My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Phil Spector

Christmas Album Review: Chris Young – ‘It Must Be Christmas’

it-must-be-christmasChris Young has arguably the best voice of any male country singer currently signed to a major label. It’s a shame that of late years his musical choices have been disappointing as he chases commercial success at the expense of artistry. Happily, while his new Christmas album isn’t particularly country, it leans in the direction of, well, traditional Christmas music, rather than the bro-country he has been led astray by before.

Chris’s warm baritone voice is perfectly showcased tenderly crooning ‘The Christmas Song’ and ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’. ‘I’ll Be Home For Christmas’ shoots for the same territory, but I found it just a little dull.

The Phil Spector-penned (i.e. 60s pop) ‘Christmas Baby (Please Come Home)’ is cheery and Christmassy with an arrangement dominated by bells, and surprisingly enjoyable. Chris’s vocal commitment also lifts the lightweight ‘Holy Jolly Christmas’; this gets a brassy arrangement.

The outstanding moment comes with a gorgeous duet with Alan Jackson on the Keith Whitley Christmas classic ‘There’s A New Kid In Town’, which is just lovely. Brad Paisley guests on a nice sincere take on ‘The First Noel’. ‘Silent Night’ has one of the most beautiful melodies of any carol/Christmas tune, and is almost impossible to mess up. Chris sings it beautifully, with 90s R&B boyband Boyz II Men used sparingly to provide ethereal harmonies on the chorus. The end result is extremely effective.

There are two new songs, both co-written by Chris, but frankly neither is particularly memorable. ‘Under The Weather’ is quite a pleasant love song set at Christmas time, but the title track is chock full of clichés.

Production is mostly nicely understated, supporting Young’s excellent vocals. This is an excellent choice to play while entertaining your non-country loving family members this Christmas.

Grade: A


Christmas Album Review: Kacey Musgraves – ‘A Very Kacey Christmas’

a-very-kacey-christmasKacey Musgraves is not the first artist I would have expected to come out with a Christmas album, but here it is. She leans to the jazzy side of Christmas music, with a strong Hawaiian influence and her own quirky take on things – to the point of eccentricity at times. It is also entirely secular.

She opens with ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’, which is quite pleasant but not essential.

The Quebe Sisters provide backing vocals on a playful ‘Let it Snow’ and the Hawaiian ‘Mele Kalimaka’. The bilingual ‘Feliz Navidad’ is prettily sung by Kacey and a male chorus. Much of the album comprises pleasant but easy-to-overlook background music like this, but Kacey pushes the boundaries on other tracks.

She draws on her inner child with the playful, bouncy ‘I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas’ and the standard ‘Rudolph The Reindeer’, which is one of the few recordings where a child chorus is endearing rather than irritating (maybe because the kids don’t seem to have much enthusiasm). Both are great fun. The strangest choice, ‘Christmas Don’t Be Late’ , is better known as ‘The Chipmunk Song’, as recorded by Alvin and the Chipmunks. Kacey sings it apparently quite straight with a childlike quality, and I’m really not sure how far her tongue is in her cheek here.

It leads into the rather less family-friendly ‘A Willie Nice Christmas’, which as you may guess from the title is a holiday-themed tribute to Willie Nelson and his favorite product, featuring guest vocals from the man himself. It is rather charming in its way. Kacey wrote the song with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne.

She, McAnally and Brandy Clark wrote the melancholy ‘Christmas Makes Me Cry’. ‘Present Without A Bow’, a duet with neo-soul singer Leon Bridges about being alone at Christmas, is quite effective vocally, although the song itself isn’t that interesting. The hand-clapping, brassy ‘Ribbons And Bows’ is quite good though not country.

She closes with a languid jazz version of ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve’, which I found rather boring.

I applaud Kacey’s willingness to try something a bit different, but the result isn’t entirely to my taste.

Grade: B-

Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Second Hand Heart’

61TTBEi0Q3LI was singularly unimpressed with Dwight Yoakam’s last album 3 Pears, which I reviewed when it was released in September 2012. The B- rating I gave it seems generous in retrospect. The project was so lackluster that I greeted the release of Yoakam’s new album with some trepidation and didn’t even bother to listen to it until well after a week after I downloaded it.

I’m pleased to report that my fears were totally unfounded, as Second Hand Heart, Dwight’s second album since returning to the Warner Bros. Nashville roster, is infinitely superior to its predecessor. While not as traditional as his 80s and early 90s work, it is more in line with the type of music he was making in the early 2000s, a la Tomorrow’s Sounds Today. Produced by Dwight with Chris Lord-Alge, it is best described as Buck Owens and Johnny Cash meet the Beatles and Phil Spector. The trademark Bakersfield sound is still there — particularly on tracks like “Off Your Mind” and “The Big Time”, but others are more reminiscent of 1960s rock with their emphasis on electric guitars, Wall of Sound-like production, and a little more reverb than I would have liked.

Despite his reputation as a New Traditionalist, Dwight has always pushed the boundaries of country music, so it’s no surprise that there are a variety of musical influences heard on this album. The guitar work on “Dreams of Clay”, a remake of a cut on his 2000 album Tomorrow’s Sounds Today is slightly reminiscent of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” (which Yoakam covered in the early 90s), and as one of the few songs on the album without excess reverb, it’s one of my favorites, along with “Off Your Mind” and the title track. The Beatles influence is most apparent on “She” and “Liar”.

There are only two songs on the album that Dwight did not write — a cover of the traditional “Man of Constant Sorrow” and the beautiful closing track “V’s of Birds”. The former is done as a rockabilly number and doesn’t quite work; I prefer a more traditional “high lonesome” interpretation. The latter, with its piano intro is a pure pop number without the rock influences that pervade the rest of the album. It is very well done and might have been a hit for Dwight earlier in his career. Predictably, the title track and lead single has so far been ignored by radio; however, the album itself is doing quite well, selling 21,000 in its first week and debuting at #2 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It’s Yoakam’s highest charting album since 1988’s Buenos Noches From A Lonely Room and deservedly so. While I would have preferred something a little closer to that 1980s classic, Second Hand Heart is a welcome return to form for one of country music’s most talented and enduring artists.

Grade: A-

Country Heritage: Gail Davies

Gail DaviesDuring the late winter & early spring of 1979, listeners of country radio were treated to the unusual strains of “Someone Is Looking For Someone Like You”. Amidst the clutter of the last vestiges of the Outlaw Movement, the dying gasps of the Nashville Sound and the nascent Urban Cowboy movement, this lilting and beautiful melody was unlike anything else being played. Released on the independent Lifesong label, the song suffered from spotty distribution (which turned into no distribution at all when Lifesong’s distribution deal fell apart) yet made it to #11 on Billboard’s Country Chart. For Gail Davies, this song turned out to be her career breakthrough, leading to a record deal with Warner Brothers.

Gail Davies (originally Patricia Gail Dickerson) was born into a musical family in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, on June 5, 1948. Her father, Tex Dickerson, was a country singer who occasionally appeared on the Louisiana Hayride. When Davies was five, her parents divorced and her mother took her and her two brothers to the Seattle area. At some point, her mother remarried and she and her brothers were adopted by their stepfather, Darby Davies, and took his surname. One of her brothers was Ron Davies, a renown songwriter and performer, who wrote songs that were recorded by such luminaries as David Bowie, Three Dog Night, Joe Cocker, Dave Edmunds, Jerry Jeff Walker and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

After graduating from high school in 1966, Davies moved to Los Angeles where she was briefly married to a jazz musician. After her divorce, she found work as a session singer at A&M studios. While at A&M she was befriended by songwriter Joni Mitchell and A&M recording engineer Henry Lewy who introduced her to the production end of the business, where she was able to sit in on a number of noteworthy recording sessions, including a John Lennon session that was being produced by Phil Spector.

Things moved rapidly for Davies, and by 1974 she was touring with the legendary Roger Miller and made her national television debut as his duet partner in 1974 singing on the Merv Griffin Show. During this period, she began writing songs and signed with EMI Publishing in 1975. Her first major success as a songwriter came when Ava Barber, a regular cast member of television’s Lawrence Welk Show, had a hit single with “Bucket to the South,” which reached #14 in 1978 on the Billboard Country Chart. This led to a contract with CBS/Lifesong Records in 1978 and the release of her first album simply entitled Gail Davies. Read more of this post

Album Review: Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris – ‘Trio’

The 80s saw Emmylou branching out in various ways, but perhaps struggling to find a new direction after Ricky Skaggs left the Hot Band to launch his own solo career. After the tour de force that was Roses In The Snow, she released a couple of albums of out-takes from previous sessions and an album of live recordings (Last Date). After her final album with Brian Ahern, the rock influenced White Shoes (one of her poorer efforts), their marriage broke up. Emmylou found a new path when she married British born songwriter Paul Kennerley, and worked with him on the semi-autobiographical concept album, The Ballad Of Sally Rose, which saw Emmylou co-writing all the songs with her new husband. Neither this album nor its more conventional but equally underrated successor (Thirteen, also produced by Kennerley) was commercially successful.

But if Emmylou’s career had been on a downturn, 1987 saw her greatest achievement commercially, and arguably artistically, with the long awaited Trio project. She had half-formed plans for many years for a trio album with friends Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt, but label conflicts meant there was never the impetus to proceed. Odd tracks appeared on some of their solo albums, others were left to languish in the vaults, but the project as a whole foundered. The mid 80s saw all three ladies at a crossroads of sorts in their acreers, and this record, while conceived as a labor of love, revitalized them all.

It wasn’t quite all acoustic, and some tracks also had string arrangements, but the choice of material and the overall feel is rooted deep in the roots of country music, particularly the side formed in the Appalachians – Dolly’s home territory, and one adopted by Emmylou on Blue Kentucky Girl. It was the strangest territory for Linda, but she was the kind of singer who can sing almost any genre and sound convincing. Producer George Massenberg was an experienced recording enginer without a track record as a producer, but he did a great job.

Emmylou opens proceedings with a crystalline lead vocal on a lovely version of ‘The Pain Of Loving You’, an old Dolly Parton/Porter Wagoner classic which opens the set. She also takes the lead on the one song not taken from the country or folk genres, the Phil Spector song ‘To Know Him Is To Love Him’, given a prettily understated reading which completely transforms the original into a rootsy country song, but retains the core emotion. It was a #1 hit single. She also sings lead on a tasteful setting of the slow sad ‘My Dear Companion’, which sounds as though it could have been written in the Appalachians in the 19th or even 18th century.

Dolly was the biggest star at the time of the album’s release, but through the first two thirds of the 1980s her music had been drifting ever more popwards. She had achieved massive crossover success, but was beginning to alienate country radio and fans. She had left RCA, her longterm label, freeing her to record Trio. She was to make one more attempt at balancing her pop and country careers with the release later in 1987 the very pop and widely derided Rainbow flopping. In 1989 she was to make a definitive return to country with the Ricky Skaggs produced White Limozeen, but I believe the commercial success of Trio paved the way for her comeback.

She wrote one new song for the project, the charming ‘Wildflowers’, a possibly autobiographical song about a free spirit which recalls her music of the early 70s. It reached #6 on the Billboard country singles chart as the final single from the album, proving country radio still loved Dolly when she sang country songs. Her vocals on the classic ‘Making Plans’, a mournful song anticipating the loved one’s departure, work perfectly, and she also sings the sweet traditional ‘Rosewood Casket’ (aranged by her mother). ‘Those Memories Of You’, written by Alan O’Bryant and previously recorded by a pre-fame Pam Tillis, has a high lonesome bluegrass feel, and was a #5 single.

Although never a strictly country singer, Linda Ronstadt had had a number of country hits in the 70s with her country-rock sound, but in the 80s had been branching out into other kinds of music. 1987 was a bumper year for her; beside her country success with Trio she was enjoying some of her biggest pop hits by duetting with R&B singer Aaron Neville. Linda’s beautiful voice soars on the Jimmie Rodgers’ song ‘Hobo’s Meditation’ (will there be any freight trains in heaven?). Nitpicking, one might complain that this is just too pretty and clean sounding for a song voicing the train-hopping tramp of the lyric, but it sounds so lovely I don’t care. Perhaps it shows the true soul inside the hobo’s rough appearance, with its wistful questioning,

Will the hobo chum with the rich man?

This is my favorite of Linda’s tracks, and possibly my favorite on the album. Linda’s other leads come on more modern folk songs. Her vocals are impeccable on the plaintive ‘Telling Me Lies’, co-written by Ronstadt’s friend Linda Thompson, which has something of an AC feel and was a top 10 single. Canadian Kate McGarrigle (who died recently) contributed the haunting ‘I’ve Had Enough’.

They finish up with the spiritual ‘Farther Along’, arranged simply by Emmylou with John Starling. Dolly takes the first verse, Linda the second, with Emmylou the last to be showcased.

Everything about this album works. Critical acclaim was accompanied by significant radio support with four hit singles, one of them reaching the top of the chart. It probably also regained Dolly some much needed country credibility. It has sold over four million copies, and is an essential purchase for any country fan (or anyone who loves harmonies). Luckily, it’s still easy to find. The 1999 follow-up Trio II was good, but failed to recapture the magic of the original.

Grade: A+