My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Stephanie Bentley

Album Review: Lorrie Morgan – ‘Shakin’ Things Up’

shakin things upFor 1997’s Shakin’ Things Up, for the first time Lorrie shared in the production duties, being credited alongside James Stroud. The production has a glossy sheen to it, in keeping with the contemporary direction of country radio, but it is not appreciably different from her previous record stylistically. While Lorrie is in good voice, this is definitely an album of two halves: the first half is commercial and just a little dull, the second half has much better material.

The vivacious lead single ‘Go Away’ is quite poppy, but frivolous fun. Its radio friendly style led it to a top 5 chart peak and it was in fact to be Lorrie’s last top 10 hit. The even more pop oriented (but with little more lyrical substance) ‘One of Those Nights Tonight’ peaked at #14.

I liked the assertive rejoinder to a parting lover, ‘I’m Not That Easy To Forget’, quite a bit, but even though it sounds like a hit, country radio was less impressed, and the song failed to make into the top 40. It was written by Chris Waters, George Teren and Stephanie Bentley.

The best single from the album was the least successful of all: a lovely cover of the underrated Bobbie Cryner’s ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’. If you’re not familiar with Cryner, check her out now – she released two excellent albums on major labels in the mid 90s, but for some unaccountable reason gained no traction despite a beautiful voice and fine songs. This particular song, Cryner’s version of which had charted in the 50s in 1996, is a sharp, subtle indictment of a self-absorbed narrator who can’t understand why her marriage is failing, yet makes it all to clear to the listener. It’s a shame neither recorded version was a big hit; perhaps the emotion is too uncomfortable.

Another attempt to bring a new but relatively obscure song to a wider audience was Lorrie’s cut of ‘In A Perfect World’. This fine Keith Stegall song had been included on Stegall’s 1996 album Passages (another recommended purchase). Lorrie’s wistful vocal is beautifully judged, but the string section is unnecessary and does its best to smother the song. A quietly understated countryish cover of pop classic ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow’ works quite well with similarly intimate, throaty vocals.

The album’s most traditional track, ‘I’ve Enjoyed As Much Of This As I Can Stand’ is a timeless country classic, written by Bill Anderson and Jeanie Seely and originally a hit for Porter Wagoner. Like ‘You’d Think He’d Know Me Better’ it is about someone too insensitive to read another’s signals, although in this case it’s the man to blame. Lorrie interprets it beautifully, as she encounters an ex and finds it too painful to keep on chatting with him about the way he has moved on, when it is clear that she hasn’t. Vern Gosdin’s harmony adds the perfect finishing touch.

The sultry story song ‘Crazy From The Heat’ (written by Wally Wilson, Sam Hogin and Jim McBride) tells the story of Mississippi teens finding passion together. It’s quite good, but the instrumental sections sound a bit cluttered in places.

‘You Can’t Take That’ is a good ballad with Lorrie clinging to memories of the good times in the aftermath of a breakup. The bright ‘Finishing Touch’ is about a woman preparing for her man’s return home. The title track is a mid-tempo pop country number about chasing dreams.

The album was certified gold. While it’s not Lorrie’s best work, there is enough here to make it worth picking up a cheap used copy.

Grade: B

Advertisements

Album Review: Pam Tillis – ‘Homeward Looking Angel’

homeward looking angelPam’s second Arista album, released in 1992, was tastefully produced like its predecessor by Paul Worley and Ed Seay. Although the material was not quite as strong, there was enough to keep her momentum going, and in fact it was more successful commercially than its predecessor.

The first single ‘Shake The Sugar Tree’, written by Chapin Hartford reached #3. A pretty melody, tasteful arrangement, Pam’s confident lead vocal and banked harmonies from Stephanie Bentley (who later had a duet hit with Ty Herndon) apparently lifted from her demo of the song all contribute to making this a very attractive recording of a good song with an assertive attitude as the protagonist gives her neglectful man a warning.

The wistful story song ‘Let That Pony Run’ (about a suburban housewife who finds a new life after her husband leaves her), written by Gretchen Peters, is one of the standout tracks. It is the kind of mature, thoughtful lyric which would get no traction on today’s radio but in 1993 it reached #4. An exquisite vocal is backed up by backing vocals from Pam Rose and Mary Ann Kennedy.

The playful irony of ‘Cleopatra Queen Of Denial’, written by Pam, her then-husband Bob DiPiero, and Jan Buckingham, peaked just outside the top 10 (at #11).

By far my favourite track is the very traditional ‘Do You Know Where Your Man Is’ (written by Dave Gibson, Russell Smith and Carol Chase), which was another top 20 single. The pensive ballad asks a married woman about the state of her marriage

Did you kiss him when he left this morning
And does he know that he’s needed at home?
Well, if you don’t feel that old thrill
Then somebody else will
And there’s some mighty good women all alone

It’s ten o’clock
Do you know where your man is
And are you sure that he’s doing you right?
Are you still in his heart
When he’s out of your sight?
Do you know where your man is tonight?

It was previously recorded by Barbara Mandrell, whose version is also very fine, but Pam’s just edges it for me. Her beautifully judged vocal is backed by a lovely traditional arrangement with prominent steel guitar.

Opening track ‘How Gone Is Goodbye’ is one of a brace of songs written by Pam with Bob DiPiero. It is a very good song which could easily have been another hit single, with a ballsy (and surprisingly upbeat) delivery and mature lyric with a woman regretting walking out and wondering if she can backtrack.

The excellent ballad ‘We’ve Tried Everything Else’ (written by Pam and Bob with Steve Seskin)might be the same couple a little further down the line, as the protagonist suggests to her ex that getting back together would be the best solution, since new lovers have failed to help them move on:

Neither one of us is feeling any better
All we’ve been doing is fooling ourselves
Baby, you and me were meant to be together
Let’s try love again
We’ve tried everything else

The title track offers a portrait of a young woman who is returning home as the prodigal daughter but who hasn’t given up on her dreams:

Her party dress is tattered but her vision is inspired…

There’s a road ahead and the road behind
All roads lead to home this time

A couple of tracks are less interesting. ‘Love Is Only Human’ is an AC-leaning duet with Diamond Rio’s Marty Roe which is a bit bland, although it is beautifully sung; I would have loved to hear this pairing on a more dynamic song. ‘Rough And Tumble Heart’ was previously recorded in a very similar arrangement by female-led 80s group Highway 101, so Pam’s version, while perfectly listenable, seems redundant, even though she wrote it (with DiPiero and Sam Hogin). ‘Fine, Fine, Very Fine Love’ is just plain boring and Pam’s vocal verges on the screechy.

Although I don’t like this album quite as much as Put Yourself In My Place, it actually sold better, becoming Pam’s first platinum certification. It is a solid and very varied collection with some excellent songs. Used copies can be obtained cheaply, and it’s well worth picking up.

Grade: A-

Album Review – Martina McBride – ‘Greatest Hits’

220px-MartinaMcBrideGreatestHitsOne of the longest raging debates in the career of Martina McBride is the point in which her music took that pivotal turn from excellent to uninspired dreck. To an extent, it happened with Emotion, but I would argue the last truly great original music McBride has recorded came in the form of the four new tracks included on her Greatest Hits album.

In 2001 RCA saw fit to take stock of McBride’s career to date, releasing her first comprehensive career retrospective. The release came one week following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and in an eerie parallel, McBride is seen wearing an American Flag tank top on the cover. McBride has stated that the cover wasn’t in response to the attacks (which would’ve been impossible given the CD and cover art were planned long before the release) but rather homage to her signature tune “Independence Day”.

For longtime fans the most intriguing aspect of the project wasn’t the music itself but the CD booklet, which featured ample liner notes from McBride and her producer Paul Worley discussing each track. It was great to read the stories behind the songs and gain insight into their thought processes. It’s kind of a shame most artists don’t take the time to do this, as the deeper level of appreciation I gained for McBride is invaluable.

Although the project itself is fairly typical, it only includes her top ten hits; the generous 18 tracks covering 69 minutes make it my favorite Greatest Hits album of all-time. And although it omits The Time Has Come and singles like “Cry On The Shoulder Of The Road,” it’s an excellent comprehensive overview of McBride’s career to date.

The new tracks show an artist experiencing an artistic uptick. All four, vastly different from one another, perfectly illustrate the different sides of McBride’s musical personality while concurrently displaying her measured growth as an artist.

“When God-Fearin’ Women Get The Blues,” penned by Leslie Satcher, was the lead single peaking at #8 in late summer 2001. A rocking story song, the track proved a departure for McBride both thematically and musically – with a mix of dobro and fiddles (as well as The Soggy Bottom Boys from O Brother, Where Art Thou? providing backing vocals), it was the most traditional-leaning track she’d recorded in more than four years.

“Blessed,” a somewhat self-indulgent optimistic prophecy came next, topping the charts in early 2002. Her last #1 to date, the Brett James, Hillary Lindsey, and Troy Vergas penned tune is far more pop than its predecessor, but she sings it well and I really like the vibe of contentment, a mirror of her personal life. Unfortunately the track sounded better back then. The addition of the drum machine feels very dated more than ten years later.

Far more consistent was the excellent third single, Rick Ferrell and Rachel Proctor’s “Where Would You Be.” By far the strongest of her relationship-turned-sour songs, McBride has never sounded better on record, turning the chorus into a rousing tour-de-force. The track peaked at a respectable #3, but fully deserved to follow “Blessed” to the top of the charts.

McBride hit another high note with Stephanie Bentley and Rob Crosby’s heartbreaking child-negligent tale “Concrete Angel.” Even with the grim subject matter, I’ve always loved the song – it was easily one of the strongest story songs at country radio in the fall of 2002. Bentley and Crosby execute every detail perfectly, from the teacher who ignores the signs to the night she’s killed at the hands of her mother. You feel for the little girl who slipped through the cracks, and it kind of makes you look at your life differently. Next to “Where Would You Be” this is my favorite of the four singles.

Sadly, I had very high expectations that McBride was destined to follow in Kenny Chesney’s footsteps and become huge with her albums to come. I thought this would mark the beginning of a McBride routinely nominated for Album of the Year trophies and selling out large concert tours. I wasn’t prepared for the reality of what did transpire, album after album of dreck (the next one had singles that were far lesser retreads of “Where Would You Be” (“How Far”) and “Concrete Angel” (“God’s Will”) that just didn’t measure up, but at least we have moments like these to remember when she was one of the best contemporary songstresses around.

Grade: A