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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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