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Category Archives: Guest Contributions

Lady Antebellum – “Wanted You More”

The following article is a guest contribution by Jonathan Keefe of Slant Magazine and Country Universe

Songwriters:  Matt Billingslea, Dennis Edwards, Jason “Slim” Gambill, Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, Jonathan Long, Hillary Scott

“Wanted You More” epitomizes what happens when popular music stops being about art and starts being about a focus-grouped product. It’s a song that credits an astonishing seven writers – including the three members of Lady Antebellum – yet manages to have no trace whatsoever of individual experience, emotion, or insight.

If any one of Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley, or Hillary Scott had looked to his or her phone and said, “Siri, can you write a song?” the result would have a more definitive and more definitively human point-of-view than what they and their cadre of hired-gun co-writers came up with here.

Utterly soulless stuff, “Wanted You More” doesn’t contain a single line or phrase to establish why its particular story is unique or, barring that, why it’s a story worth telling at all. Which, fine, not every song has to have an original premise or narrative. But Lady Antebellum, as has become their wont, show absolutely no initiative when it comes to expressing their banal ideas or to telling their tired stories in ways that make those ideas and stories theirs.

All a verse like, “All the words unspoken/Promises broken/I cried for so long/Wasted too much time/Should have seen the signs,” accomplishes is rearranging a bunch of clichés that could have been pulled randomly from a hat, for all their disregard for having a sense of purpose or intent. Anyone with a rhyming dictionary could have put “Wanted You More” together, and Lady Antebellum have rather quickly devolved into an act defined by that kind of anonymity.

They just seem terrified by the idea of imposing themselves. Even the song’s hook (“I guess I just wanted you more”) is phrased conditionally. Scott and Kelley are singing about a failed relationship – and, in Scott’s case, singing about it a quarter-pitch sharp the entire time – with all the urgency of someone who can’t decide what to watch on TV. “I guess I’ll watch this re-run of Chopped/Since nothing else is on,” would have as much impact as a hook for a song because it would, at the bare minimum, express some sort of intention.

With nothing of any consequence to get worked up about, it’s no wonder that Lady A’s production and performances are so tepid. The songs on their self-titled debut may have wanted for originality, but at least the arrangements on those songs had some spark and the trio sang their material with real conviction and presence.  But “Wanted You More” sounds interchangeable with the “easy listening” Adult Contemporary of the early 90s. It wouldn’t sound out-of-place between deadly dull minor hits like Richard Marx’s “Hazard” or Karla Bonoff’s “Standing Right Next to Me” on a playlist for a dentist’s office or, perhaps more fittingly, a sleep clinic.

Whatever potential they may have once displayed, Lady Antebellum have turned into the most insubstantial, flat-out boring act in popular music. “Wanted You More” doesn’t even have the gumption of a “Hashtag Truck Yeah” or a “Corn Star” to be actively offensive or awful: It just finds Lady A at their most nothing yet.

LADY A’S SCORE:  2
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

 
3 Comments

Posted by on August 6, 2012 in Guest Contributions, Single Reviews

 

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Album Review: Sara Evans – Stronger

The following review is a guest contribution by Stephen Fales

 Multi-platinum recording artist Sara Evans is well known for her impeccable country credentials. This farmer’s daughter grew up singing and playing mandolin in her family’s bluegrass band from the age of four, paid her dues covering country standards in honky tonks as a teenager, and was discovered and promoted by Harlan Howard himself. During the course of her 14-year professional career, Evans has managed to please critics and fans alike with the artful blend of traditional and contemporary sounds in her music.

 Now after an extended hiatus, Sara Evans is back with her sixth studio album, Stronger. Like a refreshing breeze sweeping over an arid musical landscape, Sara’s warm and expressive voice is welcome relief, returning like an old friend. She sounds as glorious as ever, friendly and fun on the uptempo numbers like “Anywhere” and full of heartland pathos on ballads like “Alone,” which seems to be on-deck for the next single.

Stronger took roughly two years to produce amidst several false starts, trial balloon singles that fell out of consideration, as well as some very worthy songs (“In the Pines” comes to mind) that didn’t make the final cut. But the one song that should have been left on the cutting room floor unfortunately became the album’s opener. “Desperately” is the weakest lead track from any of Sara’s albums to date. The melody is forgettable, the lyrics trite and the overwrought production and bubblegum harmony sounds like something from the Partridge Family.

Fortunately, “Desperately” does not set the tone for the entire record, and the album just gets better from there – much better. The captivating title cut “A Little Bit Stronger” (as of this writing, a top 20 hit) has already garnered many fans from it’s inclusion on the Country Strong movie soundtrack, but even this first single is not the strongest song on the record. That distinction is shared by the rollicking “Ticket to Ride”, (not the Beatles’ classic, but a brand new song co-authored by Evans and the great Leslie Satcher) and “What That Drink Cost Me.”

On an album like Stronger there are many potential hit singles. But “Ticket to Ride” may well be the ultimate “worth the price of admission” song. It is a rebound love story that really takes flight, and Evans brings it home for a landing with finesse and a breathtaking vocal flourish at the end.

“What That Drink Cost Me” is a heart wrenching lament, a traditional sounding cautionary tale of the sometimes fatal risk of having one too many. “If you could put a price tag on everything that haunts me then you’d know, what that drink cost me.”

Sara’s homespun vocals serve her very well as she pours her country soul into nine worthy vessels. Her voice still has that fine wine flavor to it, and is a supple, nuanced and at times intoxicating instrument. As usual, she displays an artistically mature command of dynamics and nuance. The inherent rich and rustic textures of her voice work extremely well on the more traditional numbers as expected, but her vocal timbre is also very well suited to the more pop-oriented material such as her remake of Rod Stewart’s “My Heart Can’t Tell You No”. Saturated with steel and drenched with sadness, the spell of Sara’s wailing vocals transforms the Stewart classic is into a real country heartache song.

Stronger contains only 10 songs, but this quality-over-quantity approach works very well for the most part. This is a well-balanced, well-produced album thanks to Nathan Chapman, Tony Brown and to co-producer Sara Evans herself. It features a great mix of moods and tempos, as well as various country musical styles ranging from contemporary to neotraditional and bluegrass. And once again, Evans demonstrates what a capable songwriter she is, having co-written six of the ten tracks including some of the album’s finest. Brother Matt Evans is also credited as a writing partner on three songs, including the delightfully electric and syncopated “Anywhere.”

Stronger is a thoroughly enjoyable album and a most welcome return. It is a worthy addition to Sara’s solid discography, but as great as it is, it doesn’t really seem to advance the state of her art. Stronger seems to be a plateau album, but with Sara’s usual high standard for excellence, at least the plateau is a lofty one. In this age of cookie-cutter songstesses, Sara Evans has carved out her own niche and coined her own unique sound, a distinctive blend of pop and pure country. Still, the hope remains that Sara will delve even more deeply into her pure country roots next time and harvest a great bluegrass or pure country album, something truly timeless and remarkable for her legacy. By digging deeper, there is little doubt that she could climb even higher.

Sara closes Stronger with a wonderful bluegrass remake of her signature classic “Born to Fly.” This latest rendition is brilliant but overly percussive, and would have been even better with dueling fiddles blazing away for a fade-out finale that would have rivaled the awesome original. Still, this performance, like the album as a whole, is ample reminder that more than anything else Sara Evans was born to make great music.

SARA’S SCORE:  8
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)
 
BUY IT ON AMAZON

 
2 Comments

Posted by on March 1, 2011 in Album Reviews, Guest Contributions

 

Thanks, Brad – My Country, ‘Tis of Thee

The following is a guest contribution by Maurice Tani of the California-based independent alt-country group 77 El Deora.

I write, (and my band, 77 El Deora, plays), country music. At least I call it that. It’s certainly not pure in any sense. I draw on a lot of different influences, but down in the basement, if you look at the foundation, the bricks are made in Bakersfield, and the brick layers scratched their names into the mortar: Buck, Don, Merle….

The other day, I was driving south on 101 up in Sonoma, channel surfing the radio. As a songwriter, I generally try to give a song the benefit of the doubt and listen to at least a verse and chorus. I tune out a lot of stuff and wind up listening to way too much news radio, NPR, and Mexican music…

I wish I could listen to more country on the radio, but big time commercial country music media is another world from what independent, original country outfits like my band or Red Meat (for another shining example) do. Obviously, a lot of people listen to what comes off of Music Row in Nashville, but we have little in common with what the major labels present as country beyond the broad country label.


Scanning the FM band, I came in on the beginning of some song on a commercial country station that had a long intro (sort of unusual for commercial radio of any pop genre) with some fairly aggressive guitar, which always attracts my ear. More often than not, commercial country records tease with spicy guitar and then disappoint with bland or worse, stupid lyrics. Still, there’s always a chance there might be something good….


The vocal started in with a line about the protagonist having her “Brazilian leather boots on the pedal of her German car.” Red flag. I am so used these days to a main thrust of commercial country being an anthem to xenophobia, America right or wrong, foreign cars suck, city dwellers are arrogant, redneck pride, etc, etc, that I had a bad feeling about where this was going after just one line.


Apparently, this is a hot button for me. Commercial country, like all pop formats, has always had a bland side, but there were also some great songwriters working the field. By the ’80s, however, production started to veer into ’70s-style soft rock. They had already lost me at that point. But more recently, I have been aware of a trend of blatant pandering to what I suppose the industry has defined as their target demographic.


This latest phase in commercial country focuses heavily on an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality. Singers beat their chests proudly that they are “country,” “rednecks” etc, implying that they’re “real” while those other people are not. Real God-fearing Americans. Real Christians. Real, down-to-earth people with real moral values as opposed to the phony elitists. It’s a celebration of defiance to a perceived threat to the honest, middle-American Heartland way of life.


Everyone likes the underdog to succeed. It’s story telling device that predates the written word. Modern commercial country casts the (moral, white) majority in the roll of the underdog in the culture war on everything from marriage to Christmas.


This isn’t some recent invention of cynical Bush-era/Fox and Friends, Nashville A&R people. “Okie from Muskogee” came out in 1969 and similar stuff surfaces periodically (i.e. “A Country Boy Can Survive” in the early ’80s) but this latest wave of anti-sophisticate self-gratification has reached new height in the years following 9/11.


So, the song on the radio continues.


“She’s listening to the Beatles singing Back in the USSR.”


Still wary, I’m not sure where this is headed. Is this writer about to take a swing at elitist Europeans or Communism? Obama socialists? Death camps? I mean, who doesn’t like the Beatles?


The singer continues:


“She’s goin’ around the world tonight, but she ain’t leavin’ here.


She’s just going to meet her boyfriend at the street fair.”


Okay. Actually relatively benign. In fact, “street fair” sounds a bit urban. I would have expected “county” or “state” fair. . .


Then the chorus:

It’s a french kiss, italian ice


Spanish moss in the moonlight


Just another American Saturday night


He’s working an international motif into a commercial country song? Sure, it ends with the hook of “Just another American Saturday night” which sounds just like what one would expect from the Nashville song mill, but he didn’t get there preaching to the choir about how great we are compared to “them.” It’s actually sounding like some sort of celebration of diversity. I’m gonna stick with this for another verse -or at least until the other shoe drops….


Next verse he runs through a toga party and a reference to the Greek fraternity system (elitist college education), Canadian bacon, pizza (Italy), and a couple of foreign beers (one of which is light). He ends the verse with a sort of Jimmy Buffet/Great Melting Pot reference, saying “we’re living in a big ‘ol cup. Fire up the blender and mix it all up!”


It’s just a light-hearted country-pop song, but this is a breath of fresh air in a format that has pandered increasingly to a socio-political agenda that promotes American isolationism with the implication of our (supposed) moral superiority. Are we afraid of losing our American identity with the influx of foreign influences? Not according to this guy. Our American identity is those foreign influences all blended together. We take that for granted in most coastal cities, but this is a concept that is almost shocking coming from the conservative world of mainstream country radio. Remember, this is the radio format that effectively banned the Dixie Chicks for criticizing George Bush.

The bridge comes up after another chorus and the singer sums up his point:


“You know everywhere has something they’re known for


Although usually it washes up on our shores


My great great great granddaddy stepped off of that ship


I bet he never ever dreamed we’d have all this”


He’s not saying those other places are better or worse. He’s saying those other places are who we are. It’s a gentle point. Hardly earth-shattering. Nothing that hasn’t been said before in “We Are the World” or “Feed the World” or “It’s a Small, Small World” but it’s the context here that is important. This isn’t some star-studded, cross-genre heart and wallet tugger. This is just a common, everyday, commercial country single, made for radio play in the hyper-partisan, culture-war scarred landscape of post-9/11, (white) middle America.


Then, not once, but twice through the changes with a ripping Telecaster solo. He reprises the bridge, swapping out the last two lines with:


“Little Italy, Chinatown, sittin’ there side by side


Live from New York, It’s Saturday Night!”


New York City?!?! Somebody call Sarah Palin! Is he actually implying that America includes NYC?! What’s next? Hollywood? San Francisco? Berkeley? (Ok, Berkeley is a stretch even in Berkeley)


If you haven’t guessed by now, the artist is Brad Paisley. Yes, I know. The record came out in 2009. This song was released as a single in November. That’s how little I listen to commercial country radio.


I went online and found the video:

It’s not genius, but cute enough. Most notably, the imagery is urban-positive with cheap CGI video game graphics (Okay, it’s a look…) (Oh, and it includes a few cameos of Little Jimmy Dickins, who is featured in many of Paisley’s videos. LJD is just good music!).


Brad Paisley not trying to be deep. He (co)writes clever, fun songs and plays great guitar. He tackles a wide range of subjects in his songs that range from rural (“I’m Gonna Miss Her,” “Ticks,” etc) to modern, topical (“Online”). He uses a lot of irony in his lyrics and a lot of fire in his playing. I don’t think he’s trying to change the world, but he is exerting positive energy in a place that needs it badly. We need more Brad Paisleys.


By the way… at the end of the song, he closes the whole thing out with almost a full minute of more Tele shredding. Thanks Brad. I needed that. I needed the whole damn thing.

77 EL DEORA WEBSITE
77 EL DEORA ON FACEBOOK

 
4 Comments

Posted by on February 12, 2011 in Ben Is Thinking, Guest Contributions

 
 
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