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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

 

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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Album Review: Edens Edge – Edens Edge

Four qualities that I appreciate in contemporary country music: (1) distinct, colorful vocals, (2) beautiful, engaging melodies, (3) simple, unobtrusive country-flavored instrumentation, (4) darn good songwriting.  With that in mind, it certainly comes as no surprise that I would fall for the charming self-titled debut album from Arkansas trio Edens Edge, as it possesses all four of those qualities in spades.

Without a doubt, the band boasts a strong, effective, and gifted frontwoman in lead vocalist Hannah Blaylock.  On each song she pours her voice into, she displays a unique talent for delivering thoughtful, layered vocal interpretations that come across as being uniquely hers.  This is evident in the numerous personal touches she adds to the songs.  You can almost hear the sly grin on her face as she softly says “Splash!” at the end of “Skinny Dippin’.”  She gives a subtle growl as she spits out the biting line “Lie, lie, lie, like a politician” on the fiery current single “Too Good to Be True,” while bringing a genuine sense of desperation to the wistful “Feels So Real.”  The most beautiful moments come with the plaintive, melancholy trill she imbues into the chorus of “Last Supper,” along with the gorgeous, shimmering falsetto she turns in on the a cappella hymn “Christ Alone,” which closes the album.

That said, Blaylock does not by any means hog the spotlight, as band mates Dean Berner and Cherill Green are given ample opportunity to shine.  Their instrumental chops are prominently spotlighted on nearly every track, while Green’s high, lilting voice and Berner’s smooth, deep voice supply engaging contrast and interplay as they frame Blaylock’s lead vocals.  The sound of the record is surprisingly restrained for a Mark Bright-produced project.  While he does dial up the percussion a tad too much on “Who Am I Drinking Tonight,” and adds a loud and unnecessary bass line to “Cherry Pie,” the better part of the set leans on a simple, no-nonsense production style that goes down easily, spiced up by Berner and Green’s nimble dobro, banjo, and mandolin picking.

As enticing as the other ingredients may be, what really makes a good album is good songs, and Edens Edge claims some noteworthy standouts.  Hannah Blaylock shares writing credits on three of the album’s ten tracks; Dean Berner’s name appears on two.  The band mates complement their self-written cuts with some solid outside material, with one standout moment being their delightfully twangy cover of the Ashley Monroe/ Terry Clayton/ Brett James co-write, “Swingin’ Door,” which was a hit for Catherine Britt in Australia.  The lyric builds on an effective metaphor of a swinging door at a “gas-up rest stop” to illustrate a non-committal man who walks in and out of his woman’s life as he pleases.  Best of all is “Last Supper,” which builds on Christ’s final passover with his apostles as a metaphor for a relationship nearing its end.  The couplet of “You break the break and break my heart/ You raise the glass as we fall apart” is heartrending.

Considerably less satisfying is “Who Am I Drinking Tonight,” which has a lively beat and melody, but that leans on the hackneyed name-dropping gimmick which feels like it should be beneath the group.  Likewise, we find that the brash, hard-drinking bad girl persona of Gretchen Wilson (who is briefly referenced in the lyric) is a hat that Hannah Blaylock can’t quite wear convincingly.  While “Liar” turns in a solid spin on a storyline that has been used a few times before, the chorus (“I’m a liar, I’m a liar/ The biggest liar in the world/ ‘Cause I’ll be cryin’, I’ll be cryin’/ Like I’ve never cried before”) feels somewhat hollow, while the nostalgia-themed “Cherry Pie” could benefit from a more clearly defined narrative.  That said, the vocals, production, and melody are generally able to elevate the record even when the songwriting falls short.

As a whole, the project is given just enough polish to be mainstream-friendly without veering off into the uninspired, radio-pandering blandness that far too many of the group’s radio peers have stooped to.  Most importantly, Edens Edge respectfully treats the music as an art form instead of merely a commercial product for mass consumption.  By all rights, this is an impressive debut album, and one that heightens interest in the growth that the trio’s future projects may bring.

EDENS EDGE’S SCORE:  7
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Top Tracks:  “Swingin’ Door,” “Last Supper,” “Feels So Real”

Buy:  Edens Edge

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2012 in Album Reviews, Reviews

 

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Album Review: Josh Turner – Punching Bag

Josh Turner undoubtedly possesses one of the most distinctive and impressive male voices heard on country radio today – a characteristic which, combined with his moderate traditionalist bent, has often made him a breath of fresh air on the mainstream country scene.  What isn’t always impressive is his song material.  His career thus far has often been punctuated by moments of brilliance (with the hits “Long Black Train” and “Would You Go With Me” being foremost among them), with a series of middling efforts in between.

Turner’s fifth album Punching Bag finds him continuing to live up to the traditionalist aspect of his persona.  Produced by Frank Rogers, who also helmed all four of Turner’s previous albums, Punching Bag serves up steel-heavy country sounds with a modest contemporary polish.  It adds up to a collection layered with pleasant, distinctly country-sounding arrangements, as well as warm, accessible melodies, but that falters in leaning too heavily on safely inoffensive, radio-ready song content.

As individual pieces, the album’s many up-tempo cuts are generally pleasant diversions in their own right, but when collected together, they come across as indistinct, interchangeable parts of the composite whole.  Between ditties such as “Deeper Than My Love,” “Good Problem,” “Find Me a Baby,” “Whatcha Reckon,” and “Left Hand Man,” we can expect to see at least one or two tapped for radio release within the album’s commercial life cycle.  Some, particularly “Left Hand Man” and the current hit single “Time Is Love,” lean too heavily on so-so hooks that strain to be clever, while the remainder of the lyric sheet is left blank of substance. “Find Me a Baby” even indulges in the gimmickry of slapping on kiddie singalongs and baby babbling, which doesn’t help.

Not surprisingly, the album’s finest moments are those that likely haven’t a prayer of making it to radio.  “Cold Shoulder” is a fine steel guitar weeper with a sonic backdrop that has Jones written all over it.  The lyric effectively portrays a crumbling marital relationship, in which the husband’s mending efforts are met with only icy silence.  Turner’s deep baritone is put to ideal use on the dark ballad “Pallbearer,” in which a narrator compares facing the end of the relationship to carrying the corpse of a deceased individual to the grave.  The eerie melody creates a sense of foreboding as Turner digs into his lower register with fine results.  He taps into his bluegrassy side with the spiritually themed “For the Love of God,” reminiscent of his 2006 hit “Me and God,” in which the narrator compares his own life course to individuals living only for themselves, vowing to keep his relationship with God the first priority in his life.  The acoustic-based bluegrass arrangement makes “For the Love of God” easily the coolest sounding track on the album.

In a similar vein, Turner attempts to dig deep with “I Was There,” which begins as a solid note as Turner sings from the point of view of God, and recalls God’s personally witnessing all significant events in human history as well as everyday life.  However, the song deals itself a crushing blow in its final verse, as it portrays God miraculously delivering a man from a near-miss of a car crash that almost resulted from his using his phone while driving:  “I was there last night on Highway 9/ When you answered the phone and ran right through that stop sign/ I was in the cab of that big rig in that trucker’s ear/ Made him swerve to the right and miss you by a hair.”  The song seemingly ignores the fact that approximately 40,000 Americans die in automobile accidents annually, leaving the questions hanging as to why God doesn’t deliver these victims as well.

Ultimately, the album gives Turner’s fans what they’ve come to expect while offering relatively little material that feels fresh, unexpected, or exciting in any significant way.  Granted, the sonic stylings are broadly enjoyable, and Turner expectedly delivers some fine performances.  Still, the project as a whole is bogged down by the fact that too much of the material feels like filler, and not enough of it feels like art.

JOSH’S SCORE:  6
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

BUY:  Punching Bag

Top Tracks:  “Cold Shoulder,” “Pallbearer,” “For the Love of God”

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2012 in Album Reviews, Reviews

 

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Album Review: Kip Moore – Up All Night

Newcomer Kip Moore is clearly catching on at radio, as seen by the recent chart-topping success of his single “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck.”  Though his debut album Up All Night at times wants for consistency and thematic variety, it remains a clear demonstration of budding talent.  Stylistically, the album leans toward a smooth, radio-friendly country-rock sound, but does so with more restraint and good taste than most, such that the rock elements do not overwhelm the songs themselves.  It’s a style Moore inhabits with ease, and it’s an apt fit for his rough, Springsteen-esque voice that shows a few shades of Billy Ray Cyrus.

Moore appears as a co-writer on every single one of the album’s cuts, sharing writing credits with the likes of everyone from Aimee Mayo to Blair Daly to Kiefer Thompson of Thompson Square (with whom Moore co-wrote two tracks on Thompson Square’s self-titled debut album).  With regard to lyrical material, one noteworthy gripe is that Moore tends to play the sexy card a tad too often.  The bulk of the album’s first half consists largely of one backwoods romance after another, as evident in kickoff tracks “Drive Me Crazy” and “Beer Money,” which are followed by the single “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck.”

To Moore’s credit, he does manage to tackle such themes with greater believability and with fewer clichés, and of course, not all songs of that ilk are bad - some here are actually quite good.  “Beer Money” is built around a big chorus with an accessible melody, and a production that is forceful without being overpowering.  Unremarkable title hook aside, “Drive Me Crazy” is laced with vivid imagery, while also showing itself not afraid to get a little steamy.  Though some tracks, “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck” in particular, trip over cliché fencing, Moore is still able to elevate the material to a degree thanks to the quality and character of his committed vocal performances.

When the songs are colored with shades of heartache and longing, it often pays significant dividends.  “Everything But You” immerses the listener in descriptions of deep blue ocean waters and starry night skies, with the narrator concluding that such have little meaning if he cannot enjoy them with his currently estranged lover by his side.  Such songs also give Moore room to show his chops as an interpretive singer as he imbues a subtle sense of urgency into his delivery of “Where You Are Tonight.”  Better yet, when the production is dialed back on “Hey Pretty Girl,” Moore effectively fills every sonic crevice with a nuanced half-whisper of a delivery.  Regrettably, Moore’s excellent, heartbreaking debut single “Mary Was the Marrying Kind” (which died at #45 on the charts) is omitted from the standard edition, but can be found on the deluxe edition (along with the bonus track “Motorcycle” and an acoustic version of “Somethin’ ‘Bout a Truck”).  The album closes on a solid note with “Faith When I Fall,” a simple, plaintive prayer for faith, hope, and strength from above.

It all adds up to a collection that is at least entertaining, if not always substantial. (This is still mainstream Nashville country music, after all)  Up All Night clearly positions Kip Moore as one of the more interesting and talented newcomers to hit country airwaves, and one who clearly has notable potential should more fully realized projects come in the future.

KIP’S SCORE:  7
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Buy:  Up All Night

 
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Posted by on May 24, 2012 in Album Reviews

 

Album Review: Amy Dalley – Coming Out of the Pain

Country radio listeners may recognize Amy Dalley from her days recording for Curb Records, during which she released several low-charting singles, with her highest being 2004’s #23-peaking “Men Don’t Change.”  Due to the disappointing chart performance of her singles, Curb Records shelved the album, and Dalley later exited the Curb roster in 2008.  Finally, she released the album It’s Time in 2009 via digital retailers.  The follow-up Coming Out of the Pain has just been released on Dalley’s own label imprint Madjack Records, via Rock Ridge Music.

Dalley’s songwriting is characterized by naked honesty and straightforwardness in tackling everyday emotional conflicts.  As suggested by its title, Coming Out of the Pain largely deals with the ins and outs of stormy relationships.  While the bird-flipping brashness of raucous album opener “Peace Sign” may be a turnoff for some, the song earns points for creating a realistically flawed and vulnerable character whom has been discourteously dumped by her boyfriend via email.   Closing track “Some Goodbye” finds Dalley sounding genuinely bewildered by the insensitivity of her ex and she pines “What a way to break me.”  On “I May Love You Now,” she warns her noncommittal lover that “I may love you now, but that don’t mean I will.”  Through such material, a thread of emotional angst is woven throughout the record, with an emphasis on empowerment that comes to a head on the moving-on-themed title track.

Though Dalley’s past efforts have shown her to be a capable vocalist, Coming Out of the Pain finds her at times attempting to tackle melodies that collide with her limited range, and she wanders off pitch quite a few times in the course of this album.  This is particularly noticeable on cuts like “Breakin’ It Down” and “Damage Is Done,” which find Dalley straining to reach high notes that make her voice sound thinner than it is.  Likewise, party rocker “Saturday Night Situation” embraces a shouted-out style that highlights Dalley’s vocal imperfections instead of covering over them.  Quite a few of the album’s tracks utilize an audacious “wall of sound” production that often tends to be to her disservice as a vocalist.

And yet, when she stays within her limits, Dalley can be quite effective on an interpretive level.  A definite album standout is the ballad “Somebody Said It Rained,” which deals with the rekindling of a  weathered marital relationship – a theme which Dalley tackles with earnestness.  The song also benefits from a hook concept that is thoughtful and creative:  The couple spends their entire vacation indoors “wrapped up in a blanket for three days,” blissfully unaware that it’s raining the entire time.  Though the sprightly, mandolin-laced, happy-go-lucky “Bottle It Up” could do without the echoey background vocals, it conversely shows that Dalley can slip into a loose and upbeat mood with ease.

While the sonic treatment tends to be uneven in places, Dalley’s lyrics often provide redemption, and she turns in an overall solid set of songs.  But while her solid songwriting chops remain on ample display, Coming Out of the Pain could stand to be a little more refined, and a lot less loud.

AMY’S SCORE:  6
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

BUY IT ON AMAZON

 
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Posted by on April 3, 2012 in Album Reviews

 

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Album Review: Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie – The Touch of Time

It would be quite the understatement to say that Bill Emerson is well versed in the traditions of great bluegrass music.  As a founding member of The Country Gentlemen with a career reaching back to the 1950′s, the five-string banjo whiz is an industry veteran who has recorded with various groups under various names.  The Touch of Time is his third album release since forming the Sweet Dixie Band in 2007, which brings him together with the talents of Teri Chism (vocals and upright bass), Wayne Lanham (vocals and mandolin), and Chris Stifel (vocals and guitar).

The Touch of Time builds on a reliable formula of mixing original tunes with some well-chosen covers, with some rousing instrumental tracks added to the mix.  Indeed, the band displays impeccable taste in covers, while imbuing the songs with their own creative musical arrangements.  On this twelve-track set, we are treated to a Sweet Dixie version of the Leroy Preston-penned hit “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train” - a song that was popularized by Rosanne Cash in 1980, becoming her second number-one hit.  In addition, the trio resurrects an obscure Dolly Parton song, “Highlight of My Life,” which was an unreleased album track on Parton’s classic 1974 album Jolene.

The instrumental tracks in particular are a joy to hear.  Emerson and Sweet Dixie cover the traditional song “Little Pink” with palpable enthusiasm.  Emerson himself contributes three of his own compositions to the project, with one (“Home Sweet Dixie Home”) being a co-write with Bill Evans.  In addition, Chris Stifel’s songwriting pen supplies the album’s title track - a beautiful, wistful reflection on the short and fleeting nature of life.  Another high point is the aching “Today I Turned Your Picture to the Wall” – a sorrowful moving-on tale with subtle shades of bitterness, with the brokenhearted narrator’s resolve perfectly summed up by the song’s excellent title phrase.

Shining with top-notch bluegrass musicianship and unshakable group dynamics throughout, along with consistently strong song material, Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie’s The Touch of Time is a definite keeper.

BILL EMERSON & SWEET DIXIE’S SCORE:  8
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

BUY IT ON AMAZON 

Top Tracks:  “My Baby Thinks He’s a Train,” “The Touch of Time,” “Today I Turned Your Picture to the Wall”

 
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Posted by on February 20, 2012 in Album Reviews

 

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Album Review: Gretchen Peters – Hello Cruel World

Gretchen Peters is definitely not a suitable artist for the attention-deficit listener.  Indeed, Peters’ songs are not meant to be relegated to background music.  Her new album Hello Cruel World is a somber affair that is best experienced when one is able to devote full attention to it.  On a superficial level, it may seem to make for a rather plodding listen-through.  But for the listener willing to dig below the surface to grasp the carefully crafted emotional layers of each lyric, the rewards are bountiful.

Seasoned songwriting talent that she is – whose credits include her signature “Independence Day” (Martina McBride), as well as “Let That Pony Run” (Pam Tillis), “You Don’t Even Know Who I Am” (Patty Loveless), and “The Chill of an Early Fall” (George Strait) among many others – Peters unerringly places song and story in the front and center.  With her soft smoky voice sounding as invigorating as ever, Peters sings in a pure straightforward manner, devoid of unnecessary vocal histrionics, yet expressive and authoritative.  Peters herself takes producer’s credit along with Doug Lancio and husband Barry Walsh, backing the songs with sparse, largely acoustic arrangements.  Though utilizing a less-is-more approach throughout, they also add special touches where appropriate, such as flourishes of harmonica in “The Matador,” eerie banjo plucking on “Paradise Found,” and subdued trumpet notes on “Camille.”  She even duets with Rodney Crowell on “Dark Angel,” with his distinctive touch bringing dynamic vocal interplay to the lyric.

For Peters, the album was born out of a time of tumult.  In the year 2010, Peters was affected by disasters such the Gulf oil spill and the Nashville flood, with that same year also bringing about her marriage to longtime collaborator Barry Walsh.  It is those experiences, both the joyful and the difficult, that provide inspiration for these eleven memorable songs that find Peters giving uninhibited vent to her thoughts and emotions, resulting in an album of notable insight and maturity.  The opening title track aptly sets the tone for the album, as the middle-aged female narrator looks back on the regrets and missed opportunities in her life, musing “Haven’t done as well as I thought I would/ I’m not dead yet, but I’m damaged goods/ And it’s getting late.”

Thus begins Peters’ fascinating musical exploration of human frailties, ripe with symbolism and poetic imagery, but not to the point of being impenetrable.  Tracks like “Paradise Found,” “Woman On the Wheel,” and “Natural Disaster” utilize accessible, plainspoken metaphors to portray pleasure as well as pain and emotional turmoil.  Peters alone writes nine of the album’s tracks, and collaborates with co-writers on an additional two.  “St. Francis,” a co-write with Tom Russell, with whom Peters collaborated on the fantastic 2009 duets album One to the Heart, One to the Head, uses the story of St. Francis of Assisi to address the thinking that this world doesn’t matter, and that there’s no need to respect and protect it, with the song having been inspired by the Gulf oil spill.  The excellent singer-songwriter Kim Richey can be heard providing harmony vocals on the track.  “Camille” is a writing collaboration between Peters and her awesomely talented “Wine, Women, and Song” cohorts Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss.  It delves into the character of a woman who attempts to numb emotional pain through indulgence in pleasure, only to carry a heavy burden of guilt and shame as a result.

Though moral issues and dilemmas are often addressed in her songwriting, Peters wisely steers clear of adopting a judgmental tone, instead inspiring thought.  This is evident in the lines such as “But who are we without the thrill, without the damage, without the kill” in “The Matador.”  On a similar note, she presents a realistically flawed heroine in “Five Minutes,” in which her character sips a glass of wine, or takes a brief drag on a cigarette to escape the burden of her past as she sees its repercussions affecting her children.  Peters never takes platform on issues, but rather, she presents topics in a way that raises a question, hones in on a certain truth, or simply causes the listener to see things from a different perspective.  Needless to say, it takes several listens to deeply grasp the song meanings – I can’t even count the number of times I listened through this album in writing this review.

A very deep album with profound, layered lyrics that grow even deeper with repeated listening, Hello Cruel World is a deftly constructed, deeply satisfying collection that effectively builds on Gretchen Peters’ already-formidable artistic legacy.  It is undoubtedly one of the best and most significant records we’ll get out of the year 2012.

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

Top Tracks:  “Hello Cruel World,” “The Matador,” “Dark Angel,” “Five Minutes”

BUY IT ON AMAZON

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Album Reviews

 

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Album Review: Tim McGraw – Emotional Traffic

Now that Tim McGraw has finally been freed from his Curb Records contract by a Nashville court, his long-delayed contract-fulfilling album Emotional Traffic has finally seen a release.  Unfortunately, it looks like I’ll be putting this album on the same shelf as Own the Night and The Incredible Machine.  Though McGraw has touted it as his “best album ever,” I’m going to have to beg to differ.  Emotional Traffic easily ranks among McGraw’s weakest career efforts to date.

Each of the album’s first two singles offered a different possible preview of the forthcoming album’s musical direction.  “Better Than I Used to Be” suggested a throwback to the classic late nineties-era Tim McGraw sound, while its predecessor “Felt Good On My Lips” (which originally appeared on the 2010 Number One Hits compilation) suggested an album dominated by shouted-out arena rock.  Regrettably, the album sticks almost entirely to the former.  Emotional Traffic is a bloated moody mess of an album that recalls the overblown, underdeveloped musical styles that acts such as Rascal Flatts and Lady Antebellum have often reveled in, as well as even formerly impressive acts like Sugarland.

I’m not saying that this bad album just because it isn’t “country enough” (which would be kind of a cop-out). The problem is that these eardrum-busting arrangements are in terribly poor service to the songs themselves.  The album as a whole disregards the one cardinal rule about great country music:  It’s all about the songs.  It’s not just about being as loud and noisy as one possibly can.  Even when the songs are good, the incessant loudness acts as a sonic barrier between the song and the listener.  It’s impossible for a song lyric to connect with you on any significant level if you can scarcely tell what the lyric is even saying.  With a sound ruled by screaming electric guitars, Emotional Traffic is at times practically unlistenable, and with McGraw himself having produced the album with Byron Gallimore, a decent portion of that blame rests on his own shoulders.

Such production choices are a disservice not only to the songs, but also to McGraw himself.  Though his singing voice lacks the depth and range of contemporaries such Vince Gill and Toby Keith, McGraw’s greatest gift as a vocalist has long been his impeccable strength as a lyrical interpreter.  Career gems such as “Everywhere,” “Just to See You Smile,” and “Please Remember Me” provide solid evidence of that fact.  When he has to shout to be heard over audacious bass lines and blunt force guitar licks, all the magic is lost.  His fine vocal nuances are lost in the shuffle, and his voice becomes but a small component in a constant storm of noise.  Because the album puts far too much focus on beating listeners over the head with needless noise, the emotional traffic is drowned out by an excess of instrumental traffic.

The production fails to mask the fact that most of these songs are no great shakes to begin with.  Album opener “Halo” flirts with the idea of offering a substantial take on a breakup, but ends up a crude jumble of ill-conceived metaphors.  “The One” warns you by its dime-store title hook that it has nothing noteworthy to say, offering only a lazily written list song, while “Touchdown Jesus” only reaffirms the fact that mining the Peach Pickers songwriting catalog rarely yields anything more memorable than the usual radio-pandering formulas.  The pseudo-inspirational “I Will Not Fall Down,” co-written by McGraw with Martina McBride and her common writing compadres Brad and Brett Warren, leads us to expect something interesting as it begins by addressing the theme of getting older.  Sadly, the song offer no listener payoff beyond the shallow declaration of “I will not fall down without getting up… That’s when I need your love,” while volume of the in-your-face production reaches a nearly intolerable high.

Perhaps what’s most disconcerting is the fact that McGraw’s vocal performances are startlingly inconsistent, with him often tackling melodies that are extremely ill-suited to his vocal range.  When he attempts to attack the rocking groove of “The One,” his voice sounds nearly shot.  He sings the soaring chorus of “I Will Not Fall Down” with as much force as his thin voice allows him, but the song would have been better left to the big voice of co-writer Martina McBride.  Half the time McGraw sounds more like he’s shouting than singing, with the “oh-oh-ohh”s and “whoa-oh-oh”s of “Felt Good On My Lips” serving him no better.

The album contains a few enjoyable moments, but such are sparse.  The first, obviously, is the single “Better Than I Used To Be.”  Though McGraw’s version of the song doesn’t fare well in comparison to the 2010 Sammy Kershaw version, it sounds pretty dang good when sandwiched between “The One” and “Touchdown Jesus.”  The second is “One Part, Two Part” which weighs the emotional pros and cons of being in a relationship with too much taking, and not enough giving.  Though the production is somewhat loud, it is comparatively restrained when held up against the songs that surround it.  It ultimately stays out of the way of the lyric, such that wife Faith Hill is even able to contribute guest vocals without being drowned out.  We can even make out a melody that is somewhat catchy.  If we manage to stay with the album until Track 11, we find certain components beginning to fall back into place, as “Only Human” and “Die By My Own Hand” find the songwriting quality improving.  Even then, frustratingly, obnoxious, heavy-handed arrangements act as unwelcome interruptions. Beyond a precious few cuts that are worth cherry-picking, there is little to recommend.

I can hardly begin to convey my disappointment.  I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from Emotional Traffic, but I was expecting a heck of lot better than what I got.  By the way, this is not coming from a longtime McGraw detractor – I have long considered myself to be something of a Tim McGraw fan.  Why, he and Faith were my first concert.  I like Tim McGraw, and I thus approached this album with an open mind, fully ready to be impressed.  That didn’t happen.  When the album tracklist was revealed, I was initially disappointed that the turgid single “Felt Good On My Lips” was going to be included.  But after having heard the rest of the album, I have to say that the real disappointment is not the fact that the song was included, but that it fits so well with the rest of the album.  Because the rest of it is just as bad - often worse.

With McGraw’s Curb partnership having come down to this, perhaps his leaving the label will be for the better in more ways than one.  Let us hope that McGraw’s post-Curb endeavors find him getting back to the basics of what made him a compelling artist to begin with, and that his future output will offer some musical redemption from this disaster.  If it didn’t represent a last-ditch cash grab for Curb Records as they say goodbye to their flagship act, Emotional Traffic would have been better left to collect dust on the Curb shelves next to some underloved Jo Dee Messina album.  This is dreadful.

TIM’S SCORE:  3
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Download These:  “One Part, Two Part,” “Better Than I Used to Be”

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Posted by on January 29, 2012 in Album Reviews

 

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Album Review: Miranda Lambert – Four the Record

There’s a reason why Miranda Lambert is one of the most consistently interesting and critically acclaimed artists in mainstream country music.  She is not afraid to take risks.  Such risks continue on her aptly titled fourth release Four the Record, an effort characterized by creative experimentation, though the results are slightly less consistent than we would normally expect from Lambert.

Four the Record experiments with a diversity of sounds, styles, and influences.  How appropriate, then, that the album opens with “All Kinds of Kinds” – a song that celebrates diversity.  The lyrics paint colorful visual images of a wedding beneath a circus tent between an acrobat and a human cannonball, of a marriage between a pharmacist and a cross-dressing congressman, while the third verse taps into the narrators desire to explore her own unique identity.  Lambert goes in an unexpected direction with the standout track “Fine Tune,” which builds on a metaphor of an “engine of a heart that would not start ’til you showed up with a master-key.”  The track finds Lambert singing over a heavy beat backed with bluesy electric guitars, which ends up sounding pretty cool, though it could do with out the excessive vocal processing.  It only loosely qualifies as “country music,” and its sound will likely prove polarizing, but the off-beat styling makes it one of the album’s most unusual and interesting tracks. (Plus the coolest thing since hearing Faith Hill sing “centrifugal motion” has got to be Miranda singing “defibrillator”)

Lambert shares writing credits on half of the album’s tracks, but there are times when she falls shy of her usual songwriting standards.  Lead single “Baggage Claim,” co-written with Luke Laird and Natalie Hembry, draws on a previously unused metaphor, only to stretch the metaphor until it nearly breaks.  To her credit, however, Lambert draws on some strong sources of outside material, with perhaps the best case being her version of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch’s “Look at Miss Ohio.”  Brandi Carlile’s “Same Old You,” is a smart, self-realizing composition that shows traces of Loretta Lynn influence, and that wouldn’t sound out-of-place on Lambert fantastic Pistol Annies album.  On the other hand, her co-write with fellow Annie Angaleena Presley is surprisingly one-dimensional, and almost sounds like a song that just wasn’t quite good enough to make it onto the Pistol Annies album.

Perhaps the album’s most disappointing track is “Better In the Long Run” – the obligatory duet with hubby Blake Shelton, which suffers from an over-the-top performance on Shelton’s part, as well as an extremely boring central hook.  It sounds like something that songwriter Ashley Monroe must have written on an off-day.  The results are quite disheartening, considering the inherently lofty potential of a duet between vocalists of Shelton and Lambert’s caliber (which their past collaborations often came much closer to fulfilling).

Production choices are generally beneficial, with a few exceptions.  Lead single “Baggage Claim” boats infectious acoustic strumming and hand claps, which serve to elevate its rather clunky lyrics.  The bitter “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a stronger lyric, but the chorus rocks out so hard that you’ll be diving for the knob to lower the volume, though the lightly percussive intro works well.  Fortunately, there are plenty of moments in which strong lyrics meet good protection, thus making for some notable album highlights.  On Miranda’s self-written “Dear Diamond,” a light contemporary arrangement underscores her deeply emotional performance, which is bolstered by vocal harmonies of the ever-excellent Patty Loveless, while a light acoustic arrangement perfectly frames the bouncy melody of “Same Old You.”

Though the album has its share of missteps, its best and most interesting tracks are enough to reaffirm the fact that Lambert is not content to settle into a creative rut of half-hearted repetition.  It’s clear that her work continues to be characterized by restless creativity, and though Four the Record is not Miranda’s all-time best album, it’s more than interesting enough to have us waiting with bated breath to see what she’ll do with record number five.

MIRANDA’S SCORE:  7
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

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Posted by on November 15, 2011 in Album Reviews

 

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