Thursday, December 8, 2016

Song Review - Luke Bryan's "Fast"

Written by Luke Bryan, Rodney Clawson, Luke Laird

This week is definitely going to be a big week for me as a reviewer. You see, I'll be discussing two of the biggest names in the country music genre, names that have met with sharp criticisms from other country bloggers. We'll be discussing one later this week, however the time has come for me to share my opinion on none other than Luke Bryan.

Really, while I have no problem calling country blogs out on certain things, I'll admit it and say that you can count me in with the consensus that doesn't care much for Luke as an artist. He's not the most horrible artist out there in my mind. To his credit, he's often got a lot of charisma (an attribute that I suspect has been the biggest contributor to his success), and he's often had some pretty decent songs on his albums.

The problem is that you have to balance out the few decent tracks you might hear from him with a whole bunch of utterly bad singles. I'm talking about songs like "That's My Kind Of Night", "Move", "Kick The Dust Up", these are songs you've all heard before and may or may not have a strong opinion of like me.

We're not discussing something that atrocious today though. No, today we're going to discuss his latest single, "Fast", a song that many people have hailed as his best since "Roller Coaster". As for what I think?

Eh, it's alright. It's certainly better than a lot of his latest singles, but I still can't connect to this song as much as I'd like, and the hardest part is explaining why. On the surface, "Fast" is certainly a step in the right direction for Luke, and I always love awarding credit where it's due. The problem is that I don't know I can personally do that with this song.

So before we dive into why I can't get much into this, let's at least state what it does right. The theme of time flying by too fast and trying to hold onto it is certainly nothing new in country music, and I can't be the only one to find it ironic that Luke is singing a song about realizing we can't relive our glory days. That being said, putting aside the irony of the deliverer, the songwriting itself isn't bad. It doesn't dive into any deep story or show a ton of nuance in the delivery, but the message itself gets its point across. I can also at least appreciate the fact that the narrator can acknowledge that you can't get your youth back rather than spend the entire duration of the song trying to. Perhaps it's a sign of foreshadowing for Luke's career? Probably not, but you never know.

In terms of power, Luke has never been a powerhouse, but he's pleasant enough. Here, I think he is at least trying to sell some real emotional investment during the verses. During the chorus however, I can't help but feel that he seems to lose some of that investment, in other words just sounding rather uninterested in what he's trying to say.

Of course, that sense of disinterest shines through in the production, the reason I can't get as into this as much as I'd like to. Don't get me wrong, I like the gentleness of it that comes through in the acoustic guitars, but at the same time, the combination with that plus the drum beats makes for a song that's sort of bland. There's not really any meat to the production. What's frustrating is that I can hear organ faintly during the second verse. Perhaps if it was a little more prominent in the mix or actually drove the melody I would connect with this more! As such, the electronic elements are really unnecessary, and combined with the vocal performance, I can't have much of an opinion on this.

Overall, I can appreciate that Luke at least tried to convey more substance with his latest release, and I know I'm going to sound like your typical country critic who "doesn't give credit where it's due". However, I just can't get all that into this. I'll acknowledge that it's a good song and give it a decent 6/10, but I can't help but feel that Luke can still do even better than this. Oh well, at least it's not another "Move". Progress?

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Album Review - High Valley's 'Dear Life'

I have to be honest, I'm at a loss for where to start with this review. Really, that comes with pretty much any Canadian country music act I try to cover, mostly because I don't hear about an act until they decide to release something in the United States (you can blame it on ignorance, I've earned it). Believe it or not, Dear Life is not High Valley's debut album, nor are these guys all that new in general. Sure, they're just now gaining traction in the United States, but they've actually got an entire story behind them.

They started out as a trio of brothers Brad, Curtis, and Bryan Rempel in 2007 while achieving some decent success on the Canadian Country music charts. Eventually, Bryan left the band in March 2014, leaving the trio a duo. They signed with Atlantic Records last year in October, and viola, here we are.

Now, in terms of the band's sound (or really any information on them outside of Wikipedia), I haven't been able to dig up a lot of information. I sampled their 2010 self-titled album, and for the most part, it was fairly solid. However, with their lead single "Make You Mine", it was apparent that brothers Brad and Curtis taking their sound in a different direction, one that fused modern bluegrass with pop music. Sure, Mumford and Sons already carved that niche, and "Make You Mine" sort of did feel like a shameless ripoff of their song "I Will Wait", but at the same time I thought High Valley did the sound well. As such, I dug into their newest album, Dear Life not really knowing what to expect. Did it deliver?

Well here's the thing. I actually want to like this album a lot more than I do, because let me stress this, I like the foundation of this album a lot. The duo have a knack for crafting extremely pleasing, infectious melodies, and while they're not as well suited in the hook department, I won't deny that the overall presentation of this album impresses me a fair bit. Moreover, their fusion of contemporary bluegrass and pop feels genuine, and for the most part the sound is overall this album's strongest asset. So what doesn't work for me?

We'll answer that soon, but first let's expand on what I DO like, because like I said, there's a good foundation to this album. Brad Rempel has a lot of energy and passion to his vocals, and Curtis often provides some great backup as well. In terms of their melodies, they're particularly infectious, and there are moments where that's exemplified. The title track crescendos into an anthemic chorus that also shows Brad giving arguably his best vocal performance on this album. Moreover, for as much as I don't care for parts of "Don't Stop" (We'll get to why soon), I can appreciate that Brad is selling the song with a lot of passionate sincerity. There aren't many "deep" songs on this album, but when the mood calls for it the brothers can deliver. The same goes for more upbeat, fun tracks like "Roads We've Never Taken", where they both exude a lot of charisma and actually sound invested in the song.

When it comes to the sound, I also find a lot to like. Every song is grounded with either banjo, mandolin, or dobro, and I think the ultimate reason why the melodies are as great as they are is because they're driving these melodies rather than just supporting them. Again, much like the vocals, the instrumentation also fits the mood of the songs. There's a sense of urgency to the title track as the narrator literally cries out for some direction in life, as well as begs for time to just slow down. The thing is, it can't, and the overall fast rhythm of this song reflects that it can't stop. It only moves forward. While I don't enjoy the lyrics of either song, I also enjoyed the different touches to songs like "I Be U Be" and "Memory Makin'". The former, despite having a ridiculously stupid title explores a darker sound (which they fail at on "Solider") that actually shows the banjo having a little more meat and menace to it. The latter, despite being nothing more than a better version of bro-country has a beautiful string section that really adds an atmosphere touch to the song overall. Despite my criticisms of the lyrics, the sound of this song really wins me over.

Now, don't get me wrong, the production and instrumentation is far from perfect on this album. I'm not a fan of the production overall on the song, "Young Forever", and I really didn't care for the choppy rhythm of "Soldier". I will say that some tracks start to bleed together as well. It's reflected way more in the lyrics, however there's songs like "She's With Me" and "The Only" that just feel inessential to the project.

Of course, if we're going to talk about elements that are inessential to the project, we need to approach the lyrics and themes of this album. Really, this is where I'm torn on this album, because in all honesty they're the least essential element of this project. That being said, while the instrumentation and production does add a lot of flavor to this project, I'm not sure it does it the point to where the lyrics don't necessarily matter at all. In other words, the lyrics need to pull a little weight here, and they unfortunately don't.

Don't get me wrong, there are moments I do like. Heck, I've talked about the title track multiple times by now, so might as well go ahead once more and state that the song actually does a great job of conveying some real emotional nuance in both the production and lyrical content. In other words, there's a happy balance here. I just wish that balance appeared more than just once on this album. Sure, "Don't Stop" is also trying to go for that same delivery, but I can't help but feel as if the delivery here is a little too cheesy, and that line in the chorus about never letting the "haters" drag you down honestly drags the song down a lot.

Now sure, not every song on an album has to be deep, and I get that. Heck, "Roads We've Never Taken" really has no point to it besides just showcasing two lovers getting away for the night, and yet it's here where the instrumentation does enough to carry the song the whole way through. Perhaps it's that the song almost completely leaves the contemporary influences aside and instead goes for a straight bluegrass jam, but overall it's a moment of fun that once again, I wish we saw more than once on this album.

Aside from that, there are essentially two types of songs left on this album - hookup songs and checklist songs that try to go for something deep and ultimately come up short. Now, to their credit, when High Valley do sing love songs, they're at least framing their lover in question as more than just a piece of meat they'd like to love and leave. Actually, they go out of their way to give these females the spotlight in their songs, and that's a little detail I can appreciate. Here's the thing, though. It doesn't mean that the lyrics are anything close to good. In fact, there's times where they're outright bad. "I Ain't Changin'" competes with "Soldier" for the worst song "award" for taking the bullshit theme of being too country to adjust to the city life and how he'll always be a country boy at heart. Dude, come on, at least frame this better than the whole "country versus city" theme. I've never cared for these type of songs, and there's nothing here that redeems it for me outside of an agreeable enough sound. "Soldier" literally frames the narrator as a solider trying to get home to his wife. Look, this could have made for a great story song, but instead the solider framing is just used to insert cheesy patriot metaphors that leave this song standing with no point to it.

Aside from that, tracks like "She's With Me", "Make You Mine", "The Only", "I Be U Be", and "Young Forever" are just tracks that don't really leave me with much of an opinion. I can appreciate the sonic differences of "Make You Mine" and "I Be U Be", but at their core, they're love songs that don't really have enough distinctiveness to really amount to anything more than just passable.

Overall, Dear Life by High Valley left me frustrated as a music listener. I actually think the duo have a ton of talent, and on songs like the title track, "Roads We've Never Taken", and "Memory Makin'", they show it. The problem is that this also feels like the type of album that's chasing radio play, sacrificing substance for style. I actually really want to like this album since I think the foundation is great, however I can't find enough to bump this up any higher than a very strong 5/10. Let's hope that on their next album High Valley can focus more on balancing their sound with their lyrical delivery, because when they do make it happen it kicks ass. Until then, this is decent, but it could have been so much better.

Best Songs: "Dear Life", "Roads We've Never Taken", "Memory Makin'"
Worst Songs: "I Ain't Changin'", "Soldier"

Monday, November 28, 2016

Runaway Country's 2016 Album Of The Year Candidates

Yes, I realize that I already spoiled what my favorite album of this year was, but let's at least have fun with this shall we?

2016 has been an interesting year in country music, enough to where it might arguably even be considered polarizing. On the bad side we had WAY too many country legends pass away (well, celebrities in general), and there are some critics out there who would even argue it's been a weak year for country music.

On the other hand, you have people who are optimistic about the future of mainstream country music, as it seems that room is being made for more traditional sounding country music as well as just substance in general. Moreover I've seen people argue that this has been a great year for country music's quality overall.

I'm somewhere in the middle, but I lean a lot more towards the latter stance. Nowhere have I seen more proof that Country and Americana have thrived this year than in the nine albums I have chosen for that "album of the year" position. Again, I know I've already spoiled it, but let's at least pretend I didn't.

Now, I take this coveted position VERY seriously, mostly because I think a true "album of the year" nominee is one that stirs you as a music listener and inspires creativity and nuance rather than enjoyment. That's what I believe the following nine albums have done. I regret not being able to cover eight of them this year, but there's always next year. So without further ado, here are Runaway Country's 2016 Album Of The Year Candidates.

(Presented in alphabetical order by artist name)

Courtney Marie Andrews - 'Honest Life'

You know, there's a running theme to a lot of the candidates on this list. I'd say most of them are coming from someplace raw and personal, and nowhere is that more evident than on the latest album from Courtney Marie Andres titled Honest Life. With this album, Courtney states that she's ready to be the artist she wants to be. That statement is expressed directly in certain songs here sure, but it's also expressed overall in the artistic expression on this album. The production is simply gorgeous, and as a vocalist, Courtney is pouring so much emotion into these tracks that you can't help but feel a connection the material yourself. Honesty is a hard trait to master, but Courtney has done it and more on Honest Life.

BJ  Barham - 'Rockingham'

In all honesty, I'm not a huge American Aquarium fan, and for the life of me I can't explain why. I can however explain why I love BJ Barham's solo effort Rockingham. It's an album that draws upon BJ's childhood, showcasing small town life in a way that feels somewhat nostalgic. The poetic justice however comes through on the darker side of the album with stories of robbing a gas station just to feed your family, or feeling hopeless because you failed to take care of your family's farm. Combine all of this with the sparse production and BJ's knack for specific lyrical detail and you have an album that will knock you dead on your tracks. It's arguably the best album here in terms of songwriting.

Dave Cobb & Friends - 'Southern Family'

This is quite simply a masterpiece in my eyes. Sure, there was a lot of excitement going into a Dave Cobb album that featured some high ranking talent, but to actually exceed my expectations is something I couldn't have imagined. Like BJ Barham's Rockingham, this is an album reflecting on family and small town values. Perhaps not as dark, but there's a sense of cohesion to this, not just in the narrative of the album, but in the vocals and the production as well. This is an album that I could merely nitpick instead of voice any outright criticisms for. As I said before too, the talent recruited here wasn't wasted in the slightest, as everyone is giving 110% on this album. It's certainly a front runner for this award, and a huge reason as to why I can proudly call this a great year for country music.

Robert Ellis - 'Robert Ellis'

Yes, certainly Americana than outright Country, however I advertise myself as a blogger who covers both Country and Americana. I might as well try to live up to that promise. Anyway, Robert Ellis' self-titled album is quite simply his magnum opus up to this point. Where past Ellis albums lacked a sense of cohesiveness or any sort of grand vision, this album finds Robert wiping those criticisms away. Through this album he explores the darkness that comes with love, finding himself in a battle that pits the external factors of love against the internal darkness within him. The production is quite simply haunting and alluring, and it really cements Robert as one of the finest out there in the land of Americana.

Cody Jinks - 'I'm Not The Devil'

You know, a couple years ago I would have been happy to hear an album that had any connections to country music at all. Steel guitar, fiddle, mandolin, anything...please! But it's a new day in country music, and traditional country is now everywhere. With that said, it's not enough to be country anymore, you have to have some sort of artistic vision or possess something that makes you stand out from the crowd. Cody Jinks does that with I'm Not The Devil. Sure, there's many tracks that harbor on the cliche 'outlaw' image in country, but Cody Jinks' knack for nuanced, subtle writing leaves these songs as intricate rather than forced. In other words, the consequences are here ALONG with the trials and tribulations.

Lydia Loveless - 'Real'

Again, just as I warned with Robert Ellis, not all of these are strict country. Anyway, Bloodshot Records boasts not just one, but two candidates on this little list. We'll get to the other in just a second, but for now, let's talk about Lydia Loveless. Now, I've always been a fan of her honest, explosive writing, and here it seems like that writing has been sharpened, having more of a bite than ever before. She's always flirted with contemporary sounds before, and here she embraces that sound head on, erasing any past sloppiness that came in the production on her last album, Somewhere Else. Here, it seems like Lydia Loveless finally has a handle on who she wants to be as an artist, and if Real is just the starting point of that, I think Lydia Loveless will be making this list more than once.

Austin Lucas - 'Between The Moon and the Midwest'

In all honesty, I'm not quite sure I connect with this as much as New Home In The Old World or Stay Reckless, but look it's still an Austin Lucas album at the end of the day. The songwriting is as poignant as ever, and the overall sound finds Austin pushing in a more spacious direction, one that blends well with the traditional country sound and furthermore enhances the sound overall. There's still a grand vision to this album with the sound, and if anything, the fact that Austin has been able to make as many excellent albums as he has is a testament to him as an artist.

Tami Neilson - 'Don't Be Afraid'

Inspired by grief, heartache, and surprisingly enough, optimism, Don't Be Afraid finds Tami Neilson creating something of an emotional journey. It begins with the darkness and ragged edges that come with saying goodbye to a loved one, and across the duration of the album explores the effects that can have on a soul. But hey, in the end, it's going to be alright, because the person who left wishes you to be happy rather than dwell in darkness. It's a brilliant album, and when you take in the fact that Tami Neilson is essentially the best vocalist out right now, this is an album that quite literally gives you chills every time you hear it.

Al  Scorch - 'Circle Round The Signs'

The other Bloodshot candidate! From a pure instrumental standpoint, this album takes the award for album of the year running away. As someone who advertises himself as someone who covers country, Americana AND bluegrass, this is admittedly the closest I've some to covering that last one, but but late than never right? Anyway, Al Scorch is a master at the banjo, and that's what drives this album throughout alongside some excellent fiddle lines, complex songwriting and an overall colorful, vibrant feel. In terms of the music here, I find little to fault if anything. There's not enough space here to accurately describe how awesome this album is, but if you haven't heard it, take the time to do so, because I don't think you'll regret it.

And that's that folks. Let me know who you think should win in the comments below. I'll of course be making the final call, but I would love to hear what your favorite albums of this year were as well!

Album Review - Curtis Grimes' 'Undeniably Country'

So let's talk about the infamous story of Texas-Country artists who flirt with mainstream success. I'm talking about guys like Pat Green and Jack Ingram, or even looking right now at Granger Smith. These are all artists who started out in the Texas scene with strong critical acclaim only to compromise some of that acclaim when they signed with major labels (subjective of course). Sure enough, those first two men are back in the Texas scene making solid music, realizing that playing with the "cool kids" wasn't for them.

Curtis Grimes seems to be following this formula, only in the opposite direction. Believe it or not, he started out winning the Austin leg of Kenny Chesney's Big Star contest before releasing his debut album Lonely River in 2009. After that, he went on The Voice to see how far he could take his career. Interestingly enough, he ended up on Cee Lo Green's team rather than Blake Shelton's. While he didn't ultimately win, Curtis has been hammering away creating more projects and has been a consistent hit-maker on the Texas Country charts.

For the most part, Curtis has always been one of those artists that I've always liked, but also one that I felt wasn't quite utilizing his full potential. Part of that had to do with him recording pretty safe, radio friendly songs that while certainly enjoyable, didn't really tell me who Curtis was as an artist beyond just a neo-traditional artist. So when I heard that he was digging in his heels to make a stone cold traditional country album, well I wasn't sure what to expect. Like I said, I've always liked Curtis, and I've always felt his voice suited the more stone cold country sound rather than the more contemporary side. Sure, I'm not really a fan of artists calling their albums "country" or saying how country they are, but provided that Curtis could put his money where his mouth was on his new album, Undeniably Country, I had no problems. So do we finally get a glimpse of Curtis Grimes, the artist?

Well, actually we do! I'll admit, I'm not quite sure I can call Undeniably Country a great album, but it is an album that feels as if Curtis Grimes is really starting to dig out his own niche in country music. He's standing his ground and telling the world who he wants to be as an artist, and thankfully he lets the music speak for itself.

Remember when I said that Curtis was sort of playing the Texas game backwards? Well now we see why. While he started out trying to make it in the mainstream, Curtis is now showing who he is as an artist, and that's reflected mostly in the sound. I'll admit, on some level I'm a sucker for traditional country music, but at the same time I also would prefer it to have some texture or flavor, and I believe we mostly get that on this album. The instruments used such as the pedal steel, fiddle and banjo are driving the melodies rather than just supporting them. It's not exactly as if Curtis was immune to these instruments in his past work though. Heck, he used them quite frequently as a matter of fact. Here though, the sound feels almost intimate, and the production on this album doesn't feel as cluttered as past Grimes songs could sometimes be. Here, the production leaves a lot of room for the songs to breathe and rise to something great. I give a ton of credit to producer Trent Willmon for helping to find that sound for Curtis. It's more rootsy than outright whiskey soaked honky-tonk, and that's a great fit for Grimes as a vocalist.

Vocally, Curtis has always reminded somewhat of Billy Currington with the sort of smooth, easy going vocals that add some real life to these songs. He cites Keith Whitley as a vocal influence as well, and really I'd say it rings true as well as emphasizes my point about the smooth vocals. Like Currington, Grimes also has a lot of charisma to his credit, and that helps on a more fun song like "Right About Now", a song that also has a great hook as well. Actually, to Grimes' credit, he's got a knack for crafting strong hooks, and that's something that's reflected in the lyricism.

Now, discussing the lyrics and themes of this album is also where I'll be discussing my nitpicks as well. It's not that it's necessarily bad by any means, but it's got the same problems I've had with past Grimes songs. Some of these songs are certainly enjoyable, but you also feel like they could develop into something more. "Everything Hank Did" is a good place to start. Sure, Hank did live a rowdy lifestyle, but emulating that particular part of his life isn't doing everything the man did in his twenty-nine years on Earth. If anything, emulating the dark side of Hank's life may have not been the best way to go. The sound on this track is enjoyable however, and for the most, my criticism of it is minor.

However, one thing I've noticed about the songwriting on this album is that Curtis seems to have some really great ideas with his songs only to take too long to get to the point. "If You Ask Me" and "Put My Money On That" are great examples. Both songs operate on the system of listing examples of the main point of the song only to get to that main point later on, and yet by the time they do they just don't feel as well executed as they could be. They've got good intentions, but they could overall be stronger. On the other hand, you also get a song like "From Where I'm Standing" which, sure, has an agreeable enough sound, but also doesn't feel that essential to the project. It's a decent love song, but I can't find much more to say other than that.

Of course, it helps that we have two shining examples of where this does come into fruition, and unsurprisingly enough they make for two of my favorite songs on the album. "Had A Thing" is the crown jewel of this album for taking the classic country theme of getting involved with dangerous things (in this particular case, weed, women, and whiskey), and actually going deeper with that theme by adding some details of how it's affected this man's life. Moreover, the song also has a conclusion for this man (which I won't spoil), completing the circle of telling a story within country music. It's that sense of detail that really lets me know that Grimes has it in him to write an excellent song.

The other shining example is "Born To Die", a song where once again we get a story rather than just a list of things that revolve around the main example. The theme of living knowing full and well that we're destined for something great is definitely an easy one to devolve into a checklist nature, and yet instead Curtis actually takes this theme in a spiritual direction telling the story of none other than Jesus Christ. Again, the details are here, and the story is here with a great hook to boot. The anthemic chorus helps to accentuate the point of the song, and once again it proves that Curtis can definitely pen an excellent song.

The last song I've yet to talk about is the closer, "Ten Year Town". Look, I do think protest songs are getting rather played out these days, and I will say it's weird to make one at a time where mainstream country music is finally showing some substance and growth. On one hand though, I can't really dislike this song. In fact, I like it quite a bit. It's tongue in cheek in nature, not far removed from say, Aaron Watson's "Fence Post". For the most part, you can tell it's coming from an honest place, and on an album where Curtis is standing his ground as the artist he wants to be, and I can respect that.

So overall, Undeniably Country by Curtis Grimes is definitely a step in the right direction for him. Yeah, I'm a country critic praising an artist for sticking to a traditional sound, but really my praise goes deeper than that. It's a great fit for his vocals, and the sort of rootsier, intimate country sound is really one that isn't as evident as it should be outside of acts like Flatland Cavalry, and to an extent the Turnpike Troubadours. I will say that Grimes' songwriting could use some improvements, but aside from that, this is damn solid. On my scale, I'm feeling a 7/10. Curtis Grimes may not have blown the doors down with this album, but he did forge a new chapter in his career, and I'm excited to see where he goes next, because I'll be listening.

Best Songs: "Had A Thing", "Born To Die", "Right About Now"
Worst Song: "Put My Money On That"

Friday, November 25, 2016

Album Review - Miranda Lambert's 'The Weight Of These Wings'

Let's talk about artist loyalty, more specifically about an artist's ability to make fans crave new music. I know that's framed badly, so let me elucidate what I'm trying to say.

The wait for new music from Miranda Lambert has felt like an eternity already, and I feel confident in saying that I'm not the only one who thinks that outside of her core fan base. Really, it's only been two years, and yet it's still felt about as long as the wait for that new Jamey Johnson album that apparently still isn't coming (dammit!).

I think part of this has to do with Miranda keeping a low profile over the past year or so (yes, I know it's because of that. Trust me I'm going to try to do this review without mentioning it). That low profile in the mainstream is definitely noticeable, but really, Miranda has been doing some really cool things in the independent world. She was a part of Dave Cobb's killer album, Southern Family, and her contribution to that project is part of why I consider it one of the best country albums in years. Then of course you see her working with artists such as Jack Ingram, Brent Cobb, Ashley Monroe, and of course, Anderson East, and it's safe to say that Miranda hasn't exactly been gone, she's just rejuvenated her career.

When I heard that her newest album, The Weight Of These Wings would be a double album, I had hopes that her rejuvenation would lead to something layered and nuanced rather than just twenty-four "good" songs. After all, her last album Platinum felt sort of stale and not really an album I return to that much, so I dug into The Weight Of These Wings with the most anticipation I've had for an album in awhile. Did this album deliver?

Well, I hate to drag out this prelude, but I don't want to answer that just yet, mostly because there's still more to say about this album before we actually dive into it. Now, at this point I've seen many different opinions circulate around this album, more so than I've seen in awhile. I'm not one to let other opinions influence mine, so fret not about a biased review. With all of that being said however, I've always stated that you should hear something for yourself before really judging it, and this album may be the shining example of that statement. No review will accurately encapsulate the entire picture with this album, and that's alright, especially since I believe the best music is made to challenge us as listeners. One thing is for sure - The Weight Of These Wings is one of the most complex, interesting albums I've heard this year.

I've seen comparisons to Aubrie Sellers' New City Blues, and of course, that one album that dropped in May, however, when listening to The Weight Of These Wings I'm reminded a lot of Eric Church's Mr. Misunderstood. Now, prior to making both this album as well as Misunderstood, both artists really seemed lost artistically speaking, once again going back to my talk of rejuvenation. However, much like Eric's album, Miranda's latest project feels like she's making her mark as a true artist, symbolizing the rare exception of a mainstream country artist who is in control of their music rather than the other way around. In other words, The Weight Of These Wings is definitely well worth your time.

I can't drag on the prelude any longer, but honestly folks, I'm puzzled as to where to start when discussing this album. I guess we'll start with Miranda Lambert as a vocalist. Now, she's always had a sort of ragged edge to her voice, and that's worked on hard hitting tracks like "Gunpowder and Lead", and "Kerosene" among others. However, she's also been really great at handling the more gentle tracks as well like "More Like Her" and especially "The House That Built Me". On this album, you're going to get a ton of the latter and essentially none of the former. There's a sense of rawness to this album in terms of her delivery. You can tell that she's pouring herself into this album, and the end result is something that's just plain and simply, real. If I were to nitpick though, it would be that some tracks don't really benefit from that type of serious delivery. Take the covers of "You Wouldn't Know Me" or "Covered Wagon" for instance. On the surface, yeah, there's nothing inherently wrong with them, but on this particular album they just feel unnecessary. Both songs are opting for more of a fun, breezier delivery and I just don't feel as if they honestly belong on this particular album.

Of course, that leads us to another question, does this even work as a double album in general? Well, yes and no. There are some great, no, excellent songs on here, some of which could compete for that coveted "song of the year" award. In addition, both sides of this album do stick to their respective themes of either touching on nerves or focusing on the heart. However, I'm not quite sure we needed two discs to do it. Now, that's more of a nitpick more so than an outright criticism of this album. After all, I said at the beginning that this was one of the most complex albums I've heard all year, and I truly mean that.

So enough rambling, let's dig into the two albums separately and come together as a whole shall we? "The Nerve" begins with the spacey, atmospheric "Runnin' Just In Case" which really sets the stage for the album, in a sense providing a background of Miranda's life up until that point in order to really move on with the duration of the album. Now, many people have expressed criticisms that the album drags on too long, especially with the increased amount of slower, more melancholic songs. Personally these songs are my favorite because they provide a real sense of nuance and show Miranda really growing as a writer, showing that she's really refined her sense of detail.

Now, we don't get as many of those on "The Nerve", and the results sometimes don't always work out. The biggest reason for this lies in the production. It's noticeable on "Highway Vagabond", and really my lack of knowledge about production techniques is about to show. It's weird, scuzzed out rock that more or less compresses Miranda's vocals, and that leads to a really uneven flow during the chorus that I didn't really care for. Then you have the same thing with "Pink Sunglasses", a song that I consider to be the worst on the entire project. It matches bad production with a really pointless theme of hiding behind sunglasses in order to make your troubles go away, in other words, setting up a cute little fantasy that obviously doesn't work. You also have a song like her newest single, "We Should Be Friends", which feels like Miranda is harping on a theme that she's done better before with "Heart Like Mine". Again, not horrible songs, just unnecessary in regards to this album.

On the other hand though, you have tracks like "Runnin' Just In Case" along with "Pushin' Time" and "Use My Heart". Again, it's not that it's more country oriented, it's that these songs have the room to breath and really lead to some well-crafted nuanced songs that are some of the best of Lambert's entire career. "The Nerve" also features one of my favorite songs on the album, "Getaway Driver" for balancing some absolutely beautiful acoustic textures with a theme that deals with being there for someone no matter what because they need you. Heck, that theme isn't even stated right up front. It's veiled behind some clever metaphors and really just clever songwriting in general. Again, I absolutely love this song, and while the subject matter and sound don't seem like they'd fit, they oddly enough do, and that's a testament towards Miranda as an artist.

See, where the production ultimately leaves parts of "The Nerve" falling flat with me, they're essentially almost all erased on "The Heart", an album that as a standalone is one of my favorites of this year. Where "The Nerve" found Miranda sort of embracing the darker side of life, in other words, external factors of her life, "The Heart" is more about Miranda exploring herself. The opening track, "The Tin Man" (written with the always amazing Jack Ingram) is probably my favorite track here next to "Getaway Driver", and the reason relates back to her songwriting. Now, Miranda has always been a sharper songwriter than most of her mainstream peers, but here it just feels like she's really stepped up her game in a huge way, and the evidence is on this part of the entire project. Going back to "The Tin Man", it's a song where she literally addresses the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz and tells him to be careful what he wishes for if it's a heart. Miranda has one, and it's been broken and tattered. What I love about this song is that it's not just Miranda giving the Tin Man advice. After all, she's still on her journey to become stronger, and that's why I love the end where she asks if she can trade her heart for his armor. She warns him, sure, but she's also still in need of advice, or rather directions herself. There's a danger that comes with having only armor (seeing as how you shut everyone out), however that's the beauty. There is no final conclusion. It's just a brilliantly executed song that is so much more than what it details.

You also have tracks such as "Things That Break" with its darker, almost western feel, or "Well Rested" with the touch of reverb and passionate vocal performance. Moreover, you get a touch of classic country with "To Learn Her" which is another standout here due to some stellar production as well as the anthemic "Keeper Of The Flame" that really crescendos into an overall excellent song by its end and really feels like Miranda is back as an artist. Again, I know there's a lack of sonic or tempo variety here, but when the songs are this consistent I can't complain. Sure, I think "Dear Old Sun" drags on a little too long, but that's just a nitpick!

What I really liked about this side of the overall album however was its consistency. Remember, I stated that certain songs on "The Nerve" felt inessential to the project, but aside from "For The Birds", and "Bad Boy" from this side of the album, I can't think of any that don't add something of value to the project. I've seen criticisms of songs like "Tomboy", but even here we have a song that's championing individuality and staying true to that individuality. In other words, following your heart. More specifically with this song, I can't help but feel this is the anti-"Different For Girls", something we really need to counter that song. It gets even weirder when looking at "Six Degrees Of Separation", because it's got that same sort of scuzzy production that I wasn't a fan of on "The Nerve". Yet here, it doesn't bother me at all, and the hardest part is explaining why. Maybe it's because it feels like she's giving this some true energy in her vocals, or maybe it's just the infectiousness of it overall. I don't know, but it manages to work.

So overall, the best way to describe The Weight Of These Wings would be like going on a roller coaster ride. There's a lot to digest with this album, and it takes several listens to really grasp everything that's going on here. That being said, while I don't know if this necessarily had to be a double album, I do think that it is overall strong, which is why it's getting a light to decent 8/10 from me. Yes, I know you've seen that grade a lot with these album reviews lately, but trust me, this album deserves a high mark. It's intelligent, emotional, and raw - an album that challenged me as a listener. Yet, I can't deny that it's also one of the most rewarding listens of this year, and easily one of Miranda's best albums.

Best Songs: "The Tin Man", "Getaway Driver", "To Learn Her", "Keeper Of The Flame", "Pushin' Time", "Runnin' Just In Case", "Well Rested"
Worst Song: "Pink Sunglasses"

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Song Review - Seth Ennis' "Woke Up In Nashville"

Written by Seth Ennis, Blair Daly, and David Hodges

Let's talk about debut singles. Really, they're the most dangerous song an artist can release in their careers. First impressions are everything, and that certainly applies to music. For example, if I had to judge an artist like say, Jon Pardi on his first two singles, I would have said he was nothing more than a guy cashing in on bro-country, something that proved to be false.

On the other side, you can get artists like Dustin Lynch who release dynamite lead singles like "Cowboys and Angels" only to end up being disappointing. Safe to say, lead singles are crucial for an artist.

So why do I bring all of this up anyway? Well, because Arista Nashville recording artist Seth Ennis has an interesting debut single. You see, in the slow lull of these fall and winter months, radio is starting to embrace songs that are a little slower and may not be reliant on solely some loud wall of sound technique. In addition, they also usually embrace songs that may some something beyond just having a good time.

Now look, I'm not going to oversell this song. Seth's debut single, "Woke Up In Nashville" isn't some super traditional country song like we've seen re-emerge in mainstream country. It's a piano ballad that features some modern touches in places, and you should know that going in. All of that being said, is "Woke Up In Nashville" a good song?

Well, to my surprise, yes! Like I said, it's a ballad, and I appreciate the decision to lead off his career with a ballad. I'm not sure if it's necessarily a risk to release it during this time of year, but at the same time, it's not something you see often.

 As for the song itself, it's a song about this male narrator who packs it all up to pursue a career in music in Nashville only to realize that the girl he left behind is who he really wanted instead. Later, he calls her to tell her how his new life won't be complete without her. I'm not good at describing songs, and admittedly I probably made this out to be some cheesy love song, but really the writing here is definitely very solid and actually nuanced.

Vocally, I'm reminded most of an older Hunter Hayes. Now, I won't say Seth is the strongest singer out there, but he makes up for it here with an earnest emotional investment. He does a pretty good job of selling some actual regret and sadness here. Hey, I've always said I appreciate sincerity more than power and that rings true here.

Now, if I were to nitpick with any area of this song, it would be in the production. There's a couple of unnecessary production techniques that creep up as the song progresses. Elsewhere, I would say that the tempo moves a little too fast, not really giving time for the song to develop into something more. Now, I did say the writing here was solid, and that's still true, but I also can't help but feel like the somewhat rushed tempo takes away from possible avenues for where the song could head next. Does he eventually reconnect with her? Does she tell him to forget it and move in? We really only hear from his side, and that's alright, but I feel like a just little bit of a push in the writing could have turned this into a great song rather than just a really good song.

That's the whole thing though, this is a really good song. In addition, it's a solid start for Seth Ennis. I'll reserve opinions for his artistic abilities until I can hear some more songs from him, but with "Woke Up In Nashville", he's off to a solid start. Keep it up, Seth. For me, this song is a solid 7/10.

Listen to "Woke Up In Nashville"

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Song Review - Flatland Cavalry's "One I Want"

Written by Cleto Cordero

You know, for as much as I advertise myself as a blogger who covers Country, Bluegrass, and Americana, I know that I haven't exactly been doing good at covering all of those. Heck, I haven't even been good at covering all of my bases for Country music! I've covered a lot of the mainstream, but let's switch it up here shall we?

Today, I want to look at Texas-Country. Believe it or not, Texas actually has its own chart full of great songs, arguably more than the mainstream. The downside is that much like the mainstream charts, you're bound to find very little females, and in the case of Texas-Country, you won't find a single female in the top thirty. That's absolutely horrible if you ask me. Whatever happened to balance?

Anyway, moving on from that, I wasn't quite sure where to start in regards to what song I would cover first from this chart, so I ultimately decided to review the number one song for the week, "One I Want" by Flatland Cavalry.

Flatland Cavalry's debut album, Humble Folks was a good but not great album in my book. The sound was very enjoyable, sure, but the lyrics didn't always match up to par for me. Their newest single, "One I Want" sort of falls into that category.

You see, reviewing this song is weird. It's not a great song, but it's also very enjoyable and certainly well above average. At its core, its a very straightforward love song that features some very straightforward songwriting. Again, it's the songs weakest element, but it's still very decent. There's just not really enough detail present to turn this into a great song. Like I said, it's a straightforward love song and that's all there really is to it.

To his credit, Cleto Cordero is selling this song with a lot of emotive sincerity that makes me appreciate this a little more. You can tell he's trying to be very sweet to his lover as he literally tells her how much he loves her. I'm not really a fan of him as a vocalist, but that's just personal preferences. Besides, like I said, it's a matter of sincerity versus power. Sincerity always wins for me.

However, where I don't connect with the lyrics or vocals as much as I'd like, the sound is a huge factor of why this ultimately wins me over. If you want an easy comparison, they're a lot like the Turnpike Troubadours in that they can make their instrumentation feel crisp and vibrant, appealing to a plethora of country fans without sacrificing quality to get there. Enough can't be said about Laura Jane's fiddle play. It's enjoyable sure, but again, it's also got a lot of texture to it in its crispness.I also liked the way the band managed to incorporate bluesier riffs at times here, it was a nice touch. Plus, that tempo change at the end that kicks up everything up a notch is absolutely stellar.

So overall, "One I Want" is definitely a damn good song. It's not great, but it's also the type of song that really grows on you after awhile, managing to win you over on its luscious sound. I'm thinking a light to decent 7/10 for this song.

Listen to "One I Want"