My Kind of Country

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

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Album Review: Dwight Yoakam – ‘Under The Covers’

Under The Covers is the first of Dwight Yoakam’s three covers albums; four if you count the compilation In Others’ Words, which consisted of previously released material, all cover songs. This set is a collection of songs originally made famous by mostly rockers, but with a sprinkling of rockabilly and countrypolitan sounds. Prior to writing this review, repeated listenings had familiarized me with all of Yoakam’s retreads, but I had yet to hear many of these in their original form until recently. What I found was that while Dwight stays fairly close to the original recordings for the most part here, he effortlessly infuses them with the signature sounds of his own hits: which means he’s amped them up, added some killer guitar licks and his trademark breathy twang to these rock and roll perennials.

Kicking things off with a paint-by-numbers take on Roy Orbison’s ‘Claudette’, the mood for this album is immediately established with this energetic tune.  Though the Everly Brothers recorded the first version as a B-side to their 1958 mega-hit ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’, Yoakam’s recording comes complete with the call-and-answer guitar work that instantly define an Orbison hit, and is more closely tied to Roy’s recording of the tune penned for his then-wife.  ‘Claudette’ was released as the album’s first single, but failed to make it farther than #47 on the Country Singles chart.  Even with the absence of a radio hit, Under The Covers still debuted at #8 on the Country Albums chart, and has to date sold over 350,000 copies.

From there, Yoakam jumps into punk-rock territory with his take on ‘Train In Vain’, the third single from The Clash’s 1980 London Calling album. Here, Yoakam puts a decided country spin on the song, with its plucky banjo lead and the smothering of the lyrics with his Kentucky drawl.  Banjo-picking and added vocals by Dr. Ralph Stanley also elevate this track far beyond normal standards.

‘Baby Don’t Go’ features Sheryl Crow and as the second single, failed to chart.  The first hit by Sonny & Cher – before ‘I Got You Babe’ – it stands as one of those songs that didn’t really need a remake, even though the pair of singers give it the old-school try and the production recalls the doo-wop sound of the original, it lacks that 60s originality to my ears.  Also, Dwight singing the Cher lines and Sheryl singing Sonny’s lines in the verses certainly take away from the lyric’s punch. I’d much rather have heard their take on ‘A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done’.

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Album Review: ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter: A Tribute to Loretta Lynn’

Multi-artist tribute albums are more often than not hit-or-miss; rarely does one like all of the contributing artists or their interpretations of the hits of the person being honored. Columbia Records’ newly released tribute to Loretta Lynn, marking her 50th anniversary as a country music artist, is no exception, although it does contain a fair share of surprises. I cringed when I saw certain names among the credits, but in a few instances found that their tracks were among the album’s highlights. Likewise, some of the tracks I was looking forward to were somewhat disappointing.

The opening track, performed by Gretchen Wilson, falls into the latter category. On the surface, “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)” seems like an ideal song for her, but her rendition surprisingly lacks the passion and spark that I was expecting. Instead, she sounds like a better-than-average amateur on karaoke night. Lucinda Williams’ take on “Somebody Somewhere (Don’t Know What He’s Missing Tonight)” was also a let-down. She slurs the lyrics so badly that I found myself wondering if she really had those few little drinks referred to in the first verse prior to entering the studio.

On the other hand, the album contains quite a few pleasant surprises, not the least of which is Faith Hill’s reading of “Love Is The Foundation”. I’ve never been a huge Faith fan, and I considered her contribution to 1998’s Tammy Wynette tribute album to be one of the lowlights of that uneven project. This time around, however, she proves that she can deliver the goods. Loretta praised Faith’s performance of the song recently, and after hearing it, I have to concur that it was quite good. I was more than apprehensive about the artists who from outside the world of country music. I’d never heard of Paramore before and was expecting not to like their take on “You Ain’t Woman Enough To Take My Man”, but instead found their stripped-down, acoustic guitar arrangement to be quite effective. The White Stripes’ recording of “Rated X”, recorded several years ago, is the track that can be credited with spawning the Van Lear Rose album. I’d not heard it before, and though they’re not quite my cup of tea, the song works much better than I thought it would.

There are, of course, some famous names that seem perfectly matched for such a project, that do not disappoint: Lee Ann Womack contributes “I’m A Honky Tonk Girl”, which sounds like it could have actually been recorded in 1960, when Loretta’s original version was released, and Reba McEntire’s “If You’re Not Gone Too Long” is the best offering in the collection. Reba manages to accomplish the near-impossible — putting her own stamp on a Loretta Lynn classic. Producer Buddy Cannon gives the old honky-tonk number a Western swing feel, which suits Reba perfectly, and The Time Jumpers — a band that includes Kenny Sears, Vince Gill and Paul Franklin, among others — are superb. If only Reba would include tracks like this on her own albums. The two Conway and Loretta duets that are included — “Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man” performed by Alan Jackson and Martina McBride and “After The Fire Is Gone” performed by Steve Earle and Allison Moorer, with Moorer doing the heavy lifting — are also quite good.

Like most tribute albums, Coal Miner’s Daughter has its share of clunkers. In addition to the aforementioned Lucinda Williams track, Carrie Underwood’s “You’re Looking At Country” is sung with an affected and very exaggerated twang which is quite grating, and Kid Rock’s “I Know How” is simply unlistenable. Trust me, he does not know how.

The album closes with the title track, and Loretta’s signature song, performed by Loretta herself along with Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow and produced by John Carter Cash and Loretta’s daughter Patsy Lynn. Loretta is in good voice and more than holds her own against the two younger vocalists.

If I’d been in charge of overseeing this project, I’d have excluded a few names and included a few others that did not appear. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to include Paramore, and that indeed would have been a loss. Coal Miner’s Daughter isn’t without its flaws, but it is a more than adequate tribute to country music’s most important female artist and is well worth a listen.

Grade: B

Single Review: Loretta Lynn with Miranda Lambert and Sheryl Crow – ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’

The first single from the upcoming Loretta Lynn tribute album is an encouraging sign that this project will be worthwhile. A respectful version of Loretta’s autobiographical ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ sung by Loretta herself, Miranda Lambert and rocker Sheryl Crow. Loretta opens proceedings, followed by Miranda and finally Crow, each representing a different generation. Mostly the three swap lines through the song, with some harmonies.

The arrangement and production are very similar to that on the original, backing vocals aside, which  help to make this feel like a genuine tribute from the two younger artists, who fully adopt Loretta’s traditional style here rather than adapting the song to their own very different normal styles. Loretta sounds in better voice here than she has done in some time, although her diction is muddier than it was in her heyday. Miranda, the current CMA darling, sounds a little uncertain with her pitch at times, which is disappointing, but she has never sounded more rooted in traditional country. The real revelation here, though, is Sheryl Crow, whose voice sounds both sweet and soulful, if a little more subdued and less distinctive than the other two. Her cover of Cat Stevens’ pop classic ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’ got some country airplay back in 2003, but I’d love to hear a whole album from her in this vein.

The song itself, one of the most autobiographical and best-loved of Loretta’s songs, offers fond recollection of her Kentucky childhood, where the grinding poverty was leavened by love. The fact that the other two did not share this background makes this recording work principally as a tribute to Loretta rather than the slice of real life the original brought. For that reason, it was a really good production decision to include Loretta on the new recording, as this brings an authenticity to the track where a solo performance by either Miranda or Sheryl Crow would have seemed like a pale imitation. Viewed as a tribute, their contributions have a warmth and sincerity which makes the combination of the three voices worth hearing, and this makes me more optimistic about the likely tone of the album overall.

Grade: B+

The digital single is on sale September 28, and the album will be out in November. Listen here.

Single Review: Jewel – ‘Satisfied’

Just about the time I became a fan of country music, acts like Jewel, Hootie and the Blowfish, and Sheryl Crow were releasing diamond-selling country albums, but having hits on the pop charts.  I’ve always attributed most of that to Garth Brooks and his massive numbers.  But why those artists didn’t just start as country artists – or why country radio didn’t embrace the music at the time – has always been puzzling to me.   To my ears –and apparently hers too – songs like Jewel’s ‘You Were Meant For Me’, Hootie’s ‘Let Her Cry’, and several other hits, notably one-hit wonders Sixpence None The Richer’s ‘Kiss Me’ were clearly meant to be on the country station beside the Clay Walkers and the Lee Ann Womacks of the time.

Having been a fan of her adult-contemporary hits in the 90s, and even her more rocking ‘Standing Still’ and dance hits like ‘Stand’, and being my favorite among her named contemporaries, I had high expectations for her country album(s) for the Valory Music Group. After her first album left me disappointed, or rather not blown over like I expected, I had lost a little respect for her abilities to say the least.  Instead of making a strong artistic statement, I felt like she pandered to country radio – a cardinal sin these days – and wasn’t expecting to like much from her second Valory album.  The first single held much of the same , but I am much more impressed with her second single from Sweet & Wild, her second Valory album.

‘Satisfied’ pins down the basic human feeling of satisfaction, in so many words.  The first few lines of the second verse a bit abstract, and make you think the song has lost its way, but it gets back to the basic theme of ‘let your love show’, tying it all up nicely before the start of the second chorus.  A couple more epic lines in the bridge, and a great country song is born.  A basic piano and rhythm backing the big, emotive voice she’s always had frame the verses, while the choruses and ending are more produced.  At the end of it all, the Alaskan farm girl delivers a fine vocal performance of a well-written song.

Even it doesn’t shoot up the country charts, I’ll hear it on the radio or on CMT and smile, finally satisfied that Jewel has proved herself as a credible country artist, if only in my mind.

Grade: A-

‘Satisfied’ is available everywhere, from amazon and others.

Album Review: Mary Chapin Carpenter – ‘Time*Sex*Love’

After 1996’s A Place In The World, Mary Chapin Carpenter went on a 5-year hiatus from recording, only touring sporadically during that period.  During her off-time from studio albums, Carpenter found time to record a track for the John Lennon tribute album Working Class Hero, and her version of ‘Grow Old With Me’ became a top 20 hit on the Adult Contemporary charts.  Meanwhile, her own ‘10,000 Miles’ was featured as the title track to the movie Fly Away Home. In 1998, she began work on Shane, a Broadway adaption of the 1953 film starring Alan Ladd.  Creative differences with the producers caused Carpenter to pull out of the project in 2000.  When she returned to the recording studio in 2001, the album she created was a stretch from her country albums in the 90s.

Perhaps buoyed by her adult contemporary successes, or her 5 years off the country charts, Carpenter’s new style was coffeehouse folk meets mainstream pop, with all the sensibilities of a hard-core folkie. She’s still singing about the plight of the middle-aged woman, but age and maturity was certainly starting to show, and the themes behind the relationships and emotions became wrapped in darker and more complicated emotions with this album.

Naturally, the singles didn’t find much favor at radio, even though they’re just as good as some of her past hits.  Leading off was ‘Simple Life’, a very slick, pop-sounding tune produced to full effect with echoes and a wall of sound in the chorus.  The basis is of a middle age woman whose life is ‘getting complicated’ and overwhelming her.  The chorus offers that she should ‘just enjoy the view and be glad she made it’.  It’s a smart song that didn’t find an audience, stalling at #53 on the country charts, and not being released elsewhere.

Second to radio, and failing to chart, was ‘This Is Me Leaving You’.  Similar to her most famous songs, the driving force behind it is the melody, plucking along throughout.  As the title suggests, it’s a portrait of a woman leaving a man, guided by the voice of conscience.

‘Slave to the Beauty’ follows in the highly produced fashion with a small orchestra of brass behind the singer.  ‘Maybe World’ is also beefed up musically.  The flute is a nice touch.  ‘The Long Way Home’ is a neat song.  It tells the stories of two very career-successful individuals and how that doesn’t add up to happiness for them.  It’s the one who ‘takes the long way home’ and just stops to enjoy his existence that’s the most content.

My favorite on the album is ‘What Was It Like’, a soft ballad where the narrator is asking her former lover for the details to the demise of their relationship.  She simply can’t remember because time has managed to shield her from the most painful of the memories. ‘King of Love’ is another soft ballad, with a Celtic influence.  A woman is a slave to her desire for a man who will ‘never make her queen’.  It’s a strange song lyrically. Many of the songs fall into a category best defined on The Simpsons as ‘too smart for the corn dog crowd, too dumb for the bagel crowd’.

Time*Sex*Love didn’t sell as well as her past works.  Moving just over 300,000 copies, it was her first not to be certified gold since her 1987 debut, thought it did chart at #6 on the Country Albums chart.  Fans of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s country records may want to avoid it.  Likewise, those who regularly spin Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, and Sheryl Crow will want to give it a listen.  Time*Sex*Love marked Carpenter’s shift from country radio renegade to Americana mainstay.  Changing styles allowed her to deliver another smart and cohesive set of songs, all written or co-written by Carpenter, and even though it’s not my taste as much as her past work, I can appreciate it for what it is.

Grade: C+

Time*Sex*Love is available in digital and CD format at amazon.

Album Review: Sara Evans – ‘Real Fine Place’

Here’s another guest contribution from our long-time friend, and frequent collaborator Michael Allan.

Released shortly after the title cut became her fourth #1 hit, Sara Evans’ Real Fine Place debuted atop the Billboard Country Albums Chart (and at #3 on the all-genre Billboard 200) in October of 2005. It is her most recent studio effort and contains four Top 40 singles, including her last Top Ten hit to date.

The album opens with its third single, ‘Coalmine’, which, due to some unfortunate timing, peaked at #37. (It was released right around the same time as the Sago coal mine disaster in West Virginia.) It’s a shame more people weren’t able to hear the song because, thanks to its fiddles and sly lyrics, it paints a better portrait of small town life and serves as a better ode to hard working, blue collar men than anything on country radio in 2009. No offense, Justin Moore, Billy Currington, Jason Aldean, Jason Michael Carroll, et al.

The album’s second track and lead single is the title cut. Written by Radney Foster, it serves as a strong example of pop country done right. The song’s bouncy vibe makes you want to turn up the volume, put down the top and go for a cruise – sing along with the breeze in your hair and then… press repeat.

Second single and third track is the deliciously scathing ‘Cheatin’. It’s a humorous ( without venturing into novelty territory) lesson that living well is the best revenge… even better than taking a baseball bat to a cheating boyfriend’s car headlights. This fun song would have been right at home on a country radio playlist in the early 90s.

‘New Hometown’, a plea to the protagonist’s lover to give up the city life for something a little more rural, ironically doesn’t sound very country at all. However, Evans voice is in fine form and her tone is clear.

‘You’ll Always Be My Baby’ was the final single and peaked at #13 on the charts.  It is one of my least favorite songs on the album. The three arc story song is so predictable, uninspired and generic that it sounds like it was assembled in a factory somewhere in Nashville. Despite having served as a co-writer on this song, Evans deserves better material than this.

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Album Review: Brooks & Dunn – ‘Hillbilly Deluxe’

Hillbilly DeluxeAfter the success of Red Dirt Road, the duo had issued a second volume of Greatest Hits, and unusually the new singles released from that (‘That’s What It’s All About’ and ‘It’s Getting Better All The Time’) had done very well. Their next studio album, 2005’s Hillbilly Deluxe, shares its title with a Dwight Yoakam album from the 1980s. Brooks & Dunn’s take focuses rather more on the second part of the title than Dwight’s, with a very glossy feel. The tracks featuring Ronnie Dunn on lead were co-produced with industry veteran Tony Brown, but the overwhelming impression of this album is that Brooks & Dunn had got into something of a rut, and this album offers yet more of the same.

The leadoff single, the rocked up and (unintentionally?) ironically titled ‘Play Something Country’ was certified gold in its own right, and was what now appears to be their last ever #1 single. The song was written by Ronnie with his favored writing partner Terry McBride, and was allegedly inspired by Gretchen Wilson. The pair also wrote the ballad ‘She’s About As Lonely As I’m Going To Let Her Get’, a pretty good song about resolving to be the new love of a woman encountered in a bar, which features a fine Ronnie Dunn vocal with slightly (and unnecessarily) amped up production. ‘Just Another Neon Night’ has a similar feel and another barroom theme. Less successful is the part-spoken and also heavily produced ‘Whiskey Do My Talking’, which is just not very interesting.

There was one departure from formula, in the shape of ‘Believe’, which Ronnie wrote with Craig Wiseman, and which was the album’s second single. Surprisingly, ‘Believe’ only reached #8 but had much more impact than that suggests. It sold in high numbers, also being certified gold, and was widely acclaimed as the duo’s best single in years, also winning the CMA Single of the Year award in 2006. The Academy of Country Music rewarded Ronnie and Craig by naming it Song of the year in 2005. It opens as a story song with a conversational low key vocal on the verses and a big chorus, with a churchy organ backing and gospel backing vocals at appropriate moments which support Ronnie rather than taking over as is sometimes the case when gospel choirs are used in country records.

The follow-up single, ‘Building Bridges’, featuring harmonies from Sheryl Crow and Vince Gill, was an attractive song with a pretty tune. It was a Hank DeVito /Larry Willoughby song, versions of which had been unsuccessful singles for both Willoughby and DeVito’s ex-wife Nicolette Larson in the 80s. Brooks & Dunn’s version did much better, and reached #4, and it was named the ACM’s Vocal Event of the Year in 2007.

The title track was the last single, and performed more disappointingly, topping out at 16. The chorus talks about “slick pick up trucks”, and this frankly boring and formulaic Southern rock style track feels altogether too slick for comfort. Ronnie Dunn is a great singer, but he needs better material than this to let him shine. He got it with my favorite track, the sensitive lost-love ballad ‘I May Never Get Over You’. Almost as good is the tender Darrell Brown/Radney Foster song ‘Again’, about falling in love, which closes the album on a positive note. It’s a shame neither of these was released to radio.

Kix was largely sidelined here; he only got four lead vocals to Ronnie’s nine, none of them on particularly memorable songs, and three of his tracks were the original songwriter demo recordings. Most of the money invested in this album must have gone on some of the big production numbers on Ronnie’s tracks. The harmonica-led ‘My Heart’s Not A Hotel’, written by Rob Crosby and Allen Shamblin, and co-produced by Mark Wright, is quite a nice song with the kind of vulnerable lyric suited to Kix’s voice, about a man in love with a woman who is basically using him as a convenient option, but disappointingly he sounds rather uninvested vocally. Kix sounds better on the original demo of his own mid-tempo ‘One More Roll Of The Dice’, which he produced with co-writer Tom Shapiro, but the song is filler and once again the production is too heavy for my tastes. ‘She Likes To Get Out of Town’, written and produced with Bob DiPiero, is both generic Brooks & Dunn and over-produced.

The story song ‘Her West Was Wilder’ from the same team is more interesting, but would have been better still with more low key production. It tells of a woman who is just a little too much for the narrator to hold:

Every time I looked in those faraway eyes
I could see me getting left behind…
Where the wild wind blows and anything goes
As long as it’s over the line
I gave her my best
But her west was wilder than mine

While this was one of the duo’s less inspired efforts, there was enough here to appeal to their entrenched fanbase. The album reached #1 on the country charts and sold platinum.

Grade: C+

Album Review: SHeDAISY – ‘Fortuneteller’s Melody’

shedaisy2
I’m bored right now, so I figured I would review the album I decided to start listening to, AKA Fortuneteller’s Melody by SHeDAISY.

If you’ve read my posts on the 9513’s forums you would probably know that I love SHeDAISY. I don’t care if they’re poppy; it’s great pop. I consider them one of the most underrated artists out there right now. I feel that they were unfairly shunned by radio with other female artists, but hey it happens.

What’s the worst is that this album, their most ignored album, is overwhelmingly their finest album to date! Mostly this is due to the stellar writing of sister Kristyn Osborn, main writer and background singer for the group. She has written some real gems on this album, but I’ll start from the beginning.

This album starts with “23 Days”, an up-tempo track that describes the feeling of being far from the one you love, but you are on your way to get to them, as in “23 days of Tennessee time and I’m back to you.” The song is great, fun, and instantly singable; a radio hit that never got a chance. Unfortunately, this song was never a single, but it was featured on a Sleep Number commercial, which sparked downloads instantly. This song sets the style for the majority of the album: poppy, but more acoustic and more organic-feeling than their previous albums. It reminds me of Sheryl Crow, but better and leaning a little more country.

The next standout track is the album’s first single, “I’m Taking The Wheel”, one of the best up-tempo songs I have ever heard, and it still has depth. It’s about a relationship that’s beginning to fail, and the narrator decided to take control of the relationship and save it. It has a strong melody and great lyrics, making it instantly great, especially with the driving beat in the background and the more country instuments.

The best two tracks on the album? The two sadder songs, the first being “In Terms Of Love”, which also happens to be the album’s second single. The song talks about getting over a lost loved one, since Kristyn had just gone through a divorce while writing, the pain shines through on this great track. The track has great fiddle and gentle strings that frame the sisters’ flawless harmonies. The narrator tells her ex, “I don’t think about then in terms of now/ I found a way to start again somehow/ I don’t think about what we thought it was in terms of love.” The song comes across as nice, but with a little edge of how a failed relationship needs two people to make a mistake, but it’s still hard to get over it.

The second song, “She Gets What I Deserve” has the sound of Sugarland’s “Very Last Country Song”, but the lyrics and theme of Sugarland’s “Stay”! This song is from the point of view of the other woman, but the song deals more with how the narrator has hurt the wife of her lover; a woman she has never met but knows all about. It’s the narrator looking “into the windows of the home I’ve torn apart/ I can’t help but wonder, what happened to my heart.” She feels like she deserves first the man, then later the pain, showing a change of heart in how she seeks forgiveness from God. This song is by far the country-est song on the album, and is just gorgeous.

Interestingly enough, the worst song on the album is the only one that SHeDAISY has ever recorded that wasn’t at least co-written by Kristyn, namely “God Bless The American Housewife”. The song is meant to be tongue-in-cheek on how Desperate Housewives (it was featured on the show’s soundtrack CD and has a funny music video) has made housewives look too sexy and jealous all the time. The song is supposed to be funny, but comes of as mawkish and insincere, and ultimately doesn’t work.

Besides that song, the rest of the CD is solid, if similar sounding. This album being overlooked is a terrible crime, but it’s far too late now. Maybe their upcoming album in March will be accepted by radio and buyers.

Grade: A-

Listen to the entire album on Last FM.