My Kind of Country

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Tag Archives: Nathan Chapman

Album Review: Martina McBride – ‘Reckless’

71DYXrOa+jL._SX522_Martina McBride has been suffering from a bad case of the dulls for about a decade now. 2005’s Timeless was her last worthwhile effort and I have to admit that I pretty much wrote her off after that. The mere fact that we’ve waited a full month to review her latest album is a testimony to how low our expectations were. In fairness, though, the new album is an improvement over all of her recent output, albeit only slightly.

Reckless — a rather tame and subdued affair despite its title — is her debut release for the recently formed Nash Icon Records. The imprint, a joint venture between Big Machine and Cumulus Media, was formed to give a home to veteran artists so that they no longer had to compete with newer acts for radio airplay. The idea was to create a new radio format for these displaced veterans, and to give them the artistic freedom to record what they wanted without having to worry about chasing the latest trends. The problem is that the radio format never really took off and none of the artists on the Nash Icon roster seem to be doing anything differently from before. McBride partnered up with producers Nathan Chapman and Dann Huff, which pretty much guaranteed that nothing new,innovative or very country-sounding was going to result.

Reckless does contain a handful of decent songs, which are unfortunately ruined by heavy-handed, synthesizer-laden production. In its better moments it is somewhat reminiscent of Evolution, which remains one of my favorite McBride albums, but even those moments don’t quite reach the lofty heights of that 1997 masterpiece. The title track, which serve as the album’s first single, gets the album off to a good start. It’s a catchy number that I really like; I just wish the intrusive background vocals had been left off. “Low All Afternoon”, my favorite track, is a very nice ballad about “the other woman” who comes out on the losing side when she forces her lover to choose between her and his fiancee. It features a nice steel guitar solo, but like “Reckless”, it is marred by “oohing and ahhing” background vocals. “The Real Thing” is a better than average “laundry list” song, on which guest Buddy Miller’s harmony vocals are drowned out by the overly loud electric guitars. “We’ll Pick Up Where We Left Off” is one of the album’s quieter selections. It’s a decent song, again marred by the background vocals and annoying handclaps. The closing track “You and You Alone” is torchy and totally non-country piano ballad that nicely showcases Martina’s beautiful vocals.

The rest of the album, including “Diamond”, featuring the always boring Keith Urban, is not worth mentioning in any great detail.

Reckless exceeded my admittedly low expectations. It’s more AC than country and not particularly interesting but it’s still better than anything Martina has released in quite a long time.

Grade: B-

Album Review – The Band Perry – ‘Pioneer’

“Daddy rocked us to sleep with the Rolling Stones; Mama woke us up with Loretta Lynn. So we get it honest” – Kimberly Perry

300999_laIt’s no secret that “If I Die Young” is one of my favorite singles of this decade, no matter how much airplay it receives. Nathan Chapman’s simple production combined with Kimberly’s sweet vocal is an irresistible combination, difficult for me to resist.

So about a year ago now, I was thrilled when The Band Perry announced they’d be working with Rick Rubin on their sophomore album. The veteran producer who famously resurrected Johnny Cash’s career in the final two decades of life, he also produced the final Dixie Chick record Taking The Long Way, possibly my favorite album from them. In addition, they expressed their intent to work with songwriting genius (and Semisonic front man) Dan Wilson based on his involvement with “Someone Like You” and “Don’t You Remember” from Adele’s 21 (He also had a lot to do with the genius of the Chicks’ album). The Perry siblings even spoke openly of their love for those two songs, which made me very excited, as I love them, too.

So, what the heck went so horribly wrong? Well, it seems like the their label had other ideas. Kimberly has explained that Rubin “in his current incarnation” is a minimalist, but “we also knew that to accommodate all of the goals that we had, the best producer was Dann Huff.” One can assume, reading between the PR fog, that Republic Nashville didn’t approve of Rubin’s artistry, and wanted the band to go with a producer that would keep them firmly within the good graces of country radio. In other words, an intelligently articulate record wouldn’t be supported in today’s Nashville in the same ways an overproduced Huff-led record would.

And is Pioneer ever overproduced. Huff works his usual magic, suffocating the songs until they are one click away from needing life support. The rock production has even affected Kimberly’s voice, the band’s crowning instrument, which is now sadly showing the wear of extreme overuse. I wasn’t expecting to hear such breathy vocals from her, and like Carrie Underwood’s newly acquired rasp, it’s kind of sad. What ever happened to simply singing?

Pioneer is what happens when country music becomes too commercial. Every aspect of the product is grossly overdone in an attempt to appeal to the arena and stadium crowd, and while the songs may work well live; they fail as a listening experience on an album. Luckily, though, this isn’t the atrocious mess it could’ve been and they did find (and write) some decent songs, even if nothing here lives up to the singles from their debut.

I quite like “Don’t Let Me Be Lonely,” despite the somewhat muffled production and “I Saw The Light” is possibly my favorite song on the whole project. The title track is as folksy as they seem to get, and “Back To Me Without You” is nicely restrained although it gets a bit power ballad-y by the end. I don’t have a huge issue with thick production at all when it’s done correctly (here’s looking at you, Eric Church). Huff’s style actually works well on “Forever Mine Nevermind,” which has noticeable country elements in the choral melody.

I’m also enjoying the tender “Mother Like Mine,” which the trio wrote as a declaration of what the world would look like if everyone had been raised by their mom:

So the wars would all be over

‘Cause she’d raise us all as friends

And no one would ever wonder if somebody wanted them

We’d walk on grass that’s greener

And our cares would all be freer

If the world had a mother like mine

The no wars line is a bit predictable, and Kimberly’s vocal shows the wear of shouting too much on stage, but overall it’s a very touching song that would work well as a single. Their southern gothic tribute “End of Time” isn’t as revelatory as I would’ve liked, but it’s probably closest to the sound on their debut. “Night Gone Wasted” is a mess in this form, but I can hear the honky-tonk elements beneath all the noise, especially on the chorus. If any song ever called for an acoustic makeover, this would be it.

The rest is just plain dreck. I do get why some would praise “Chainsaw” for being a country romp, but it sounds to me like something Huff would’ve done with Rascal Flatts circa 2004. There’s just nothing new in the production to peak my interest. The lyric is typical Band Perry but the melody sounds very dated. Even the Target exclusive tracks are marred by unintelligent choices in both vocals and production, and can hardly be appreciated for the quality songs they probably are.

To call me disappointed in Pioneer would be an understatement. I’m thankful this isn’t an obvious clichéd attempt at commercialism, but this record could’ve been and deserved to be so much more. The songs are there but you wouldn’t know it based on all the distracting elements hindering overall enjoyment. Pioneer will rightfully get The Band Perry to that next level they so deserve to ascend to, but it comes at far too big a price for the fans that loved the simplicity of their debut. Hopefully, they’ll be able to find a happy medium next time.

Grade: C+  

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.

Single Review – The Band Perry – ‘Postcards From Paris’

Since their debut in late 2009, The Band Perry have made their mark on country music – the brothers and a sister trio have racked up a couple number one hits (“If I Die Young” and “All Your Life”) a #2 (“You Lie”) and an all but forgotten top 20 (“Hip To My Heart”) while keeping the instrumentation decidedly country, a foreign concept to many of their contemporaries. Their latest single, the fifth from their self-titled debut, follows perfectly in that trend.

Written by the trio, Kara DioGuardi and Jeff Cohen, “Postcards From Paris” is the tune they couldn’t leave as an album cut even though their label wanted to move to their sophomore album. The release is a smart move, though, as “Postcards” is the perfect song to help bring them to the next level of superstardom and like others have stated, is one of the strongest lyrics on their record.

It also doesn’t hurt that producers Nathan Chapman and Paul Worley strike the ideal balance between old school country and new age country-rock with the blended production. The fiddle hasn’t sounded this good on any single thus far in 2012, and the punchy drums at the end of the chorus extenuate Kimberly’s anger perfectly, all while giving the song enough of a kick to keep the modern bent alive.

But it’s the offbeat lyrical content, quickly becoming The Band Perry’s signature quirk, which really helps sell the song. “Postcards” is, on the onset, a simple story of newly found love until you realize she’s with the wrong man:

I was with my boyfriend, a new boyfriend

He was as sweet as he could be

One look at you and I was through

My heart switched up on me

Like any great song, the emotions of being with the wrong person are fully flushed out – every decision she’s made is now coming into question, as though the universe got it backwards and her diamond ring was actually a fake. Now that she feels she’s supposed to be with someone else, the protagonist can’t help but let out her primal scream (accompanied by those well-placed drums) – And now I’m ruined, I’m ruined.

And it’s that twisty angst element that’s helped to form the trio’s sound and thusly helped them emerge as one of the most exciting acts having hits right now. So far each one of their hit singles has had a tinge of darkness to it. For them, it isn’t enough to sing a simple love song. Kimberly always has to be ruined when a better catch comes along or obsessed with the person who doesn’t notice her. With her gorgeous and tantalizing twang; she pulls off each character with the ease of a singer with twice as much life experience.

Like all their hits, “Postcards From Paris” proves that by singing material that digs far deeper than the average mailed-in fluff, The Band Perry are creating a rich listening experience that deserves further cultivation in the years to come. Their songs aren’t perfect yet, but with time, I have no doubt they’ll get there.

Grade: A

Single Review: Shania Twain – ‘Today Is Your Day’

Owning up to a strong affinity for the music of Shania Twain is counted as blasphemy in some circles, particularly to those whose affection for country music’s variety is limited to the more traditional, conventional sounds of the genre.  I’m not one of those.  I’ve always been of the mindset that, when it’s packaged just right, any sub-genre of country music (and just about all forms of music for that matter) can be just as satisfying as the seminole stone-country weeper.  Twain’s bouncy melodies, cleverly biting female perspective on a man’s thinking, and the general playfulness exhibited in even her ballads allowed the Canadian singer to soar to heights even Garth Brooks thought unreachable as she became the first global superstar of country music with hits like “You’re Still The One”, “That Don’t Impress Me Much”, and “Man! I Feel Like A Woman!”.  Propelled not only by her own no-holds-barred approach to songwriting, Twain saw her star rise higher and higher as a result of the snap, crackle, and pop of the genius production from ex-husband Mutt Lange.

On her first new single since 2005, the production team of David Foster and Nathan Chapman either lack the direction or the plain know-how when it comes to flattering Twain’s strong vocal performance. They’ve added distortion to her confident performance and a slathering of unnecessary harmony singers that work to drown out the classy piano lead track that drives this ‘seize-the-day’ ballad.  Lyrically, “Today” isn’t a far stretch from Twain’s self-empowerment turn of phrase hooks.  The biggest difference here is the attitude from which she’s approaching songwriting, at least on this single-only track.  Her sometimes bawdy, sometimes sentimental, always valiant and entertaining persona has been swapped out by a woman who’s shaky and unsure, and is evidenced by the platitudes-for-living message and the straightforward approach to recording.

It’s a scary thought to think that a seemingly unshakable personality like Twain’s can be so affected by a personal affliction that she has lost all the spunk, drive, and tenacity that so characterized her best-loved hits.  I can still hear flashes of the old Shania here; the melody to this song has that uplifting earworm quality and I applaud her sticking with the pop-flavored sound that works for her so well.  It would have been a lot easier to ride the trends, to country things up, take out the pointless vocal distortions and cater to country radio.  But Shania Twain is not a caterer.  You have to come to her house if you want to eat.  I think I’ll skip this course though, and hold out hope this is another form of venting for her.  Soon, she’ll be back in the kitchen, cooking us up something hot and delicious.  I’ll have my fingers crossed and napkin folded.

Grade: C

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Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘Stronger’

In the nearly six years since her last full-length studio release, Sara Evans has been divorced and remarried, appeared on Dancing With The Stars, written a novel, and struggled to stay alive commercially, in a radio environment that has been increasingly indifferent to female artists, particularly ones who are not blonde and under 30. Her career finally seems to be getting back on track, thanks to the success of her current single “A Little Bit Stronger”, which, thanks to its inclusion on the Country Strong soundtrack, has provided Sara with her first Top 20 hit since 2007’s “As If.”

Most of Sara’s recent singles have underperformed on the charts, and in her search for a style that radio would accept, her music seemed to be a bit unfocused. Regular readers will recall that I wasn’t terribly impressed with “A Little Bit Stronger” when I reviewed it back in September. As a result, I had some misgivings about her album. Originally slated for release in 2009, the album was delayed twice, and finally saw the light of day this week. Unfortunately, my misgivings have proven to have been well founded.

To a large extent, Stronger is the victim of poor production choices. Four tracks were produced by Sara with Nathan Chapman, another five were produced by Tony Brown, and one (“Wildfire”) was produced by Marti Fredericksen. Many of the songs such as “Desperately”, “Wildfire”, and “Life Without Losing” start out promising, but by the end of the first verse each falls prey to generic, occasionally bombastic production and over-processed vocals with too much reverb. None of the songs on the album are strong enough to overcome the production missteps. Particularly disappointing is “What That Drink Cost Me”, a beautifully written and performed song that I’ve been looking forward to hearing ever since a live version appeared on YouTube a year or so ago. Based on the live performance, I was expecting a traditional country weeper, but Evans’ and Nathan Chapman’s slick production drains most of the heart and soul out of it. That being said, it is the best song on the album, along with “Alone”, which is a standout ballad that deserves to be released as a single.

Closing out the album is an unnecessary remake of Sara’s 2001 hit “Born To Fly”. Billed as a bluegrass version, it doesn’t differ very much from the original other than being entirely acoustic. Though I usually like stripped-down versions, this one sounds too much like a demo recording and only serves to underscore how much better Evans’ music was a decade ago. Considering the length of time that fans have had to wait for a new album from Evans, they deserve more than the meager ten tracks offered up here. The fact that one is a remake of a prior hit is bound to make them feel cheated. The iTunes version does contain a bonus track “Cabana Boy” which is quite good, and should have been swapped with “Born To Fly” for a slot on the physical CD.

Even though my expectations were modest, it’s difficult not be disappointed in this album. Evans and her producers had nearly six years to get it right, and that should have been more than sufficient time to find some more interesting material than they came up with this time around.

Grade:
C-

Stronger is available from major retailers such as Amazon and iTunes.

Something to look forward to

We spent part of last month rounding up the best and worst of 2010. Now we’re into a brand new year, it’s time to start looking forward again, and wondering what the year ahead may hold in store.

Newly crowned CMA Entertainer of the Year Brad Paisley’s This is Country Music has a release date in March, with the lead single already on its way up the charts. Current Arista labelmate Alan Jackson is reportedly considering his future options now that he has fulfilled his obligations to the label, and perhaps we will see him moving to pastures new like Martina McBride and Trace Adkins, although either way I don’t really expect a new album from him this year. Ronnie Dunn has already been into the studios for his contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack, and is working on his solo album. I doubt he can expect Brooks & Dunn levels of success for this, even if he was the voice of the duo’s hits, but I’m looking forward to hearing what he comes up with.

The Sony group has relied on American Idol to pick up new artists with a built-in fanbase for several years; this tie-in has now ended, with the group now planning to be associated with Simon Cowell’s rival X Factor show (launching in the fall), and the Idol link now picked up by the Universal Music Group (country imprints are MCA and Mercury). The most successful of these signings is of course Carrie Underwood, whose pattern of releases to date suggests a new album at the end of 2011. I don’t expect any change in direction from her high-energy pop-based style, but more intriguing are the things Kellie Pickler has been saying about her third album being more firmly rooted in traditional country music. I haven’t been particularly impressed by her music to date, but I’m willing to keep an open mind. The latest Idol alumnus to go country after the show is Texan Casey James, who finished third on last year’s Idol and is now with BNA (as the Casey James Band); his roots seem to be more blues than country but he may be worth watching out for. RCA will be releasing a second album from the previous year’s third place finisher Danny Gokey; his debut sold pretty well but failed to set the radio alight or to connect with more traditional country fans.

RCA has lost one of its superstar acts in the form of Martina McBride. It will be interesting to see what (if any) effect Martina’s move to Republic Nashville has on her music: a determined attempt to regain the limelight following the relative under-performance of her last album and recent singles by appealing to modern radio tastes a la Reba’s recent work, an artistic resurgence, or just more of the same? Sunny Sweeney’s Republic debut is also keenly anticipated.

Sticking with RCA, Sara Evans’s long-delayed new album (originally announced for January 2010) is now due to come out in March, taking its title, Stronger, from her Country Strong cut, which is rising up the charts. Again, we’ll have to wait to see if she is trying to get radio play by concentrating on her pop crossover style, or returning to her country roots. I suspect the former, particularly since she has been working with Taylor Swift’s producer Nathan Chapman. My favorite RCA artist at the moment is Chris Young, and I hope he will be back in the studios this year, as his breakthrough second album was released in September 2009. I feel his material to date has (with a few exceptions) not been worthy of his great voice, and I hope that now he can claim two #1 hits, he can demand the very best of what Nashville’s songwriters have to offer.

Reigning CMA Male and Female Vocalists of the Year Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert have a wedding to plan, but Miranda in particular will be expected to produce a follow-up to her acclaimed 2009 release, Revolution. Blake divided his 2010 output into two “Sixpak” EPs (neither of them very good, the first producing just one single), and it will be interesting to see if he sticks with this template or reverts to a fullscale album in future.

I hope this will be the year Ashton Shepherd finally breaks through commercially. The prolific George Strait tends to release an album a year, so with nothing new in 2010 he is overdue for a new album. Joe Nichols has a Greatest Hits set out soon, so I assume Show Dog Universal has stopped promoting 2009’s Old Things New, and perhaps we can look forward to something new later in the year. But the artist I’m most hoping for new music from is Lee Ann Womack, especially after her stellar contribution to the Country Strong soundtrack.

Over at Curb, it seems that Tim McGraw may finally be out of his contract. LeAnn Rimes’s Vince Gill-produced covers set was supposed to be released last year, but may appear this year, although I’m not inspired by what we’ve heard so far. Heidi Newfield is also supposedly due to have her second solo effort for the label out this year. I’d like to hear more from talented duo Martin Ramey and Star de Azlan, but as it’s Curb I’m not exactly holding my breath in anticipation.

One of my favorite artists, Randy Travis is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his groundbreaking Storms Of Life with his second duets album, the success of which will depend partly on the choice of duet partners. Legends who have new music in the works include Dolly Parton and Charley Pride. And of course, I’m also hoping to hear some great music from new acts.

What are you most looking forward to this year?

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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