My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Natalie Hemby

Album Review: Natalie Hemby – ‘Puxico’

Natalie Hemby, Dean Dillon to Miranda Lambert’s George Strait, released her debut album back in January. The album, seven years in the making, is the musical accompaniment to a documentary she produced about her hometown of Puxico, Missouri. Hemby solely composed each of the project’s nine songs.

Hemby opens the album wonderfully, with the folksy tones of “Time-Honored Tradition,” a jaunty uptempo number about her longing for “kindred town filled with good company.” Said town ultimately goes through a “Grand Restoration,” in which the past and present beautifully collide to bring a sense of history into the modern day. She gets the sentiment right on “Worn,” a characteristic she gives to “the finer things worth keeping,” but I could’ve done with a more interesting execution. Similarly rudimentary is lead single “Return,” which details the idea that you need to get away in order to fully appreciate your life back home.

“Lovers On Display” is one of many relationship-centric tunes on Puxico. The simplistic ballad is an appealing dissertation on love, using carnival imagery to evoke innocent romance. The ambiguous steel drenched “This Town Still Talks About You” is a brilliantly heartbreaking reminder that a person’s presence can be alive and well even if they aren’t physically present. Our minds aren’t so lucky, as Hemby points out in “I’ll Remember How You Loved Me,” which says memories fade but we never forget love.

The love, or really praise, for “Cairo, IL” is a big reason why I decided to finally listen to Puxico. The gorgeous ballad, a tribute to a long abandoned ghost town, is considered one of the best country songs released this year:

All the fields are flooded up to Highway 51

Illinois is coming ’cross the bridge where the Old Ohio was

Don’t look away, it will be gone

 

Kentucky and Missouri, a trinity of states

Nothing’s in a hurry ’cept the water in between the rising banks

Oh nothing moves but nothing stays

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

 

She used to be a beauty back in 1891

After Fort Defiance, now she’s weathered by the river and the sun

She’s still around but she is gone

 

Where the longing for the leaving and the welcome-home receiving join

Still I’ll keep driving past the ghost of Cairo, Illinois

The lyric is simple, and the song itself is very quiet, but the hook does pack a nice punch. I probably enjoy “Ferris Wheel,” a track Faith Hill recently featured in her Instagram Stories when Hemby was scheduled to open up for her and Tim McGraw on a recent Soul2Soul tour stop, even more. The steel-drenched ballad, which has a lovely and inviting melody, is far and away my favorite track on the album.

On the whole, Puxico is a very strong album and a wonderful introduction to Hemby and her personal style. I just found it to be a bit too sing-song-y in places and some of the songs could’ve been more complex. I kept comparing her, in my head, to Kacey Musgraves, which I’m having a hard time shaking.

But, that being said, this is an album well-worth checking out.

Grade: B+

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Album Review: Miranda Lambert – ‘Weight Of These Wings’

the-weight-of-these-wingsMiranda Lambert lost her crown as Female Vocalist of the Year at this year’s CMA awards. Listening to her new double album, I wonder if she is consciously moving beyond the genre. Even by today’s standards this sounds more like an Americana or alt-country record to me than a country one. Produced by Frank Liddell, Glenn Worf and Eric Masse, it is too often loaded with reverb and echo-ey production that is a long way from Nashville, particularly on the first of the two discs. As a country fan I’m disappointed, as the songwriting is strong and shows Miranda really developing artistically in this collection of songs reportedly inspired by her recent divorce.

‘Runnin’ Just In Case’, written with Gwen Sebastian, is a case in point: an interesting song about a restless soul beginning to regret her rootlessness just a little:

What I lost in Louisiana I found in Alabama
But nobody ever taught me how to stay
It ain’t love that I’m chasin’
But I’m running just in case

I ain’t unpacked my suitcase since the day that I turned 21
It’s been a long 10 years since then
It’s getting kind of cumbersome

‘Ugly Lights’ (written with Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose), is a nicely observed song about the morning-after drinking away the protagonist’s troubles, with a touch of self deprecating humor as she does the ‘Monday morning drive of shame’ picking up her car from the bar. ‘Use My Heart’, which Miranda wrote with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne, is a downbeat tune about the aftermath of a broken heart.

But good as these songs are, the arrangements and production simply don’t sound like they belong on a country album.

‘We Should Be Friends’, written by Miranda solo, is a fun song about female friendship and bonding over shared experience. The subdued ‘Getaway Driver’, written with Miranda’s new boyfriend Anderson East and old friend Natalie Hemby, is quite a good song about a pair of lovers on the run, written from the man’s viewpoint. In the lead single ‘Vice’, written with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne, the protagonist is defiant about her sins.

Love song ‘Pushin’ Time’ (reportedly about her new romance) was okay but not very interesting. I didn’t much care for the perky ‘Highway Vagabonds’, and hated the noisy mess ‘Covered Wagon. ‘Pink Sunglasses’ was irritating and tuneless. ‘Smoking Jacket’ is boring and overwhelmed by the production. ‘You Wouldn’t Know Me’ was boring.

The production on side 2 is generally more bearable, and the songs less commercial.

My favorite tracks is ‘To Learn Her’, which has a pretty melody and sweet lyric about love and loss, which Miranda wrote with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne. It is the most country the album gets, and is a pleasure. ‘Tin Man’ is a delicately subdued tune about the pain of knowing love and heartbreak which Miranda wrote with Jon Randall and Jack Ingram.

The mid-tempo ‘Good Ol’ Days’ (a co-write with Brent Cobb and Adam Hood) is pretty good. The sunny ‘For The Birds’ is reminiscent of Kacey Musgraves. The ode in celebration of a Southern ‘Tomboy’ also reminded me of Musgraves. The wearied, gentle ‘Well-Rested’ is another nod to her split from Shelton.

In ‘Keeper Of The Flame’, written with Hemby and Liz Rose , she places herself as representative of a tradition of singer-songwriters, although without dropping any names or reflecting any specific tradition. ‘Dear Old Sun’ is rather boring, but perhaps on purpose as it is about surviving depression; less intentional is the fact that the backing vocals do not sound to be in tune.

In ‘Things That Break’ (written with Jon Randall’s wife Jessi Alexander and Natalie Hemby), Miranda reflects on a propensity for accident. The rocky ‘Bad Boy’ is less effective despite some perceptive lines, while ‘Six Degrees Of Separation’ is another muddy mess.

If much of the record is dominated conceptually by the experience of Miranda’s divorce, by the final track she is optimistic:

Sometimes these wheels
Get a little heavy
I can’t stay between the lines but I’m rockin’ steady
When I can’t fly
I start to fall
But I’ve got wheels
I’m rollin’ on

This is the kind of album it’s hard to assign a grade to. The songwriting is of a very high quality, really showing Lambert coming into her own as a mature artist. But the production choices are just not enjoyable for me.

Grade: B+

Jonathan Pappalardo’s Favorite Singles of 2014

When looking back, 2014 will be remembered as the year country music morphed into the biggest radio format in the land while pondering to never ending bro-country schlock and diminishing the efforts of solo female artists not named Miranda or Carrie. The genre also lost its biggest star, Taylor Swift, to world domination.

But I’ll remember a statistic far more puzzling. In the eighteen years I’ve been following the genre, I’ve never witnessed this big a turnover at the top of the Billboard Country Singles chart. How is it that seemingly every new male artist, either solo or in a group/duo, seems to be notching number one hits out of the gate? Everyone from Cole Swindell, Thomas Rhett, Sam Hunt, Parmalee, and Maddie & Tae are routinely racking up chart topping singles without having to fight for their chance to land on playlists. Watching the Billboard Country Airplay chart these days has become more than ridiculous.

My choices, as usual, prove radio doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface in the story of quality country music in 2014. I’ll say this until I’m blue in the face, but if you know where to look (Americana) the goods are definitely there.

Nickel-Creek-Destination10. Destination – Nickel Creek

After nine years of flexing their individual creative muscles, Sara Watkins, Sean Watkins, and Chris Thile reunited to celebrate Nickel Creek’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The time apart has only made them a stronger unit together, which boosts well for this plucky romp led by Sara’s wailing lead vocal. She’s done with her man and leaves no doubt she’s moving on to bigger and better things.

9. Frankie Please – Rodney Crowell

519z2FHhvCL._SL500_AA280_Leave it to Crowell to have the strongest opening line to any song in recent memory – ‘You tore through my life like a tornado looking for a trailer park.’ The blistering lead single from Tarpaper Sky only gets better from there, led by distinctive electric guitar and Crowell’s brilliant lyric. After 38 years in the business he proves he’s still on top of his game with no signs of slowing down.

8. I’ll Be There In The Morning – Don Williams

2468428_20140212162413_199149415The reason it’s so difficult to write an authentic love song is because the imagery has become so overdone, it borders on disingenuous parody. Simple sentiments like “You complete me” or the straightforward “I love you” have become so commonplace in our society, they mean almost nothing anymore.

Don Williams and producer Garth Fundis smartly avoid those trappings by looking forty-six years in the past and resurrecting Townes Van Zant’s elegant promise to his woman – no matter what trials and tribulations may arise on our journey, I’ll be next to you each time the sun rises to greet another day. A woman couldn’t ask more from her man and we couldn’t ask more from Williams, who imparts this wisdom as a man of seventy-five reflecting on the devotion of long-lasting love.

 7. Say You Do – Dierks Bentley

dierks-bentley-say-you-do-singleFinally back to form, Bentley leaves alcohol and frat parties in the dust for a melancholy ballad about a man pleading with the woman who won’t commit to their relationship, even after he begs her to ‘let those words roll off your tongue.’ He’s willing to do whatever it takes – buy her drinks, force her to lie, heck he wants her to lead him on – but she just won’t budge. Bentley hasn’t been this satisfying in years.

 6. Talladega – Eric Church

PrintAn epic ballad about the bonds of friendship set over a weekend at an empty NASCAR track, “Talladega” expertly illustrates Church’s storytelling prowess through Jay Joyce’s delicate production. When Church is on, there isn’t a more interesting or enjoyable male country singer scoring major hits today.

5. Meanwhile Back At Mama’s – Tim McGraw Featuring Faith Hill

 Tim-McGraw-Meanwhile-Back-At-MamasYou have to go back seven years to find Tim McGraw’s last truly outstanding single, the military-inspired “If You’re Reading This.” After years of screaming for relevancy he surrenders the fight and returns to form with a gracefully constructed lyric about home and the important role of family in our lives.

4. California – Radney Foster

RF.EISHS-11I couldn’t have willed this song to exist if I tried. ‘Can’t you hear California calling your name? A siren song, once you hear it, you’ll never be the same.’ Those nineteen words sum up exactly how I feel about the Golden State since visiting there repeatedly over the past few years. Foster has composed a stunner – part love story, part tourist battle cry.

600x600 3. The Trailer Song – Kacey Musgraves

 Kacey Musgraves’ genius lies in her ability to craft songs that on the surface seem littered with country clichés but are actually witty commentaries about the state of society as a whole. The two women depicted here may live in a trailer park, but they’re no different than any bickering neighbors setting up lives in suburbia. We all have that nosy neighbor, the one we wish would stay on their side of the fence and keep those damn mini-blinds closed.

2. What We Ain’t Got – Jake Owen

2522282_20140722163600_696746334Even as far back as six years ago, country singers abided by the cardinal rule – balance. For every uptempo ditty, artists would release a slice of substance to give themselves credibility. That concept, thank goodness, hasn’t been lost on Owen. “What We Ain’t Got” is a classic example of the kind of song that would’ve been all over 90s country radio.

Without a dousing of steel, it’s an almost perfect record about humans innate nature to always be searching for something that leaves us only wanting more. The almost non-existent production allows Owen to lay down a powerfully naked vocal that hits the listener like a sermon to the soul. Kudos to Travis Meadows and Travis Jerome Goff for pulling off the near impossible and Owen for driving it home like he should.

1. Automatic – Miranda Lambert

MirandaLambertAutomaticThe lead single from Platinum and CMA Single of the Year winner is without a doubt my favorite single of the year and easily a contender for one of the strongest country singles of the decade. Lambert, Nicolle Galyon, and Natalie Hemby have crafted a brilliant anthem capturing a shining testament to the days before social media, cell phones, and binge-watching overtook our lives.

There’s very little soul left in our modern world, a fact Lambert is thankfully self-aware enough to take to task. Even as a millennial, I’ll be 27 on Dec 31, I’m dying to get back to a time when media had half a brain and country music wasn’t run by rap influenced hooligans shamelessly flaunting their tatted up arms in tight wife beaters. The class is gone and without it, there’s nothing left. Lambert may have tamed her aggression, but she isn’t done standing up for what she believes in.

Single Review: Miranda Lambert Featuring Little Big Town – ‘Smokin’ and Drinkin’

LBT-MirandaBack in 2009, I remember lamenting over the fact Miranda Lambert hadn’t won a CMA Female Vocalist of the Year award. She had just released “White Liar” and while the momentum was just beginning to swing in her direction, I couldn’t understand why she hadn’t yet been given her due.

I most certainly couldn’t have predicted what would come next, the erosion of pure female talent within the mainstream sector of the genre and a recording breaking five consecutive wins. She’s now won the CMA Female Vocalist of the Year trophy every year since Taylor Swift emerged victorious in 2009.

It’s not surprising that as Lambert’s career has reached incredible heights, her output of singles has grown increasingly spotty. Flashes of her brilliance are almost the exception now, whereas they seemed liked the rule when she was making a consistent home for herself in the top fifteen.

Despite a lyric co-written by newly minted CMA Song of the Year recipient Shane McAnally and Lambert favorites Luke Laird and Natalie Hemby, “Smokin’ and Drinkin’” isn’t much of a song. The lyrics rely on repetitiveness; a repetition of the chorus to stretch the thin tune well past the five minute mark.

But even more puzzling is the final recording, which pairs Lambert with Little Big Town. A collaboration between these two should be a cause for celebration, but the listener is left with an indistinguishably watered down version of both artists. If Karen Fairchild hadn’t interjected a few vocal kickbacks at the end, I probably wouldn’t have known Little Big Town were featured on the recording if I didn’t already know going in.

“Smokin’ and Drinkin’” isn’t a terrible song at all. The gorgeously relaxed bluesy production pairs nicely with the blending of vocals, which are perfectly understated for a tune seeking heavy rotation airplay in 2014. Even the message of the song, which condones alcohol and cigarettes (or cigars) as a worthy weekend pursuit, doesn’t turn me off.

I just can’t shake how bland everyone sounds together. A showcase for either the five-time CMA Female Vocalist or three-time CMA Vocal Group this is not. Which is a shame.

Grade: B

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Platinum’

MirandaLambertPlatinumMidway through Miranda Lambert’s new album Platinum comes a jarring exception to the rule as daring as the twin fiddles that opened Lee Ann Womack’s There’s More Where That Came From nine years ago. The one-two punch of a Tom T and Dixie Hall composition coupled with a glorious arrangement by The Time Jumpers has yielding “All That’s Left,” a rare nugget of traditional western swing with Lambert channeling high lonesome Patty Loveless. Besides producing one of the years’ standout recorded moments, “All That’s Left” is a crucial nod to our genre’s heritage, and the fulfillment of the promise Lambert showed while competing on Nashville Star.

Suffice it to say, there’s nothing else on Platinum that equals the brilliance of “All That’s Left,” since Lambert never turns that traditional or naturally twangy again. Instead she opts for a fifteen-slot smorgasbord, mixing country, pop, and rock in an effort to appeal to anyone who may find his or her way to the new music. In lesser hands the record would be an uneven mess, but Lambert is such an expert at crafting albums she can easily pair western swing and arena rock and have it all fit together as smaller parts of a cohesive whole.

The main theme threading through Platinum is one of getting older, whether for purposes of nostalgia, or literally aging. She continues the nostalgia trip she began with fantastic lead single “Automatic” on “Another Sunday In The South” as she recruits Jessi Alexander and fellow Pistol Annie Ashley Monroe to reminisce about the good ‘ol days of 90s country music, among southern signifiers like lazy afternoons and times spent on the front porch. The only worthwhile name check song in recent memory, “Another Sunday” cleverly weaves Restless Heart, Trace Adkins, Pam Tillis, Clint Black, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and song namesake Shenandoah through the lyrics without pandering or sounding cutesy. I only wish she had referenced Diamond Rio and had producer Frank Liddell pepper the track with more of a 90s throwback production, which would’ve fit slightly better than the soft rockish vibe the track was given.

Lambert actually does recapture the Patty Loveless-like twang on “Old Shit,” Brent Cobb and Neil Mason’s love letter to the appealing nature of antiques. The framing technique of using the grandfather and granddaughter relationship coupled with the organic harmonica laced organic arrangement is charming, and while I usually don’t advocate for swearing in country songs, it actually works in this case and seems more appropriate than any of the cleaner words they could’ve used instead.

The aging side of getting older, which Lambert and company began tackling with “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” on Annie Up last year, is far more prevalent a force on Platinum. As has become customary for Lambert, she wrote thumping rocker “Bathroom Sink” solo. The lyric is scathing, detailing scary self-loathing that builds in intensity along with the electric guitars. Lambert’s phrasing is annoying, though; punctuating the rimes so much they begin to sound rudimentary. While true, “Gravity’s a Bitch,” which Lambert co-wrote with Scotty Wray, just doesn’t feel necessary to me. I think being outside the track’s demographic target aids in my assessment, but I do enjoy the decidedly country meets bluesy arrangement.

When the press release for the album said the title track was ‘Taylor Swift pop’ I was admittedly worried, no matter how many times I got down with the dubstep of “I Knew You Were Trouble” or the bubblegum of “22.” Since Max Martin isn’t anywhere near this album, “Platinum” is more “Red” than anything else, and the infamous ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you blonder’ lyric is catchy as hell. Similarly themed and produced “Girls” is just as good, and like “Gravity’s a Bitch,” it’ll appeal quite nicely to the fairer sex.

The rest of Platinum truly defines the smorgasbord aspects of the album, with some conventional and extremely experimental tracks. Lambert co-wrote “Hard Staying Sober” with Natalie Hemby and Luke Laird and it ranks among her finest moments, with the decidedly country production and fabulously honest lyric about a woman who’s no good when her man isn’t present. “Holding On To You,” the closet Lambert comes to crooning a love song, is sonically reminiscent of Vince Gill’s 90s sound but with touches that makes it all her own. While good it’s a little too bland, as is “Babies Making Babies,” which boats a strong opening verse but eventually comes off less clever than it should’ve and not surprising enough for me.

Ever since Revolution, production on Lambert’s albums has to be taken with a grain of salt, which is unfortunately still the case here. I’m betting, more than anything since Brandy Clark and Lambert co-wrote it together with Heather Little, that “Too Rings Shy” has a strong lyric underneath the unlistenable production that found Lambert asking her production team to go out and lyrically record circus noises. It’s a shame they couldn’t make this work, since they pulled it off with Randy Scruggs reading the Oklahoma Farm Report in the background of “Easy Living” on Four The Record. There’s just no excuse why the track had to be mixed this intrusively.

Polarizing more than anything else is Lambert’s cover of Audra Mae’s “Little Red Wagon,” which I only understood after listening to Mae’s original version. Given that it’s a duet with Little Big Town, I know most everyone expected more from “Smokin’ and Drinkin,’ and I understand why (the approach isn’t traditional), but I really like the lyric and production, making the overall vibe work really well for me. The same is true about “Something Bad,” which isn’t a great song, but works because of the beat, and interplay between Lambert and Carrie Underwood. The two, even on a marginalized number like this one by Chris DeStefano, Brett James, and Priscilla Renea, sound extremely good together.

Nicolle Galyon and Jimmy Robbins teamed up with Hemby to write the album’s most important track, a love letter Lambert sings to Priscilla Presley. While the concept is questionable on paper, the results are a revelation and give Lambert a chance to directly address what she’s been going through since her husband’s career skyrocketed on The Voice. At a time when most artists of Lambert’s caliber are shying away from singing what they’re going through, Lambert is attacking her rise in celebrity head on with a clever lyric, interesting beat, and an all around engaging execution that makes “Priscilla” this album’s “Mama’s Broken Heart.”

Even without the added punch of co-writes with her fellow Nashville Star contestant Travis Howard or the inclusion of a bunch of artistic covers from the pens of Gillan Welch, Allison Moorer, Carline Carter, and others – Platinum ranks high in Lambert’s catalog. She’s gotten more introspective as she’s aged but instead of coasting on past success or suppressing her voice in favor of fitting in or pleasing people, she remains as sharp as ever tackling topics her closest contemporaries wouldn’t even touch. I didn’t care for this project on first listen, but now that I completely understand where she’s coming from, I’m fully on board. All that’s left is my desire she go even more country in her sound, but Platinum wouldn’t be a Miranda Lambert record without the added touch of Rock & Roll.

Grade: A

Single Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Automatic’

Miranda-Lambert-GotCountryOnlineIn the monologue preceding “Young Love” on Her Story: Scenes From A Lifetime, Wynonna articulated that Judd music “Reflected a much sweeter and simpler time” where the pace was slower and face-to-face human connection was the lay of the land. Twenty-five years after that seminal classic, Miranda Lambert is yearning to return there, pondering a life “before everything became automatic.”

Unlike Paul Kennerley and Kent Robbins sweeping epic, Lambert relies on a laundry list of nostalgic signifiers (The United States Postal Service, Rand McNally Atlases, pay phones, pocket watches, etc) to tell her story. Instead of helping make her case, though, they weigh down the track with sentiment and lack her distinctive personality.

Thankfully the chorus is fantastic, with a message that proves all too true:

Hey whatever happened to, waitin’ your turn

Doing it all by hand, cause when everything is handed to you

It’s only worth as much as the time you put in

It all just seems so good the way we had it

Back before everything became, automatic

Lambert’s vocal is also sincere so the listener does invest in what she’s signing, which is kind of rare these days. The production is a bit muffled and should’ve been littered in steel and fiddle, which would’ve helped the track immensely. But from the end result, it’s clear “Automatic” has good bones.

The track could’ve been shockingly great, if Lambert stripped away the generalities and wrote solely from personal experience, like Rosanne Cash did on The River & The Thread. But it’s a step above most of mainstream country and that counts for a lot in the current climate.

Grade: B 

Songwriters: Miranda Lambert, Natalie Hemby, Nicolle Galyon 

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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 

Album Review: Kellie Pickler – ‘100 Proof’

For some years, former American idol contestant Kellie Pickler has been saying encouraging things about her interpretation of country music, but not backing them up with her music, with her first two albums being somewhat over-produced pop-country efforts with average material and processed vocals. At last she has come through with something really worth hearing. She has obviously worked on her singing as well, and makes the most of a voice which is nice enough but not outstanding. Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten support her vocals infinitely better than her previous producers. There is a lot of variety in tempos and styles here, ranging from very traditional to more contemporary but recognisably country.

The voice and artistry of one of my favourite current songwriters, Leslie Satcher, underpin the vision of this record. She wrote or co-wrote five of the eleven tracks, including the first two singles, and anyone familiar with her own excellent records will recognise the style here. Underperforming lead single ‘Tough’, written especially for Kellie, about a rough-edged girl, has an energetic beat and I would have expected it to do better than a #30 peak, which is an ominous sign for the commercial prospects of this project, but despite its pedigree it is one of the less stellar songs. The title track and current single ‘100 Proof’ is a tender love ballad with a pretty tune, written by Satcher with James T Slater. The protagonist compares her own experience of true happiness with those she sees in a bad relationship.

The best of Satcher’s compositions here is ‘Where’s Tammy Wynette’ which opens the set. It is an excellent, pure country song, written by Satcher with Jimmy Ritchey and Don Poythress, from the point of view of the lonely wife of a man “torn between neon lights and home”, and searching for wisdom in Tammy’s music. On this track in particular Kellie’s vocal inflections are highly reminiscent of writer Leslie Satcher’s stylings. Leslie co-wrote a couple of the songs with Kellie. The rhythmic banjo-led ‘Unlock That Honky Tonk’ is pretty good, and sung with aggressive attack once more reminiscent of Satcher, with ex-SteelDriver Chris Stapleton’s backing vocals evident. However, the ballad ‘Turn On The Radio And Dance’, while not unpleasant, is forgettable filler.

Kellie also had the opportunity to co-write with Dean Dillon (another of my favourite writers) and Dale Dodson; this threeway partnership produced a bruised reflection on the end of a love affair , where she says she’ll be alright ‘Long As I Never See You Again’. This is a fine, downbeat song which grows on repeat listening. They also worked together on the therapeutic In ‘The Letter (To Daddy)’, an incredibly personal open letter to Kellie’s father, whose addiction-fueled crimes led him to spend most of his daughter’s childhood in prison, but, according to this song, has found sobriety. This is rather touching and definitely a highlight.

She has addressed her difficult family background before, with her early single ‘I Wonder’, addressed to the mother who, unable to cope, abandoned her to the care of her grandparents, and those emotions are revisited here. ‘Mother’s Day’, written by Kellie with her husband, Kyle Jacobs, is gentle and rueful as she broods on the absence of her mother from her childhood, and speculates about becoming a mother herself. To be perfectly honest, although this is a more mature reflection, delivered with a delicate vulnerability which shows the pain of that early abandonment has still not left Kellie, the song is not as emotionally immediate as the emotionally rawer ‘I Wonder’ on her debut album.

She also contemplates babies in the not-too-distant future in ‘Rockaway (The Rockin’ Chair Song)’, a pleasant and more contemporary sounding song about domestic happiness which she wrote with Brent Cobb and Barry Dean, and which one assumes is addressed to Jacobs. It’s quite a slight song, but is soothing and attractively melodic.

My favourite song by far is the fantastic and very traditional country ‘Stop Cheatin’ On Me’, written by Chris Stapleton, his wife Morgane Hayes, and Liz Rose. Paul Franklin’s steel slides under Kellie’s deceptively sweet vocal, as the lyric pays off with an ultimatum:

Stop cheatin’ on me – or I’ll start cheatin’ on you

This would have been a smash hit in the 70s. Today’s country radio wouldn’t touch it, which is a sad indictment.

I also enjoyed the upbeat ‘Little House On The Highway’, written by Rodney Clawson and Natalie Hemby, about the traveling life.

Overall, this was a surprisingly enjoyable release from an artist for whom my expectations were limited. I hope it does well for her.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Miranda Lambert – ‘Four The Record’

Miranda Lambert is by and large my favorite contemporary female artist because of her intrinsic ability to blend both the artistic and commercial sensibilities of country music on her records. She appeals to country radio with singles ready for heavy rotation yet restrains from populating her albums with gutless filler like her fellow artists.

Four The Record was recorded in six days, the week following her wedding to Blake Shelton.  Sessions began at 10am and lasted until midnight each day. Lambert has said she likes getting into a vibe and hunkering down to complete a record. This technique works in her favor, making the album every bit as cohesive as diverse. Plus, she’s using it to further her individuality. It sounds like nothing else coming out of Nashville right now and the uniqueness sets her apart from her peers.

Lambert is also a prime example of the quintessential songwriter. She knows how to write a killer song yet has a knack for selecting outside material from some of the most unique and interesting songwriters. Its one reason why listening to a Lambert album is such a joy. Four The Record features many such moments from Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings gorgeous “Look at Miss Ohio” to Brandi Carlile’s folksy “Same Out You.”

I love the Welch/Rawlings ballad for it’s captivating story. Lambert has a way of making everything she sings sound interesting and she succeeds here. The air of mystery holds together the brilliant lyric – she’s running around with her ragtop down to escape the pressures of getting married. She’s fleeing her obligations to do the right thing, yet we never really know why she’s bolting to Atlanta. She’s reclaiming her independence but not without the guilt of what she’s leaving behind. It’s a story song for the ages, made even more appealing by the understated production and backing vocals by Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town.

“Same Old You,” another understated winner, fell into Lambert’s lap after Carlile felt she couldn’t sell it like Lambert. I love the folksy vibe of the production here – the gentle strum of the lead guitar sets it apart from the rest of the album. But what brings the song to new heights is the Loretta Lynn-like quality of Carlile’s lyric. (Lynn is the common dominator the bonds Lambert’s friendship with Carlile). It’s refreshing when the narrator finally sees what’s in front of her – that no matter what day of the week, he’s just the same old person and he’s never going to change. When Lambert sings about how hurt his mama’s going to be when she finds out there won’t be any wedding to cap off this relationship, it shows her maturity. I like how she’s drawn to songs that bring new depths to her feistiness. She’s every bit the same woman, but doesn’t have to resort to killing off her man to prove it.

Another track to display this growth is Don Henry and Phillip Coleman’s “All Kinds of Kinds.” A sweeping ballad about diversity, it not only defines the link binding all the songs together, but spins a unique angle on acceptance. The beautiful flourishes of Dobro give the song a soft quality I find appealing and the metaphor of circus acts as a means of driving home the main point showcases the songwriters’ cleverness in crafting their story.  Read more of this post

Album Review: ‘Country Strong’ soundtrack

The newest country-themed film, Country Strong is due out next January, with an early release just before Christmas in Nashville and LA. The music is much more mainstream than it was in Crazy Heart, the last such movie, and indeed two singles are currently in the lower reaches of the country charts. The tracks are all new recordings, some from actors in the film, others from a selection of country artists. A variety of producers have been used, and the music ranges from traditional to pop country.

Actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays a successful country singer in the movie, sings four of the songs. Her singing is perfectly competent, if a little colorless; it’s hard to say without seeing the film whether this is in character with the part she’s playing. The theme tune is one of the two radio singles. It’s a pleasant enough generic contemporary song, produced by Byron Gallimore, which makes it perfectly convincing as a hit single. Vince Gill and Patty Loveless sing backing vocals but are too far back in the mix to be heard. ‘Coming Home’ is a rather boring and awkwardly phrased pop-country ballad written by Bob DiPiero, Tom Douglas, Hillary Lindsey and Troy Verges, and drowned in strings. Gwyneth rocks out Gretchen Wilson-style in ‘Shake That Thing’ (written by Mark Irwin, Josh Kear and Chris Tompkins), and while this is yelled and tuneless, it should be pretty convincing in the context of the movie. She duets with Tim McGraw (who also has a role in the film) on the breakup-themed rock ballad ‘Me And Tennessee’, written by Paltrow’s real-life rock star husband Chris Martin, who also plays acoustic guitar on the track.

Oddly, McGraw does not get any solo cuts here; maybe Curb wouldn’t allow it. Starlet Leighton Meester (best known for her TV role in Gossip Girl) covers a Rascal Flatts song, ‘Words I Couldn’t Say’, which is less histrionic than the original, but not particularly interesting, and Leighton’s vocals sound rather processed and like a slightly more tuneful Taylor Swift. The best of the actors’ songs is the gruff-voiced Garrett Hedlund who is very effective on ‘Chances Are’, a very good song written by Nathan Chapman, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose, and produced by Frank Liddell and Luke Wooten. I understand Hedlund’s role is as a singer-songwriter, and he certainly sounds the part here on this drawled, half-rueful confession of a man’s inadequacies:

I used to give a damn
I used to try real hard but I’ll give in tonight, chances are
One foot on the narrow way and one foot on the ledge
Sifting through the devil’s lies for what the Good Book says
If I’m going anywhere
I’ll probably go too far
Probably away from you, chances are

This track was the real surprise package on this record.

Country fans will be most interested in the new tracks from established artists. We’ve already heard Sara Evans’ latest single, ‘A Little Bit Stronger’, a pleasant but rather bland positive ballad about coping with adversity, which has grown on me since it was first released as the lead single for both this album and Sara’s long-awaited next solo album (said to be entitled Stronger and possibly now due early next year). Her voice at least sounds lovely on this Tony Brown-produced and Luke Laird/Hillary Lindsey/Hillary Scott-penned number. Like Sara, Faith Hill has been silent for some time, and returns here with a forgettable AC-leaning ballad, ‘Give In To Me’, produced by Jay Joyce, which is soothing and sounds as though it will be background music for a love scene, and goes on a bit too long.

Chris Young and Patty Loveless team up on a duet written by Marv Green and Troy Olsen, and was produced by James Stroud, which must have been the original theme song. ‘Love Don’t Let Me Down’ was the original title for the movie, and it is a decent song, but not a particularly memorable one. It feels like a waste of this pairing of two of the best voices in country music. Trace Adkins reminds us he really can sing well on the reflective Natalie Hemby/Troy Jones song ‘Timing Is Everything’. Nicely produced by Kenny Beard with some lovely fiddle from Larry Franklin, this fine song about the role of chance in our lives is sensitively interpreted by Trace, and rather better than most of the material on his current album.

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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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