Tuesday, September 13, 2011

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Album Review: George Strait - Here for a Good Time

Having been a successful country hitmaker for three decades, George Strait has at times been known to toe the line between consistency and repetition. That said, it's heartening to see that his 39th studio album finds him making new artistic strides, and delivering some of his strongest and most interesting work to date.

Kickoff track "Love's Gonna Make It" isn't exactly anything earth-shattering, but the catchy tune serves as a pleasant introduction to a very strong album. Though he had a former tendency to fill up his albums with cuts by established Nashville songwriters, Here for a Good Time includes a large portion of self-written material, with Strait and son Bubba claiming writing credits on seven of the album's eleven tracks. Strait also co-produces the album with longtime producer Tony Brown. As it turns out, putting his own pen to paper pays off, as it brings about an album characterized by a mature perspective.

The album deals with many oft-covered country music themes, but offers a take that is fresh and original, with "Drinkin' Man" being a foremost example. "Drinkin' Man" presents a sympathetic first-person portrayal of a man who grapples with alcoholism from his teen years onward, often dealing with the thoughtless remarks of those who underestimate the seriousness of his problem. The song emphasizes the struggle between willpower and weakness, summed up in the insightful hook "That's a hell of a lot to ask of a drinkin' man."

"Shame On Me" falters slightly by leaning a little too heavily on a hackneyed expression (similar to "The Breath You Take"), with the song's central phrase being "Fool me once, shame on you.... Fool me twice, shame on me." However, the song earns points for affording a level of self-realization to its narrative character as it applies the common expression to a marital relationship plagued by repeated infidelity.

Naive visions and dreams collide with cold hard reality in the Jesse Winchester composition "A Showman's Life." The stark portrayal of the ups and downs of show business ranks as one of the best lyrics on the album, as well as one of Strait's finest vocal turns, with Faith Hill's beautiful smoky background vocal elevating the track further.

"A Showman's Life" exemplifies the reflective tone that runs throughout the album, making it a work of notable cohesion. These are the songs of a man who's lived life, and learned some hard lessons firsthand. Thus, he invests a lived-in authenticity in his performances. Album highligh "Poison" finds the narrator looking back with regret on bad choices made in life, and reflecting on the ongoing consequences. The sparse acoustic and steel-driven arrangement adds to the song's punch. Then the clever and catchy title track steps in as a pleasant mood-breaker, in which Strait reflects on the shortness of life, and resolves to enjoy it while it lasts. The album closes on a high note with "I'll Always Remember," which finds the legend looking back fondly on thirty years in the music business, and reflecting appreciatively on the support of his loyal fans.

It's when George Strait draws on his experience and expanded perspective that he shines the brightest. That personal hands-on approach is a large part of a what makes Here for a Good Time one of his most substantially enjoyable and rewarding efforts.


(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Lady Antebellum, "We Owned the Night"

Lady Antebellum's recent hit "Just a Kiss" benefited from a memorable hook that helped to cover up the fact that, at its heart, it was nothing more than a crossover-friendly piece of pop-country radio fodder like any other. Follow-up single "We Owned the Night," from the group's upcoming third album Own the Night, sounds like little more than a charming mandolin line searching in vain for a great song to call home, and it's not long before even that characteristic is overwhelmed by slick rock guitars.

"We Owned the Night" has hardly any hook to speak of, and it doesn't even have a chorus. A song with a better-developed storyline might be able to function with such components, but in this case, such omissions take away any semblance of song structure. That leaves us with a song that aimlessly plods around in circles, offering little reward for the listener who sits through all of it. In listening to this song, it's amazing to note how quickly it lets the listener's mind wander away from it.

Without a doubt, such lazy construction stems from the fact that the song's sole purpose of existence is to carry Lady Antebellum's career from one radio hit to the next. It will be forgotten in a short time, but by then they'll have another hit on the charts to take its place. This song is not built to last. Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work as a temporary diversion either. "We Owned the Night" is an effort too carefully calculated and obviously hit-focused to be genuinely entertaining.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Scotty McCreery, "The Trouble with Girls"

Songwriters: Philip White, Chris Tompkins

Though Scotty McCreery has often been cited as a Josh Turner soundalike, his new single "The Trouble with Girls," sounds like it owes more to Rodney Atkins. No, that is not a compliment. "The Trouble with Girls recalls Rodney Atkins at his weakest. (Think "Chasin' Girls")

Scotty possesses a genuinely strong singing voice. But, oh Lord, they keep giving him the lamest songs ever. It was already going to take me a long time to forgive him for the grammatically-awkward snoozefest of "I Love You This Big" (which I hated... THIS big). But sadly, "The Trouble with Girls" finds Scotty once again attempting to sell a set of lyrics that are - for lack of a better description - barftastic.

It seems ironic to criticize a song by a 17-year-old artist for being in some way "immature," but this is just so juvenile that it's nauseating. It's three and a half minutes of "Aw shucks" country boy bunkum ranging from "Spent my whole life tryin' to figure out just what them girls is all about" to ruminations on how said girls are just "so dang pretty." Once again, I can't get over the suspicion that a pocket rhyming dictionary played an integral part in the songwriting process. Two verses in, the song erupts into a dynamic string-laden power ballad. Now it just sounds like it's trying to appear more meaningful and groundbreaking than it actually is, as if to cover up the fact that it says absolutely nothing of consequence. Thus, the song is unsalvagably drowned in syrup.

When I saw Scotty on American Idol, I was this close to becoming a fan. I honestly thought this kid was going to be good. But I'm beyond disappointed with the material the label's been giving him. I can't stay on board if he's just going to be a vehicle for endless saccharrinity to be foisted upon us.


(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Chris Young, "You"

Songwriters: Chris Young, Luke Laird

He set expectations high with the beautifully-sung "Tomorrow," but the new Chris Young Single is a mixed bag. With this release, Chris attempts to tap into the vein of the sultry country-soul that is James Otto's specialty.

"You" is definitely a sonically palatable offering, with a strong lead vocal and an enjoyable arrangement that mixes steel guitar with trills of dobro. But there's something missing: A hook. The song could have benefited from a much more clever central phrase than "I've never had anything that makes me feel like I do about you," which gives the song its equally forgettable one-word title.

A great hook is an important characteristic, especially if the song itself is essentially fluff. There's nothing wrong with a good fluff song, but every good fluff song needs some defining characteristics to pin an identity on, which "You" simply doesn't have. It's two mintues and forty-six seconds of a handsome deep-voiced guy singing to you, with some nice-sounding instrumental back-up. But beyond that, the song leaves little lasting impression.

Is it a total trainwreck? No. But the way it is, "You" is a middling cut that sounds more like pleasant album filler than a strong single for radio.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Joey + Rory, "Headache"

Songwriters: Rory Lee Feek, Joey Martin Feek, Wynn Varble

Uh-oh. Joey feels a headache comin' on.

There you have the central hook for the new Joey + Rory single from their upcoming new album. Long story short: Husband wants to go fishing with his buddies on the weekend that he promised to stay home with his family (which would entail tending to a rather lengthly "honey-do" list), and his wife is backhandedly attempting to talk him out of it.

Lines like "I hope you have more luck fishing than you do when you get home" could come across as overly bitter and threatening if given the wrong vocal treatment. But when Joey delivers the goofy tongue-in-cheek verses, you can almost hear the sly grin on her face as she's singing. Of course, it doesn't hurt either that the boot-stomping rhythm and cheeky steel guitar hook is extremely catchy.

So, it's another fun and charming single from country music's most effortlessly likeable husband-and-wife duo. Curiously, radio still hasn't bitten on them yet, but any lack of airplay will be compensated by endless rotation on my iPod.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Album Review: Deborah Allen - Hear Me Now

Singer-songwriter Deborah Allen enjoyed a run of country hits in the early eighties, some of which achieved modest pop crossover success, with her best-known hit being "Baby I Lied." But she's also made a name for herself in songwriting, achieving cuts by a wide range of artists from Brooks & Dunn to Patty Loveless to Fleetwood Mac.

Though some of her early eighties hits have somewhat dated arrangements that haven't always aged well, her new album Hear Me Now is a fun, entertaining mash-up of genre styles - Approximately 60% country, 20% pop and rock, 20% gospel, and 100% Deborah Allen. Though electric, acoustic, and steel guitars, as well as fiddle and organ all make an appearance, the most unique and interesting instrument of all is Deborah's voice - raw, gritty, powerful, and so expressive.

Highlights include the just-found-true-love celebration "Hands On," which combines an unshakably joyous melody and performance with a subtle layer of sexiness. She travels similar lyrical territory with the following two tracks, but offers different musical variations. It goes from the light airy pop-country sound of "Hands On" to the soft bluesy vibe of "All Because of You," while "Never Gonna Run Out of Love" sounds like one big funky groovy jam session.

Just as the album is threatening to get a little too happy, Deborah takes a different direction with the sad acoustic ballad "Last Time for Everything." She gives a performance that is unpolished and imperfect, but that nails the most important aspect of a great country song - emotional sincerity. Also enjoyable is "Amazing Graceland," an effective tribute to the legendary Elvis Presley, inspired by Deborah's own visit to his hallowed mansion. She gives a nuanced performance with some interesting vocal flourishes, which further elevates the track.

The rocked-up ditty "It Better Be Big" stands out as a bit of an oddity on the album, offering a musical take on the "Big girls need big diamonds" philosophy which may connect more with female listeners than males. Either way, Deborah's rapid-fire delivery is enjoyable, and the song also earns a point or two for creativity in rhyming "Lexus" with "a Rolex the size of Texas." Lead single "Anything Other Than Love," written in response to her stepdaughter's remark that she writes too many love songs, finds an emotionally-bruised narrator who has sworn off love, only to become perturbed when she finds those feelings of infatuation welling up inside of her once again. The danceable two-step style fits the witty lyrics like a glove.

With organic musical arrangements and consistently showstopping vocal performances, Hear Me Now is a fun and engaging listen that is most definitely worth hearing.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Sunday, August 21, 2011

Steel Magnolia, "Bulletproof"

Songwriters: Lori McKenna, Chris Tompkins

The #4-charting 2009 single "Keep On Lovin' You" so far remains the lone Top 20 chart entry for Can You Duet winners Joshua Scott Jones and Meaghan Linsey. What they need now is an aggressive single that will get them firmly entrenched in radio playlists. However, their new single "Bulletproof" doesn't appear to have much potential to be that song.

This is not a cover of the LaRoux pop hit of the same title. Rather, "Bulletproof" is a song about a woman who is totally over her ex-boyfriend, and is now roaming about enjoying her newfound single freedom, not worried about anything because she's... well... "Bulletproof."

While there is some palpable vindictiveness in lines like "This could never shatter me/ Don't smother me with sympathy/ What makes you think I'm not over you?" the problem is that there's a lack of focus among the lyric as a whole, and it hardly scratches below surface level - disappointing, considering the song was written by such talented tunesmiths as Chris Tompkins ("Before He Cheats") and Lori McKenna. The verses read like a play-by-play account of how the narrator spends her time, with little insight into why she acts the way she does, and few hints at what she's really feeling inside. It's hard to appeal to a listener's emotions through such rudimentary lyrics, or to fully engage a listener in such a shallow, underdeveloped story.

With such stale lyrics, the plodding melody and recycled Dann Huff production seem like minor issues in comparison, but such characteristics only further serve to make "Bulletproof" a weak single offering by all accounts. The disappointment is compounded by the fact that Josh and Meaghan have demonstrated that they each possess genuinely strong voices. The issue has often been a need for a strong lyric that's truly worthy of such talent.

If anything, "Bulletproof" is an indication that Steel Magnolia still hasn't found that special song yet.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Band Perry, "All Your Life"

Songwriters:  Brian Henningsen, Clara Henningsen

What a beautiful arrangement!  What a sweet melody!  What a lovely performance!

Lyrics?  Kind of boring, especially considering that this is coming from The Band Perry - a sibling act who seems to thrive on off-beat lyrics.  Their past output has included death threats, images of a mother burying her daughter, as well as a few lines that made little sense, but that were fun to sing along to nonetheless.  So it comes as a bit of a disappointment that their new single "All Your Life" mostly sounds like a run-of-the-mill "wanna find true love" song with verses that ring a bit cheesy.  Example:  "Would you catch a couple thousand fireflies/ Put 'em in a lamp to light me world?"  That makes the song sound more like album filler than a potential hit single.

After two sweet-but-insubstantial verses, there's a sudden jolt to the system with a bridge that is actually interesting:  "Lately I've been writing desperate love songs/ I mostly sing them to the wall/ You could be the centerpiece of my obsession/ If you would notice me at all."  That portion of the lyric carries a much deeper emotional resonance in comparison to the paint-by-number construction of the preceding verses.

But even if the lyric is a bit wonky, "All Your Life" earns points for a light, restrained arrangement with an enjoyable helping of banjo and mandolin.  Kimberley Perry's lead vocal is restrained with a raw and unpolished quality that gives it character.  So it's an enjoyable record to listen to, even if the lyric could have been more air-tight.  Still, without a set of lyrics that's consistently interesting from start to finish, Team Perry is one base shy of a home run.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Album Review: The McClymonts - Wrapped Up Good

"Are you ready to kick it up?"

That's the first thing you here when you pop in the second album by Australian family act The McClymonts.  It's a fitting indicator of the fact that Wrapped Up Good is largely dominated by an overwhelming tendency to play the catchy card, to varying degrees of success.  Opening track "Kick It Up" doesn't accomplish much, mostly because it sounds like it's trying too hard.  The melody is forgettable, while lyrics demanding truck beds full of beer and ice, and a declaring that "This party ain't for shrinkin' violets," sound too forced to make for a genuinely fun song.  Party songs are all good and fine, but in this case the chemistry doesn't ignite, and it just doesn't quite click.  Meanwhile, the Nathan Chapman-produced title track "Wrapped Up Good" attempts to be a fun, sexy "Let's get it on" number, only to be obliterated by bloated, overwrought pop-country production and overprocessed vocals, which sours the sweetness in the sisters' bloodline harmonies.

Fortunately, things finally start coming together on the third track, "He Used to Love Me" - a track that shoots for catchiness, and actually hits the target.  It begins as a slow acoustic tune as Brooke McClymont laments "I had me a good one, but he got away..." and then the song morphs into an upbeat fiddle-rocker (with a catchy "woo-ooh" hook to boot) as she determines to "Get in my car, track him down."  The track taps into the vein of the almost slightly delusional female narrator who will let nothing get in the way of her getting a hold of true love, and it ends up a genuinely amusing and engaging listen.

A distracting bass line gets in the way of a clever hook, as Brooke deems her on-again-off-again lover "The Boy Who Cried Love."  But we find the girls in good shape all around on "Take It Back," in which a laid-back acoustic arrangement exposes a raw vulnerability in Samantha McClymont's emotional lead vocal.  Similarly, she sings in a hushed whisper as she delivers the slow-burning, beautifully-metaphoric "A Woman Is a Flame."  The two ballads arguably rank as the album's strongest tracks.

But not all of the up-tempos are duds.  An infectious guitar hook turns "Rock the Boat" into a broadly enjoyable earworm of a tune, while the playful steel-laden romp "I'm Not Done with You Just Yet" gives the girls plenty of room to show some spunk and personality.  Without a doubt, it's the album's 'countriest' track as well.

Overall, Wrapped Up Good is something of a mixed bag.  The talent is there, but it shines brightest when it's not hampered down by poor production choices.  But while it has its share of clunkers, the album's best tracks show that when all the right pieces fall into alignment, the results are extremely satisfying.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)