they leave the listener hanging –  wondering how is she able to break off their love so cleanly? Did she ever really love him at all? That simple mystery gives the track its allure.

Punch Brothers, one of the coolest – and criminally underrated – bands making music today take similar strides, serving up Ahoy! their companion EP to February’s masterwork Who’s Feeling Young Now?, one of my favorite albums of 2012. Consisting of five tracks, the project brilliantly displays Chris Thile’s continued growth since Nickel Creek, proving why he so richly deserves his MacArthur Grant.

Thile is seemingly unmatched as both a mandolin virtuoso and effective vocalist, but Ahoy! proves he and his band mates are also equally skilled as musical interpreters, turning the set’s three cover songs into completely reimagined takes on the originals. The vastly different tunes, singer/songwriter Josh Ritter’s “Another New World,” Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’ “Down Along The Dixie Line” and Noise Rock group Mclusky’s “Icarus Smicarus” all feel right at home in the progressive folk settings Punch Brothers frame them in.

Ritter’s ethereal “Another New World,” a slightly ambiguous epic, is the least transformed, staying true to the original. But the addition of Thile’s mandolin and the accents of fiddle give the track grounding, adding dimension to the somewhat tragic story. “Down Along the Dixie Line,” from Welch’s 2011 The Harrow and the Harvest is the complete antithesis, morphing from a southern gothic ballad into a fiery romp. Both are effective readings, although Punch Brothers barely give the lyric room to breath, nearly suffocating the story by speeding it up a little too fast.

The real delight is “Icarus Smicarus,” a noise rock disaster turned progressive bluegrass delight. One of Punch Brothers’ core appeals is their left of center oddity, which is fully explored in this song’s brilliant eccentricity. The lack of any significant narrative structure, let alone the usual verse/chorus/verse/bridge pattern of country songwriting will alienate anyone in search of tangible meaning, but the connectedness of the group cannot be denied.

“Moonshiner,” the traditional folk song made famous with versions by The Clancy Brothers and Bob Dylan is my personal favorite on the set, showcasing the band’s wicked instincts with a killer narrative. The lone original is the wonderfully titled “Squirrel of Possibility,” an elegant mandolin and fiddle driven instrumental.

As a whole, both McKenna and Punch Brothers have turned in some exquisite work, each exploring different facets of their creativity all the while staying true to themselves as visionaries. I still would like to see McKenna challenge herself even more, with further exploration of songs in the vein of “Heart Shaped Bullet Hole.” Her ballads are still effective but are too frequent and beginning to fade into sameness, thus stripping them of their potent emotion.

Luckily Punch Brothers seem nowhere near the peak of their artistry, and Ahoy! shows a band built on taking daring risks that more often than not feature big pay offs for the listener. I can only dream about where the coming decades will take them, and if they stay as crisp and in tune as they are now, it’s going to be one heck of a prosperous musical odyssey.

Heart Shaped Bullet Hole

Grade: B

Listen on Spotify.

Buy at amazon.

Ahoy!

Grade: A

Listen on Spotify.

Buy it at amazon.

The fine print giveth

There’s a line in Thomas Rhett’s new single “Beer With Jesus” where the singer is asking “tell me how’d you turn the other cheek, to save a sorry soul like me” that didn’t even register when I first listened to the song. While it was playing in the background the other day my ears zoned in on that line and my reaction was to arch an eyebrow in admiration at the songwriters’ simple and direct way of communicating. In the setting of the song – modern-day Southern Baptist fundamentalism  – it would have been easy to reach for a hackneyed phrase straight out of the hymnal and my ear is still half-expecting “wretched soul” or something equally pretentious when I hear it. But they’ve kept it direct – even conversational – enough to effectively personify the narrator in the process, and that plainspoken bit of talk is why I want to hear the rest of what he’s got to say. So I say good on Rhett and co-writers Rick Huckaby and Lance Miller. They’re paying attention to the details.

So I got to thinking about other songs and the importance of just one word or line. Would “Sunday Morning Coming Down” be as important in the annals of country music history if Johnny Cash hadn’t bucked network television executives’ suggestion to substitute Kris Kristofferson’s lyric, and sing “home” instead of “stoned”? Likely it would have still become a hit. And as long as people still find themselves feeling hung over from a Saturday night, the song itself is strong enough to stand alone as a vivid retelling of such mornings. Still, “wishing Lord that I was stoned” reveals a grit and hair-of-the-dog pluck in the singer where wishing to be home sounds like he’s just given up. It changes the entire perspective. Kristofferson is of course a master of imagery, due in part to his attention to the details.

On John Hiatt’s superb “When We Ran”, Linda Rondstadt spends the first three minutes of the song wailing and gnashing her teeth about a lover that got away. She finally concludes “the mind is just a loose cannon and the memories are rollin’ dice“, letting the listener in on the fact that she’s acutely aware of the absurdity of her obsession with the past.  Otherwise, we’d expect to see her walking Main Street, carrying a suitcase, faded rose in her hair.  It’s also near the end of Lori McKenna’s voyeuristic “Your Next Lover” that the singer’s cool sentience is told when she sings in the bridge “I hope she reminds you nothing of me and as crazy as it sounds I hope she’s beautiful“, with no discernible amount of either sadness or bitterness. These are details that round out their song’s characters. If they were one-sided, would we care about these misfits and their lives? Would we relate their situations as easily to our own? I don’t think so. We relate to them because Hiatt and McKenna didn’t shirk their responsibility to the details.

All of these songs are favorites because they give the listener a glimpse inside the psyche of the song’s characters. I believe it’s that attention to detail that separates the good songs from the really great songs. TV Bishop Fulton Sheen’s famous quote “the big print giveth and the fine print taketh away” runs opposite to these and many other great songs in which the fine print giveth.

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 

Classic Rewind – Lori McKenna – ‘Stealing Kisses’

Album Review – Lori McKenna – ‘Lorraine’

The mark of a great album lies in the ability to match exceptionally well-written and well-crafted songs, with an equally as powerful a singer. When one element is missing, the whole project fails. In the case of McKenna, she has crafted perfection. Lorraine is also the best country album by a female artist since Miranda Lambert’s Revolution. The mixture of both heartbreak and hope, coupled with a sense of deep longing, make this project sparkle. Never has the emptiness of loosing a parent at a young age (McKenna lost her mother when she was seven) been so palpable and the ache in moving forward so heartbreakingly real.

To listen to McKenna is to hear the truth of a woman who has endured and lived. She lives with her husband, a plumber, and their five children in Stoughton, Massachusetts. She was quietly perfecting her sound when, in 2005, she caught the ear of Faith Hill. Hill was so taken aback by what she heard, she demanded to hear everything McKenna had ever written. As a result, Hill included three of McKenna’s songs (“Stealing Kisses”, “Fireflies,” and “If You Ask”) on her 2005 Fireflies album. McKenna has since gone on to record a major label country album (2007’s Unglamorous) and have her songs covered by the likes of Sara Evans, Tim McGraw, singer/actress Mandy Moore, Jimmy Wayne, and most recently Keith Urban. And a track she co-wrote, “Chances Are,” was sung by actor Garrett Hedlund and included in the movie Country Strong. The major label deal has since ended, and her new album Lorraine, her given name, and that of her mother, is self-released through Signature Sounds.

McKenna’s greatest appeal isn’t her singing and songwriting – it’s the throwback nature of her music. She isn’t bred from the same cloth as Jennifer Nettles or Carrie Underwood and she’s more accessible to the mainstream audience than either Patty Griffin or Lucinda Williams. McKenna is most importantly a thinking person’s country singer, a modern day Emmylou Harris, and the rightful torchbearer of that all but dead subset of the genre. Her country is neither polished or glossy – it’s just her truth as she knows it.

On the 13 tracks, McKenna proves she is leaps and bounds ahead of her peers by actually having something substantive to deliver to her audience. By staying clear of the cliche machine that is Nashville, she never once succumbs to the trickery of the business. Making her mark by taking complete creative control and forging her own path, McKenna puts quality first – something sorely missing from 99 percent of the recordings emerging from Music City. Lorraine showcases a woman free to do what she pleases and deliver spectacular results.

The opening song, “The Luxury of Knowing,” recently scooped up by Keith Urban for the deluxe edition of his Get Closer album, sets the scene. Both somber and brooding, “Knowing” commands attention for McKenna’s stunning vocal alone. She stretches her unmistakeable twang further than ever before, creating an emotional ache so palpable you feel right along with her. Credit must also go to Urban who clearly knows a true gem when he hears it. It’s just too bad his version will never bring the song the mainstream attention it deserves. It hardly matters anyway, after hearing McKenna’s performance on the song, no one else will dare touch it.

Another standout track, “Still Down Here,” the story of a person talking to their loved ones up in heaven, is an early favorite for song of the year. Anyone who has suffered the loss of a close relative or friend will instantly relate to McKenna’s yearning to be remembered by those from beyond the grave. With all the attention focused squarely on “Knowing,” “Here” will likely be left in the cold. But if you only buy one song this year, make it this one. Very rarely does a song come along, especially nowadays, so compelling in nature. It’ll haunt you long after it’s over.

The remarkable thing about Lorraine is the production – never too loud or too soft, the musical arraignments fit each song perfectly. One mark of a great album is the ability to let the lyrics take center stage. When the musical arraignment swallows both the lyrics and vocal performances, all potential for greatness is lost. One could argue McKenna needs to rock a bit harder every now and then but what would that prove? Optimism and joy aren’t her nature and it isn’t like she’s looking to stand alongside Kenny Chesney at football stadiums. With Lorraine she’s found the perfect marriage every major label artist should be striving for – you don’t need to make noise to be heard. Let it be a lesson for everyone.

One could argue that McKenna spends far too long as the brooding sufferer – the wife begging for attention from the man who once couldn’t get enough (“Stealing Kisses”) or the woman allowing herself to forgive the man who strays (“If You Ask”). To listen to her music is to listen to someone hurting. You could also fault McKenna for still seeming stuck by the most significant moment of her childhood. But to write her off is to turn your back on one of the most important singer-songwriters working today. Lorraine is a masterpiece because of its authenticity and because it’s a clear anecdote to every current trend in country music. Simply put, Lorraine has visible heart and soul. She doesn’t pander or succumb to anyone but her own gut – and she’s all the better for it in the end. I couldn’t ask for more.

Grade: A+ 

Album Review: Lori McKenna – ‘Bittertown’

Lori McKenna is not really a country artist, and would make no claims to be one. However, several of her songs have been picked up by mainstream country performers, and this album, originally released independently in 2004, was the one which allowed her to break through to national attention when Faith Hill covered three Mcenna songs, two of them from Bittertown, on her 2005 album Fireflies. This persuaded Warner Bros to sign Lori to a recording deal, and they re-released Bittertown.

Unfortunately I don’t find her voice particularly attractive to listen to, lending a harsh edge on songs like ‘Mr Sunshine’ while her diction can be muddy, burying the interesting but complex lyrics and making it hurt to establish exactly what she is saying.

The brooding ‘Bible Song’, about dissatisfaction with a restrictive small town life, which was later recorded by Sara Evans, is one of the best songs. Lori’s raw vocals work well here, and are actually more effective conveying the bitter emotions surrounding a young father’s suicide than Sara Evans’s more polished interpretation. Buddy Miller sings backing vocals.

‘Stealing Kisses’ and ‘If You Ask’ were two of the songs covered by Hill. The former is the wistful thoughts of an unhappy housewife, the latter is a slow burning wearied love letter to the unworthy and self destructive man the protagonist loves. Both are good songs.

Lori’s vocals are at their most effective on the sultry and atmospheric ‘Pour’, a downbeat bluesy number about being abandoned and stolen from by a lover she still hankers after.

I also rather like the confessional ‘Monday Afternoon’ about someone (probably an alcoholic, given that she’s drinking on the Monday afternoon of the song’s title) struggling to live a good life, although her diction is a bit hard to decipher at times, and I was grateful for the lyrics being printed in the booklet:

I know I promised you
That the Lord would be my friend
But the Lord and I don’t get along so very good …

I wish I was a better person
I don’t want to work at it
It should come naturally

‘Lone Star’ is quite an interesting story about childhood bullying of those who don’t fit in, but who later succeed in life while their tormentors crash and burn – not necessarily realistic, but at least a more measured and mature treatment of the theme recently used by Taylor Swift in her hit song ‘Mean’.

‘One Man’ is a love song about teenage sweethearts who have stayed together and abandoned youthful dreams of escape for a life together in the town they grew up in, and isn’t bad. ‘The Ledge’ has an ambitious melody her voice can’t quite carry off, and a lyric which is very metaphorical and frankly baffling.

‘My Sweetheart’ is potentially very charming and has a nice acoustic backing, but the vocals sound flat. ‘Cowardly Lion’ is an angry attack on an unsatisfactory husband, and is a bit loud and tuneless for me. The last two songs, ‘Silver Bus’ and ‘One Kiss Goodnight’ both have interesting lyrics but droning tunes.

This record is interesting and ambitious, and Lori is a talented songwriter, but aurally it doesn’t work for me. However, I can see why it would appeals to fans of contemporary singer-songwriters with more of an emphasis on the songs than their interpretation.

Grade: B

Spotlight Artists: Female Singer-songwriters

For our March spotlight, we’re taking a look at four distinct country songwriters who all, at one point or another, found themselves on the cusp of stardom when they scored major label deals. None would be superstars in their own right, but their songs would be turned into some of the greatest country records of the last thirty years by some of the best female (and sometimes male) voices the genre has to offer.

In celebration of the release of Gretchen Peters Hello Cruel World and Matraca Berg’s The Dreaming Fields we’re taking a look at:


Nanci Griffith

Nanci Griffith’s life hasn’t been without its struggles. Born Nanci Caroline Griffith on July 6, 1953 in Seguin, Texas, she suffered a tragic loss when her boyfriend was killed in a motorcycle accident the night of their senior prom. His loss forever altered her life and became a big inspiration to her songwriting. Griffith has since survived both breast (1996) and Thyroid (1999) cancer.

As an artist, she released her debut album There’s A Light Beyond These Woods in 1978.  She would release four albums (none of which charted) before Kathy Mattea brought her fame after her version of Griffith’s “Love At The Five and Dime” peaked at #3 in 1986.

This success led to a deal with MCA Records. Lone Star State Of Mind was released in 1987. The title track would peak at #36 and the album would peak at #23. Tony Brown would also produce the follow-up, Little Love Affairs, released in 1988. It would also chart, although not as successfully. Griffith’s deal with MCA would span just three more albums, two (One Fair Summer Evening and Storms) of which charted quite low.

The 1990s would bring further success. Suzy Bogguss had a #9 peaking hit in 1992 with “Outbound Plane,” a song Griffith co-wrote with Tom Russell. In 1994, Griffith won her first (and only) Grammy award, Best Contemporary Folk Album for Other Voices, Other Rooms; a collection of songs that inspired her.

Griffiths has a new album, her first since 2009’s The Loving Kind. Although not yet released in the United States, Intersection is available in the UK.

Read more of this post

Album Review: Tim McGraw – ‘Let It Go’

Like most of Tim McGraw’s albums, 2007’s Let It Go is a combination of the good, the bad, and the mediocre on which Byron Gallimore and Darran Smith returned to share co-production duties. The lead single was the annoyingly fluffy “Last Dollar (Fly Away)” which was written by Big & Rich’s Big Kenny. It’s a mediocre song with a sing-songy chorus that grows tiresome with repeated listenings. The final chorus on which McGraw is joined by his three young daughters only adds to the irritation factor. Nevertheless, it reached the top spot on the charts, becoming McGraw’s first #1 hit since 2004’s “Back When”.

Much more to my liking is the album’s second cut, “I’m Workin'”, written by Darrell Scott and Lori McKenna. It’s a gritty number that in years past would have been a big hit on country radio. From the opening line, “Damn, I hope no one dies on this night shift tonight”, the listener is immediately pulled into the story. The narrator’s profession is never revealed. My first thought was that he was a policeman, but he could just as easily be a paramedic or even an ER doctor. Another song that should have been a single is the album’s best track “Whiskey and You”, a pure country number written by Lee Thomas Miller and then-Steeldrivers member Chris Stapleton. Likely deemed too traditional for country radio, “Whiskey and You” was left to languish in obscurity as an album cut, passed over in favor of schlock like the title track, a boring AC-leaning duet with Faith Hill, and a cover of an Eddie Rabbitt song — one of the songs in the late singer/songwriter’s catalog least worthy of a remake.

Faith Hill makes one of her two guest appearances on “I Need You”, a rather lackluster number written by David Lee and Tony Lane, that reached #8. It’s not nearly as good as “Shotgun Rider”, which is not a true duet but features a prominent harmony vocal from Hill. Written by Anthony Smith, Jeffrey Steele and Sherrie Austin, it’s the best McGraw/Hill song I’ve ever heard. It’s too bad Tim and Faith haven’t done more songs in this vein.

“Suspicions” was a #1 hit for Eddie Rabbitt in 1979, an era when a lot of barely-country sounding songs were big hits. It’s one of my least favorite Rabbitt songs. Tim’s version is very faithful to the original, but it only reached #12, making it one of the very few McGraw singles not to make the Top 10, in spite of Tim’s popularity and country radio’s increasing willingness to play non-country material. The follow-up single was the much more traditional “Kristofferson”, a tribute to one of country music’s greatest songwriters, written by Anthony Smith and Reed Nielsen. It fared even worse on the charts than “Suspicions”, stalling at #16. Tim bounced back, however, with the generic and overproduced title track, which climbed to #2.

The very best of the album’s seven singles was not included on the album when it was initially released. “If You’re Reading This”, on which Tim shares a rare songwriting credit with Brad and Brett Warren, was performed on the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards telecast. It tells the heartbreaking story of a fallen soldier, in his own words, in a letter to his wife, to be sent to her in the event of his death. It was one of the best performances of Tim’s career and was so well received that the song entered the Billboard charts from unsolicited airplay of the audio from the telecast. This prompted Curb to release the live recording as a single, between “I Need You” and “Suspicions” and to include it on subsequent pressings of the album. “If You’re Reading This” peaked at #3; I was surprised that it didn’t go all the way to #1.

Mid-2008 was about the time when Curb Records began playing games to prolong Tim’s contract. Instead of releasing a new album, they opted to release a seventh single, “Nothin’ To Die For”, a preachy and overproduced “don’t drink and drive” number that reads like a public service announcement that somehow climbed to #5 on the charts.

The rest of the album is mostly generic filler, with the exception of “Between The River and Me”, which tells the story of a son’s revenge against an abusive father. It’s a southern Gothic number in the traditon of “Ode To Billy Joe”, “Fancy” and “The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia”, but unlike those classics, “Between The River and Me” is ruined by over-the-top production that renders it almost unlistenable. To call it bombastic would be an understatement.

Though it has its share of duds, Let It Go is one of the stronger album’s in Tim’s discography and has enough good songs on it to make it worth recommending. It is easy to find at reasonable prices.

Grade: B

Jonathan Pappalardo’s ten favorite country albums of 2011

Who says real country music is dead? Putting aside the commercial successes that forgot about quality, here is my take for music that mattered in 2011. These albums may not have sold a heck of a lot or even garnered the recognition they warranted, but they achived the mark of great music – the songs came first.

10. Concrete – Sunny Sweeney

Led by the top ten “From A Table Away,” Concrete found Sweeney modifying her sound slightly in order to complete with what’s current on country radio. Of course, her version of slightly is different than most as she’s crafted an outstanding traditional country album worthy of her talents. There are too many highlights here to pick a favorite but the honky-tonkin’ “Drink Myself Single” and the revengeful “Amy” are among the years best songs.

Read more of this post

2011: The 75-(per)cent report

School buses are back on the roads and the leaves are already starting to fall on the roads here in southern Ohio. Crisp nights are upon us, and as we head into final months of 2011, I’m revisiting my growing playlist of my favorite songs and albums released in the first three-quarters. No waxing or pondering on the fate of what’s popular this time, these are just some of my favorite releases of the year, in no particular order, combined with a few words to tell you why in some cases.  Be sure to share your top picks for the 3/4 of the year so far in the comments.

Albums

Sunny Sweeney – Concrete … As I said in my review, if this became the sounding board for all future female country albums, we’d all be better off.

Terri Clark – Roots and Wings … Though it’s not as strong as her previous effort, Clark’s latest, and its lack of airplay, is another page in the long indictment against country radio.  I’d be the first to welcome her back with this material.

Pistol Annies – Hell On Heels

George Strait – Here For A Good Time

Connie Smith – Long Line of Heartaches … Traditional country and classic themes performed by one of country music’s finest singers. A can’t-miss combination.

Chris Young – Neon

Ronnie Dunn – Ronnie Dunn … The Brooks & Dunn frontman hasn’t reached his full potential as a soloist yet – I think he’s still too unsure of himself – but this is a helluva start.

Blake Shelton – Red River Blue

… and on the not-so country side:

Lucinda Williams – Blessed

Adele – 21

Lori McKenna – Lorraine

The Decemberists – The King Is Dead 

Songs

Bradley Gaskin – “Mr. Bartender”

Kenny Chesney & Grace Potter – “You and Tequila”

Pistol Annies – “Lemon Drop”/”Trailer For Rent” … I can’t pick a favorite among these two on the album.

Ronnie Dunn – “Cost of Living”

George Strait – “Here For a Good Time”/”Poison” … It’s been said before, and better, but I really like the title track to Strait’s latest album. And I think “Poison” is one of his finest moments.

Sunny Sweeney – “Staying’s Worse than Leaving”/”Amy”

Billy Currington – “Love Done Gone”

Taylor Swift – “Back to December”/”Mean”

Lucinda Williams – “I Don’t Know How You’re Living”

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.

Read more of this post