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Album Review: Joey + Rory – His and Hers

Three albums into their career, Joey + Rory have developed some of their established signatures – steel-heavy neotrad country arrangements, genuine down-home sincerity, a sly sense of humor, and of course, overalls.  Many of the usual ingredients remain in place on the couple’s third album His and Hers, with perhaps the most immediately noticeable formula tweak being the increased vocal presence of Rory Feek, who sings lead on half of the album’s tracks instead of taking one obligatory lead vocal turn.  That’s all fine and good, but the problem is that His and Hers finds the Feeks peddling some surprisingly weak material.

That’s not to say that His and Hers is without its standouts.  Lead single “When I’m Gone” is easily one of the finest country ballads never to make it into heavy radio rotation in 2012, featuring a delicately detailed lyrical meditation on the grieving process, as well as one of Joey Martin Feek’s finest recorded vocal performances to date.  B-side side “Josephine” makes a similarly strong impression as Rory takes on the voice of a Civil War soldier writing a letter home to his wife.  The song paints a stark picture of wartime conditions, with the lines “You know, I killed a union boy last week, bet he wasn’t fourteen/ He looked just like our son, forgive me for what I’ve done, Josephine” being particularly striking.  Rory’s performs is fraught with urgency and desperation, which just about makes up for the fact that the chorus cries out for a stronger hook than “I love you, I love you, I love you, Josephine.”  The album closes on a solid note with the sparse steel-laden title track that follows a couple through marriage and subsequent divorce, elevated by a detailed lyric and an aching performance on Joey’s part, despite its narrative being nothing particularly novel.

Unfortunately, once you’ve savored the deep layered poetry of a gem like “When I’m Gone,” it makes the stale, forced humor of tracks like “Someday When I Grow Up” and “Let’s Pretend We Never Met” that much harder to stomach, or to see as anything less than embarrassing for an act of Joey + Rory’s artistic stature.  That’s not to say that the couple can’t pull off such cute wink-wink humor effectively (Past album highlights like “God Help My Man” show that they certainly can), but the attempts on this album often strain to be clever, and come across as self-impressed instead of self-aware.  Rather than moving forward, it sounds like they’re giving us more of what we’ve come to expect from them.

A foremost issue is that the songs far too often come across as shallow, perfunctory takes on their chosen themes – a problem not limited to the ditties.  “Love Your Man” feels like a forgettable, hookless rehash of Tammy Wynette’s standard “Stand By Your Man.”  While Joey sings “Waiting for Someone” beautifully, it still doesn’t quite overcome the predictability of the song’s narrative.  Rory’s lead vocal turns come with the same problems, with “Cryin’ Smile” seemingly having little point except to reaffirm that people do cry happy tears sometimes.  A disjointed narrative and lack of lyrical detail leaves the ultimate point of “Teaching Me How to Love You” unclear, causing it to ring hollow.

The pleasantly crisp neotraditional arrangements remain intact as on the duo’s previous efforts, while the performances are as amiable as ever.  But when it comes to storytelling – a vitally important factor in making a great country album tick – it simply seems that Joey + Rory have little to say that is of any substantial interest.  That makes His and Hers a disappointing effort coming from an act who made such compelling, creative music in the past - a collection with nowhere near the enduring appeal of Joey + Rory’s previous efforts.  A shame indeed.

JOEY + RORY’S SCORE:  5
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

BUY:  His and Hers

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2012 in Album Reviews

 

Joanna Smith – “We Can’t Be Friends”

Songwriters:  Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, Shelley Skidmore

In a market which often pressures artists to offer superficially uplifting lyrical fare – be it a Martina McBride-esque power ballad or an ode to beer and tailgates – it’s refreshing to hear a new artist who’s not afraid to do a little achin’.  For those unacquainted, Joanna Smith has released two singles to country radio in the past two years, with 2010′s “Gettin’ Married” and 2011′s “Georgia Mud” topping out at #55 and #57 respectively.

Her upcoming single “We Can’t Be Friends” makes for her third stab at the charts, and definitely her best effort so far.  “We Can’t Be Friends” is a beautiful, detailed lyric that addresses the post-breakup healing process from an angle that has not been used in recent memory.  Smith’s narrator firmly, but sadly insists that the only way to move on is to end contact, with maintaining a casual friendship not being a possibility, because she knows that even the slightest encounter will be enough to cause old feelings to rise to the surface once again.  “It’s not that I don’t love you,” she assures – “It’s that I love you way too much.”  Such naked, sincere honesty, not to mention smart, clear-eyed insight, is something that country radio could definitely use a good strong shot of.

That said, the song’s impact could have been bolstered had Smith managed to bring a greater sense of presence to the song, and perhaps imposed herself upon the lyric through some unique, personal vocal touches.  Of course, Smith is still a new artist, and this is a skill that she may very well be able to hone over time.  The important thing, however, is that she doesn’t get in the way of the song, but lets the lyric pull the weight in connecting with the listener, which makes “Friends” a quietly compelling record nonetheless.

Her previous singles hinted at a well of untapped potential, but “We Can’t Be Friends” strongly suggests that Joanna Smith just might have the talent and the taste to be a formidable artistic force in the country music industry – one who could shape up to be a most welcome presence in the country music mainstream, should country radio give her the time of day.  Either way, “We Can’t Be Friends” definitely makes one want to hear more from this bright young talent.

JOANNA’S SCORE:  8
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on September 3, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Dierks Bentley – “Tip It On Back”

Songwriters:  Ross Copperman, Tully Kennedy, Jon Nite

There’s nothing wrong with a good party song.  They can be quite enjoyable.  But they’re also very prone to being done to death after a while.  When three of the four singles from your current album are all party songs that sound more or less the same, you’ve got a problem.

“Tip It On Back” offers nothing new that we haven’t already heard many times from Dierks Bentley.  It’s the same old book with a brand new cover.  It’s a little more grating than “5-1-5-0,” but not quite as punch-yourself-in-the-face bad as “Am I the Only.”  It’s near the same notch on the scale as “Sideways,” minus the cringe-worthy barroom singalong.  The hook is mediocre and forgettable.  The melody is flat and monotonous.  The production is chunky and flavorless.

At the very least, “Tip It On Back” will serve as Bentley’s placeholder on radio playlists until he gets something better out, but he can do much better than this, and he has so many times.  Here’s hoping he can find/write some better material soon, and do some branching out in theme and content.  Dierks Bentley is too talented to be pigeonholing himself like this.

DIERKS’ SCORE:  4
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on August 15, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”

Songwriters:  Taylor Swift, Max Martin, Johan Shellback

McKayla Maroney says this better than I could:

By now it should hardly come as a surprise that Taylor Swift’s songs sound pop, but it’s easy to be almost taken aback by how fiercely un-country this song is, banjo in the country mix notwithstanding.  As a pop song, it could be worse - at least in terms of structure.  It boasts a sparse production and a strong melodic hook that makes a memorable impression, particularly in the chorus.  It will fit in comfortably on Top 40 playlists between toe-tapping hits by Katy Perry and Hot Chelle Rae.

There’s just no way around the fact that this is a huge step backward for Swift in terms of lyrical construction.  This song could be seen as everything Taylor Swift’s detractors detest about her wrapped up into a neat little package, with the juvenile aspect of her persona being played up to the point that it borders on self-parody.  While the “What!?” hook sounds cute at first, the “ooh ooh oohs” and the snipey spoken word portions are grating upon arrival.  As a whole, the lyric is one-dimensional, unimaginative, and – while I hate to use everbody’s favorite Swift perjorative – yes, this is very immature.  Swift has done this kind of song many times before, and she’s done it with much more perspective, insight, and cleverness than she shows here.  Considering she’s getting into her twenties now, it would be nice to see some forward artistic progression.

There are things that “Never Ever” gets right, but they’re not enough to offset all that it gets wrong.  While there’s a potentially good catchy pop song buried in here somewhere, it ultimately ends up getting smothered in cheese.  If this represents the direction of Swift’s upcoming album Red, then perhaps we would be better off joining Swift’s ex in listening to “some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.”

TAYLOR’S SCORE:  4
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on August 14, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Album Review: Teea Goans – That’s Just Me

With her sophomore album That’s Just Me, traditional country crooner Teea Goans continues to build upon the remarkable promise she displayed on her 2010 debut The Way I Remember It.  Like its predecessor, That’s Just Me offers an eclectic mix of new material with a selection of well-chosen covers.

With a distinct, plaintive voice that sounds like it was tailor-made for classic country – vaguely reminiscent of Pam Tillis with a few shades of Carlene Carter - Goans inhabits the throwback arrangements with grace and ease.  Terry Choate produces the project, framing Goans voice with the sweet sounds of fiddle and steel, with cool touches like some bluesy guitar chords (such as on “The Big Hurt”) added in for good measure.

That’s Just Me features fine covers of good’ns such as Larry Gatlin’s “I’ve Done Enough Dying Today,” as well as “Nobody Wins,” a top-notch Kris Kristofferson composition that was a hit for Brenda Lee in 1973.  Also cited is the Bob Montgomery-penned “Misty Blue,” which Wilma Burgess, Eddy Arnold, and Billie Jo Spears all had Top 5 hits with in 1966, 1967, and 1976, respectively, and which Goans likewise covers with aplomb.  The melody finely showcases Goans pristine vocal control and nuance.  The album closes with a beautifully raw, sparsely produced rendition of “Over the Rainbow” from the classic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz.  It would be an understatement to say that the song has been covered endlessly, but Goans impresses by delivering beautifully heartfelt vocal reading that comes across as uniquely her own.

As satisfying as the cover songs may be, That’s Just Me reaches similarly great heights with its inspired original material.  When Goans joins forces with Jamie Dailey of acclaimed bluegrass duo Dailey & Vincent on “That’s Just Me Loving You,” it’s hard to a imagine a sweeter-sounding vocal pairing.  The two voices meld seamlessly on a duet that makes you want to savor every note, and then attack the replay button.  Goans cuts loose with infectious abandon on jovial uptempo cuts such as the Western Swing-influenced number “Pour a Little Love On It” – a definite album highlight.  Similarly catchy uptempo cuts “Loving Proof” and Overboard” are given more percussive, modern-sounding arrangements than most of the album’s other cuts, while nodding heavily to traditional genre conventions, and thus still melding comfortably with the rest of the album.  Featuring consistently solid songs that are tastefully produced and beautifully sung, there simply isn’t a weak track to be found on That’s Just Me, making for an effortlessly lovable collection of tunes.

Every bit as straightforward, sincere, and unpretentious as its title would imply, That’s Just Me is a simple refreshing country delight, the likes of which are few and far between these days.  It’s not so much a genre exercise as a reminder of why we fell in love with country music in the first place.

TEEA’S SCORE:  9
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Top Tracks:  “Pour a Little Love On It,” “Misty Blue,” “That’s Just Me Loving You”

Buy:  That’s Just Me

 
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Posted by on August 11, 2012 in Album Reviews

 

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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)

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

 

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Toby Keith – “I Like Girls That Drink Beer”

Songwriters:  Toby Keith, Bobby Pinson

At first glance, I was not expecting this to be good.  Far from it – I was expecting a throwaway ditty built around its title, with the verses being totally blah.  Instead, we get an authentic, humorous ode to the working class, with a fiddle and steel-enhanced production that wouldn’t sound out of place among the awesome country music of the nineties.

The clash between the liftestyles of the city girl and the country boy is hardly new, but Keith offers a take that doesn’t feel like a halfhearted rehash, but that doesn’t take itself too seriously either.  Keith pulls off all the right stops for a good fun country boy ditty, from a jaunty, catchy melody to clever lines about “your country club that ain’t really country.”  Some might look down on the country folk, but Keith responds, not through hollow chest-pounding “country good – city bad” declarations, but rather by simply demonstrating that he’s comfortable in his own skin – not to mention by actually singing instead of just shouting.

Toby Keith might not be breaking new ground with this release, but he’s got song structure and entertainment value nailed down.  I have a feeling I just might be buying that upcoming new Toby Keith album.

TOBY’S SCORE:  8
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on August 5, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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David Nail – “Someone Like You”

Songwriters:  Adele Adkins, Dan Wilson

David Nail is a great singer.  “Someone Like You” is a great song.  It logically follows that a solid record would result.

Is it better than Adele’s original Grammy-winning pop hit version?  No.  That would be setting the bar mighty high.  Nail doesn’t take substantial creative liberties with Adele’s song either, not bothering to shoehorn in any fiddle or steel, but keeping it as a simple piano ballad very much in the vein of the original.  And who knows, maybe that’s the way to go – too much of an overhaul could have wound up a disaster.

The crucial point is that Nail renders Adele’s lyric with nuance and sincere emotion, adapting the song to his own vocal style without mimicking any aspects of Adele’s delivery (though it does feel slightly jarring to hear “…you’re married now” sung in an American accent).  He doesn’t over-sing the song, which is probably the biggest mistake one could make.  His performance is colored with deep shades of regret similar to that which made Adele’s performance of the song connect with such a wide audience.

Nail has released his version of “Someone Like You” as a music video, and has included his recording of it on his recently released 1979 EP.  As of now, the track has not been released to radio.  But if David Nail were to be the vehicle for such a fine song to find its way onto country airwaves, I would raise no complaint.

DAVID’S SCORE:  8
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

 
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Posted by on July 28, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Jake Owen – “The One That Got Away”

Songwriters:  Jake Owen, Jimmy Ritchey, Dallas Davidson

It would be all too easy to call out the new Jake Owen single for the fact that it doesn’t sound remotely like country music in any form, but the song exemplifies a much greater loss in modern country music – the fact that country storytelling has gone almost entirely by the wayside.

“The One That Got Away” is an unorginal song that tells an unoriginal story with an unoriginal hook.  Two teenage lovers share a summer fling for three months before parting ways, after which the guy wishes he had the girl back.  That’s my summary of the song’s story, but you don’t learn anything more from the song itself than from the preceding summary.  The song’s characterizations are so wafer-thin that it feels an account of two nameless and faceless individuals, while the song’s hook amounts to nothing more than a trite phrase that Owen doesn’t use in any novel way.  The loose narrative consists of vague paint-by-number summertime images that have been many times before, and that don’t enhance the story beyond the black-and-white template, making for a song consistently uninteresting in content.

The song’s greatest and most substantial failure is that it makes no significant attempt to connect with the listener on an emotional basis.  Nothing about the story feels urgent or revelatory, and nothing about the delivery feels impassioned or sincere.  That just leaves one wondering why the song even needed to exist in the first place.

If you want a really great song about the love ‘that got away,’ one you could go for is George Strait’s “I’d Like to Have That One Back.”  It’s way better.

JAKE’S SCORE:  4
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

 
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Posted by on July 25, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Her & Kings County – “Family Tree”

Can you say polarizing?  The new single offering from Her & Kings County is bold, in-your-face, shamelessly campy, and almost sure to simultaneously elicit grins from some listeners, and grimaces from others.  “Family Tree” bursts out of the gate with hand claps, banjo picking, and – wait for it – rapping, all the while displaying a love-us-or-hate-us abandon not heard since Laura Bell Bundy rode the airwaves.

Here’s my ten-cent take:  If you’re going to be crazy, you should do it like you mean it.  Seriously – I would take the self-aware stupidity of Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup” over the unintentional genre parody of the “countrier than thou” generation any day.  In a market when half of the singles on country radio practically scream “Like me!  Like me!  Like me!” it’s refreshing to hear an act that honestly sounds like they just don’t care.

“Family Tree” simply radiates more personality and good-natured, light-hearted fun than just about anything else on country radio.  If this is what it takes to break the monotony on radio playlists, there will be no complaints here.

HER & KINGS COUNTY’S SCORE:  7
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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