Monday, February 28, 2011

Kenny Chesney, "Live a Little"

"Live a Little," the third single from Kenny's current album Hemingway's Whiskey, is a safe and predictable up-tempo with a simple message: "Live a little, love a lot.... Have some fun." Sound familiar? Possibly because half of Kenny's hit catalog trumpets that same message? Or because the melody sounds like a carbon copy of "Keg In the Closet"?

The song couldn't be any more generic if it tried. It echoes a palatable sentiment that will throw no curves or surprises at country radio listeners, thus allowing Kenny's hit streak to continue uninterrupted. But that's not the only problem. Kenny doesn't even sound like he cares about the song, settling for a boring monotone vocal. He doesn't sound the least bit engaged or enthusiastic. And why should he? He does this same thing every year. This is just business as usual. Deliver the lyrics, hit the notes, and then sit back and watch it shoot up the charts.

Lyrics may be dull, generic, or inane, but that it not an insurmountable hurdle. Take Sugarland as a case study. "Stuck Like Glue" wasn't a particularly strong or interesting lyric on its own, but it was Jennifer Nettles' joyously wacky performance that had critics and fans alike (including yours truly) rapping "Wuh-oh wuh-oh, stuck like glue" nonstop for no apparent reason. But it's hard to really sell something that you don't sound like you'd buy yourself.

It's surely not unheard of for Kenny to revisit well-worn territory, but this single doesn't just sound like a re-tread. It sounds like he's not even trying anymore.

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


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Amber Hayes, "Wait"

The storyline behind FUNL Music recording artist Amber Hayes' latest single might not seem particularly interesting at first glance.  Girl meets guy at a coffee shop.  They're about to part when the girl is overcome by the feeling that this encounter could be the beginning of something deeper, and she implores him to "Wait... It might sound crazy/ I'm thinking maybe we could talk and talk all day."

The concept could easily have wound up a bore, but Amber sells it with her performance.  Her vocal delivery is tight and focused, but it also carries an air of longing, which is very appropriate for the sentiments her character expresses.  She acknowledges that the likelihood of this chance meeting blossoming into romance are relatively slim.  "It's a million to one," she admits.  "But..." she suggests, "Let's take it anyway!"  She is motivated not only by attraction alone, but by the knowledge that she would never know what might come to fruition were she not to take such a chance.  She desires "to find out if this spark really is a flame."  One could interpret this as underlying message that even if her aspirations are ultimately unfulfilled, she would still have the vindication of knowing that she did not simply let the opportunity pass by.

The production, notably pop-friendly in comparison to Amber's often traditional-leaning style, pulses along energetically as if to urge the character on.  Though a song like "Wait" could have seemed like a potentially boring or even fluffy concept, competent execution and a strong performance make this single a broadly enjoyable slice of pop-country fun.

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


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Tim McGraw and Gwyneth Paltrow, "Me & Tennessee"

This is an odd record.  Not that this is important, but where on earth do they get that title?  The phrase "Me & Tennessee" is not found in the lyrics, nor does it have a tangible connection to the song's overall concept.

"Me & Tennessee," Tim McGraw and Gwyneth Paltrow's new duet single from the Country Strong soundtrack, begins on a shallow note.  Nondistinct references to "all the good times we had... dancing on a Friday night" and so on aren't particularly interesting, and the chorus isn't exactly a step up.

When that old song comes on
Together we're singing, forever we're singing
That old country song
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

The melody is gloomy, and it almost sounds like it's also trying to be catchy, but it isn't catchy.  It's a bit repetitive.  Then the second verse rolls around, and the lead vocal baton passes from Tim to Gwyneth.  The lyrics take a bit of a U-turn.  Now it's a cheating song, as Gwyneth sings about things her man has done that she "can't forgive."

What next?  One more lackadaisical chorus, and then the song ends.  Thud.  Just like that.  That basically leaves us with two songs rolled into one with nothing tying them together.  A well-crafted third verse could have added some better cohesion.  But with the way things are it's hard to tell what kind of story the song is trying to tell, or how's it's supposed to affect us as listeners.  Is it simply waxing nostalgic?  Is it trying to be sad?  Are we supposed to cry or something?

It's hard to tell what the point of this song is.  Maybe the only point of its existence is to pair Tim McGraw with Gwyneth Paltrow.  Granted, they're both capable vocalists (even if Gwyneth does upstage Tim somewhat), but next time can we give them a better song?

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


Monday, February 21, 2011

David Nail, "Let It Rain"

Thus far, David Nail's radio offerings have generally shared one common strength - a strong and focused vocal performance - as well as one common flaw - bombastic production.  The critical point is often whether or not the song itself is coherent enough to overcome the flaw while highlighting the strength.  We definitely found that to be the case with his previous hit "Turning Home."  "Red Light"?  Not so much.

"Let It Rain" isn't the first country song to tackle a theme of cheating and heartbreak, nor is it the first to use rain as a metaphor.  But an important part of what makes the song work is its inclusion of personalized details that flesh out the story, which helps the song to distinguish itself from the many other variations of the same theme.  David reveals the cause of his heartache - a happy marital relationship shattered by one regrettable night of unfaithfulness.  "Seven years of good can't hide the one night I forgot to wear that ring," he laments.

The melancholy lyric draws out a powerful and emotive vocal from David.  To his credit, he is able to cut through the loud pop-country production without resorting to wild and unwieldy LeVox-esque vocal theatrics.  Another major plus is the audible sound of Sarah Buxton's distinct and beautiful voice on background vocals, which contrasts nicely against David's smooth and masculine lead vocal. 

It's not without it's weaknesses, but a solid lyric and a believable performance make this single an overall success.

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


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Bridgette Tatum, "Hillbilly Rockstar"

Sometimes you just immediately know what you're getting as soon as you read a song's title.  The title "Hillbilly Rockstar" might make you think that this song is essentially a headbanging country-rocker that apes country credibility through use of the word "hillbilly."  For the most part, you'd be correct.  We probably shouldn't be surprised, considering that this artist is one of the songwriters responsible for Jason Aldean's "She's Country."

At the very best, "Hillbilly Rockstar" is a vehicle for Bridgette Tatum to showcase her distinctive deep-throated vocals.  Though it almost comes as a slight surprise, the opening verse is actually somewhat catchy.

But oh, how the song falls apart in the chorus.

(Do you wanna) Party like a...
(Do you wanna) Party like a...
(Do you wanna) Party like a hillbilly rockstar

That seems like an awfully weak hook to build a song around - definitely not enough to keep me coming back for more.  It's obvious that this song isn't aiming to make a mark through strong lyrics, so it would take a good catchy hook to make the attempt seem worthwhile.  A great hook "Hillbilly Rockstar" simply doesn't have.  It doesn't help that the session musicians basically bang out the chords and call it a day.  Bridgette's vocals barely cut through the clutter as she attempts to sell the predictably inane lyrics.  I know it's only meant to be ear candy, but it doesn't quite hit my sweet tooth.

Last summer Bridgette impressed me with the bluesy grit of "That's Love Y'all," and I still believe she has great music in her.  I just don't believe I'm hearing it right now.

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


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Keith Urban, "Without You"

"Without You," the second single from Keith Urban's album Get Closer is a deeply personal self-penned composition for which wife Nicole Kidman serves as inspiration.

Actually it was written by Dave Pahanish and Joe West, but one could easily be forgiven for making the above assumption.

Without a doubt, there are plenty of things to like about Keith Urban's latest single.  The stripped-down musical arrangement served as a welcome change of pace on an album dominated by drum machines and electric guitars.  And what do you know?  It even sounds country, with fiddle and banjo included in generous amounts.  Not surprisingly, Keith delivers a deeply sincere vocal performance, which makes the record a success on a sonic level at the very least.

Regrettably, here is where the praise must end.  The song itself is a bore - depressingly one-dimensional, not to mention a bit self-indulgent.  We probably have Nicole Kidman to thank for this, since Keith's marriage to her has made him so gosh darn happy.  Though Keith's attempts at conveying sorrow and heartache have often resulted in brilliance (see "Til Summer Comes Around"), he doesn't always pick the best material for his happy romantic mood.  This song's sentiment sounds like something that would best be condensed into a couple of sentences instead of a five minute song.  In turn, the song would have been best left as an album cut instead of a radio single.

Though he undoubtedly means what he's singing, he's still not singing anything that feels vital, authentic, or artistically relevant.  I'm sure Nicole Kidman loves it - It's just hard to see why the rest of the world should be interested as well.

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


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

DJ Miller, "Whatever It Takes"

This young 21-year-old Hoosier country singer has already shown that he knows how to party with his debut single "A Little Naughty Is Nice," and he appealed to our nostalgic side with "Snowman In Birmingham.  But DJ Miller now shows a more mature side on his third single "Whatever It Takes."

The verses tell the story of a young couple dealing with economic difficulties that have put serious strains on their relationship.  Though there is some audible use of auto-tuning, DJ's vocal delivery comes across as warm and sincere.  Such qualities are further drawn out by a laid-back arrangement with peels of crying fiddles.  The song's character assures his wife us his commitment by describing the measures he's willing to take to provide.  He'll sell his old guitar.  He'll work three jobs.  He'll do "Whatever It Takes" to "be the rock you can count on."

The concept is solid, if not groundbreaking.  It's a respectable entry from an artist who is known for his down-to-earth personality, in addition to his energetic live performances.  All in all, "Whatever It Takes" is DJ's best single thus far, and a decent introduction to a talented new artist.

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


Monday, February 14, 2011

Album Review: Thompson Square

Enter another of the duos that are nipping at Sugarland's heels.  The duo Thompson Square is composed of husband and wife Kiefer and Shawna Thompson.  Last year they released their debut single "Let's Fight," which was enjoyable for its off-beat theme of a couple shaking up their stale romance with a good fight, but it tanked at #58 on the charts.  They recently scored their first Top 20 hit with the somewhat ho-hum ballad "Are You Gonna Kiss Me Or Not." 

Without a doubt, the act's greatest asset is Shawna, whose beautiful voice sounds reminiscient of Pam Tillis and Deana Carter.  Her hushed performance of the song "Glass," combined with a well-exectued lyrical metaphor, make it one track that is definitely worth cherry-picking from the album.  Though "If It Takes All Night" does not boast the most distinct lyric, Shawna sells it with her sultry performance backed by some bluesy electric guitar licks.

The biggest problem here is that the album has unquestionably fallen victim to the all-too-common "louder is better" mentality.  The majority of the tracks fall flat thanks to the overly loud rocked-up Nashville production (the work of labelmate Jason Aldean's road band - Tully Kennedy, Kurt Allison, David Fanning, and Rich Redmond).  One notable example is the song "One of Those Days," in which the audacious arrangement nearly drowns out Shawna's sassy lead vocal as well as the fierce banjo work.  Thrashing guitars level out the set until each song sounds the same as the one before it, making it difficult to appreciate the songs for their own merits.  It's hard not to have a headache by the time the album is over.

There may be some potential hear, since Shawna in particular displays obvious talent.  But overall, Thompson Square's debut album is a hot mess.

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


Saturday, February 12, 2011

Thanks, Brad - My Country, 'Tis of Thee

The following is a guest contribution by Maurice Tani of the California-based independent alt-country group 77 El Deora.

I write, (and my band, 77 El Deora, plays), country music. At least I call it that. It's certainly not pure in any sense. I draw on a lot of different influences, but down in the basement, if you look at the foundation, the bricks are made in Bakersfield, and the brick layers scratched their names into the mortar: Buck, Don, Merle....

The other day, I was driving south on 101 up in Sonoma, channel surfing the radio. As a songwriter, I generally try to give a song the benefit of the doubt and listen to at least a verse and chorus. I tune out a lot of stuff and wind up listening to way too much news radio, NPR, and Mexican music...

I wish I could listen to more country on the radio, but big time commercial country music media is another world from what independent, original country outfits like my band or Red Meat (for another shining example) do. Obviously, a lot of people listen to what comes off of Music Row in Nashville, but we have little in common with what the major labels present as country beyond the broad country label.

Scanning the FM band, I came in on the beginning of some song on a commercial country station that had a long intro (sort of unusual for commercial radio of any pop genre) with some fairly aggressive guitar, which always attracts my ear. More often than not, commercial country records tease with spicy guitar and then disappoint with bland or worse, stupid lyrics. Still, there's always a chance there might be something good....

The vocal started in with a line about the protagonist having her "Brazilian leather boots on the pedal of her German car." Red flag. I am so used these days to a main thrust of commercial country being an anthem to xenophobia, America right or wrong, foreign cars suck, city dwellers are arrogant, redneck pride, etc, etc, that I had a bad feeling about where this was going after just one line.

Apparently, this is a hot button for me. Commercial country, like all pop formats, has always had a bland side, but there were also some great songwriters working the field. By the '80s, however, production started to veer into '70s-style soft rock. They had already lost me at that point. But more recently, I have been aware of a trend of blatant pandering to what I suppose the industry has defined as their target demographic.

This latest phase in commercial country focuses heavily on an 'Us vs. Them' mentality. Singers beat their chests proudly that they are "country," "rednecks" etc, implying that they're "real" while those other people are not. Real God-fearing Americans. Real Christians. Real, down-to-earth people with real moral values as opposed to the phony elitists. It's a celebration of defiance to a perceived threat to the honest, middle-American Heartland way of life.

Everyone likes the underdog to succeed. It's story telling device that predates the written word. Modern commercial country casts the (moral, white) majority in the roll of the underdog in the culture war on everything from marriage to Christmas.

This isn't some recent invention of cynical Bush-era/Fox and Friends, Nashville A&R people. "Okie from Muskogee" came out in 1969 and similar stuff surfaces periodically (i.e. "A Country Boy Can Survive" in the early '80s) but this latest wave of anti-sophisticate self-gratification has reached new height in the years following 9/11.

So, the song on the radio continues.

"She's listening to the Beatles singing Back in the USSR."

Still wary, I'm not sure where this is headed. Is this writer about to take a swing at elitist Europeans or Communism? Obama socialists? Death camps? I mean, who doesn't like the Beatles?

The singer continues:

"She's goin' around the world tonight, but she ain't leavin' here.

She's just going to meet her boyfriend at the street fair."

Okay. Actually relatively benign. In fact, "street fair" sounds a bit urban. I would have expected "county" or "state" fair. . .

Then the chorus:

It's a french kiss, italian ice

Spanish moss in the moonlight

Just another American Saturday night

He's working an international motif into a commercial country song? Sure, it ends with the hook of "Just another American Saturday night" which sounds just like what one would expect from the Nashville song mill, but he didn't get there preaching to the choir about how great we are compared to "them." It's actually sounding like some sort of celebration of diversity. I'm gonna stick with this for another verse -or at least until the other shoe drops....

Next verse he runs through a toga party and a reference to the Greek fraternity system (elitist college education), Canadian bacon, pizza (Italy), and a couple of foreign beers (one of which is light). He ends the verse with a sort of Jimmy Buffet/Great Melting Pot reference, saying "we're living in a big 'ol cup. Fire up the blender and mix it all up!"

It's just a light-hearted country-pop song, but this is a breath of fresh air in a format that has pandered increasingly to a socio-political agenda that promotes American isolationism with the implication of our (supposed) moral superiority. Are we afraid of losing our American identity with the influx of foreign influences? Not according to this guy. Our American identity is those foreign influences all blended together. We take that for granted in most coastal cities, but this is a concept that is almost shocking coming from the conservative world of mainstream country radio. Remember, this is the radio format that effectively banned the Dixie Chicks for criticizing George Bush.

The bridge comes up after another chorus and the singer sums up his point:

"You know everywhere has something they're known for

Although usually it washes up on our shores

My great great great granddaddy stepped off of that ship

I bet he never ever dreamed we'd have all this"

He's not saying those other places are better or worse. He's saying those other places are who we are. It's a gentle point. Hardly earth-shattering. Nothing that hasn't been said before in "We Are the World" or "Feed the World" or "It's a Small, Small World" but it's the context here that is important. This isn't some star-studded, cross-genre heart and wallet tugger. This is just a common, everyday, commercial country single, made for radio play in the hyper-partisan, culture-war scarred landscape of post-9/11, (white) middle America.

Then, not once, but twice through the changes with a ripping Telecaster solo. He reprises the bridge, swapping out the last two lines with:

"Little Italy, Chinatown, sittin' there side by side

Live from New York, It's Saturday Night!"

New York City?!?! Somebody call Sarah Palin! Is he actually implying that America includes NYC?! What's next? Hollywood? San Francisco? Berkeley? (Ok, Berkeley is a stretch even in Berkeley)

If you haven't guessed by now, the artist is Brad Paisley. Yes, I know. The record came out in 2009. This song was released as a single in November. That's how little I listen to commercial country radio.

I went online and found the video:

It's not genius, but cute enough. Most notably, the imagery is urban-positive with cheap CGI video game graphics (Okay, it's a look...) (Oh, and it includes a few cameos of Little Jimmy Dickins, who is featured in many of Paisley's videos. LJD is just good music!).

Brad Paisley not trying to be deep. He (co)writes clever, fun songs and plays great guitar. He tackles a wide range of subjects in his songs that range from rural ("I'm Gonna Miss Her," "Ticks," etc) to modern, topical ("Online"). He uses a lot of irony in his lyrics and a lot of fire in his playing. I don't think he's trying to change the world, but he is exerting positive energy in a place that needs it badly. We need more Brad Paisleys.

By the way... at the end of the song, he closes the whole thing out with almost a full minute of more Tele shredding. Thanks Brad. I needed that. I needed the whole damn thing.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ronnie Dunn, "Bleed Red"

Ronnie Dunn has one heck of a good singing voice. That much is made obvious by one listen to any of those platinum selling Brooks & Dunn records. Ronnie’s first post-Brooks & Dunn single finds him still in fine voice. “Bleed Red” is a pop-infused power ballad that calls for world peace and reconcilation of makind. It makes its point through emphasis of the fact that all men share the same inherent weaknesses and struggles. It’s a strong sentimet, and it’s definitely a timely one. Ronnie’s stellar vocal radiates his conviction in the song’s message. The song also has a hook that adequately sums up its point: “We all bleed red, all taste rain, all fall down…”
 The sentiment, however, is weighed down by a dull and repititive melody that sounds like the same few notes played over and over and over again. While the chorus isn’t bad, the verses never rise above the typical generality of such heavy power ballads as this. Then before long, along comes an all-too-predictable development. Three… two… one… BAM. Cue overdramatic string-laden finish.

Ronnie’s predictably strong vocal performance anchors the song enough to keep it from being a total wash, but the sum of its part still ends up a disappointment. The song’s notable strong point is ultimately nullified by the weaknesses that weigh against it. Thus we are left with a strong performance of a song that just doesn’t pull enough weight to make it a keeper. The concept could have made for a very good song, but the end product is a song that gets very old very fast.

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


Tuesday, February 8, 2011

From the Indie Files: Pariah Beat - Bury Me Not

If you're getting tired of the cookie-cutter major label drivel on country radio, then here's an independent roots band from Vermont whom you might find worth your while.

Pariah Beat's album Bury Me Not is largely a raw, unpolished, and imperfect affair but there are great moments worth seeking out.  The album's first two tracks ("Bury Me Not" and "Copper Mine") suffer from somewhat crowded musical arrangments and slightly unwieldy vocals that make the lyrics difficult to make out.  But the subsequent track "I Don't Wanna Go to Heaven" is a simple banjo-laced delight.  "Elvis In Jersalem" is an upbeat and energetic track with an organic-sounding melody and production.

Members Nick Charyk, Emily Eastridge, and Billy Sharff share vocal duties, dueting occasionally, and they display some notable vocal chemistry.  They trade off verses on the bluegrass barn-burner "Bend Down Your Birches" in a sprightly performance that makes the track a highligh of the album.  Emily bends her notes every which way in a nuanced delivery of the bluesy "Ms Ella Strickland" - possibly one of the album's best tracks.

While it may not be a perfect record, and it ends all too soon after nine tracks, Bury Me Not as a whole is characterized by an uninhibited spunk and a raw earthy quality that makes it a fresh and entertaining listen for those willing to seek it out.

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


Sunday, February 6, 2011

A Passion for Great Country Music

In exploring the country blogosphere, it's largely inevitable that you come across comments that make such claims as...

"Those who can do.  Those who can't... become critics."

Let's talk about this for a moment.  In essence, such commenters claim that music critics are nothing but grumpy old sourpusses who have no musical talent and no hopes of achieving a successful music career, and who thus try to feel better about themselves by slinging mud at those who do have such potential.  Strangely enough, such comments only seem to appear on negative reviews.  I have yet to see one on a positive review.

Let's break down these assumptions.  First of all, is there any sound basis for asserting that music critics never have any musical talent of their own?  That may be what some of us would like to believe when we come across a scathing review that we strongly disagree with.  But let's be humble about this - We really don't know, do we?  Some critics are very talented musicians, and it's not a given fact that every person on earth with the slightest shred of musical talent is going to pursue fame and fortune as a country star.  Bear in mind also that good writing is a talent in itself.  Perhaps the said critic has found that his true calling is to be a writer rather than a professional musician.  At any rate, there is little basis for assuming that the critic does what he does solely because he is not the one making the hit records.

The greatest error of such a comment is assuming that the the critic is motivated entirely by hatred and bitterness, when in fact such could hardly be further from the truth.  A music critic is motivated, not by bitterness, but by passion.  We love to write.  We love great music.  Isn't it easy to see why we might enjoy writing about music?

Understandably, this might beg the question of "If y'all are motivated by passion, then why so many negative reviews?"

Consider another typical comment-thread complaint:

"You know my daddy always said if you have nothing good to say about something then keep your opinion to yourself. As in things you may dislike someone else dearly loves."

Negative reviews happen.  That's just the way it is.  But that in no way suggests that an unimpressed reviewer is negative about music in general.  Since we have a passion for great music, that passion often causes us to be particularly critical of not-so-great music.  So why don't we keep our opinions to ourselves?  Since mainstream releases from major record labels draw a great deal of attention, record buyers are interested in knowing if it's really worth their dollars.  So we eagerly listen to new releases, and review them to help our readers determine what's worth buying.  If we honestly don't think it's any good, then we tell you why we hold that opinion.  Thus, negative reviews serve a purpose just as the positive ones do.

There's definitely no need to become angry or defensive if a critic pans music that we enjoy.  After all, does the negative opinion of one critic prevent us from listening to and enjoying the music for what it is?  Definitely not.  In such a scenario, the old adage "Agree to disagree" is very applicable indeed.  If you do disagree, then it's perfectly acceptable to leave your own comment and express why the music appeals to you.  I love it when I get reader comments that cause me to view a song or album from a new and different perspective, and to see positive qualities that I might not have noticed at first.  That only makes for an interesting and enjoyable blog discussion, as long as opinions are expressed with tact, diplomacy, and respect for others.

If you find that a certain critic reliably disagrees with your opinions on music, then that simply means that the two of you analyze music on different levels.  You and he are two unique and different individuals who have different tastes, different sets of opinions, and who look for different qualities in what you consider to be great music.  Maybe that critic just isn't the one for you.  That's okay.  You might find another critic whose opinions you can relate to more clearly.  You may find that you can rely on that critic to help you determine what type of music will appeal to you.

As an avid country music blogger, I can say that it always makes me happy when I see comments like these:

"Thanks for the review, was trying to decide whether or not to buy it. I think I've decided, upon reading this, that I will."

"Jamey has a nice earthy quality which is quite entertaining.  Thanks very much, Ben, for making me aware of him."

Introducing you to great music is like introducing you to a dear friend of ours.  One of the most satisfying aspects of reviewing music is having the opportunity to introduce you to new music that you might not have discovered otherwise.

There are countless different styles of music to choose from, even just within the genre boundaries of what we call country music, and there is an endless variety of opinions on music.  Surely, the Internet is big enough to accomodate all of them.  A country music blog is an ideal forum for all of us to share the great music we love, to freely express our opinions, and to engage in discussion over it.  In today's digital age, such interaction is made quicker and easier than ever before.  We may agree.  We may disagree.  But the one thing that all of us have in common is that we all have a deep love for great music.  We may have our differences, but our passion for the music is what unites us.

Wow, that last sentence could really use a string section and a gospel choir, don'tcha think?

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Interview with Steve Rice of No Justice

Steve Rice is the lead vocalist and guitarist of the popular Okahoma-based band known as No Justice.  Guitarist Jerry Payne, bassist Joey Trevino, drummer Armando Lopez, and lead guitarist Cody Patton round out the the rest of the No Justice lineup.  The band has gained a large fan following in the Lone Star State, having charted seven Top 10 singles and four number ones on Texas country charts in only a four-year span.  I recently had a chat with Steve over the phone about the latest No Justice projects, including their most recent album 2nd Avenue, released last July on Carved Records

Ben:  The first thing I wanted to hear your thoughts on is how would you say the Red dirt music scene is different from the mainstream Nashville country scene?

Steve:  Well, we're all broke!  That's the first one.  A lot of these bands, we all work together for the same cause.  There's no real competition or anything like that.  It's just a real laid-back environment.  The fans are really loyal and dedicated.  You're starting to see it less and less in the Nashville music scene, but there's a lot of originality down here for the most part.  Then again, you have your cookie-cutter stuff just like you do anywhere else.  But then you start to see a lot less of that cookie-cutter type stuff.  In Nashville, people like Jamey Johnson are coming along and doing stuff that's a little different.  But yeah, that's pretty much it, and the big one is that we're all broke.

Ben:  Do you have any favorite Texas or Oklahoma artists?

Steve:  I like some new artists that are coming out.  He's not from down here, but he plays down here.  He's a Nashville boy - Sean McConnell.  There's the Turnpike Troubadours that are just getting started and making some waves.  There's a lot of them, man.  If you asked me who I don't like, I could probably give you a lot better of an example... No, I'm just joking!  I'll keep my mouth shut on that.

Ben:  Tell as about your experiences in touring with artists such as Willie Nelson, Jack Ingram, and Dierks Bentley.

Steve:  I'd say they were pretty pleasurable.  We've toured around with Jack and Dierks.  We only played a couple shows with Willie Nelson.  Dierks is like a buddy you'd have in high school - just a really nice guy.  He goes out of his way to make sure everybody's taken care of, which is cool, you know.  A lot of people don't do that.

Ben:  How does your current album 2nd Avenue fit in with the previous No Justice albums?  In what ways is it similar or different?

Steve:  A lot of the similarities would be just style-wise.  We definitely push the boundaries with the rock and blues genres on the new record.  We still have kind of the same melodic exploration that we've always had. 

Ben:  Do you have a favorite song on 2nd Avenue?

Steve:  Oh man, they're kind of all favorites, and it's kind of refreshing to be able to play something new after a little hiatus since the last record.  I like the roller coaster melody with "5 More Minutes," and I like the inspiration with "Coming Up the River," and I like the rock side with songs like "2nd Avenue."  We want to take somebody on a one-time ride with this record instead of the same thing ten times in a row.

Ben:  Do you feel like being able to take a hiatus for a few years made for a better album?

Steve:  I'd say yes.  Three years ago we wouldn't have made the same record that we made recently.  I don't think it was "our time" to record any earlier than we did.  I'm a believer that you shouldn't rush a record.

Ben:  Have changes in membership had a significant effect on the band's sound and group dynamics?

Steve:  Since Cody has added a third harmony vocal and his signature lead guitar to the mix, it has definitely changed our sound a bit. It's hard not to with such a dominant instrument.

Ben:  Johnny Cooper and Rebecca Lynn Howard contribute vocals on a couple of tracks.  Could you tell us how they came to be a part of the project?

Steve:  Johnny was there quite a bit during our recording process, and I thought it would be cool to have him on a few tracks, just to throw a wrench into the gears and switch things up a bit.  Rebecca and our producer, Dex [Dexter Green], were friends and we thought her voice would really compliment the song.  We were very happy with the outcome on both performers.

Ben:  Would you like to tell about your next new single and video "Gone Ain't Far Enough"?

Steve:  "Gone Ain't Far Enough" is my first attempt at writing a waltz.  It is also one of the more country tracks on the record.  It will be interesting to see how we do with a more country song on the radio since the first two singles off the record that went to radio were definitely more rocking.

Ben:  Final question - What is country music to Steve Rice and to No Justice?

Steve:  In a nutshell, I think its based on simplicity and honesty.  It stretches from the good people that we meet to the great musicians we work and share the highways with.  Country is one of the few genres in today's music scene that actually still has some good values.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Music Video Round-Up - February 2011

Quite a diverse group of videos in this month's Music Video Round-Up.  This edition includes contributions from new artists, established hitmakers, an indie artist, a veteran group, and even some bluegrass from Dierks Bentley.

Randy Montana, "1,000 Faces"

Surprisingly (or not), this video has a lot of faces in it.

Danielle Car, "Walk of Shame"

A fun and energetic performance by a talented indie country artist from Detroit.

Ashton Shepherd, "Look It Up"

Why, Miss Ashton!  Somebody should wash your mouth out.  But still a cute and funny video nonetheless.  In the "Look It Up" video, Ashton claims sweet revenge on her philandering man by selling off his belongings at a yard sale.

The Harters, "If I Run"


Taylor Swift, "Back to December"

I think the snow falling indoors is actually pretty cool.  It's definitely in character with the song.

Joe Nichols, "The Shape I'm In"

Joe Nichols's video for "The Shape I'm In" puts a new and different spin on the song by applying the sentiments to a soldier recovering from injuries.

Steel Magnolia, "Last Night Again"

Steel Magnolia's video for "Last Night Again" fits the song perfectly, and also places it in an interesting setting - a bowling alley.

Alabama, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way"

Emerson Drive, "When I See You Again"

A tribute to former member Patrick Bourque, who died one month after resigning from the band.  You can tell there's a lot of emotion packed into this video.
Dierks Bentley, "Fiddlin' Around"

I'll start appraising the video once I get over how cool the record itself sounds.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Star De Azlan, "A Man Who Can Dance"

In between repackaging Tim McGraw's hits, killing off Jo Dee Messina's career, and trying to get people to care about Bomshel, Curb recorbs has made a few attempts to introduce the talented young Hispanic singer Star De Azlan to country music audiences, with very limited success.  Debut single "She's Pretty" topped out at #51, and follow-up "Like a Rose" failed to chart.  Perhaps radio was scared off by her traditional-leaning sound (not that country radio is a haven for new non-blonde female artists in the first place), but now she returns with her most commercially-friendly single thus far.

"A Man Who Can Dance" is exactly what its title promises - a fun, catchy, danceable little ditty.  Main character Carmelita is a feisty Latin-American beauty who will quickly dismiss an otherwise-desirable suitor for the reason that "He can't move his hips" or that he "couldn't get the hang of the tango."  Why, such a man would never do!  She wants... you guessed it... "A Man Who Can Dance"!  Specifically, a man proficient in ballroom and Latin dances - a man who can "waltz, rumba, samba..."

It's a cute enough concept, but the real kicker is an arrangement that is a lively fusion of country music and Latin music.  Spanish guitars pluck away in the background as Star chirps and rolls the R's all the way through her sprightly performance.  As the track ends, the song morphs into an everywoman declaration of "We want a man who can dance!"  That development provokes a bit of an eyeroll, but does not prove to be a major detraction from the track's overall charm.

Star has delivered a track that will likely have a wide appeal among country radio listeners, but that's just quirky and offbeat enough stand out among its radio company if radio were to give it a chance.  Works for me!  But there's no need to overthink it.  Just turn up the volume, sing along, and do your little dance.

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

HEAR IT on Star's MySpace
(You can hear English and Spanish versions of this song as well as Star's two previous singles)

Album Review: The JaneDear Girls

Perhaps the first and most obvious problem with this album is that The JaneDear Girls are not particularly strong vocalists.  Thus, they attempt to mask their vocal weaknesses with all of the bells and whistles that modern-day Nashville has to offer.  Bring on the catchy melodies and hooks!  Lay on the heavy drum beats and bass lines!

As weak as the lead single "Wildflower" may be, it is an unfortunately accurate representation of the album's overall direction.  Besides being another dime-a-dozen tune from the "I'm so country" file, it kicks off the album on a loud and obnoxious note.  The quieter moments are few and far between.  "Shotgun Girl" might have enough of a hook to touch your catchy bone if you don't mind more unnecessary name-dropping (This time they're "cranking Waylon, Willie, and Merle").  "Merry Go Round" is easily the worst track on the album, with overblown production (Thanks, John Rich) and heavily auto-tuned vocals turning it into one enormous headache.  The unbelievably cheesy "Sugar" isn't much better.  There are a few tracks that are more listenable than the rest, such as the ballads "Saturdays In September" and "Never Gonna Let You Go," but the lyrics still ring hollow and generic.  The album can't claim any genuine standouts.

In general, the album fails in just about every area one can think of.  Susie and Danelle's songwriting suggests that they have virtually nothing to say.  John Rich's cacophonic production hammers it pretty far into the ground, but there just doesn't seem to be much talent to work with anyway.  The JaneDear Girls an album that is mildly tolerable at best, and woefully unsalvagable at worst, leaning toward the latter much more than the former.  Just to be clear, why exactly is country radio playing this?  Why can't we just have Trisha Yearwood back?

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


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Gretchen Wilson, "I'd Love to Be Your Last"

Gretchen Wilson was easily the most unlikely Grammy nominee this year, with her ballad "I'd Love to Be Your Last" receiving a nod for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, despite the fact that it had not been released to radio.  As a result of the attention resulting from the nomination, "I'd Love to Be Your Last" has been announced as the third single from Gretchen's current album I Got Your Country Right Here.

If you got a bit of a "Haven't I heard this before" vibe from this song, then that may be because a version of this song previously appeared on Clay Walker's 2007 album Fall.  We see some notable differences between the two cuts.  Clay's version shines with studio polish as a string section shimmers behind his flawless vocal delivery.  In start contrast, Gretchen's version is raw, unpolished, and imperfect.  Backed almost entirely by acoustic guitar, Gretchen delivers the verses in a soft and breathy whisper of a performance.

Such an interpretation might not work on just any song, but it's a good fit for a lyric about an intimate moment between two flawed and imperfect individuals, both of whom have made mistakes and gone through many moments of heartbreak.  While Gretchen admits she would rather "give my heart to you unbroken," she chooses to forget the past and concentrate on the future.  "I don't care if I'm your first love," she concludes, "but I'd love to be your last."

The quiet acoustic arrangement might not be country radio's cup of tea, but this is still a beautiful song, and Gretchen delivers a unique and respectable interpretation.  Since much of her recent output has been fairly forgettable, it's a pleasure to hear her singing a song that doesn't reek of pandering in the least.  On the contrary, "I'd Love to Be Your Last" sounds different from anything else on the radio right now.  Listen to this single, and hear a sincere and emotional side of the "Redneck Woman" that has rarely been on such fine display.  More please.

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