My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Richard Marx

Single Review: Vince Gill – ‘Take Me Down’

gill-pub_hires_2_lg_wide-9ee349425fd113510d77574f8280a73deb9f1543-s900-c85Vince Gill has reached the stage in his career when he can record pretty much what he wants with no particular need to pander to commercial considerations.  Sometimes  that’s a good thing for an artist, at others it may lead to self-indulgence.

While I wouldn’t call this new single self-indulgent, it does represent a side of Vince’s artistry which isn’t my favourite. A mellow mid tempo ballad, it is beautifully sung with Vince’s vocals at their warmest and sweetest. The lyric is both romantic and sexy, lauding an existing relationship which has lost none of its fire. The production is understated and allows the voice to shine. The downside for me is that the admittedly pretty melody and arrangement are country at its most sophisticated, AC leaning.

Vince co-wrote the song with Nashville based former pop star Richard Marx, with whom he has worked before, and with Jillian Jacqueline, an aspiring artist Marx is producing. You may possibly remember her as a child back in 2001, billed just as Jillian, when she contributed to a low-charting single by Billy Dean and Suzy Bogguss called ‘Keep Mom And Dad In Love’.

It’s pleasant enough to listen to, and if not viewed through my traditional-leaning country fan ears would be a very fine offering. But it doesn’t really appeal to me viscerally. Little Big Town add harmonies, but if anything they flatten out the emotional impact for me.

This is hard to review, because objectively it is extremely well done and there is no substantive criticism I can make. If it falls short for me, that feels more like a failure on my part to appreciate it.

Grade: A-/B depending on whether it’s judged as a country song.

Album Review – Jennifer Nettles – ‘That Girl’

ThatGirlCDIn the four years since Sugarland graced us with The Incredible Machine it’s become abundantly clear that the project was the inaugural example of country music’s changing tide from a genre of integrity to one corrupted by an 80s rock mentality. As the first instance of the paradigm shift the results were shocking, but in context they make a little more sense.

There’s no secret fans have been clamoring for a redo from the duo, but the fallout from still-pending lawsuits relating to the collapse of their stage at the Indiana State Fair in August 2011, where seven people died, have prevented their collective return to music.

In the meantime, we have That Girl, the first solo offering from Jennifer Nettles; a project she says she’s been writing for the past three years. When the album was announced last summer I was excited, mostly because Rick Rubin was at the helm. Rubin, the man behind Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and Dixie Chicks’ spellbinding Taking The Long Way, knows how to craft complete albums better than almost anyone. So to say my expectations were unbelievably high would be an understatement.

By all accounts, That Girl is a solidly above average album. Nettles’ songwriting skills are sharper than ever and she delivers one stunning vocal after another. But the ingredients just don’t add up, leaving the bulk of That Girl feeling lost and cold.

More than nine years ago I fell in love with Nettles’ voice when “Just Might (Make Me Believe)” was climbing the charts and became obsessed with “Want To” when it led their second album two years later. There was a beautiful intimacy to those tracks that coupled with decidedly country production (fiddles, dobros, and mandolins) created an indelible magic that only got stronger with each passing album.

That Girl retains the intimacy but is completely void of the country production elements from Sugarland’s best work. Seeing that this is a solo project, it’s unfair for Nettles to be expected to carry over the Sugarland sound. But Rubin has presided over an album that can hardly be called country at all, even by today’s standards. That wouldn’t normally be a problem but it aids in helping That Girl loose focus, and without a big standout track, the CD (as a whole) falls into a sea of sameness the renders the proceedings kind of boring.

But I do like and appreciate some of the tracks on their own merits. I love the sentiment of “Thank You,” her co-write with Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet. The acoustic guitar backdrop is sleepy, but the pair managed to craft a wonderful lyric about appreciation that’s both beautiful and endearing. “Good Time To Cry,” co-written with Mike Reid, is an outstanding R&B flavored number and one of Nettles’ best vocals ever committed to record. She also hits “Falling,” a number about loosing one’s virginity, out of the park. It’s also the closet vocally to the Nettles’ we’ve come to know and love.

The sea of sameness is broken up a few times by some uptempo tracks, although none are overwhelmingly exciting. There’s a Caribbean feel to Kevin Griffin co-write “Jealousy” and somewhat of a hook, but the song gets a tad annoying with repeated listenings. Richard Marx co-write “Know You Wanna Know” succeeds on wordplay, and “Moneyball” displays the most personality from Nettles. The problem with the upbeat material isn’t the lyrical content but rather Rubin’s decision to make them feel too serious. Nettles has shown in the past she does better when she can be more playful (think “Settlin’” or “Steve Earle”).

I really wanted to love That Girl a lot more than I do, as I’ve been unhealthily obsessed with Nettles’ voice over the years and have seen Sugarland live three times. This solo effort would’ve been a stronger listening experience if it had been more varied in tempo, with a few more hook-laden songs and less sameness balladry. If these songs were sprinkled over the course of a few albums, I bet we would’ve been able to appreciate them more. That Girl is by no means a bad album, but it’s not the transcendent project it could and should’ve been.

Grade: B- 

Album Review – Travis Tritt – ‘The Storm’

TrittstormTravis Tritt’s most recent album was released in 2007 for independent label Category 5 Records. Co-produced with American Idol judge (and former Journey guitarist) Randy Jackson, the project debuted at #3 on the country album’s chart, his highest debut in more than thirteen years.

Pop singer/songwriter Richard Marx (who has also collaborated with Keith Urban) wrote the album’s lead single, and best known cut, “You Never Take Me Dancing.” Tritt pairs the tune with the oddly intoxicating “Mudcat Moan prelude” which has little to do with the song, but shows off his scatting abilities quite nicely. Despite the strong vocal, the track does nothing for me and is an unapologetic departure for Tritt. I cannot get past the drum machine and non-commercial vibe. It’s more than a miracle the song made it as high as #27.

Second single “The Pressure Is On,” a cover of the Hank Williams Jr song, didn’t even chart and with Tritt’s throaty southern rock vocal, that’s not surprising. He sings it well enough, but I cannot get into it at all, and at more than five minutes in length, it seems to just drag on and on.

Jackson and Tritt included two other covers in the set and sadly, both are more of the same. “Should’ve Listened,” written by the members of Canadian rockers Nickelback, boasts a nice country lyric but could’ve benefited greatly from an arrangement that’s more traditional. Same goes for Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s “Somehow, Somewhere, Someday” which lays the electric guitars on obnoxiously thick. Both songs are a mess, and far below Tritt’s usual standard.

Pop songwriter Diane Warren also contributes two cuts to the project. I’ve never been a big fan of her writing – pop power anthems designed to be big career records. She brings her usual flare to these cuts as well, and both are middle of the road. “I Wanna Feel Too Much” sounds like an Idol winner’s single that lays on the inspirational goo like its going out of style, while “I Don’t Know How I Got By” is too generic a love song for Tritt. He’s killed it with sentimental ballads before, but the track lacks the punch and sincerity of his previous love songs.

“What If Love Hangs On,” which Tritt co-wrote with Matchbox 20 lead singer Rob Thomas, is also a mess, ruined by his outlandish vocal. He’s rendered almost unrecognizable singing high notes that take away from the commanding powers of his deep voice. He also co-wrote “Doesn’t The Good Outweigh The Bad,” and it’s an excellent lyric but he and Jackson should’ve toned down the production. There are hints of his traditional country side, but they remain hidden by loud guitars and drums that distract from what this song could, and should have been. He wrote the title track solo, and it’s a good bluesy number, but keeps up the theme of being too loud and completely overstated with booming production. Nothing changes with “Rub off on Me,” or “High Time for Getting Down.”

I do actually really like one track on The Storm that goes against the loud, booming production that ruins the rest of this album. “Something Stronger Than Me” is the closest Tritt comes to reestablishing the brand that made him a respected artist in the first place. It isn’t traditional country, but the production is nicely understated and Tritt gives a sincere and heartfelt vocal. But what makes the track a keeper is the fabulous lyric, a story about personal daemons written by Don Poythress, Donnie Skaggs, and Michelle Little. It’s easily one of the best recordings of Tritt’s career.

All and all, The Storm is nothing short of a mess, and easily among the weakest of Tritt’s albums, even if its one of the most sonically consistent works of his career. I just cannot get past the loud booming guitars and drums that hinder opposed to help us enjoy the songs. There is far too much rock for my liking here, and I find myself once again wishing Tritt had stuck to his country side, which is the best quality of his musical personality.

Grade: C

Album Review: Vince Gill – ‘Next Big Thing’

Vince wrote or co-wrote all 17 of the songs on 2003’s Next Big Thing, and produced the album himself. It represents a marked return to form after the gloopy lovefest that was Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, inspired by Vince’s second marriage to contemporary Christian singer Amy Grant.

He might have had a top 10 hit from his last album, but this album sees him apparently (and presciently) accepting that his time in the spotlight might be over. The beaty and surprisingly upbeat title track (written with Al Anderson and John Hobbs and featuring horns) and the more resigned ‘Young Man’s Town’ (with Emmylou Harris on harmony) both take a look at the fleeting nature of the music business and its fascination with youth and good looks. Both were released as singles, with the brassy party sound of ‘Next Big Thing’ providing Vince with his last top 20 hit and the more reflective ‘Young Man’s Town’ not making the top 40; perhaps the accuracy of the lyric hit a bit too close to home for country radio.

‘This Old Guitar And Me’ is an old musician’s love song to his first instrument and fond memories of his early career. The Leslie Satcher co-write ‘Old Time Fiddle’ is an enjoyable love letter to Cajun music, with appropriate fiddle solo and Leslie herself on harmony. Leslie also co-wrote the tenderly delivered ballad ‘Two Hearts’, where Lee Ann Womack provides the harmony vocal.

‘Someday’, the album’s second single (peaking at #31) is a delicately pretty AC-influenced ballad written with former pop star Richard Marx, wistfully dreaming of the possibility of future love. ‘These Broken Hearts’, written by Vince with his keyboard player Pete Wasner, is a sad ballad about breaking up with someone, with blue-eyed soul man Michael McDonald on harmony. Both songs are set against a string arrangement courtesy of John Hobbs and the Nashville String machine, and are pleasant listening without being truly memorable.

There are a few other less inspired moments, like the throwaway ‘The Sun’s Gonna Shine On You’. The mid-tempo ‘Don’t Let Her Get Away’, written with Anderson, is OK filler which sounds like some of Vince’s RCA recordings with banked but thin harmonies.

A number of the songs brood about failed relationships past. In the contemporary ballad ‘She Never Makes Me Cry’, Vince prefers an unexciting life with his new wife to the ups and downs of a passionate past love. ‘We Had It All’ is a mid-tempo plea to rekindle an old flame with a subtle Tex-Mex feel to the instrumentation. The bouncy and solidly traditional country ‘Without You’ delivers a more cheerful reaction to being single again, with Dawn Sears on harmony.

Dawn also sings a piercing harmony on the best song on the album. ‘Real Mean Bottle’ is a standout tribute to Merle Haggard, with a high lonesome feel and Bakersfield guitars:

It must have been a real mean bottle that made you write the songs that way
A real mean bottle
Poured straight from the Devil
It’s a miracle you’re standing here today

‘From Where I Stand’, written with Anderson and Hobbs, is a classic declaration of fidelity in the face of temptation, set to a beautiful tune with a bluesy harmony from Bekka Bramlett. This is another highlight, which could have been a big hit if released a few years earlier in Vince’s peak commercial period.

‘Whippoorwill River’, written with Dean Dillon, gently recalls childhood memories of life with his father. Vince’s daughter Jenny keeps things in the family by singing the harmony. A fictional look at family comes from the fiddle-led ‘You Ain’t Foolin’ Nobody’, written with Reed Nielsen, is addressed to the protagonist’s motherless daughter who is running wild in a small town.

The album closes with the mellow and reflective farewell to a dying friend, ‘In These Last Few Days’, with wife Amy Grant on harmony. It was the fourth and last single to be released, but did not perform very well.

Sales were disappointing, with the record his first not to reach at least gold status since he signed to MCA, but that is no reflection on the quality of the music. The album could perhaps have done with a bit of weeding, as there are a few forgettable songs, but overall this was a strong release with a lot of worthwhile material. It’s easy to find, and well worth adding to your collection if you have previously overlooked it.

Grade: A-

Album Review: Rhonda Vincent – ‘Taken’

It was a surprise when Rhonda Vincent, probably the leading female bluegrass singer of this millennium, announced earlier this year that she had left Rounder after ten years, in favour of releasing her latest album on her own label. She has now released her first independent release.

It opens brightly with the sprightly and unforgiving ‘The Court Of Love’, written by Mike O’Reilly. Rhonda firmly tells her erring man he should go:

“To a prison full of broken hearts
That’s where you’ll do your time”

Lying and cheating earns him a life sentence without her, too, as she refuses to believe his professions of love and penitence.

As predominantly a country fan, it is perhaps unsurprising that my favorite tracks (other than the aforementioned The Court Of Love’) are the country songs given a bluegrass treatment. ‘Back On My Mind’, about struggling with an old love despite trying to move on with the protagonist’s life, was a big hit for Ronnie Milsap back in 1979, it is well suited to Rhonda’s voice with its almost piercing clarity.

I also enjoyed a revival of Barbara Mandrell’s 1971 top 10 hit about a trucker’s fiancee anxiously awaiting her man’s return armed with a ring: ‘Tonight My Baby’s Coming Home’ (written by Billy Sherrill and Glenn Sutton). The bluegrass makeover works surprisingly well.

Things take a more sophisticated turn with ‘A Little At A Time’, a downbeat contemporary country ballad about a relationship which the protagonist senses is about to come to an end, co-written by former Curb artist Amy Dalley with Tony Martin and Tom Shapiro. It’s very well executed, but takes a little longer for its qualities to emerge than some of the other tracks. The title track is a beautifully sung and played but rather boring AC love ballad, featuring a harmony vocal from 80s pop star Richard Marx.

In contrast, ‘God Is Watching’ is a delightful traditional slice of handclapping bluegrass gospel sung with the band. Rhonda teams up with her talented daughters Sally Berry and Tensel Sandker to sing a close harmony trio (with swapped leads) on a charming Roger Brown song which sounds like a traditional Appalachian folk number, ‘When The Bloom Is Off The Rose’. The girls’ band Next Best Thing also gets a maternal plug in the liner notes, and they sound as though they’re worth looking out for in the future.

The low-key murder ballad ‘In The Garden By The Fountain’ (also written by Brown) is also lovely sounding with a heavenly harmony line from Dolly Parton which really lifts it, belying the grim theme. Rhonda herself co-wrote ‘Song Of A Whippoorwill’, about the bird, and again the melody is attractive but the song is of limited interest.

The Rage, Rhonda’s band, co-produced the record with her as well as providing the core of the backing, and although there are no instrumental tracks this time, they get their own showcase on ‘Ragin’ Live For You Tonight’, a celebration of their musicianship and live show written by three of the band members. The song served as the title track on Rhonda’s 2005 live album http://www.amazon.com/Ragin-Live-Rhonda-Vincent/dp/B0007GAEO4 and I imagine it goes down a storm live. It also allows Rhonda to put in a plug for her longtime sponsor Martha White. The company appears to be contributing to the costs of the album, a model which other artists planning on following the same route might be tempted to adopt. In return, the CD includes a recipe leaflet complete with Rhonda’s seal of approval. They also get a product placement in the charmingly nostalgic ‘Sweet Summertime’.

Rhonda also had one really bad idea when making this record, and it materialises at the end of the record. Listening through this album for the first time, as the final track opened I thought ‘You Must Have A Dream’ was a pretty, if Disneyesque and slightly anodyne, inspirational song with a lovely vocal from Rhonda, but then the children started singing. Not only is there a child chorus (never something I am enthusiastic about), but two of the verses feature solo and duet vocals by child singers (who are frankly not very good). There may well be a story behind this inclusion, but the end result is really awful.

The first time I listened to this I was a little disappointed overall with the material, but listening in-depth allows the subtle qualities to shine through. The vocals are spot-on throughout, apart from the children, and the backing is superb. This one is definitely worth checking out.

Grade: B