My Kind of Country

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

Tag Archives: Tom Waits

Album Review: Mandy Barnett — ‘Strange Conversation’

The last time we heard from Mandy Barnett was 2013, when she released I Can’t Stop Loving You: The Songs of Don Gibson. It’s taken five years for her to follow it up and she does so with an album that finds her exploring uncharted territory in her 22-year career.

As Barnett puts it frankly, Strange Conversation isn’t a country album. She recorded it in Muscle Shoals, and through inspiration from the area’s classic sound, she plays instead under the umbrella and within the sonic textures of modern-day Americana and she’s enlisted drummer Marco Giovino and guitarist Doug Lancio to serve as her producers. The former has worked with Robert Plant and Buddy Miller while the latter has collaborated with John Hiatt and Patty Griffin.

Strange Conversation opens with “More Lovin,’” an excellent cover of the song originally recorded by Mabel John. The groove, created by a nice mixture of upright bass and crashing percussion, gives the song an appealing jazzy groove. She travels back to the 1960s for her R&B and soul-infused version of “It’s All Right (You’re Just In Love),” which originates with the Alabama-based band The Tams.

“Dream Too Real To Hold” jumps ahead to 1997 and came to Barnett via Greg Garing, who among his many contributions, worked with Kenny Vaughn to revitalize Lower Broadway in Nashville some time ago. It’s another excellent song, with nice jazzy undertones. The title track is a pleasant ballad which finds Barnett turning in a sultry vocal performance.

The album continues with “A Cowboy’s Work Is Never Done,” originally recorded and released by Sonny & Cher in 1972. Barnett mostly keeps the song within the same vein as the original, retaining Hiatt to sing on it with her. They work fine together and the lyric is good, but I hate the fuzzy and cluttered arrangement, which unnecessarily drowns them out. I know it’s in keeping with how the song was intended when written, but it’s very unappealing to my ears.

Tom Waits originally released “Puttin’ On The Dog” in 2000. The lyric, a sexual innuendo, is slinky and the song is downright obscure. Like the Sonny & Cher cover that preceded it, it’s also not to my taste. “All Night” is pure lounge and torch, as though it comes straight from an old smoky jazz club. It fits perfectly within Barnett’s classic wheelhouse.

Neil Sedaka pitched “My World Keeps Slipping Away” to Barnett directly. She evokes Rosanne Cash, who I could easily hear covering this song, on the sparse ballad, which she knocks out of the park. “The Fool” is not a cover of the Lee Ann Womack classic, but rather a tune written by legendary country and pop singer Lee Hazlewood. The barroom anthem, one of the album’s best tracks, revives Barnett’s classic sound and gives the latter half of the Strange Conversation some much-needed pep and variety. She closes the ten-track album with a cover of Andre Williams’ “Put A Chain On It,” a slice of straight-up R&B that features backing from the McCrary Sisters.

Besides insisting Strange Conversation isn’t a country album, which it most certainly is not, Barnett also says it purposefully doesn’t rely on the full-power of her voice. This choice, which makes use of her sultry lower register, gives the music a different feel from her previous albums, which I like. I certainly appreciate Barnett’s artistry and feel the end result is the album she set out to make. The tracks are on YouTube and I highly recommend you go check out the album for yourself.

Grade: B+

Album Review: Crystal Gayle – ‘Cage The Songbird’

cage-the-songbirdThe mid-1980s found Crystal Gayle shifting record labels yet again. Elektra shuttered in 1982 during the chart reign of True Love, which Razor X reviewed earlier this week. Another significant shift was the addition of Jimmy Bowen, who shared a producer credit with Allen Reynolds.

By the time Cage The Songbird came along in October 1983, Gayle was recording for Warner Bros. exclusively with Bowen, who had officially taken over for Reynolds after ten albums. The resulting record was squarely within the trends of the era, following the likes of Rosanne Cash and Emmylou Harris by featuring a Rodney Crowell song, which by this time had become one of the hottest songwriters in Nashville. The album also featured cuts by Elton John and Hugh Prestwood among others, and while it maintained a glossy sheen, Cage The Songbird was loaded with well-chosen material.

The Prestwood cut, which opened the album, was issued as the lead single. “The Sound of Goodbye” is an excellent and bright uptempo contemporary number that ranks among my favorites of hers. It hit #1, as did the album’s third single, Tim Krekel’s lightweight rocker “Turning Away.” Gayle just missed the top spot with “I Don’t Wanna Lose Your Love,” an adult contemporary-leaning piano ballad by Joey Carbone. The fourth and final single, “Me Against The Night,” a nice mid-tempo ballad, peaked at #4.

Crowell, who was Gayle’s labelmate at the time, contributed “Victim or a Fool,” a ballad he recorded on his eponymous album two years earlier. Gayle brought an urgency to her version, courtesy of the electric guitars and driving tempo, that contrasted with the sadness Crowell highlighted with his interpretation. Both recordings are interesting although you can’t ignore Gayle’s commercial sheen – the lyric is all but buried beneath the noise.

John supplied the title track, a ballad he wrote with Bernie Taupin and Davey Johnstone. The lyric, which recounts a celebrity’s tragic life and death, was a reimagining of Édith Piaf’s passing as if she had committed suicide. The tone may be grim, but Gayle delivers a gorgeous performance of a spectacular song.

“Take Me Home” was lifted from the soundtrack of a Francis Ford Coppola movie of the same name. The album consisted of duets and solo performances by Gayle and Tom Waits, who composed the songs himself. The ballad is stunning and excused from not being country at all, thanks to its origin.

Norman Saleet, another composer far outside the country realm, shows up on Cage The Songbird with “On Our Way To Love,” a ballad outside of my tastes. Saleet is best known for writing Air Supply’s “Here I Am (Just When I Thought I Was Over You)” and you can hear that influence in the melody here as well.

Of the prominent producers in country music through the years, I probably like Bowen’s work the least. He’s not distasteful to his artists, but his bland tendencies have marred his work significantly. His choices aren’t in the least bit country, either, which probably aids in my overall dissatisfaction. To that end, I really wanted to enjoy Cage The Songbird and I do find many of the album’s tracks, especially “The Sound of Goodbye” very appealing. But while I can mostly appreciate the crossover aspects, the majority of the ballads just don’t hold my attention.

Grade: B

Single Review: Sara Watkins – ‘Move Me’

press-photo-3---maarten-deboer_wide-79824be5a7ea39f2c8e7c62723edf8d34ca632e9-s800-c85Ponder this: it’s been sixteen years since Sara Watkins first entered our consciousness with the gorgeously plucky “Reasons Why.” She was already an assured vocalist at nineteen, brilliantly playing off Chris Thile as the female nucleus of Nickel Creek. Her confidence grew with the band’s output so it was only natural she’s one day strike out on her own.

It’s been seven years since her eponymous debut, a somewhat cautious (but impeccably executed) affair that gave us her brilliant rendition of Tom Wait’s ‘Pony.’ Watkins positioned herself as an astonishing country artist, a notion she quickly dispelled with Sun Midnight Sun in 2012. Her synthesizer-drenched version of Dan Wilson’s “When It Pleases You” changed our perception of her artistry. Loud and brash, Watkins exuded a self-assurance that announced her arrival as a fully formed solo entity.

Our inaugural taste of her third album, Young In All The Wrong Ways builds on that confidence. “Move Me” is her primal scream for attention, an act of despair from a woman stuck in first gear trying frantically to break free of the gridlock mucking up her path. She refers to the project as a ‘break-up album’ with herself, a chance to ‘turn the page’ and reevaluate where she is in her life.

It’s obvious that “Move Me” is her anthem. ‘Every step’s been shown to you, like all those years of school’ she opens, behind an ear-catching stomp. It’s the life my generation leads, one I whole-heartedly relate to. We’re on this path towards graduation, and, then what? As millennials, it’s the most critical question we ask ourselves on a daily basis as weeks become months become years. ‘Adulting’ isn’t merely a cutesy excuse; it’s a true-to-life concept.

The sonic playground of ‘Move Me’ is an adventurous mix of loud and soft that borderlines thunderous as Watkins emotes her not-so-quiet desperation in the chorus. “Move Me” doesn’t purport to be a country song nor has Watkins ever declared herself a country singer. But this does fit squarely within the Americana realm, which is the cloth she and her Nickel Creek bandmates helped sow all those years ago.

I just I can’t excuse the fact the overall record is a loud one. Watkins tones it down a little on the verses, but she doesn’t give the song much, if any, breathing room at all. Although, she is attempting to musically illustrate suffocation and in that sense the production is spot on.

This incarnation of Watkins’ career, like all of them, is sure to be an interesting one. My musical tastes have grown significantly through the years, which aids in my ability to appreciate a song like ‘Move Me’ in a way I wouldn’t have as a young adult. I’m greatly looking forward to hearing what the rest of Young In All The Wrong Ways has in store.

Grade: B+

You also can preorder the album and hear the song at NPR