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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Album Review: Gene Watson & Rhonda Vincent - Your Money and My Good Looks

Don't these two just sound like they were meant to be together?  When Gene Watson and Rhonda Vincent met for the very first time, they were scheduled to perform together on a televised portion of WSM's Grand Ole Opry.  Due to a plane delay, their first meeting took place on stage when they performed together without having rehearsed or even having met before that night.  And yet, when they blended their two unique voices together, it was obvious that they had something special.  After a few one-off duets on various projects, and after touring together, Gene and Rhonda have finally joined forces on a full album of duets.

Your Money and My Good Looks combines the talents of the finest male vocalist in country music with those of the finest female vocalist in bluegrass music, forming a traditional country album that is an absolute gem.  The song material is consistently excellent, with the two vocalists giving showstopping performances, both individually and in harmony.  Producer Herb Sandker backs them up with stone cold country arrangements that don't make the tracks sound like relics of a bygone era, but rather that make them sound timeless.

The album opens with the title track "Your Money and My Good Looks" - a fun flirty up-tempo track laden with fiddle and steel.  Afterwards, we are treated to some spectacular country ballads with poignant messages about love lost, love found, and love rediscovered.  "Gone for Good" finds two spouses lamenting the deteriorated state of their relationship, while coming to the solemn realization that "If we keep lettin' things go bad, they'll soon be gone for good."  Another highlight is "Alone Together Tonight" - written by Billy Yates, Ashley Monroe, and Terry Clayton - a cleverly-written tale of two brokenhearted individuals coming together.

Your Money and My Good Looks also finds Gene and Rhonda digging back into the archives for some well-chosen and well-executed cover tunes.  It contains a remake of one of Gene's own hits, "You Could Know As Much About a Stranger," reworked as a duet.  Such a reinterpretation turns out to be very fitting.  The lyrics work well in the form of two lovers discussing their mutual lack of familiarity with one another.  "Sweet Thang" (That's "Sweet Thang," not "Sweet Thing" like the Keith Urban song) was a hit for writer Nat Stuckey in 1966, but his version was eclipsed by that of the dynamic duo of Ernest Tubb and Loretta Lynn.  Gene and Rhonda deliver a competent updating of the classic tune, with Rhonda taking on the Lynn-esque attitude quite well.  Particularly enjoyable is their cover of the Hank Williams classic "My Sweet Love Ain't Around," which ranks as one of the finest displays of the emotional connectivity that both vocalists excel at.

Rhonda Vincent is one female artist in particular who displays remarkable vocal power combined with an impeccable ability to control her vocal abilities.  She knows how to draw on her vocal power without beating us over the head with it, while also channeling the emotions of a song, and displaying extraordinary interpretive abilities, thus giving a truly outstanding vocal performance.

When the album reaches its final track, Rhonda says "Hey Gene, let's get outta here and let these guys play one," and then we are treated to the rousing instrumental bonus track, "Ashes of Mt. Augustine," showcasing the top-notch musicianship of Michael Rojas (piano), Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Mike Johnson (steel guitar), Michael Rhodes (bass) and James Mitchell (guitar).

Seeing the high caliber of material and performance that Your Money and My Good Looks displays, I would hardly expect 2011 to produce a better album than this one.  All of the finest qualities of the country genre are on full display on this exquisite set, from proficient storytelling to deep emotional impact.  Though the mainstream brand of country continually offers a poor representation of the genre, Gene and Rhonda have created a set that could be just the album to make you fall in love with country music all over again.

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


Monday, June 13, 2011

Shania Twain, "Today Is Your Day"

Songwriter:  Shania Twain

New music from Shania Twain is understandably a cause for excitement.  After amassing staggering sales numbers, dominating pop and country music markets on an international scale, and captivating legions of fans with her personality-driven hits, the Canadian superstar has been nearly silent on the music scene for over half a decade.

But the past year has seen her returning to the spotlight in a big way.  After appearing as a guest judge and mentor on the 2010 season of American Idol, releasing her memoir From This Moment On, and being the subject of her own docu-series on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Shania has finally given us a new single, and is it ever a disappointment.

Shania has continually proven herself to be a stellar songwriter, proficient at crafting both emotionally hard-hitting ballads as well as insidiously catchy up-tempo tunes, so it's a huge letdown to see her regressing into vapid inspirationalism.  Regrettably, "Today Is Your Day" sounds all too reminiscent of the trite themes that artists like Sugarland have been beating into the ground lately.  In lyric, "Today Is Your Day" lacks the distinct authenticity that characterized Shania's classic nineties hits, instead leaning on seemingly random couplets echoing a "You can do it" theme.  Add in the fact that "Today Is Your Day" shows neither a discernible lyrical progression, nor a shred of a constructed narrative, and we're left with an awfully boring lyric.

There are few if any redeeming qualities, with heavy-handed power ballad production competing with an overly processed lead vocal.  A superfluous and scarcely audible banjo line attempts to qualify it as country music.  The production issues are a particular disappointment, since bad production was almost never a problem with Shania in the past.

Needless to say, "Today Is Your Day" offers a weak payoff for fans who have waited six years for new Shania music, with weak lyrics and distasteful production overshadowing the voice we had always known and loved.  Authenticity, personality, and all of the best qualities Shania brought to country music are nowhere to be heard on "Today Is Your Day," and that's a crying shame.

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

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Darius Rucker, "I Got Nothin'"

Songwriters:  Darius Rucker, Clay Mills

The better part of Darius Rucker's country career has seem a talented voice used on uninteresting material, as demonstrated by recent snoozers such as "Come Back Song" and "This."  So it comes as a pleasant surprise to see that his latest single "I Got Nothin'," is actually a pretty decent song. 

It could use a stronger title hook, but the verses are an overall solid narrative of the dissolution of a relationship, focusing on the desperation of the left-behind partner as he gropes for the right words to keep his woman from leaving him.  The track is backed by a standard contemporary country arrangement with trills of steel guitar.  For the most part, the production stays out of the way, allowing the lyrics and performance to stand front and center.

And yet, for some reason, I'm not feeling it.  Why am I not feeling it?  "I Got Nothin'" seems to have the makings of a strong single, but there's something missing, and that's emotional resonance.  Darius has a great voice, and from a technical perspective, his vocals seem to get the job done.  His vocal delivery is neither weak, nor off-key, but it fails to channel the tortured emotions in the song's lyric.  He sings the words, hits the notes, and calls it a day.  Without that much-needed emotional connection, we are left with what feels like a bland, warmed-over product that leaves little of an impression after its three-and-a-half minutes have expired.

A good song is a good song, but when put on record, the lead vocal is what ultimately binds the whole package together.  Even a great song can fall flat if the vocal doesn't do the job right.  "I Got Nothin'" is a solid composition, but with Darius' disconnected delivery, the overall package misses the mark.

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

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Danielle Car, "Pretty Please"

Songwriter:  Danielle Car

She has yet to ink a major label recording contract, but Detroit native Danielle Car is already making a name for herself and her rocked-up brand of Motown country music.  With her previous release "Walk of Shame," she became the only unsigned artist on the monthly Promo Only release, and with her current single "Pretty Please," she's done it again on the Promo Only country radio compilation for the month of June.

"Pretty Please" features a tell-it-like-it-is lyric about a woman upholding her self-worth when receiving romantic gestures from a man hiding "a suntan line where a little ol' ring should be."  It explores a similar theme to Sugarland's 2008 neo-classic "Stay," but in place of the raw emotion of that Sugarland hit, "Pretty Please" displays a confident swagger and a whole lot of attitude as the lyrical narrator firmly declares that she has no intention of being pulled into a love triangle.  With standout lines like "All this double-dippin' will leave you cryin' in your apple pie," Danielle has written one heck of a good song.

The sentiment is underscored by an upbeat melody and an energetic country-rock arrangement with some catchy guitar licks.  During the chorus, the heavy drumbeat threatens to be a distraction from Danielle's performance, but it's to her credit as a vocalist that she is not drowned out.  As much fun as the song is, it could be benefited by toning down the layers of production and background vocals, thus effectively allowing Danielle's strong and sassy lead vocal to be the primary focus of attention.

But there's still a lot to love here, as "Pretty Please" displays a level of personality that blows many current radio favorites out of the water, while echoing an underlying message of self-confidence amid all that fist-pumping fun.  More songs like this on country radio... "pretty please."

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

HEAR IT on Danielle's MySpace

Monday, June 6, 2011

Music Video Round-Up - June 2011

This month's edition of the Music Video Round-Up features quite a few offerings from new and independent artists as well as major-label hitmakers.

Luke Bryan, "Country Girl (Shake It for Me)"

I was pretty sure I knew what I was getting before I had even seen this video, but at least they didn't play up the backwoods country corn as much as I was expecting.

Burns and Poe, "Second Chance"

Amber Hayes, "Wait"

Amber Hayes' first music video acts out the story told in her current single "Wait," featuring a simple chance meeting in a coffee shop - a meeting that could turn into something more.

Amos Lee, "Flower"

The animation in the video is very artistic, though it throws me off a bit that we never see any actual footage of Amos Lee himself.

Hunter Hayes,"Storm Warning"

Blake Shelton, "Honey Bee"

Frankie Ballard, "A Buncha Girls"

Like you didn't already know what this video was going to have in it.  Hint:  See song title.

Brad Paisley, "Old Alabama"

It wouldn't be a Brad Paisley video without celebrity cameos now, would it?  Besides the expected Alabama appearance, we also get to see some classic Alabama video footage from back in the day, along with some Jeff Gordon thrown into the mix.

Teea Goans, "Letter from God"

The sand painting is a very interesting touch.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Dolly Parton, "Together You and I"

Songwriter:  Dolly Parton

Dolly Parton - What is there to say about her?  She's a country music icon, and one of the greatest female artists ever heard in this genre - in depth of talent, and in scale of success.  Songs like "Jolene," "Coat of Many Colors," and "I Will Always Love You" are songs that will stay with us for a lifetime.  Indeed, Dolly Parton is unquestionably a living legend.

With the above facts in mind, it's only natural and justified that we would have high expectations of any new music released by an artist of such lofty stature (in terms of career accomplishments, of course, not in physical height).  Of course, you don't come up with a "Jolene" or an "I Will Always Love You" every time you put a pen to paper, even if you are a songwriter as talented as Dolly.  Still, one would rightly expect that any new Dolly song, whether it be a ballad or a ditty, would be something interesting and engaging that you can lose yourself in while listening to it.

I don't hear that in Dolly's new single "Together You and I."  All I hear is an inoffensive distraction - a safe, middle-of-the-road pop-country tune.  As a shunned veteran artist who hasn't had a radio hit in nearly twenty years (No, "When I Get Where I'm Going" does not count), Dolly has made no secret of the fact that she wants to be re-embraced by country radio.  With that in mind, one might see this new offering as primarily a calculated attempt to snag some radio airplay.

It's hard to get into lyrics like "My love for you is deeper than the depth of any ocean," especially coming from an artist who has routinely shown that she can do much better.  As an extra downer, "Together You and I" is weighed down by cluttered, over-polished production.  Even Dolly's distinctive voice is stained with unnecessary vocal processing and echo effects.

It's hard to give Dolly a negative review, but I can't blindly accept every new Dolly Parton release without dignifying it with an honest analysis, nor can I say that I like something when I really don't.  I love and respect Dolly, and as a Dolly Parton fan, I am disappointed.  I'm still holding out hope for Dolly's upcoming new album Better Day, set for a June 28 release, but there's no dancing around the fact that "Together You and I" ranks as one of the weakest Dolly Parton singles in recent memory.  One can only hope that, as a whole, Better Day includes better songs.

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

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Album Review: Brad Paisley - This Is Country Music

I am not going to attempt to sugar-coat this.  Brad Paisley's recently-released ninth studio album This Is Country Music is an uninteresting, unfocused, scattershot affair in which missteps are numerous, and genuine highlights are very few.

Brad Paisley is not an artist who is known for reinventing himself a great deal.  He often falls into a repetitive pattern of self-impressed novelty ditties and generic love ballads.  The repetition continues with This Is Country Music, a record that could easily have been named This Is Everything That Ben Foster Dislikes About Brad Paisley's Music.  Okay, maybe that title is a bit too long, but fitting nonetheless.

The album opens with the two forgettable singles "This Is Country Music" and "Old Alabama."  The former is a misguided attempt to convey the special qualities of the country music genre, but instead ends up backhandedly exemplifying the stale lyrical formulas that have made modern country radio a complete and total yawn.  Country artists are not singing about Jesus, Mama, and cancer as a way of breaking boundaries and making statements - They're doing it because they know that's what radio wants.  They're not displaying artistic ingenuity - They're doing the exact opposite.  Things don't improve with "Old Alabama," which masquerades as a tribute to the band Alabama, but is merely a lazy rehash of "Mountain Music," with an appearance by the Alabama boys themselves. 

And now... bring on the ditties.  "Camouflage" is exactly what it sounds like - a song about camo.  It could stand some added cleverness, but where it really falls apart is in the chorus, which is composed of Brad and his singalong chorus shouting the word "camouflage" back and forth at one another.  Of course, the project would never be complete without the requisite Paisley summer party anthems.  This time, they come under the names "Workin' On a Tan" and "Don't Drink the Water."  The first is just an all-out cheesy ode to a well-endowed female body.  The second, a duet with Blake Shelton (one of the many duet cohorts joining Paisley on the album), exists only to make the joke "Nobody goes to Mexico to drink the water anyway."  Hint-hint.

Even the better songs on the album carry a bit of a stain.  "Remind Me," a duet with Carrie Underwood, is a good song about rekindling the spark of passion that a couple once had in their younger days.  Sadly, the performance is subpar.  Both vocalists (even the typically stellar Underwood) give a delivery that sounds forced rather than genuinely engaged, with the overwrought power ballad production doing neither of them any favors.  Songs like "Love Her Like She's Leavin'" (featuring Don Henley) and "One of Those Lives" earn points for well-crafted title hooks that carry meaning beyond that of the words themselves.  The problem is that both are tainted by unfortunate association with common pandering formulas - "old man's advice" songs and cancer songs respectively.

One keeper is "Toothbrush," which uses everyday objects as symbols representing different stages in a budding relationship.  The song settles into a pleasant neotraditional vibe, making it one of the album's most enjoyable moments.  This track highlights the fact that Brad can produce some interesting tunes when he keeps things simple without making forced attempts at cleverness.  Things are kept deadly serious on "A Man Don't Have to Die," in which Brad addresses a fire-and-brimstone preacher, describing the many hardships that everyday people face, and concluding that "A man don't have to die to go to hell."  The verses of "A Man Don't Have to Die" seem to lean on the list-format crutch, but they build up to a strong hook, making for an overall solid composition.

The album closes with a performance of the traditional hymn "Life's Railway to Heaven," featuring the vocals of Marty Stuart, Sheryl Crow, and Carl Jackson.  The bluegrassy arrangement makes one of the most enjoyable tracks on the album, but then as the song ends, Brad sours it with an unnecessary reprise of the insipid title track.
To make matters worse, Brad's voice is marred by shoddy auto-tuning work throughout the album, which makes for a jarring listening experience.  But the main issue is an excess of poor song material, most of it written by Brad himself with all the usual suspects (Gorley, DuBois, Turnbull, etc.).  This novelty act wore thin a long time ago, and by now it sounds entirely business-as-usual.  Brad is just doing what he always does, and people buy it, so there would seem to be little reason to shake things up.  But if Brad wants to build a lasting artistic legacy, lackluster disappointments like This Is Country Music make for an awfully shaky foundation.

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