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2012 CMA Nominations

They’re out!  What are your thoughts on this year’s CMA nominations?  Discuss in the comments section.

Entertainer of the Year 

Jason Aldean
Kenny Chesney
Brad Paisley
Blake Shelton
Taylor Swift

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelly Clarkson
Miranda Lambert
Martina McBride
Taylor Swift
Carrie Underwood

Male Vocalist of the Year

Jason Aldean
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Blake Shelton
Keith Urban

Vocal Group of the Year

The Band Perry
Eli Young Band
Lady Antebellum
Little Big Town
Zac Brown Band

Vocal Duo of the Year

Big & Rich
Love and Theft
Sugarland
The Civil Wars
Thompson Square

New Artist of the Year

Lee Brice
Brantley Gilbert
Hunter Hayes
Love and Theft
Thompson Square

Album of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

Luke Bryan, Tailgates and Tanlines - Produced by Jeff Stevens and Mark Bright

Eric Church, Chief - Produced by Jay Joyce

Miranda Lambert, Four the Record - Produced by Frank Liddell, Chuck Ainlay, and Glenn Worf

Dierks Bentley, Home - Produced by Brett Beavers, Luke Wooten, and Jon Randall Stewart

Lady Antebellum, Own the Night  - Produced by Paul Worley and Lady Antebellum

Song of the Year (Awarded to songwriters)

Eli Young Band, “Even if It Breaks Your Heart” – Will Hoge and Eric Paslay

Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You” – Dave Barnes

Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Dierks Bentley, Dan Wilson and Brett Beavers

Miranda Lambert, “Over You” – Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton

Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Eric Church, Jeff Hyde and Ryan Tyndell

Single of the Year (Awarded to artist and producer)

Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem” – Produced by Michael Knox

Blake Shelton, “God Gave Me You” – Produced by Scott Hendricks

Dierks Bentley, “Home” – Produced by Brett Beavers and Luke Wooten

Little Big Town, “Pontoon” – Produced by Jay Joyce

Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Produced by Jay Joyce

Musical Event of the Year

“Dixie Highway,” Alan Jackson and Zac Brown Band

“Feel Like a Rock Star,” Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw

“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die,” Willie Nelson featuring Snoop Dogg, Kris Kristofferson and Jamey Johnson

“Safe and Sound,” Taylor Swift featuring the Civil Wars

“Stuck on You,” Lionel Richie and Darius Rucker

Music Video of the Year (Awarded to artist and director)

Eric Church, “Springsteen” – Directed by Peter Zavadil

Kenny Chesney, “Come Over” – Directed by Shaun Silva

Miranda Lambert, “Over You” – Directed by Trey Fanjoy

Little Big Town, “Pontoon” – Directed by Declan Whitebloom

Toby Keith, “Red Solo Cup” – Directed by Michael Salomon

Musician of the Year

Sam Bush
Paul Franklin
Dann Huff
Brent Mason
Mac McAnally

 
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Posted by on September 5, 2012 in News and Events

 

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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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Carrie Underwood – “Blown Away”

Songwriters:  Chris Tompkins, Josh Kear

Though Carrie Underwood has released a fair amount of tepid material over the past few years, her new album Blown Away hints strongly at a restless creative spirit beginning to bubble up underneath that powerhouse voice.  This is particularly evident on the album’s title track, which has been slated as its second single.

With this ambitious new release, Underwood ventures into the thematic territory of domestic abuse with a harrowing tale of a girl claiming revenge on her violent alcoholic father.  When a twister touches down on the family’s Oklahoma residence, the protagonist takes cover in the cellar while her father lies passed out on the couch, allowing the storm-ravaged house to collapse on top of him.  The lyric invests a sense of symbolism in the events it describes, building on effective metaphors between the destruction of the house, and the protagonist moving on in the wake of her tortured past.  It adds up to one of the most complex and engaging lyrics Underwood has tackled yet, which will undoubtedly make it a sharp standout on country radio.

Though “Blown Away” doesn’t quite reach the spine-tingling heights of Martina McBride’s flawless “Independence Day,” it represents significant growth as an interpretive singer on Underwood’s part, as she gives an empathetic delivery that imparts a sense of humanity to the desperate protagonist who takes extreme measures to preserve herself.  Though it’s all too easy for a big-voiced singer of Underwood’s caliber to veer off toward ill-advised power notes, “Blown Away” finds her striking a balance between power and nuance, ably stepping up to the role of a storyteller as well as a singer.

Why producer Mark Bright felt to need to slap on unnecessary, distracting reverb effects on Underwood’s otherwise solid vocal is anybody’s guess.  It doesn’t necessary sink the record, but it acts as a barrier between the song and the listener, and it takes focus off of Underwood’s committed, dynamic performance.  Other than that, the arrangement, which tastefully incorporates a few orchestral touches, is generally effective at conveying a sense of intensity and urgency to fit the dark lyric.

“Blown Away” may be a bit rough around the edges, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of Underwood’s most interesting and challenging single releases to date.

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

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Posted by on June 15, 2012 in Single Reviews

 

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Matraca Berg – “The Dreaming Fields”

Songwriters:  Matraca Berg, Gary Harrison

Though Matraca Berg is quite deservedly one of the most acclaimed and successful Nashville songwriters of the past few decades, her own recorded work has often been criminally underappreciated.  She supplied numerous hit songs for the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Suzy Bogguss, and Martina McBride, among others.  She even won the CMA Song of the Year award for the Deana Carter-recorded hit “Strawberry Wine.”  Still, her own efforts to break through as a recording artist in the country music mainstream continuously met with a cold shoulder from the industry.

Trisha Yearwood fans may recognize this particular song as having been one of the crowning moments on Yearwood’s stellar 2007 set Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love.  The song later served as the title track to Berg’s first studio album in 14 years, released last year.  It has now been released as a single and video.

“The Dreaming Fields” is a wistful reflection on the loss of a family farm that has stood for generations.  Berg relates “Oh, my grandfather stood right here as a younger man in nineteen and forty-three/ And with the sweat and his tears, the rain and the years/ He grew life from the soil and seed.”  The song goes on to invoke natural elements in rich poetic imagery, while weaving in some social commentary on the industrialization of agriculture. (“It seems the only way a man can live off the land these days is to buy and sell”) Berg paints a vivid picture of the world that has meant so much to her, such that any listener, regardless of whether or not you grew up in similar surroundings, can be gripped by it.  She sorrows not just for the farm itself, but for a cherished way of life that has come to an end.

Some may dismiss Berg’s own recording as inferior to Yearwood’s, and indeed Berg obviously does not have Yearwood’s voice, but Berg herself gives a deeply moving performance that stands fully on its own merits.  Backed by nothing more than piano and cello, her honey-sweet voice is full of subtlety and nuance – rising one moment, falling to a plaintive whisper, and then trailing off the next moment.  She ends the song by choking out a soft, deeply felt “Goodbye.”  Throughout her performance, Berg’s deep personal connection to her lyric is not only audible, but thoroughly unmistakable.

All in all, it’s one of the finest songs of Berg’s illustrious career.  Music doesn’t get much better or more beautiful than this.

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

Click here to hear the Trisha Yearwood version 

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2012 in Single 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”

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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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2011 In Review: Singles I Would Rather Forget

It would be extrememly redundant if I were to mourn over what a weak year 2011 has been for country music, but really, let’s face it.  Country music just doesn’t get “good years” anymore these days, at least not from a mainstream perspective.  Periodically we are treated to a something genuinely great that offers a glimmer of hope for the genre’s future – Last year it was “The House That Built Me”; this year it was “Cost of Livin’.”  But even then, we still have an enormous amount of duds foisted upon us at the same time.

The following is a candid list of 2011 single releases that, as far as I’m concerned, unequivocally missed the mark.  I will indulge in one last breath of biting sarcasm, and afterwards I shall never speak of these songs again.  I don’t care at all if the songs were big hits or not – They’re being judged solely on the basis of how badly they make my skin crawl.

Trace Adkins, “Brown Chicken Brown Cow”

A heaping helping of distasteful over-the-top sexual imagery built around a corny pun that grows more intolerable with each chorus.  When I first heard this, I thought surely this would be the worst country single of 2011.  At any rate, not playing this song was one of the few things that country radio got right in 2011.

Aaron Lewis, “Country Boy”

A rocker-gone-country du jour sets out to prove his country cred by coughing up every rehashed country cliché in the book.

Eric Church, “Homeboy”

An annoying title pun and a few slight tinges of rascism fail to disguise this dud as anything other than just another throwaway tune about how country life trumps city life.

Sugarland, “Tonight”

There were two good songs on Sugarland’s largely atrocious album The Incredible MachineOnly two good songs.  After they were both sent to radio, it figures that the inevitable third single would sum up everything that’s gone wrong with Sugarland’s music lately.  The lyrics make no sense.  The production is bloated and tasteless.   Worst of all, the typically stellar Jennifer Nettles turns in one of her weakest performances to date.

Jake Owen, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night”

With inspid lyrics set against an arrangement that sounds like bad eighties pop music, “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” plays like a big heap of almost everything I hate about stale mainstream country music all wrapped up in one package.

Luke Bryan, “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)”

Lyrics?  Dumber than dumber than dumb.  Bryan’s playful vocal almost saves this from being a complete dud.  Almost.  But not quite.

Brantley Gilbert, “Country Must Be Country Wide”

“In every state, there’s a station…” playing crappy country pride anthems that shamelessly namedrop legends in a vain attempt to compensate for their own utter lack of artistic merits.

Jason Aldean, “Dirt Road Anthem”

This gets a nomination for Song of the Year?  I don’t get it.  What unique and amazing qualities does this song possess that deem it worthy to compete against the work of Matraca Berg and Deana Carter?  Because it’s the first song in forever to crow about dirt roads and cold beer?  Because it’s so revolutionary to namedrop George Jones?  Way to knock your credibility, CMA.

Gloriana, “Wanna Take You Home”

This song is like air to me.  I get nothing out of it whatsoever.  It starts by rhyming “girl” with “rock my world”… and then it’s all downhill from there.  What more is there to say?

Kristin Chenoweth, “I Want Somebody (Bitch About)”

Hey!  Yeah you!  Y’all better listen up!  Uh-huh!  O-kay!  She’s a Broadway star – It’s not like she’s never sung before.  So how on earth does she turn in a performance so awful?  Never mind that the song itself was pretty much a turd to begin with.  Every now and then, I might get the lurge to listen to this song just to chuckle at how amazingly bad it is, but even then, I rarely stay with it past the first chorus.  When I first heard this, I though surely this must be the worst country single of 2011.

The JaneDear Girls, “Merry Go Round”

Oh, my ears.  Oh, my ears!  I’m so sorry, but these girls are total vocal hacks, and smothering them in auto-tune only makes it worse.  It just blows my mind that a major Nashville label is throwing their support behind such godawful music.  Sorry, Adkins and Chenoweth, we have a winner.  This is undoubtedly the worst country single of 2011.

Martina McBride, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It”

Just in case you didn’t hear her, she said “I’M GONNA LOVE YOU THROUGH IIIIIIIIIIIIITTTTT!!!!!”

Justin Moore, “Bait a Hook”

This whole “country-good-city-bad” shtick wore out its calling card a long, long, LONG time ago.  Why, oh why, do country music’s frat boys insist on selling us the same unintelligent one-dimensional character over and over again?  Or perhaps the better questions is why are people still buying it?  I hate to wax philosophical here, but isn’t it just so sad that this is what country music has come to?  Drivel like this undermines the overall credibility of the country genre, disrespects its rich history and heritage, and gives genre outsiders one more reason to be instantly dismissive of country music in general.  If I didn’t already love country music, songs like this would probably make me hate it.

Brad Paisley, “Camouflage”

Yet another sign that Paisley’s creative batteries are begging for a recharge.

Lady Antebellum, “We Owned the Night”

Glorified elevator music.  But, to keep it in perspective, the rest of the album was even worse.

Well, there you have it.  I’ve had my say, so now it’s your turn.  What were your least favorite singles of 2011?

 
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Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Year In Review

 

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Album Review: Martina McBride – Eleven

Martina McBride’s recently-released new album is her first for her new label Republic Nashville, having recorded on RCA for the previous eighteen years.  The record is titled Eleven due to its status as the eleventh studio album of her career, being released on the eleventh month of the year 2011, and containing eleven tracks (though the deluxe Target version comes with four bonus tracks).  Or, presumably, because she was too drunk to think of a real title.

With McBride’s recent record label switch, one would easily wonder if any change in her musical strategy would follow.  Of the two singles that preceded the release, each gave a drastically different impression of what kind of album fans could be led to expect.  “Teenage Daughters” suggested a release that was fresh, unique, and slightly off-beat, while “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” seemed to foreshadow a business-as-usual stack of overblown power ballads indulging McBride’s most irritating tendencies of recent years.

That said, it comes as a pleasant surprise that Eleven as a whole is quite a bit closer to the former.  The album, produced by McBride and Byron Gallimore, and featuring six tracks on which McBride shares writing credits, includes a good dose of catchy up-tempo fare that taps into a variety of different genre influences, though there are some exquisite ballads as well.

In the liner notes, McBride makes no bones about the fact that album kickoff “One Night” was written to serve as an opener for her shows – a fact which is quite apparent in listening to the song, which is meant to describe “how I feel when I walk onstage.”  The lyrics don’t seem to be worth much at face value, but McBride injects an energy into the song that makes it oddly infectious, if not particularly substantial.  Happy love song “Always Be This Way” delves no deeper lyrically, but is notable for it’s left-of-center styling.  “Always Be This Way” finds McBride tapping into something of a reggae-country vein with the breezy ukelele-laced tune.  Though the song could use a better title hook, McBride turns in an expressive and engaging vocal performance that fits the melodic groove perfectly, and she puts just the right amount of gusto into lyrics like “I like the way you make my heart go boom-boom-boom.”  The styling may prove polarizing with some listers – Whether or not you like it may depend to some extent on whether or not you liked “Stuck Like Glue” – but it sure is darn catchy.

Perhaps the one track on this album that I was fully expecting to hate was McBride’s cover of Train’s hit “Marry Me,” a song I never particularly cared for, featuring guest vocals from Train frontman Pat Monohan.  How surprised I was when I found myself captivated by McBride’s beautifully understative delivery!  McBride sings the first verse and chorus solo, and is followed by Monohan singing the second verse and chorus.  On the bridge, the two vocalists begin singing directly to each other, eventually blending their voices in harmony on the final chorus.  This particular setup, as explained by McBride in the album’s liner notes, is symbolic of two potential lovers who “tell their stories seperately and then come together at the end.”  It adds an entirely new layer that was completely absent from the Train original (which was sung solo by Monohan), lifting the song from a pleasant diversion to an album highlight.

The album may seem a bit heavy on lightweight fare, but McBride balances it out with ballads such as “When You Love a Sinner,” a dark story of alcohol abuse that recalls her haunting 1992 single “Cheap Whiskey.”  Written by Kacey Musgraves, Jay Clementi, and Chip Boyd, the song smartly avoids coming across as a superficial “issue song.”  Instead of addresses the addicted individual in a condescending manner, the lyric gives voice to the alcoholic’s spouse, portraying the deep emotional weight she bears.  It’s a song ripe with memorable lines like “You can’t tread water with a drownin’ man,” which give the song a strong emotional punch.  Without a doubt, “Sinner” easily ranks as Eleven‘s best-written song.

It comes as a relief that, in most cases, McBride resists the urge to go for the glory notes on the ballads, instead favoring much more restrained and effective vocal interpretations.  The young love nostalgia tune “Summer of Love” is a rather middling lyric that wouldn’t pop much if not elevated by McBride’s nuanced delivery – which, thankfully, never reaches the overblown crescendo that one might expect.  With the beautiful album closer “Long Distance Lullaby,” McBride takes simple lyrics such as “I miss your love… I miss your smile,” and delivers them with achling believability.  Indeed, the album includes performances that rank among McBride’s finest displays of interpretive ability to date.  The production on the mid-tempo tracks is also surprisingly light and tasteful, featuring some prominent appearances of the steel guitar – country music’s signature instrument – performed by Dan Dugmore, no less.

In regard to production and vocal restraint, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” stands out a bit of an anomaly.  The swelling orchestral arrangement and belted-out choruses largely mask the fact that it’s actually a more decent lyric than we generally get in cancer songs – though a disease that claims so many lives is definitely a topic worth writing about.  The songwriters – Ben Hayslip, Jimmy Yeary, and Sonya Isaacs – at least deserve credit for constructing an actual story around the cancer scenario, which treats the victim as more than just a faceless achetype, and comes across as more than just shameless emotional cloying.  In the sum of its parts, though, “I’m Gonna Love You Through It” is still the weakest track on the album.

With other tracks, McBride experiments with catchy horn-infused march-friendly tunes (“Broken Umbrella” and “You Can Get Your Lovin’ Right Here”) that bear a mild similarity to Billy Currington’s recent hit “Love Done Gone.”  And of course, leadoff single “Teenage Daughters” deserves honorable mention as one of McBride’s best singles in years.  Written by McBride with Brad and Brett Warren, the clever tune undeservedly stalled at #17 on the charts, but its radio run was one of those precious few moments in which the mature perspective of a full-grown adult woman was represented on country radio. (Take a page out of Martina’s book, please, Reba)

Eleven is not a perfect record, but it finds McBride sounding reinvigorated and eager to try new things, breaking the pattern of monotony she has often slipped into.  Some listeners will love her latest direction, while others might not be won over, but one thing is sure:  Martina McBride’s Eleven is definitely one of the most unexpectedly interesting releases of 2011.

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

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Posted by on October 29, 2011 in Album Reviews

 

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