My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Matt Jenkins

Album Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Something’s Going On’

It looks as if Trace Adkins’ mainstream career is over, with his recent move from Show Dog Universal to Wheelhouse Records (a Broken Bow imprint). One never knows quite what to expect from Trace, and the music here covers the spectrum.

The first couple of singles for the label flopped, and deservedly so, as they are not very good. The first of these, ‘Jesus And Jones’, was almost a hit, peaking at #41. The song itself is actually solid, with its acceptance of maturity as a hellraiser torn between drinking and church realizes he needs to find a balance, but the production throws in too many bells and whistles aimed at contemporary “country” radio, and ends up muffling the song’s strengths.

‘Lit’, which failed to chart, is plain terrible, with cliché’d lyrics typical of Trace’s worst work, non-existent melody and loud, loud production with intrusive elements. It was cowritten by the album’s producer Mickey Jack Cones, perhaps no coincidence. ‘Country Boy Problems’ is awful in all the same ways lyrically and melodically, with a bit of cynical banjo thrown in. Opener ‘Ain’t Just The Whiskey Talkin’’ isn’t quite as bad, but is still cliché’d and too loud/cluttered.

Thankfully, his latest single (reviewed here by Razor X) is infinitely better. The song, written by Matt Jenkins, Trevor Rosen and Shane McAnally, is set to a gentle, attractive melody. Trace’s deep, warm voice is perfect for the song’s quiet reflection, and is well served by the understated production – the only song on the album for which this holds true. This is Trace Adkins at his best.

There are some other good songs here, despite the bombastic production. ‘Still A Soldier’, written by Phil O’Donnell and Wade Kirby, is a sympathetic portrait of a veteran who still bleeds red, white and blue despite his retirement to suburban civilian life; this is only a little over-produced. ‘Whippoorwills And Freight Trains’, another O’Donnell co-write, is a good mid-paced song about getting past a spell of loneliness. Trace gets to exercise the very lowest parts of his deep bass-baritone voice at the end of the song; but the production is too busy, and the song would be more effective with a more stripped down or traditional country production.

Two themes dominate the album, both adult in different ways. One is that of maturity; the other is a leaning to rather sexy songs. The best of the latter is the title track, which has a seductive melody and vocal, although it isn’t all that country. ‘I’m Gone’, written by Craig Campbell and Max T Barnes , isn’t too bad. ‘If Only You Were Lonely’ is muffled by the production. ‘Gonna Make You Miss Me’ is far too busy with irritating electronic intrusions. Both would be much better with different production choices.

The album closes with ‘Hang’, a pleasant if not ground-breaking tune about quiet downtime in the countryside which Trace’s vocal renders likeable despite busy production.

Next time around, Trace needs to ditch this producer and play to his strengths. This project is disappointing, especially given the long wait.

Grade: C+

Single Review: Trace Adkins – ‘Watered Down’

The term “watered down” is usually used in a pejorative sense in the country music world. It’s generally used to refer to music that has been stripped of its country elements in favor of a more MOR sound that will appeal to a wider audience, but as the title of Trace Adkins’ new single, it seems to suggest a creative renaissance of sorts.

It’s been six years since Trace last had a single in the Top 10 and nine years since his last number one. During that time period country music saw the rise and (hopefully) fall of Bro-country and a lot of other changes that many of us were not happy about. Trace himself bears some responsibility for the genre’s wrong turn, given some of his own questionable musical choices in recent years. It’s nice to see that he is apparently trying to make amends for that with his latest effort. Written by Matt Jenkins, Trevor Rose and Shane McAnally, “Watered Down” is a ballad that finds Trace acknowledging middle age, without wistfulness, regrets or nostalgia. The production is contemporary — heavily dependent on keyboards and a subtle string section — but it is never heavy-handed. He’s well aware that he is no longer a young man, but he’s not quite ready to retire to a life of golf at The Villages just yet:

We still fly like gypsies
Just a little closer to the ground
And we still love our whiskey
But now it’s just a little watered down

Unless I’m reading too much into this, the song seems to be a metaphor for Trace’s career. It’s very possible that he’ll never again have a big radio hit, but he seems content to settle into a new role as one of country music’s elder statesmen. He’s not going to try to maintain the hectic pace of his younger years, but he’s still going to stick around and make music on his own terms. And if “Watered Down” is an indication of the path he’s planning to take from now on, I very much look forward to following him on his journey.

Grade: A

Album Review – Brandy Clark – ’12 Stories’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: A

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Album Review: Ron Williams – ‘The Longer You’re Gone’

The Longer You're GoneRon Williams, son of the often underrated Leona Williams and one-time stepson of Merle Haggard, has a nice voice with a warm tone and soft timbre which is very pleasing. His third album, produced by Eddie Kilroy, on Ah-Ha Music Group, is solidly country, with some lovely fiddle from Rob Hajacos, and 80s star Janie Fricke guests on backing vocals. Williams is not a writer, unlike his mother, but he and his producer have found some excellent songs for this record.

Bill Anderson contributed three very good songs to the set, starting with the outstanding title track co-written with Jim Collins, a soulful ballad about the increasing regrets about a broken relationship after the event, as the protagonist starts to remember the good things he misses rather than the fights and bad times, concluding,
“It’s a funny thing about a memory
The longer you’re gone
The better our love used to be”

Just as good is the ironic reproach to a former love now dating another guy, written by Bill with Don Cook, ‘You Should Have More Respect For The Dead’:

“Can’t you see you’re killing me
Your happiness is messing up my head
I’ve died a thousand times since I threw away your love
You should have more respect for the dead”

Anderson and Cook joined up with Matt Jenkins to write ‘The F Words’ about a man whose cheating ex wants him back, but,

“I can’t say the F words
Forgive and forget”

Another highlight is the cover of ‘Where The Tall Grass Grows’, recorded previously by George Jones on his 1991 album And Along Came Jones, and also covered by Ricky Van Shelton on 1994’s Love And Honor. While Ron is not in quite the same league as Jones (few are), he tackles the fine song with an honest emotion, as he depicts a house that is no longer a home, with haunting steel and lonesome fiddle.

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Album Review: Matt Jenkins – Quarter of a Century: The Acoustic Sessions

Matt Jenkins

Matt Jenkins

Matt Jenkins is a singer/songwriter from Texas. He came to Nashville a few years ago and was signed to Universal South by Tony Brown and Tim DuBois. He released a few singles that failed to catch on at radio, and was eventually dropped from the Universal South roster after Brown and DuBois departed the label. He then spent some time concentrating on his songwriting. Eight of his compositions appear on last year’s Quarter of A Century, a self-released EP.

All eight songs are simply arranged, recorded live in the studio, consisting of Jenkins and Mark Selby, who produced the EP, playing acoustic guitar. Jenkins, of course, is the lead vocalist, while Selby provides background vocals, as does Tia Sillers on the title track. This type of stripped-down arrangement works very well because it allows the listener to concentrate on the lyrics without the distractions of heavy-handed production and other studio bells and whistles.

“Want You Back”, the opening track, is not, as the title suggests, a song about a man begging his departing lover to return. Rather, the lyrics say:

I want you back in that Cadillac Eldorado backing out of the drive,
Leaving like there’s no tomorrow,
Back on that interstate, racing like the night you left me,
Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel, foot on the gas,
That’s the way I want you back.

The first time I listened to this song, I was immediately reminded of Skip Ewing. Jenkins has a similar voice, and Ewing’s influence can be heard in his songwriting, particularly on songs like “Heaven (Back By Tonight)” (my favorite track on the disc) and “I’ll Remember For You”, a touching story about a man who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, and his grandson’s pledge to remember all the stories his grandpa had told him over the years. Other tracks, such as “Going Nowhere” and “Some Kind of Sexy” are reminiscent of James Taylor. I later found out when I checked Jenkins’ MySpace page, that both Ewing and Taylor are among the artists listed as his influences.

I’ve made no secret of my dislike for the vast majority of the music coming out of Nashville these days. Listening to this EP gives me hope that all is not yet lost. Jenkins’ singing and songwriting are both stellar. My only criticism of this set is that it is a bit ballad-heavy. It does contain some mid-tempo numbers — “Want You Back”, “Back To You” and the title track — but it could benefit from the addition of a few uptempo numbers. Jenkins is reportedly currently working on a new project with Garth Fundis, who has produced such great acts as Keith Whitley, Don Williams, Trisha Yearwood, and Sugarland. Hopefully a new record deal will soon follow. Matt Jenkins is too good to languish in obscurity.

Quarter of a Century can be purchased at Jenkins’ MySpace page. Some of his other songs can be streamed there as well.

Grade: A –