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)


Friday, August 12, 2011

Eric Church, "Drink In My Hand"

Songwriters:  Eric Church, Michael P. Heeney, Luke Laird
No album by a self-proclaimed country music "outlaw" could ever be complete without the requisite drinking song, now, could it?

Eric Church has it covered with his new single "Drink In My Hand," from his recently-released third album Chief.  In terms of lyrics, "Drink In My Hand" doesn't cover much ground that hasn't already been covered.  If you're Johnny Paycheck, you tell your boss man to "Take This Job and Shove It;"  If you're Jason Aldean, you flip him off and say "Screw you, man;"  And apparently, if you're Eric Church, you tell him to "shove that overtime up his can."  The awkwardly-placed line "You be my Lois Lane, I'll be your Superman" sounds like it could have been culled from Blake Shelton's insipid "Honey Bee," while a dance floor reference a tattoo "playin' peeky-boo on your back" recalls a certain slightly-creepy Brad Paisley hit.

And yet, in listening to Eric's vocal performance, he seems fully convinced that "Drink In My Hand" is the greatest song ever.  He comes impressively close to making me believe him.  Uneven lyric aside, what makes "Drink In My Hand" work is the way it bottles all the energy of a live show into one three-minute musical package.  The production is predictably loud and rocked-up, but it still doesn't drown out the wit and personality in Eric's delivery as he "ooh ooh ooh"s his way through the song, and bends his notes around the wildly catchy melody. 

If Eric Church sounds like he's having this much fun singing the song, then what can we do but have fun listening to it?  All things considered, Eric Church has effectively delivered an upbeat, rowdy, and oddly-charming party anthem that somehow succeeds in spite of itself.

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

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Miranda Lambert, "Baggage Claim"

You have to give Miranda props for originality.  I can honestly say I've never heard of a baggage claim used as a metaphor in a song before.  Unfortunately, just because something is original doesn't always mean that it works.

There are definitely plenty of things to like about Miranda's new single, the first from her upcoming new album Four the Record.  Miranda's vocal is rife with all her signature spunk and sass.  In a pleasantly sparse musical arrangement, acoustic strumming meets funky guitar riffs meets hand clap section, making for a single that is easy on the ears at the very least.

Unfortunately, while the toe taps along contentedly, the brain struggles to make sense of the lyrics that are coming out of Miranda's mouth.  The central metaphor strains to be clever, without success, while its drawn-out nature only compounds the weakness.  The song's overall concept is murky at best, while the central idea is only vaguely defined, such that even a catchy "Come and get it" hook can't quite pull it all together.  Sonically, it's entertaining; but lyrically, it's just confusing.

Despite its positive characteristics, "Baggage Claim" is a rare misfire from a usually consistent performer.  Here's hoping that "Baggage Claim" will prove to be only a slight stumble for Lambert, while her further upcoming releases (both as an solo artist and as a Pistol Annie) find her hitting her stride once again.

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

Monday, August 1, 2011

George Strait, "Here for a Good Time"

Songwriters:  George Strait, Bubba Strait, Dean Dillon

George Strait's current Top 20 hit isn't quite a classic on the same level as some of his best eighties and nineties material.  But after the long and slow chart climb of the depressingly unoriginal "The Breath You Take," "Here for a Good Time" is a welcome return to form for the country music legend.

The song title gives you a pretty good clue as to the song's theme, but fortunately it's not a rowdy anthem in the vein of Jason Aldean's "My Kinda Party" (which would be a sign of the apocalypse coming from George Strait).  It's a song about the shortness of life, and the narrator's resolve to kick back and enjoy it while it lasts.

"Here for a Good Time" earns points for a cool-sounding arrangement that includes some organ chords and a catchy beat, while still including the fiddle and steel sounds that are among George Strait's hallmarks.  George offers a laid-back, yet fully engaging performance, which pairs well with the singalong-friendly melody.  Mercifully, it stops short of throwing in a cheesy singalong chorus at the end.

It doesn't exactly break new ground lyrically, though it does feature a few clever turns of phrase here and there, but "Here for a Good Time" finds George Strait as loose as he's ever been.  It's a very good single, but I'm still hoping that the rest of the new album will be, not just "very good," but great.

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

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Sonia Leigh, "My Name Is Money"

Songwriter:  Sonia Leigh

Country superstar Brad Paisley put his cleverness to good use with his 2005 hit, "Alcohol."  With that left-of-center composition, he played the role of a character who could "make anybody pretty," or "make you believe any lie."  Singer-songwriter Sonia Leigh, signed to Zac Brown's Southern Ground label, utilizes a similar personification technique with "My Name Is Money," in which the so-called "root of all evil" is given a voice of its own.

With a gritty, attitude-driven vocal performance, Sonia makes a series of bold, brash declarations of what she - "Money" - is capable of.  "I can make a woman weak/ I can make a small man stand tall/ I can start wars, and I can put an end to 'em all."  She may seem to be talking big, but we well know that every one of those boastful assertions is true.  "My Name Is Money" displays a level of poetic ingenuity and cleverness that sets it far above most of what's coming out of Nashville these days.

Smart songwriting meets a dynamic performance on this track.  Sonia seems to revel in the unique destructive power that her character "Money" possesses.  Hearing her vocal delivery is like a sonic equivalent to watching a film actor portray a character that you just "love to hate."  She's backed by a catchy, country-rock arrangement that rocks and twangs in all the right places, working together with her raspy vocal to bring the track to life.

Obviously, this single might as well not even exist as far as mainstream country radio is concerned, but the fact that such sharp material is often rejected speaks volumes for the reason why country radio has become such a boring listen.  When you've been overexposed to the bland and uninspired fare that often passes for country music today, a refreshing talent like Sonia Leigh is a breath of fresh air indeed.

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


Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Christian Kane, "Let Me Go"

Songwriters:  Casey Beathard, Tom Shapiro

Though one of his biggest claims to fame is acting on television programs such as Leverage, Angel, and Into the West, Christian Kane's other major pursuit has long been singing country music.  His first U.S. single release, a somewhat over-the-top party anthem called "The House Rules," failed to make a major impact on the country charts.  Now he returns with a follow-up single for another go at the charts.

"Let Me Go" is a fairly straightforward by-the-book tale of a restless soul who's "nothing but a drifter," and who tells his woman that he's ready to hit the road.  It begins by detailing the setting in which the exchange takes place between the two lovers, which helps to raise interest in the story at the beginning.  But the lyrics never really get sufficiently interesting.  Christian is dealing with a well-worn theme - a man torn between his woman and the open road.  By offering a simple surface-level telling of the story, the song fails to approach the theme from a fresh angle of its own.  Thus, what's here feels too familiar to be genuinely engaging.  The story takes a turn near the end as the woman implores her man to "Let Me Go," as in go with him, thus reversing the song's title phrase.  That development, however, ends up feeling gratuitous and tacked-on, not adding much interest.

As if to compensate for the lightweight lyrical material, producers Bob Ezrin and Jimmy Lee Sloas lay on the heavy rock guitars, but this is one instance when the hard rock edges don't do the song any favors.  It nearly masks the fact that Christian turns in a strong performance on this track, sounding fully invested in the lyrics.  It's a redeeming quality that might have saved the song had it been able to shine without so much distraction.

This single has its strong points, but ultimately the train just doesn't quite leave the station.  "Let Me Go" simply lacks enough unique defining characteristics to merit much repeat listening.

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

Friday, July 22, 2011

Justin Moore, "Bait a Hook"

Songwriters:  Justin Moore, Rhett Atkins, Jeremy Stover

I'm just gong to put it out there.  I've never had much tolerance for the whole "Country boys are awesome - city boys are wusses" subgenre of country music.  In contrast to what the chest-thumping backwoods barbarians would have us believe, there's actually a lot about country music that can appeal to city-dwelling individuals, and there are plenty of city folks who like country music.  It short-changes the entire genre to paint the country culture as a sort of exclusive club.

The lyrics of "Bait a Hook" indicate that, in Justin Moore's world, the suitability of a potential new boyfriend hinges on his proficiency in hunting and fishing, ability to skin a buck, and capacity to down copious amounts of liquor.  In addition, possession of a frou-frou Prius or similar hybrid vehicle results in automatic disqualification.  Don't know who Jack Daniels is?  You're out, buddy!  Justin Moore scornfully laughs at the pitiable urban fool his ex-girlfriend has left him for.  As he confidently declares himself "not even worried," because she'll "come runnin' back," it's downright irritating.

Am I the only one who finds it frustrating that virtually all Justin Moore can think to sing about is how country he is?  Aside from "If Heaven Wasn't So Far Away," which was actually rather good, Justin's single releases have constantly seen him trying to sell the same one-dimensional character over and over again.  It's getting very old very fast, and it frankly wasn't even all that interesting to begin with.

I can't get behind this.  I just can't.

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Martina McBride, "I'm Gonna Love You Through It"

Songwriters:  Ben Hayslip, Jimmy Yeary, Sonya Isaacs

I was pleasantly surprised to see Martina McBride release something as unique and unexpected as "Teenage Daughters," not to mention disappointed that it wasn't a bigger hit. (Number 17 isn't bad, but seriously... come on, country radio)  Follow-up "I'm Gonna Love You Through It" is a little more typical of what we've come to expect from Martina in recent years.  It's another power ballad, likely to be touted as 'powerful' and 'uplifing.'  This time it's about cancer.

A disease that claims so many lives is definitely something worth writing and singing about.  But cancer songs have at times been known to toe the line between genuine poignancy and just plain schmaltz.  "I'm Gonna Love You Through It" carries a genuinely sweet sentiment in that it focuses primarily on the emotional support provided by a man whose wife is diagnosed with breast cancer.

But what I don't like about the song is the handling of the recorded product.  The song begins with soft piano and cello notes, crescendos to a full-blown string section, and then predictably ends with Martina belting it out for all it's worth.  It's a fact:  Martina has done this kind of thing a lot, and it gets old after a while.  Just try listening to this song right after listening to "Anyway."  The two are nearly indistinguishable.

"I'm Gonna Love You Through It" is a good song, but it would be more enjoyable if the studio recording managed to distinguish itself on a greater level from all the other Martina power ballads that have come before it.  At any rate, when Martina's first new album under Republic Nashville is finally released this fall, I'll be hoping to hear a little more edgy "Teenage Daughters"-esque material.

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

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Pistol Annies, "Hell On Heels"

Songwriters:  Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley

It was quite a surprise when country star Miranda Lambert having fallen into the good graces of country radio, and become one of the genre's biggest stars, introduced her new side project performing as part of the trio known as the Pistol Annies.  Miranda's fellow Annies are Ashely Monroe and Angaleena Presley, the former of whom is an talented but underappreciated country crooner who attempted to break into mainstream country music a few years ago, only to be rejected by country radio.

Though Miranda Lambert is obviously the most famous of the Annies (as reflected by the fact that she is often seen in the foreground in publicity shots, with the other two relegated to the background), it's nice to see that this debut single does not sound like Lambert and the Backing Two.  All three ladies shine as they take turns at the mic, rotating lead vocal duties on different verses, while blending their voices together in harmony during the chorus.

I'm usually not a fan of songs that use a pun (in this case "hell on heels/ hell on wheels") as a title hook.  But in this case it works because the content of the verses is consistently interesting such that that pun doesn't have to pull all the weight on its own.  In "Hell On Heels" the ladies let us know in no uncertain terms that they are merciless maneaters and gold-diggers on the hunt for new victims, while also recounting tales of past flings with unfortunate men.  It's the same sassy attitude that Miranda has become famous for.  All three ladies play the part fabulously on a record that seethes coolness.

But the praise must halt for a moment, as there is one problem with this single.  It's not in the lyrics, nor in the voices, but in the arrangement.  Specifically, it sounds like their drummer doesn't quite know what he's doing.  The percussion on this track is wild and noisy, and it detracts from the cool swampy country groove the song has going.  It doesn't totally sink the record, but it does hinder it from being as great as it could have been.

Still, there's clearly a whole lot of talent in this trio.  "Hell On Heels," is mighty good, but at the same time it seems like it might be only a tease.  Maybe they're giving us something really good to whet our appetites for now, while holding something truly outstanding up their sleeves for later.

It's an exciting thing to think about.  Either way, "Hell On Heels" is still one heck of a good single.

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

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Ronnie Dunn, "Cost of Livin'"

Songwriters:  Ronnie Dunn, Phillip Coleman

Ronnie Dunn's second post-B&D single is a great deal better than his first.  In discussing his current release "Cost of Livin'," many critic's have cited the tune's potential to become the song of 2011, similar to "The House That Built Me" in 2010.  Such predictions are not off base, as "Cost of Livin'" carries a level of understative poignance similar to that which made Miranda Lambert's career hit reasonate across the board with such a wide audience.

"Cost of Livin'" is sung from the perspective of an unemployed man applying for work.  It begins with him giving the usual facts about himself, but the lyrics build in intensity.  The song conveys the desperation of this man, as well as his strong work ethic and willingness to do whatever it takes to provide for his family.  Backed by little more than an acoustic guitar, Ronnie sells the lyric with the conviction of one who's been in such a situation himself.  While "Bleed Red" fell victim to the trap of overdramatizing, "Cost of Livin'" utilizes a much simpler approach, and the result is much more rewarding.

Will it match, or even outdo the chart success of its predecessor?  Hard to say, though it's already managed to crack the Top 30, which is a good sign.  Chart prospects aside, however, "Cost of Livin'" is a remarkable artistic triumph that any artist would have just cause to be proud of.

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


Monday, July 11, 2011

Taylor Swift, "Sparks Fly"

Songwriter:  Taylor Swift

Truth be told, I would probably like "Sparks Fly" even better had its single release not come after I had been jamming to "Mean" for months prior.  It was a pleasant surprise to hear such a fun hoedown of a song so effortlessly country from an artist who typically favors polished pop-country sounds, but the overtly personal nature of the lyrics, combined with the tell-it-like-it-is attitude, were both classic Swift.

"Sparks Fly" could be considered a return to form for the pop-country superstar.  It's more of the kind of material we come to expect from her - a ode to youthful infatuation, polished with the most charming and catchy pop hooks.  In this instance, Taylor is falling for a handsome young man whom she known is "a bad idea," yet she 'sees sparks fly whenever he smiles.' 

Songs of this nature often succumb to dull lyrical content.  In Taylor's songwriting catalog, a "White Horse" or a "Fifteen" may occasionally be offset by a less-fortunate "Today Is a Fairytale" or "Picture to Burn."  But where she often succeeds is in supplying deeper hues of color to the scenes she portrays, as opposed to leaning on shallow cliche phrasing.  "Sparks Fly" utilizes some interesting imagery in telling its story, including engaging lines such as "The way you move is like a full-on rainstorm/ And I'm a house of cards."  That's fairly deep for a song whose foremost ambition is putting the listener in a good mood.  A nuanced and expressive lead vocal on Taylor's part finishes things off nicely.

Ultimately, "Sparks Fly" succeeds by staying true to what it is - a pleasant slice of pop-country in a similar vein to her 2010 hit "Fearless."  While "Sparks Fly" might not leave as deep a mark on one's memory as "Mean" before it, it achieves what it sets out to do.  Indeed, Swift has wholly succeeded in crafting a simple feel-good pop-country love song that's every bit as pleasant and infectious as it intends to be.

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

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Rodney Atkins, "Take a Back Road"

Songwriters:  Luke Laird, Rhett Akins

Rodney Atkins' current hit "Take a Back Road" finds him traveling down a road that's already been visited many times.  It seems each trip is less interesting than the one before it.

Here's the story:  A guy's stuck in traffic in the city (Oh no!  Any place but the city!) when a classic George Strait song comes on the radio and makes him want to take a country backroad and "put a little gravel in [his] travel," reminding him once again of how cool it is to live in the country.  Thus we have the makings of a surefire hit as wholly predictable and expected as Rodney's thin, weak vocal performance.
"Take a Back Road" is yet another manifestation of the artistic shortcomings that have plagued the majority of Rodney Atkins' career output.  In general, Rodney's lyrical material is built almost entirely around genre stereotypes.  His catalog is dominated by songs about country livin', country values, country roads, you name it.  Each song only scratches the surface of its topic, without expanding on it in any way.  He's dealing with themes that so many have covered before him, but Rodney brings little of his own style or perspective to each theme, save for a catchy rhyme here and there.

Why such consistently shallow, perfunctory treatment?  Because that's what radio wants - Easily digestible lyrics that will neither offend, nor require an outstanding amount of brain function.  He's building his career on the superficial stereotypes that are palatable to today's radio programmers.  But is anybody going to remember these songs years from now, after they've fallen off the charts and yielded place to the next hit song of the week?  Not at all.  The country songs that go down in history as classics are not the songs that are written just for the purpose of cashing in on radio popularity.  Did Dolly Parton write "I Will Always Love You" just because it was what people were clamoring for?  Did June Carter write "Ring of Fire" just to sound catchy?  No, they wrote what they felt.  They didn't just write to satisfy country radio.

Assuming country radio ever pulls out of this terrible quality rut, it would still be a shame to look back on this period in country music history, and to have nothing to remember but a slew of interchangable tunes about trucks, tractors, country living, and what-have-you.  Of course, some may defend such tripe with "It's just a fun song."  But there was a time when country music routinely produced songs that were so much more than 'just fun songs.'  Isn't it a bit sad that when we tune into a country radio station these days, all we can really expect to hear is "just a fun song"? 

In all likelihood, that's the way it's going to stay until artists such as Rodney start striving to be actual artists instead of just hit-making machines.  But as long as radio continues to reward such artists for releasing mindless drivel like this, why would they do anything different?

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

Monday, July 4, 2011

The Dirt Drifters, "Always a Reason"

Songwriters:  Ryan Fleener, Jeff Middleton, Justin Wilson

Country music has always prided itself on being music that feels real.  It's a genre of real songs about real people with real lives.  While the modern mainstream brand often comes across as contrived and phony rather than authentic and believable, the tried-and-true themes of genuine country music have refused to die.  One of the best-known manifestations of country authenticity is the drinking song.  The drinking song may provoke some to hurriedly change the radio station with a cry of "Eew, country music," but to one who can see himself in the same situation as the character in the song, it can instantly connect.

The latest continuation of this long-standing tradition comes from a Nashville bar band known as The Dirt Drifters.  With an image and performance style that oozes swagger and masculinity, it's almost surprising that radio hasn't bitten on them yet.  It was a disappointment when their debut single, the fantastic blue collar anthem/ dance floor scorcher "Something Better," sank quietly.  But it's been pulled in favor of a worthy replacement. 

"Always a Reason" addresses the motivating reasons leading each of its differing characters to the local watering hole.  Johnny gets a job, and goes to the bar with his buddies to celebrate.  Meanwhile, Joe goes out to seek solace in the midst of betrayal by his cheating wife.  Far being a hollow tale of nameless, faceless individuals, "Always a Reasons" supplies color to the scene instead of settling for shades of gray.  That added layer of specificity helps the song tap into something universal, causing listeners to relate to the driving emotions of each character, and maybe even to see themselves in a similar scenario.

Besides a solid set of lyrics, the performance earns high marks as well.  Lead singer Matt Fleener has a voice with all the right rough edges on it.  His delivery here does not disappointment - believable, and strong enough to cut through the thick country-rock instrumentation.

Is as good as the all-time classic country drinking songs?  Debatable.  Will it stand the test of time?  We'll see.  Is it a competent, fresh take on a classic theme, not to mention one great slice of barroom country-rock?  Definitely.

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

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Album Review: Dolly Parton - Better Day

If there's one recurrent theme in the new Dolly Parton album Better Day, it's definitely a message of positivity.  Throughout its twelve tracks, Better Day proclaims the virtues of living life to the fullest, and displaying a "can-do" attitude.  But at least Dolly's happy songs are good happy songs, making use of poetic imagery rather than inspirational cliches.

The theme becomes evident right from the opening track.  "In the Meantime" definitely seems like a relevent composition in this day and age, given the recent brouhaha surrounding the expected "end of the world."  Backed by an upbeat piano and harmonica-driven arrangement, Dolly urges us all not to be "so consumed with the fear of dyin'/ The joy of livin's lost."  With her signature attitude, she calls for all to "Drop this Doomsday attitude and git on with the show!"  Things become slightly less sunny on tracks like "I Just Might" and "Get Out And Stay Out," but even these comparitively somber tracks carry traces of that same theme.  The former is a song of dawning positivity in the midst of heartbreak, while the latter is a strong-woman's declaration that she is leaving her abusive spouse, and "taking back [her] life."

Unlike her previous effort (2008's Backwoods Barbie), which found Dolly covering both Smokey Robinson and the Fine Young Cannibals, Better Day is composed entirely of self-written songs (though Mac Davis also shares a writing credit on country-pride anthem "Country Is As Country Does," which I enjoy about as much as I could enjoy a country-pride anthem).  Dolly Parton ranks as one of the most consistently excellent singer-songwriters in country music, and it's clear that her pen hasn't run out of tricks just yet.  On a similar note, it's nothing short of astounding to hear an artist in such remarkably fine voice at the age of 65.  Throughout the album, Dolly's vocals sound consistently fantastic, whether pouring her pipes into a rousing up-tempo or a sorrowful torch ballad like the achingly beautiful "Somebody's Missing You," which includes background vocals from Alison Krauss and Emmylou Harris.

Stylisitically, Better Day sounds quite similar to Backwoods Barbie, in that it sounds largely modern and contemporary, but still shows a connection to traditional country music, with influence from other genres as well.  The album takes on a gospel-oriented direction near the end, particularly on the soulful title track.  The only instance in which production becomes an issue is on leadoff single "Together You and I" - a contemporary pop-country love song like you'd expect to hear on the radio today, but with some cluttered and distracting production.  The song has grown on me since I reviewed it last month, but "Together You and I" remains the weakest track on the album.  Producer Kent Wells adds his own voice to the album on the full-fledged duet "Holding Everything," which takes the form of a romantic power ballad, but with the production maintaining just enough restraint to avoid being overly bombastic.  Kent and Dolly's voices mesh together well, with their dynamic performances making "Holding Everything" an album highlight.

Of course, it should be noted that sad songs have a long and prestigious history in country music, but that's one end of the emotional spectrum that Better Day doesn't tread on very heavily.  That means that if you're down and out, and just looking for good old barroom weeper to cry in your beer to, there aren't any songs on this album that would suit that particular purpose.  The album works better as the soundtrack to a cheery summer day than to a self-pity party.

To Dolly's credit, however, the songs carry a measure of substance such that the glass-half-full anthems do not ring vague or hollow.  Though it could benefit from a little extra thematic variance, Better Day ultimately works as a solid if not special entry into Dolly Parton's extensive album discography.

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


Friday, July 1, 2011

Music Video Round-Up - July 2011

Jason Aldean, "Dirt Road Anthem"

What on earth is that?  Is he trying to dance?  Other than that, a fairly predictable video.

Kenny Chesney and Grace Potter, "You and Tequila"

Possibly my favorite of this list.  The "You and Tquila" video features a beautiful seaside setting with some breathtaking aerial shots.  Extra points for having Grace Potter in the video with Kenny.

Martina McBride, "Teenage Daughters"

Shania Twain, "Today Is Your Day"

Shania's video for "Today Is Your Day" is made up of compiled footage from her OWN docu-series Why Not? with Shania Twain.

Terri Clark, "Northern Girl"

Terri's "Northern Girl" video features her singing in a variety of beautiful scenic locations in her native Canada.

Trace Adkins, "Just Fishin'"

Lady Antebellum, "Just a Kiss"

A lame, cheesy, four-and-a-half-minute iPad commercial with little or no connection to the original song.

Zac Brown Band and Jimmy Buffett, "Knee Deep"

A little creepy, but still fun.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Alan Jackson, "Long Way to Go"

Songwriter:  Alan Jackson

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the single release that will go down in history in Alan Jackson's career as the "bug in my margarita" song.

The record sounds great.  It has all the fiddle and steel that you would expect to hear on an Alan Jackson record.  We hear a few horns near the end of the track that add a nice garnish without overwhelming it or making it sound cheesy.

Then he has to go and sour an otherwise pleasant listening experience with one stupid line.  Ever heard one of those songs that you mostly liked, but that had just one line that just about ruined the whole thing for you?  This is one of those songs.  "There's a bug in my margarita."  Seriously?  You're going to build an entire song around that line, and repeat the line over and over again?

Alan Jackson is in something of a unique position among Nashville artists.  He can release country singles that actually sound country, and that have a cool vintage nineties-style vibe, while still securing radio airplay.  If a new fledgling artist releases such a track, it's most likely he's going to have a hard time getting it played on the radio.  But when an artist of Alan Jackson's stature is in a position to be able to get good country-souding music heard on the radio, the last thing he needs is to start spoiling it with dumb lyrics.

Granted, Alan has built an outstanding career as a self-proclaimed "singer of simple songs."  With his laid-back 'aw shucks' country boy charm, he can sometimes get away with simple songs that other artists couldn't pull off quite as easily.  But there's a fine line between a song that's simple, and a song that's stale, and there are lyrics in "Long Way to Go" that come close to falling on the wrong side.  I'll be generous enough to give Alan an extra point for the good-time groove he has going with "Long Way to Go," and I'll probably find myself enjoying the song as long as it catches me in the right mood.  But with most of Alan's recent single releases being subpar cuts like "I Still Like Bologna" and "It's Just That Way," as well as a lackluster Johnny Cash cover, the fact is that we're still way overdue for another "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere."
(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Phil Vassar, "Let's Get Together"

Songwriters:  Phil Vassar, Tony Mullins

Ouch.  Just ouch.

In case you were expecting a cover of the classic Disney tune from The Parent Trap... no, we weren't that fortunate.  Phil Vassar's new single "Let's Get Together" is just another in the long line of wannabe summer smashes of 2011, and it's way cheesier than just about any Disney tune.

It goes from his baby brining' him a "big ole bag o' kisses" to the grating hook of "Let's get-get-get together."  The smarmy lyrics leave a bad taste in your mouth by the first chorus.  The song aims for a singalong melody, but doesn't quite make it, and the song fails to sound even the slightest bit catchy.  From start to finish, the entire product sounds like nothing but another factory-assembled summer hit tailor-made for endless airplay, and one that should have been left on the threshing room floor.  Some might retort such a judgment with 'Oh, you're just over-thinking it' and 'But it's just a fun summer song.'  I'm not buying into that.  A bad song is a bad song no matter what form it comes in.
Phil's written a few good songs in his time (of which this does not happen to be one), some of which have become hits for artists like Jo Dee Messina and Tim McGraw.  But his own success on the country charts has become somewhat sporadic in recent years, with his last real hit ("Love Is a Beautiful Thing") being four years ago.  It would be quite perplexing to see him return to the Top 10 with a single as weak as this.

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

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, "Remind Me"

Songwriters:  Brad Paisley, Chris DuBois, Kelley Lovelace

Could you possibly squeeze any more star power into one single release?  I doubt it.  The third single from Brad Paisley's current album This Is Country Music is a duet with fellow A-list hitmaker Carrie Underwood.  Without a doubt, the song is a no-brainer hit.  But is the quality on the same high level as its hit potential?  Not quite.

This song is so good.  There's something subtly sexy about one spouse reminiscing about the passion the couple felt in the relationship's earlier stages, with the other responding "Remind me."  The way the performance takes the form of a heart-to-heart conversation between man and woman really brings the story to life.  While the lyrics do include some of the typical Paisley cutesiness with a line about 'making out in a crowd somewhere,' this is overall one of the best songs Brad has written in a long time.

The handling, however, is rough.  The production is over-the-top, and Brad and Carrie both over-sing it to a degree.  This is one song that really doesn't work as a power ballad. Such a heavy-handed treatment detracts from the raw emotion in the song, and distracts from the story it attempts to tell.  The song would have benefited greatly with a simpler approach.

"Remind Me" is still a good song, but the recorded version we're left with is only mildly enjoyable when it could have been something so much greater.  If we're lucky, maybe we'll eventually get to hear a more restrained acoustic version that will allow both the song and the vocalists to shine to their full potential.

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

Friday, June 24, 2011

Edens Edge, "Amen"

Songwriters:  Hannah Blaylock, Catt Gravitt, Gerald O'Brien, Skip Black

"Amen" is the debut single from new Big Machine signees Edens Edge, composed of Arkansas natives Hannah Blaylock (lead vocals), Dean Berner (vocals, guitar, dobro), and Cherill Green (vocals, mandolin, banjo, guitar).  It just might be one of the most effortlessly likeable debut singles we've heard this year.

The lyrical concept is simple, yet different from the many trite and hackneyed themes often favored by country radio.  "Amen" find the female narrator, along with the whole town, rejoicing as a young man finally calls it off with a woman who was no good for him to begin with.  Hannah Blaylock's vocal shows fine interpretive abilities, not resorting to any unnecessary vocal theatrics.  Her voice posesses a distinct texture and natural beauty that makes it both instantly recognizable and exceedingly pleasant to hear.  The production is light and simple, yet the sweet sounds of Dean's dobro and Cherill's mandolin are subtly infectious.  The lyrical story stands front and center with no unnecessary distractions.  Nothing about the record sounds like it was unduly fussed over, and it all flows with a natural ease.

How refreshing it is to hear such an enjoyable display of originality and talent at such an early stage in a career!  It's only their first single, but "Amen" goes a long way toward establishing a distinct artistic identity for Edens Edge.  In a radio landscape that could hardly be more slick and predictable, a new act like Edens Edge is a real breath of fresh air.

The single was released a few months ago, and has made inroads into the Top 40 on the country singles chart.  Here's hoping that country radio proves to be fully on board with this talented new trio.

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

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Album Review: Gary Nicholson - Texas Songbook

Being the seasoned songwriting talent that he is, it's no surprise that Gary Nicholson's new album Texas Songbook is characterized by some mighty good songwriting.  Indeed, he's written hit songs for the likes of Patty Loveless, Montgomery Gentry, Vince Gill, and a host of other artists.  Sonically, the light production is primarily influenced by traditional Texas-style country, but carries traces of other genre styles as well, including Western swing and jazz.  In addition, Texas Songbook includes guest appearances by a variety of collaborators, including Randy Rogers, Lee Roy Parnell, Marcia Ball, among others.

Though currently based in Nashville, it's clear that Gary Nicholson remains a Texas boy at heart.  Genuine love and appreciation for the Lone Star State is a recurring theme that runs throughout the set.  This is particularly apparent in songs that celebrate the little peculiarities of the state of Texas and its people.  "Talkin' Texan" depicts the wild imagination of a Texan man, explaining that "He ain't lyin'/ He's just talkin' Texan."  In a similar vein, the humorous "She Feels Like Texas" tells of a woman who's "in a Lone Star state of mind everywhere she goes," calling the Eiffel tower "the biggest oil rig I ever seen."

Texas Songbook opens with "Texas Weather," a song that draws on the erratic weather patterns of Texas as a metaphor for a relationship that has seen dramatic shifts between ups and downs. (With the word "Texas" or "Texan" appearing in the titles of five of the thirteen songs, it's definitely no secret that the man loves Texas) "Texas Weather" is a fine example of Gary's notable proficiency in utilizing figurative language to create vivid lyrics.

The subject of cheating is addressed more than once, with "Fallin' & Flyin'" (a song previously performed by Jeff Bridges in the film Crazy Heart) portraying a narrator swept along by temptation, only to be abruptly brought back down to reality when faced with the consequences of his betrayal.  With "Woman In Texas, Woman In Tennessee," Gary chides another man for his shameless two-timing antics.  With interesting, cleverly-crafted lyrics, both tunes are excellent additions to the extensive catalog of country cheating songs.

The album could do without "Texas Ruby," which is an ode to a curvaceous female stripper body.  With a great deal of over-the-top imagery, the lyrics are more likely to inspire cringing than singing along.  Still, with doses of saxophone and accordion, the track is enjoyable on a sonic level.  Likewise, name-dropper "Listen to Willie" might appeal to some of Willie Nelson's biggest fans, but might not garner much repeat listening.

Closing track "Somedays You Write the Song" (previously recorded by Guy Clark) is one of the album's finest.  Backed by little more than an acoustic guitar and a harmonica, Gary expresses the value of songwriting in helping one to sort out confusing emotions, with his vocal performance exuding raw sincerity.  The song's ultimate point is summed up in the unshakable hook "Somedays you write the song, somedays the song writes you."

There are no unnecessary bells and whistles here, just straight-up honky tonk-style country music delivered from the heart.  With strong lyrical content, and organic musical arrangements throughout, Gary's Texas Songbook is a highly enjoyable listen.

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

Monday, June 20, 2011

Zac Brown Band featuring Jimmy Buffett, "Knee Deep"

Songwriters:  Zac Brown, Wyatt Durrette, Cory Bowles, Jeffrey Steele

The Zac Brown Band has scored five back-to-back number one hits in the past two years - a streak that would have been seven had it not been interrupted by the #2 peak of "Whatever It Is."  Their current summer tune "Knee Deep," is now a bona fide hit as well, having just cracked the Top 10.  As summer songs go, will this one stick in our memories, or will it be the flavor du jour for this year, only to fade away into obscurity by 2012?

With a sprightly acoustic arrangement, "Knee Deep" almost sounds more like a simple beachside jam session instead of an indoor studio session.  A fast-paced, upbeat melody makes the simple tune sound remarkably infectious.  Jimmy Buffett's contribution doesn't strike one as being particularly essential, but it certainly doesn't throw off the groove either, since he's dealing with his favorite subject matter here. 

Summer tunes don't usually have interesting lyrics, since they tend to care more about catchiness than anything else, but thankfully "Knee Deep" does not lean on the usual lyrical crutches of referencing beer and bikinis.  One definite plus is that it actually offers some insight into why the narrator wishes to seek out a spot on the beach, and describes the laid-back escapism that such a destination would afford.  It doesn't simply hit a few of the usual bases and call it a day, nor does it ask us to accept that fact that the mere mention of a beach is alone the making of a great summer song.

The main triumph here is that "Knee Deep" actually manages to capture the laid-back vibe that is a hallmark of a good country summer song a la "Roll with It" or "Groovy Little Summer Song."  Summer songs often tend to succeed commercially while falling flat artistically, but I would probably have greater tolerance for summer songs in general if they were all as enjoyable as this one.  I could almost see this one sticking with us for a while.

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

Saturday, June 18, 2011

LeAnn Rimes, "Give"

The fact that LeAnn Rimes' single "What I Cannot Change" did not become a chart-busting, career-defining smash hit was easily one of the greatest radio crimes of 2008.  With that understated masterpiece, LeAnn displayed the rare ability to show a philosophical side without coming across as trite.  Her new single "Give" doesn't quite match the pure flawlessness of "What I Cannot Change," but it's another fine demonstration of that same ability.

These days LeAnn's personal exploits have been receiving more attention than her music, but recent years have seen her consistently releasing excellent singles, while rarely being rewarded with radio airplay.  With "Give," LeAnn continues to maintain that standard, echoing a simple yet poignant message.  "If you wanna get love then give it," she sings.  "If you want a friend, then be one/ A little bit of kindness, show some."  Through these lyrics, she encourages a proactive outlook on life, and calls for each of us to take initiative to bring about the change we wish to see in the world.  The production takes the form of a pop-country power ballad, but not one that's over-the-top.  Instead, the piano-driven arrangement with flourishes of steel and mandolin provides a fine complement to LeAnn's powerful, conviction-filled vocal.

All too often we see seasoned artists failing to live up to their previous quality standards.  Thus, it's particularly refreshing to see that LeAnn Rimes is one artist who just keeps getting better and better.  "What I Cannot Change" remains the pinnacle of LeAnn's artistic triumphs, but "Give" is a fine single in its own right, further extending her impressive string of winners.

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

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Talking with Jeremy Abshire of The Grascals

This six-piece band from Nashville known as The Grascals, since its founding in 2004, has quickly become one of the most revered and successful acts in modern bluegrass music, performing on the Grand Ole Opry and at bluegrass festivals across the country.  They have won several major awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association, including the 2007 award for Entertainer of the Year.

Prior to joining The Grascals, fiddler Jeremy Abshire played as a member of Billie Renee and Cumberland Gap, and as a member of Dale Ann Bradley's backing band.  He is known for his fluid and energetic fiddling style.

Earlier this year, the Grascals released their Cracker Barrel album The Grascals and Friends - Country Classics with a Bluegrass Spin, which featured collaborations with the likes of Dolly Parton, Dierks Bentley, Charlie Daniels, and others.  The band's latest release is the 7-song EP - Dance 'Til Your Stockings Are Hot And Ravelin' - A Tribute to the Music of the Andy Griffith Show.  The EP was released digitally on March 29, and was released in physical CD form earlier this month.  In this interview with The 1-to-10 Country Music Review, fiddler Jeremy Abshire discusses both of these recent projects, along with overseas touring experiences, and the one 'award' that means the most to him.
Ben Foster:  I'd love to hear some about your latest project, the EP Dance 'Til Your Stockings Are Hot And Ravelin' - A Tribute to the Music of The Andy Griffith Show.  How did that project come about?

Jeremy Abshire:  Well, actually it had been talked about for a while.  Mayberry's Finest was actually doing a food product package where this CD was going to be included as a bonus to the packaging that they were offering Cracker Barrel, and we had worked with them before, so they thought it would be a great fit, and so did we.

Ben:  What do you love most about the Andy Griffith Show?  I'm guessing you're probably a fan of it.

Jeremy:  Oh yeah, I'm a huge fan.  I think shows like that have just kind of gone by the wayside.  Even with kids growing up today, a lot of them don't even know about The Andy Griffith Show.  I think it's shows like that that shaped my youth, and people of my age demographic.  I think some shows like these could really help out our youth today - just simple shows with simple messages.  The Andy Griffith Show has always had a great message.  I'm glad to be supporting that.

Ben:  That's true.  You don't see that kind of stuff on TV much anymore.  These days it's mostly just fluff.

Jeremy:  Pretty much.

Ben:  I understand the EP also includes one bonus track - "Boy, Giraffes are Selfish."  What can you tell us about that song?

Jeremy:  Well, that's actually a tune that was done on the show, and that's something that the guys wanted to re-work, and add as a bonus track, so we worked that up in the studio and gave it our own feel.  So that's pretty much how that came about.  We just worked it out, and did it the way we would do it.  That was done by the Dillards originally, and it was on the music soundtrack for The Andy Griffith Show

Ben:  I'd also like to talk about another recent Grascals project - your Cracker Barrel album The Grascals and Friends - Country Classics with a Bluegrass Spin.  Would you like to tell about the creative process the band goes through in covering classic songs, and putting your own personal spin on them?

Jeremy:  I think it's hard any time you sit down to pick out material to try to figure out what might reach an audience, so we just tried to keep it simple.  We just picked out first who we wanted to work with, people who we'd worked with in the past obviously - Dolly, Dierks Bentley, Charlie Daniels.  We'd worked with the Oak Ridge Boys before.  So we had known all those guys, and we were friends with every one.  Basically, once we decided who we wanted on the project, we started looking at what songs would best fit them, best fit us collectively together, how that would sound, and we just came up with what we thought were songs that more people would enjoy, and also songs that we thought would sound great with the artists that we wanted to make a part of it.

Ben:  That must have been such a fun record to make.

Jeremy:  It was great.  Any time we get to work with Dolly or Dierks or Charlie - They're such great people anyway - to have them be a part of a project, and to work with them closely, is tremendous for us.  We always love to work with anybody like that.

Ben:  I understand Dolly also added her special touch to your recent single and video for "I Am Strong."  What can you tell us about that?
Jeremy:  We would have loved to have Dolly there when we originally shot the video.  She wanted to be a part of it, but unfortunately she had other commitments.  What she did, which was so kind of her, was to kind of re-shoot her part, and she did an amazing job.  I think all of us pointedly agree that she really made the song.  When she comes in, it's just such an uplifting feel to the song.  The song is amazing anyway.  It just celebrates all the children at St. Jude.  She cares so much about the kids at St. Jude, and she's such an amazing person that having her be a part of that song just couldn't be a better feeling for us.

Ben:  Would you like to tell about some of your experiences in visiting with the kids at St. Jude?

Jeremy:  It's a bittersweet place.  There's a lot of children there with a lot of horrible cancers, and it's very hard if you've never been there before to just walk in there and take the tour, and take it all in.  But you know the people at St. Jude have made that place a positive place for children in just their daily activities, the way the hospital is set up.  When you walk in there, it's not like you're walking into a hospital or a ward of a hospital.  Every room and every place you go is like a Chuck E. Cheese.  It's such a positive environment for children.  As much stuff as they're battling with the cancers and the chemo, and everything they have to go through on a daily basis, and it being a kid, amazingly they are so positive about it because of the environment that St. Jude has provided them.  They just exude that positive attitude.  It's hard to see children in pain, but it's also uplifting to see a place that takes care of them so well.  The kids are so positive about it that it actually makes you positive.  When we go there, we just like to have fun with the kids and play with them, and it's just a fun day.  But for anyone that just comes off the street and walks in there for the first time, it is a hard thing to take in, because the realization is there that there are kids there with some horrible cancers.  But they're fighting them, and St. Jude has come up with so many revelations in different cancers that no one else has been able to do, and they're just steadily working on trying to find cures for a lot of them.  They're doing wonderful things there, and we're just glad to be a part of their loving team.

Ben:  That's great that they're helping the kids to keep a positive spirit when they're going through something so difficult.

Jeremy:  Yes, they absolutely do.

Ben:  Since you've had the opportunity to take bluegrass music overseas with a couple trips to Europe last year, would you like to tell some about those experiences?

Jeremy:  We had a great trip to France.  Anytime you get to go out of the country and play the music you love for people who love it, it's an awesome experience and opportunity.  I myself had actually never been out of the country.  I really enjoyed the trip to Greece especially.  It's surprising when you go to a completely different place and you play the music that you play, and people really love it.  They love bluegrass in Europe.  They don't get it nearly enough, and there's very few radio stations that play country and bluegrass.  They were so receptive and so warm to us and to all the other bands that played.  But if I had to pick a favorite, I would have to say that Greece was my personal favorite.  It's such a beautiful place.  France was gorgeous too, but we spent less time there, and it was so cold when we went.  Greece was warm and great, and actually Nikos Garavelas, he actually has his own radio show that plays bluegrass in Greece near where we played, and is very successful doing that.  He's very successful with promoting the music in Greece and in Europe in general.  He's written a book on the history of country music, and he's really done a great job of promoting the music over there, and informing the public on the history of country.  He's a great friend of the band as well.

Ben:  That must have been such a fun experience.

Jeremy:  Yeah, it was.  It was amazing.  One day we had some downtime and went to his parents' house, which was right by the ocean.  It was absolutely beautiful, and his mom was cooking all day, and laid out this huge spread of Greek food which was absolutely amazing.  His whole family was there, and everyone was just so receptive.  It was just like a Friday night grilling out with your neighbors.  Everybody came over and they grilled chicken and different meats and had all the sides to go with it.  We spent the day swimming in the ocean and eating good food and enjoying good company, so I think we all had a great time in Greece.

Ben:  In closing, I'd like to ask you, when you look back on the accolades your band has received, what would you say have been your proudest moments as a member of the Grascals.

Jeremy:  I would have to say, for me personally, we've been a part of so many different things.  I personally have been so many places, and met so many people, and been a part of four projects now.  I've enjoyed each of them in different ways, but I would have to say going to St. Jude and really learning about St. Jude and the children there, that's really been a big part of this lately.  Recently we took a trip to St. Jude in January.  It was for the Country Cares seminar, which was basically where a bunch of artists in country get together and talk about how to raise money for the kids, how to better everything.  We met a lot of different children, and talked to a lot of different parents.  We took pictures with some kids, and we had a nice time there.  I've had the opportunity to play for president Bush, so I've got some amazing moments that are framed and hung on my wall.  When we got back from that seminar, there are some kids who actually made a crayon drawing for each of us, and they had those framed and sent to us, thanking us for supporting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.  As far as an award or something that hangs on the wall that I remember, there's nothing that I hold dearer to my heart than that because it came from St. Jude.