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.