My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Mark Bright

Album Review: Lonestar – ‘Mountains’

51thjpiwx8l-_ss500By 2006, the cracks in Lonestar’s commercial armor were beginning to appear. They were scoring Top 10 hits less consistently, their contract with BNA Records was nearing an end, and lead singer Richie McDonald was getting ready to leave the band and embark on a solo career. As a result, 2006’s Mountains feels as though it were phoned in by everyone involved, and there doesn’t seem to have been much effort expended to promote the album.

Mountains did find the band teaming up with a new producer, Mark Bright, and the album’s title track, which became the lead single, was an actually an improvement over Lonestar’s previous few efforts. The mandolin-led number, written by Richie McDonald, Larry Boone and Paul Nelson has a positive thinking theme, a trend during country’s “soccer mom” era, which was much bemoaned at the time, but in retrospect it seems rather benign compared to the trends that succeeded it. The song is catchy, but the lyrics are a bit trite – a problem that plagues many of the album’s tracks. It peaked at #10.

The piano led “Nothing to Prove” was the next single, and it was aimed squarely at the soccer moms, name dropping Van Morrison and detailing the drudgeries of the modern working woman. It was the worst performing single of Lonestar’s career, peaking at #51. BNA seemed to have little interest in promoting the album further, and as a result no further singles were issued.

Artistically, Mountains was a progression down the path the band embarked on with Lonely Grill, towards more pop and AC-leaning material with a little steel guitar thrown into the mix occasionally as an appeasement to country radio and fans. The formula was getting old by this point and the material was generally weak.

There are a couple of bright spots. “Hey God”, written by McDonald and Tommy Lee James, appealed to the contemporary Christian crowd. Though one of the album’s better tracks, it’s not terribly original, and the bombastic production gets in the way. Like most of the slower songs on the album, this one is turned into a power ballad, and it would have been more effective with a quieter and more stripped-down approach. To a lesser extent they fall into this trap again on the closing track “Always in the Band”, written by McDonald, Ron Harbin and Jerry Vandiver. It seems to be a semi-autobiographical number, perhaps inspired by McDonald’s impending departure from the band. It looks back at a number of significant life events, which always had to take a back seat to the narrator’s obligations to his band mates and fans. The production is restrained and tasteful until the last minute or so, when the swelling strings and power vocals start to become more prominent. Nevertheless, it’s a very good song and an appropriate capstone to the band’s first Richie McDonald era.

Nothing else is of much interest or worthy of commentary, so as a whole this album falls short of expectations.

Grade: C

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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 – Sara Evans – ‘Slow Me Down’

SaraEvansSlowDownAlbumWhen Sara Evans appeared on Opry Backstage with Bill Anderson in the late 90s, she commented on her voice, saying no matter what she sings it’ll always come out country. That logic may’ve been true at the time, but with producer Mark Bright at the helm and a 2014 mentality to uphold, Evans is as far from her country roots as one can be and still associate with country music.

If you’ve studied the careers of the 80s and 90s country women as closely as I have over the years, you know they show their true colors when their commercial prospects begin to fade. Do they go the Reba or Faith Hill route and squeeze out every last hit, with little regard for quality? Or do they take the Kathy Mattea and Patty Loveless route and seamlessly transition into a legacy career marked by adventurous and risk taking records that display the innate artistry that made them too smart for country radio in the first place?

With Slow Me Down Evans fits squarely into the former category with an album that exposes a hidden truth of her career – that she was never that artistic at all, just a trend follower who happened to come of age at a time when good quality songs were still the mainstay of mainstream Nashville. With that era firmly in the rearview mirror, we’re left with a singer resorting to whatever she can to find a platform, and the results are more than a little desperate.

When the title track was released late September, the press behind it made “Slow Me Down” out to be the best thing Evans had ever recorded, a record akin to the 80s crossover hits that came between the Urban Cowboy era and the new traditionalist movement. In reality it’s a terrible song, shoddily written by Merv Green, Heather Morgan, and Jimmy Robbins. The verses are stunted and repetitive and the chorus, while strong, becomes too breathy when Evans morphs into a pop diva by the end.

The rest of the album follows suit, with Evans turning out one generic ‘bright pop’ moment after another with little regard to singing anything that actually has something to say. Bright’s use of drums and electric guitars is far too generic for Evans, and any uniqueness in her voice is suppressed in favor of exploiting the lowest common denominator. Even her trademark covers of mainstream hits have taken a beating, with her take on Gavin DeGraw’s “Not Over You” maintaining far too much of his original, down to inviting him in for a guest vocal.

When I reviewed Stronger three years ago, I said one of that project’s shortcomings was the lack of Evans’ trademark sweeping story songs (‘I Learned That From You’ and ‘You’ll Always Be My Baby’) and her distinctive honky-tonkers (‘Born To Fly’ and ‘Suds In The Bucket’). Those problems exist here, too, but after three years of such songs going the way of VCRs and Landline telephones, it’s hardly a surprise. Evans does try and maintain the last ounce of her country credibility with “Better Off,” a fiddle-heavy tune featuring Vince Gill, but the production is still far too loud, with drums and noise marring the purer elements.

If it’s any consolation, there’s a lyrical consistency on Slow Me Down that elevates the album above Stronger, which had too may juvenile lyrical couplets. But that’s hardly a cause for celebration, as the music here is far too weak, generic, and bland for a singer of Evans’ caliber. I’m not overly disappointed, though, as I kind of expected this, and in the context of mainstream country, this is one of the less irritating releases to come so far this year.

Grade: C-

Album Review: George Strait – ‘Love Is Everything’

love is everythingNow 61, George Strait may be giving up touring next year, but he still seems to be keen on continuing his recording career. As with everything he has done in the past decade, he has co-produced his latest album with Tony Brown, and there are no indications he is running out of steam. The pair know just what works for Strait and his fans, and while there are no real surprises here, it’s an accomplished record which will be well received by the fans.

Lead single ‘Give It All We Got Tonight’ is a rather dull and generic song with irritatingly tinny echoes in the production, written by Mark Bright, Phil O’Donnell and Tim James. It sounds exactly like an attempt at getting some radio attention. Luckily it’s done the job, giving George his 60th chart-topper; better still, it’s the only dud.

The outstanding song is ‘Blue Melodies’, a sad slow song written by Keith Gattis and one Wyatt Earp (yes, really). Loaded with steel guitar and fiddle, this is classic country heartbreak as a songwriter struggles to find the right words to convey his feelings. His sweetheart loves the sad songs, but he admits this will end up “a sad song, that’s too sad to sing” if she isn’t persuaded to return. His years of experience stand him in good stead here, as the phrasing is impeccable. This is absolutely lovely.

Gattis also contributed another pair of songs to the album. The engaging story song ‘I Got A Car’, written with Tom Douglas, narrates a romance from roadside pickup to starting a family together, and is quite charming, although the production gets a little busy towards the end. It would probably work as a single. ‘Sittin’ On The Fence’, a co-write with Roger Creager, is another good song. It is about a man undecided whether to make the move to save a relationship (even though he knows he’d be a “damn fool to let her go”).

Also very good, ‘You Don’t Know What You’re Missing’, written by Chris Stapleton and Al Anderson, reports a bar room conversation comparing one man’s complaints about mundane problems in his family life, to his drinking companion’s real heartaches. ‘I Thought I Heard My Heart Sing’ (by Bill Kenner and L Russell Brown) is an enjoyably bouncy number about the euphoria of falling in love which has a delightfully retro feel.

In the warmhearted ‘When Love Comes Around Again’, penned by Monty Holmes, Donny Kees and Jeff Silvey, Strait offers an older man’s hard-won experience of recovering from a broken heart to find new love, to counsel a younger friend going through it all for the first time. This might be another good single. The title track (written by Casey Beathard and Pat McLaughlin) is a little bland lyrically, but the laidback vocal and generous emotion work well.

‘I Just Can’t Go On Dying Like This’ is a rare solo composition by Strait, and is an impressive sad country ballad. It is an older song which was one of the artist’s first, pre-fame, singles back in 1976, and was also recorded as a bonus on the Strait Out Of The Box box set. The latest version is significantly different from its predecessors, completely reinventing it by slowed down from a honky tonker into a mature ballad which is very fine indeed. He was joined by son Bubba to write ‘That’s What Breaking Hearts Do’, which is a decent song but the vocal feels a bit perfunctory. Father and son teamed up with old friend Dean Dillon for two further songs. ‘The Night Is Young’, a cheerfully delivered invitation to a wife for a long night out (and in), and is quite good, featuring horns.

The more serious ‘I Believe’ is a sensitive, strings-swathed, response to the tragic events at Newtown, Connecticut, last year, capturing the sadness felt across the world at such a horrific incident.

The album closes with the valedictory ‘When The Credits Roll’, written by Randy Montana, Steve Bogard and Kyle Jacobs. I don’t know how much longer Strait plans to continue recording, but this feels intended to evoke images of his life and career as the latter comes to an end. However, it doesn’t quite convince, because George has never really come across as the rebel presented in the lyrics, and the production is a bit cluttered.

This isn’t Strait’s best ever record – that would be quite an achievement – but it’s solid fare with plenty of good songs and one outstanding one. It’s the best mainstream record I’ve heard in a while.

Grade: A-

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.

Album Review: Edens Edge – ‘Edens Edge’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B

Single Review – Carrie Underwood – ‘Blown Away’

The modern state of country music finds songs fitting into one of two categories – southern party anthems (usually sung by those unwilling to accept their 20s are long over) or tunes primed for the pop world (usually sung by female artists or acts like Lady Antebellum and Gloriana). Very rarely does a song stand on its own truly as a piece of country music.

“Blown Away” attempts to fit into that third category by resurrecting the long forgotten era of murder ballads, a sub-genre made famous by the likes of Johnny Cash (“Banks of the Ohio”) and Porter Wagoner (“Cold Hard Facts Of Life”) in the 1960s and more recently, Martina McBride (“Independence Day”) in the 1990s and Brad Paisley (“Whiskey Lullaby”) about nine years ago.

This time, a daughter is seeking revenge on an abusive father by keeping him “passed out on the couch” during what appears to be a very strong tornado, powerful enough for her to “lock herself in the cellar” and wait it out.

Unfortunately, the similarities end there, with “Blown Away” underscoring Underwood’s grave failure as a storyteller – her inability to grasp the art of subtlety. She, and producer Mark Bright, mistakenly turn the song into a pop power ballad, where the overwhelming production and bombastic vocal become the focus instead of the fabulously dark storyline.

How many people, in the times “Blown Away” has been given television exposure in the past two months, actually know what the song is really about? The tune’s presentation, complete with a distracting wind tunnel and falling debris, only manages to dilute the overall storyline and water down what could (and should) be one of the greatest country singles of the year.

For a lyric this promising, I only wish it had been given more room to be the star.

Grade: B

CMA award nominees, 2010: setting the stage

It’s awards time again, with this year’s CMA awards being announced next week. We’ll share our predictions on Monday, but meanwhile here’s a reminder of who is nominated and why. The nominations this year have a few new faces showing up in unexpected places. The big questions of this year’s show will be whether Miranda Lambert will dominate the night as she has the nominations list. Whatever happens, outraged fans are likely to complain that their favorite has been “snubbed”, or someone else has won undeservedly.

Entertainer of the Year
Lady Antebellum
Miranda Lambert
Brad Paisley
Keith Urban
Zac Brown Band

Last year’s controversial winner Taylor Swift was snubbed altogether in this category this year – perhaps partly because of the backlash after her clean sweep last time, but also because she released little during the nomination period. Instead, the category sees no less than three first-time nominees: critical flavor of the month Miranda Lambert (who leads nominations overall), and the two hottest bands of recent years, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band, who are among the few current artists to be selling in the millions. They join Keith Urban (the only former winner to be in the running this time) and our own current Spotlight Artist Brad Paisley, who has been nominated every year since 2005 but is so far without the trophy.

Male Vocalist
Dierks Bentley
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
George Strait
Keith Urban

Brad Paisley has won this award for the past three years, and Keith Urban took it home for the three years prior to that. Both men are still scoring regular #1 hit singles and selling well, but is it time for another change at the top? There are two first-time nominees, Dierks Bentley, rewarded by the CMA for his artistic ambition even though country radio has been reluctant to embrace the singles from his bluegrass-inspired Up On The Ridge, and Blake Shelton, who is becoming a regular fixture at the top of the charts. The evergreen George Strait, meanwhile, seems to be nominated virtually every year, but hasn’t won since 1998 (his third year in a row – he also has a couple of trophies from the 80s).

Female Vocalist
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Reba McEntire
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Last year’s winner Taylor Swift gets another nod, recognizing her commercial preeminence despite a series of woeful live TV performances – including at last year’s CMA awards show. She faces pop-country queen Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, who had a massive breakthrough this year, and is the only one of these ladies to be nominated in the Entertainer category. Reba McEntire, the oldest nominee, is still contending on the charts, but the fifth nominee, Martina McBride, seems to be merely filling out the category, as she has not had a good year commercially or critically.

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Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Red Dirt Road’

Following the momentum-reviving Steers & Stripes album, Brooks & Dunn released Red Dirt Road in 2003.  This album would continue the evolution of the sound of the duo, with more pop-leaning tracks and fewer of the high-octane honky tonk that defined their 1990s work.

Another generous helping of music from the duo – the 15 tracks total just under an hour’s worth of music – it would also continue in the success of its predecessor, hitting #1 on the Billboard Country Albums chart, and housing three top 10 singles.

The title track was the lead single, and quickly shot to the top.  With a basic concept that could easily become cringe-worthy, writers Kix and Ronnie keep the lyrics simple enough for everyman, yet original enough to please the tough-sell critics.  And lines like ‘I learned the path to heaven, Is full of sinners and believers’ aren’t really ground-breaking, they’re definitely worth repeating.  The catchy melody didn’t hurt it any with radio either.

Backsliding a little into old habits, ‘You Can’t Take The Honky Tonk Out of The Girl’ tells the story of Connie, a jet-setting honky tonk lady who shows up barefoot at her cousin’s wedding reception before eventually running off with the groom to Mexico. This classy gem went to #3 on the charts.

The final single – which peaked at #6 – is the romantic ‘That’s What She Gets For Loving Me’, not to be confused with Diamond Rio’s ‘That’s What I Get For Loving You’. The swaying number, complete with fiddle and steel, is a great listen, and Ronnie turns in a stellar vocal performance.

Other memorable moments include the bluesy plea for mercy ‘Caroline’, which finds Ronnie reaching for falsetto a little more often than is really necessary.  ‘Feels Good Don’t It’, written by Ronnie Dunn with Terry McBride, is a classic rock inspired ode to true love.

‘I Used To Know This Song By Heart’ is one of my favorites from the album.  My favorite Brooks & Dunn songs are the great ballads Ronnie Dunn’s blistering tenor bring to life, and this is great example of that.  The Jerry Lynn Williams-penned tune features nearly 2 minutes work of electric guitar solos in between Ronnie’s vocal, and the choir in the background gives the song a vintage vibe.

Again stepping outside their comfort zone, the calypso-inspired ‘Till My Dying Day’ is a fun listen.  A swampy guitar kicks off the swinging ‘My Baby’s Everything I Love’, which sounds like something that would feat neatly on a George Strait album.

Meandering through every topic and emotion imaginable, this album seems like it has more of Kix and Ronnie’s personal stamp on it than any other album of their career, and for that, it’s also the most varied, yet cohesive set in their catalog.  Listening to the songs in order, you get a sense the two were trying to tell their stories, one by one, and succeeded on almost every level.  Co-produced with Mark Bright, Red Dirt Road would be another platinum-selling album to add to the duo’s collection, and further cemented their place as the reigning duo in country music for the next few years.

Grade: A-

Red Dirt Road is in print, and is widely available at all retailers, including Amazon.

Album Review: Reba McEntire – ‘Keep On Loving You’

reba keep on loving you cover
She revisits many of the same themes and ideas she has sung to us about before, at times saying it better than before.  But more
often than not, these recycled themes fall short of the songs of their predecessors.  Reba is in fine voice throughout the entire
album.  Her vocal is the one thing I can’t find any complaints about, it’s sassy when it needs to be, tender when the music calls
for it, and it aches and burns at just the right moment.  Reba has long been a master at interpreting a lyric, and her years of
experience are certainly on display here, even when the songs fail her.
Up-tempo:
Nothing to Lose – Trisha Yearwood’s GH … changed ‘my last cigarette’ to ‘this old paperback’ and Reba gives a more
ferocious vocal, attacking the lyric with a spitfire in her voice.
I’ll Have What She’s Having – western swing, another smoking vocal …
A remixed ‘I Want a Cowboy’ dance mix sent to clubs all over America, busy music, young lyrics it should suit that crowd just
fine, even if it’s not really my style.
Consider Me Gone – second single, 90s pop-country feel, classic Reba ‘strong-woman’ theme.
Ballads: – ‘But Why’ … more of the classic Reba sound –
‘Over You’ is the sort of tried and true heartbreak ballad Reba fans eat up, but these
The album’s stand-out track is the swampy ‘Maggie Creek Road’.  In this tale of a mother’s love and how she avenges her own
situation and saves her daugher at the same time, Reba rolls out the lines like a folklore missionary.  This is the kind story song
Reba excels best at – stories of sex and violence and revenge and family love in the vein of southern Gothic classics like ‘Fancy’
and ‘The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia’, this Karyn Rochelle and James Slater fits neatly into that category.

For her Valory Music Co. debut, Reba revisits many of the same themes she has sung to us about in the past, at times saying it better than before.  But more often than not, these recycled themes fall short of the songs of their predecessors.  Reba is in fine voice for the entire album.  Her vocal is the one thing I can’t find any complaints about. It’s sassy when it needs to be, tender when the music calls for it, and it aches and burns at just the right moments.  Reba has long been a master at interpreting a lyric, and her years of experience are certainly on display here, even when the songs fail her.

You don’t get to be country music’s biggest female hit-maker without following some sort of formula, and this album showcases Reba’s formula of a couple show-stopping ballads, some up-tempo numbers, and the occasional achingly sad number. Splitting production credits with long-time collaborator Tony Brown and Mark Bright gives the album a fresh sound for sure, but it also tends to create a lack of focus.  The one core element running through nearly every song on Keep On Loving You is that of the strong woman, which Reba has been singing the praises of for the better part of two decades now.  But these strong women are all over the place, from being allegedly heartbroken in the lead single, the rocking ‘Strange’, to being genuinely blue in ‘Over You’ and then on a manhunt in ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’.  There’s certainly no consistency to the instrumentation either, as Reba goes from pop-country to western swing – all ably I might add.

Reba really steps out of the box with the up-tempo numbers on the album more than anything, and these are also the most traditional of the cuts.  Trisha Yearwood recorded ‘Nothing to Lose’ for her Greatest Hits album.  There’s not much difference to the backing tracks each lady used, but here Reba has changed ‘my last cigarette’ to ‘this old paperback’ and she gives a more ferocious vocal, attacking the lyric with a spitfire in her voice.  ‘I’ll Have What She’s Having’ is a fun western swing number and another smoking vocal that finds the narrator admiring the man out on the dance floor and inquiring where she can find one of her own.

A remixed ‘I Want a Cowboy’ was sent to dance clubs all over America, and with the original’s busy music and young lyrics it should suit that crowd just fine, even if it’s not really my style.  Katrina Elam co-wrote the song, and first recorded it on her 2004 debut.  She also provides harmony vocals here.  A couple of other throw-away tracks pop up with the rousing ‘Pink Guitar’ and its prerequisite Johnny Cash reference. Likewise, ‘Over You’ is the sort of tried and true heartbreak ballad Reba fans eat up, but these are lyrics from the recycling bin again, and the performance is a bit much as she overstates the lyrics as if she had something new to say.

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News: Reba’s New Album

reba3Special thanks to The Boot‘s Vernell Hackett for the heads-up on what’s happening with the new album by Reba McEntire – her debut for the Valory Music Comapny.

Reba McEntire has a tried-and-true philosophy when it comes to recording a new album. “I always try to find the best songs I can,” she says.

Reba is especially delighted with the songs she is recording for a new project, her debut on new label home, Valory Music Co.  The country superstar has enlisted her old pals Tony Brown and Mark Bright to co-produce the project.

“I think getting to work with these two talented producers will just make the album twice as good,” she says. “I hope the fans like the new songs and will be as delighted as I am with the project.”

Reba says she “always has a blast” with Brown, and she brought in Bright because she thinks it’s important to listen to new ideas. “Mark brought in some great songs for me,” she says. “He also brought in some studio musicians that I hadn’t worked with before.  I love the way he communicates with the musicians and I’ve really loved working with him.”

Reba’s new single is expected this spring, with the full album to follow in the summer.

Some of you will recognize the name Mark Bright as the producer of Carrie Underwood’s albums. He has also produced hit songs for Lonestar and Sara Evans, among others.