Album Review: Jon Wolfe’s Any Night in Texas is One Giant Cliché

Rating: 3.5/10

Remember when I said in Texas, just like Nashville, there are basically two paths? One is the more serious, singer-songwriter path, and the other is the more commercial one, and neither are inherently awful. In fact, I like Aaron Watson’s latest record just fine; that’s a fun, uncomplicated album, and there are a few deeper songs sprinkled in as well. But the point is, I’m not criticizing Jon Wolfe and Any Night in Texas because it’s not some groundbreaking Texas country masterpiece–it’s just that it’s one cliché after another, and instead of being fun and lighthearted, it’s mostly just generic bullshit. And if it came out of Nashville, we’d all be saying so, but since it’s Texas-flavored, we hesitate–but if I’m going to sit here and praise the considerable amount of good pouring out of Texas and Oklahoma, I also can’t ignore the bad that comes with it.

It’s not as if Jon Wolfe hasn’t made safe, commercial-sounding Texas country before, but the amount of moonlit back roads and riding shotgun all over this record would rival that on some of Luke Bryan’s albums–also, I thought bro country had died? And when I said Texas-flavored, just look at the title; “any night in Texas” is perfect here because it’s all the worn-out clichés of mainstream country, plus songs like “Boots on a Dance floor” to make the album more Texan. But just because it’s more Texan, that doesn’t mean it’s more (dare I say it) authentic–just because Wolfe says in the title track that wild kisses on back roads can happen “any night in Texas,” are we supposed to think this is any better or more original than mainstream songs saying the same damn thing? And if we’re not on back roads, you guessed it, we’re in clubs and bars. “Airport Kiss” is essentially a request by this guy in a bar to have his girlfriend make out with him right there as if they were in the airport, or as if he were about to go to war. And then there’s “A Country Boy’s Life Well-Lived,” which wastes some truly great fiddle on pandering lyrics about a hard-working man; we get “cold beer,” “boots,” “American made”–you get the picture.

Sunny Sweeney arrives on the heartbreak song “Drink for Two,” and I felt sure her appearance would save this track. She does make it better, but even this is a little of a letdown; the song is saying that the only good thing about losing each other is that they can now drink twice as much. To be fair to this song, I think it could have been better with more interesting production…and that leads me to my next point.

There’s nothing wrong with making fun songs and albums, and look, clichés aren’t always the end of the world. It’s just that if you’re going for this, you need to make the production lively and interesting, and through most of this record, it’s anything but that. I heard it described as stiff, and that’s a great way to put it; if you’re going to make songs like this, at least do it right. And this goes even more for Texas artists than Nashville artists because Texas artists have such a commitment to live music. I don’t even think these songs would sound interesting live.

So, the brightest spots here are the aforementioned “Drink for Two” and the closer, “Long Song.” I did think sunny Sweeney would have made the former a highlight, but like I said, the production really took that song down. Still, that one is at least more interesting. “Long Song” is another one in a club or a bar, but it’s got a better premise, as the narrator is hoping for more time to spend with this woman, but if it’s their last dance at the end of the night, he at least wants it to be a long song. This one, again, is more interesting, and it tries to go a little deeper than the surface.

There are a couple of other brighter moments on the album too, and right now you might be wondering why I didn’t just feature some of this in “Memorable Songs.” Well, several reasons. One, even the brighter moments are honestly not memorable, and I don’t think I’ll return to any of this. Two, because Texas artists and independent artists should be judged equally with the mainstream, and if this came out of Nashville, we’d all be quick to criticize it. It’s not better just because it came out of Texas. Three, honest criticism from me adds to the validity of my praise of artists within the Texas scene, and when I say John Baumann made a damn good record, you can believe that and not question whether I’m biased toward Texas and Red Dirt music. And finally, and most importantly, because Texas artists can learn a lesson from Nashville; you have freedom to be yourself in the Texas scene, so use it. Don’t try to cater to trends, it usually always fails spectacularly. Be a Jason Eady or be an Aaron Watson, but don’t be something you’re not, especially when you don’t have to in order to please some label–it’s not the lighthearted material on this album that kills it, it’s the clichés, the way it sounds fake, and perhaps most of all, the way Jon Wolfe just sounds bored here. I don’t care what type of artist Jon Wolfe wants to be, but it’s obvious this record isn’t him, and at the end of the day, I just want to hear Jon Wolfe. I wish I heard him on Any Night in Texas, and I’m sorry to say I don’t.

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The Decent

The Texas-Flavored Cliché

Album Review: Eli Young Band–Fingerprints

Rating: 6/10

So, walking a line between being a reviewer/critic and being a fan is not easy, and it’s something I’ve always tried to balance. I’ve always tried to separate my favorite stuff from stuff that might be the “technical” best, but I’ve also never been afraid to admit being a fan of something or of a particular artist. At the end of the day, I am both, and there are times that call for both–when I reviewed John Moreland, I had to be a critic and acknowledge the greatness in the songwriting even if it might not be relatable to everyone, and when I reviewed the latest Zac Brown Band album, I wrote as a fan who had mixed feelings about their return to their roots. With the Eli Young Band, I think it is right to write as an unashamed Eli Young Band fan, a fan who did like their early Texas sound better but was admittedly happy with them right up until the God-awful Turn it On EP. I was just hoping they’d get back to themselves with this release and stop chasing trends–and they said openly that they went into this record responding to songs that fans resonated with the most, so credit to them for that. So now, as a fan, did this album resonate with me and take the band back to their sound that I grew to love?

Well, it did in places. IN fact, overall, I think the Eli Young Band went in completely the right direction with this, and it’s probably that benefit of the doubt that makes this a 6 rather than a 5 because honestly, of these eleven tracks, I enjoy five of them and could do without six. But there’s nothing inherently awful in the other six, it’s just that they’re bland and mediocre, and Eli Young Band is capable of releasing better. It’s the strength in the promising half that outshines the mediocrity in the rest, and that’s what I want to focus on.

So, the album starts out strong with “Saltwater Gospel” and “Fingerprints.” Admittedly, I was not a “Saltwater Gospel” apologist when I first heard it, but I’ll freely acknowledge I was wrong; the message here is more clever than I gave it credit for, pointing out that you can be close to God on the beach or out in nature without going to church. I really have no idea why I objected to this before because this is pretty much my entire philosophy on the subject, but I’m here for it now. “Fingerprints” is a sex song, more specifically a sex song between two people in a troubled relationship or perhaps exes, that can’t let go; it’s the writing and more so the production in this that make it stand out. There’s something intense about the production that just adds to this and makes it really interesting. And then, well, basically there’s almost nothing noteworthy for eight tracks. I make no exaggeration here when I say that the first time I listened to this album, it was late at night, and I nearly fell asleep here–and the only reason I didn’t was the wonderful “Skin and Bones” breaking up the boredom here. This is a very nice love song; the woman is literally a part of him, “she’s in my skin and bones.” There’s some very nuanced and thoughtful writing in this as well; it’s impressive. I can’t stress enough that when these songs are good, they’re pretty awesome. So anyway, then it’s back to bland and sleepy for awhile until we get to the last two, “God Love the Rain” and “The Days I Feel Alone.” The former is another sex song, this time of the tender variety, detailing a night spent waiting out a storm. The chorus here cleverly uses “she” to talk about both the woman and the rain to say things like “she’ll heal your heart, feed your soul, cover you, and make you grow, bring you back to life, and wash away the pain. God love the rain.” Carolyn Dawn Johnson is featured here–yes, I didn’t know she was still around either, what a cool thing to discover–and she adds something special to it. Normally, I prefer duets to feature both artists more–well, to be fair, this is not credited as a duet–but the gentle harmony she brings to this track says more than giving her a verse. “The Days I Feel Alone” deals with life on the road and the pressures of the distance in relationships; this one is another highlight and is said to be a personal one for Mike Eli. I do probably have some bias toward this because I can relate to a good chunk of it, but it’s one I enjoyed.

Now, let’s talk about all those sleepy tracks for a moment. I said I gave this a 6 because there’s nothing downright awful there, just bland. “Old Songs” was going for a nice, nostalgic feel, and “Never Again” was going for another “Fingerprints,” but it ended up being a more pop-infused and less interestingly written version. “Once” was going for a nice theme too, saying that a man can only make some mistakes one time before he loses the woman. There are glimpses of potential even on these bland tracks, and while I still stand by my earlier comment that the Eli Young Band is capable of much better–indeed, there’s much better on this record–they’re certainly headed in the right direction.

This record is both a disappointment and a relief to me as an Eli Young Band fan. It’s disappointing because it’s not a triumphant return to their early days, and in that respect, it reminds me 100% of ZBB’s album. However, it’s a relief because the Eli Young Band strayed arguably much farther off their path than ZBB, and I’ll just be brutally honest here and say I had little doubt of them returning. So it’s nice to see some good, and even great songs here, and it’s cool to see them listening to their fans and trying to go back to something with more substance. I won’t lie and say they succeeded throughout the record, but this is significant progress for the Eli Young Band, and there are some standout moments here too that have me hopeful for their future.

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Reflecting On: Reckless Kelly – Under the Table & Above the Sun

Reckless Kelly is the band that initially got me into the red dirt and independent country scene. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to discuss them in a Random Reflections article, but I’m fixing that as of today. This album is not my favorite by the band, but it does feature “Nobody’s Girl”, which is the song that first captured my attention.

Release Date: 2003

Style: Red Dirt, rock country

People Who Might Like This Album: People who don’t mind a little rock mixed with country, those who appreciate a fiddle solo

Standout Tracks: “Nobody’s Girl”, “Desolation Angels”, “Vancouver”, “You Don’t Want Me Around”

This album starts out great. When you hear the opening guitar and drums of “Let’s Just Fall”, you’re instantly treated to what a classic, rocking Reckless Kelly song sounds like. The lyrics are clever too, they go “I know we could both fall flat, let’s just fall. Leave it at that”. It’s not a standout track, but I do really like it. “Nobody’s Girl” is one of my favorite songs by the band. As I said above, it’s the one that hooked me, but the fact that it’s held up for me over years of listening is a testament to its strength. It’s all about how a woman keeps men at a distance due to how her father left her mother without a word. Now she’s bitter and refuses to let anyone get close. When I was showing Megan this song, I brought up my favorite lines. “Everybody wants you but you don’t wanna care, so you keep em at a distance with the frown you wear”. That part is just super-catchy, and it never gets old for me. Another classic that just so happens to be on this album is “Desolation Angels”. It’s all about a traveling man who is looking for more out of life, but who is also trying to run from anything permanent, or harsh feelings. . “Wealth and matter has never made much sense to me, it’s bought a lot of souls but never has it set one free” is yet another example of the great writing these guys put out. Also, I love the fiddle on this song!

“Vancouver” is also great. There are a lot of cities mentioned within the lyrics, but it just makes the song more relatable to me. I like that it’s slower, and a love song. It really shows off how vulnerable the band can get. The man in the lyrics wonders where his love is as he’s getting drunk, and she’s off somewhere breaking hearts. “You Don’t Want me Around” is another faster song. It involves a man who wants to be with a girl, but she doesn’t share the same feelings. This one isn’t as deep as a song like “Desolation Angels”, but I just really like the music behind this one, and it’s catchy.

Like I said before, this is not my favorite album by Reckless Kelly. This one has a couple of their best songs ever, though. Also, as it features the track that really got me into the music that is my most favorite today, I figured it was the perfect thing to cover. If you have never looked into Reckless Kelly, I think everyone should give them a chance.

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Album Review: John Baumann–Proving Grounds

Rating: 8.5/10

Texas country and Red dirt, despite all of the many influences and sounds, still really comes down to two sides, just like its Nashville counterpart–there’s more of an equal playing field in Texas and Oklahoma, and that’s ultimately the difference, but the point is, you still have your serious, singer-songwriter types and your more pragmatic, commercial types. The former would be the Jason Eadys and Courtney Pattons and Jamie Lin Wilsons, and the latter would be the Aaron Watsons and Josh Abbotts, and the beauty of it all is that each artist gets to choose their own path. And then sometimes, you get artists like Turnpike Troubadours; I remember Jamie Lin Wilson telling me they could play in listening rooms or big venues because Evan Felker writes deep songs “that also make you want to party.” And it would seem that John Baumann has managed to capture that spirit as well on his latest album, Proving Grounds, effortlessly blending the serious and the fun, the bright and the dark, into a really enjoyable album, an album that I think will have quite a lot of mileage throughout the year.

John Baumann has said that this is his most personal record, and you can feel that echoing throughout the album, from the stirring opener, “Here I Come,” to the nostalgic closer, “Pontiacs,” which goes on for over eight minutes. The opener details Baumann’s dreams as a child to one day become a successful singer-songwriter and reflects on his life now as he gets closer to being a “high plains troubadour.” I think “High Plains Troubadour” would have been a great name for this record. The closer, as I mentioned, is nostalgic and sees John Baumann as an adult, wishing for just one more day to be young. Admittedly, this is not one of my personal favorite tracks, but it does serve as a closing thought to the journey started in “Here I Come,” and together, the two frame the album nicely. In between, we learn, in sharp detail, the pain of Baumann’s father dying in “Old Stone Church,” and how each family member coped in their own way. With its simple melody and honest, glaringly specific lyrics, this one stands out proudly on the album and will relate to anyone who has been through the pain of losing a loved one despite it being so personal to Baumann.

In less autobiographical, but no less serious, moments, there’s the beautiful love song “Turquoise” and the thoughtful “Lonely in Bars”–I’d like to take a moment to point out that the former takes place entirely by a river in the moonlight, and that the latter is about two people meeting in a bar and the offer for more, and yet neither of these songs manage to be clichéd, disrespectful, generic, etc. IN “Turquoise,” the only parts of the woman we ever hear about are her “turquoise eyes” and it never goes further than “the first kiss I plan to give her.” In the latter, the story line goes far deeper than just meeting at a bar and hooking up; you hear the details about the woman not having a ring and having been in a troubled relationship with an older man, and you hear the narrator making the offer to stop being lonely in bars and see what happens, “embarrassment be damned.” Either of these, especially “Lonely in Bars,” could legitimately be mainstream hits, or they could have been, if they were less well-written or respectful. Essentially, they started with moonlit rivers and midnight bars, the foundations for mainstream hits, and then actually progressed into great songs.

Mixed in with all these great songs, we get the fun side of John Baumann. “The Trouble with Drinkin'” has got to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard this year; that fiddle is awesome, and it would be great live. There’s another one dealing with addiction in “Heavy Head,” and the beauty in “Turquoise” is followed by the more lighthearted “Love #1” which could be seen as the continuation to that song. Texas songwriters are often criticized–and many times rightfully so–for their continuous references to Texas, but “Holding it Down” manages to be clever, witty, and catchy despite this. There are so many artists that could take a lesson from this–you can make a song about Texas in a smart way. “When Ophelia Comes to Town,” with its lively, rocking production, is one of my personal favorites here, and one of the most fun; it details all the things the narrator does to get ready for a woman to visit, and all the things they’ll do once she arrives. I wasn’t expecting the twist at the end, and I almost wish it had stayed fun because in the end, he gets word that “Miss Ophelia’s dead.” But the song’s still fun, and it’s still one of the standouts for me.

So, if you haven’t figured it out, this is a great album. It’s got some excellent songwriting, and it’s a good balance between the serious and fun songs. Hopefully, John Baumann continues in this direction, writing more personal stuff, because this is where his writing shines, and I think it will only get better. This is one of the best Texas country albums released in 2017 so far and one that gets better with each listen.

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Collaborative Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–The Nashville Sound

Jason Isbell is a fascinating, thought-provoking songwriter, and this is exactly the type of album that should, and does, stir conversation and differing perspectives. It seems like every person I’ve talked to who’s listened to this and every review or opinion I’ve read has added something different to my own thoughts. So it seemed like the perfect record for Brianna and I to collaborate on and share our thoughts in conversational form.

Conversation

Megan: I think we have to start out by making the point that this really didn’t turn out to be a political record.
Brianna: I was pretty afraid it would be, given the title of “White Man’s World.”
Megan: “White Man’s World” is really about as political as it ever gets. I already talked about that song, but I think it was a great message and better coming from a white man. And I think it’ll be more effective on this album that really isn’t too political otherwise.
Brianna: I think that was more effective too, but I have to agree with Trigger from Saving Country Music–we should all stop labeling each other and just be people. But yes, the song was very well done, and I liked it. It was very intense musically, and I liked the theme. It’s a very political time, and he did well with that song and the message he expressed about privilege.
Megan: Yes, I think the “stop labeling each other” bit was sort of what Jason was going for with “Hope the High Road.” I know that’s one place we disagree here; you enjoyed that song, but I think it has some mixed signals. Like that’s the message, but then he has the line, “there can’t be more of them than us.”
Brianna: I do think that line complicates things. I like the energy of the song, though.
Megan: You said something to me the other day about this record that fascinated me, so I think you should share it, and that was that this is a very restless album. So please, elaborate on that.
Brianna: Well, you have songs like “Anxiety.” I think that one best shows it. He’s very emotional and unsure; he’s anxious. I just think that theme gets played out a lot over the album. I mean, he’s wondering if he’s the only one who feels empathy on “Last of my Kind.” He’s wondering how the world will be for his daughter once she’s grown. I think it’s all very emotionally restless.
Megan: Yes, I think you’re right. I’d also say that restlessness comes out in sound. You have folk and rock and country, and I think he called this The Nashville Sound for a reason, because it’s almost like it can’t settle on anything.
Brianna: I’d have to agree with you on that. I mean, of course I like that it’s quite varied, but it just fits in very well with the whole restless theme. Adding to all that the many influences in Nashville, and I think you may have something there with the name.
Megan: At first, I didn’t like the hard, rocking “Cumberland Gap” sandwiched between “Last of my Kind” and “Tupelo,” both softer, more acoustic songs, but after you pointed out the restlessness, I realized that’s what connects them. The characters in those first three songs are all unhappy in the world they’re living in, and the difference is just that the guy in “Cumberland Gap” explodes about it, lol. By the way, “Last of my Kind” is a killer song. It hit me hard in a personal way. One of the best songs I’ve heard this year.
Brianna: OH, now that’s a great point. It makes total sense now that you pointed it out. And I also loved “Last of my Kind.” There’s a moment where he talks about an old man being ignored by everyone but him–that moment was just so poignant.
Megan: What hit me most was that first verse, him not being happy in the city and people not dancing like him, all “clapping on the one and the three.” Actually, I just thought all the first five tracks were brilliant.
Brianna: I like that verse too, but something about the old man being ignored by everyone just got me. The first half is definitely the best for me too. After that, I start to have some issues. “Anxiety” is a really good song, and we’ve talked about how emotionally restless it is. I like that. However, the production is really messy, and it didn’t work for me. I also have pretty big issues with the production of “Chaos and clothes.” There are some layered vocals in that song that really distract me and keep me from digging deeper into the song. “Molotov” is one I’m still trying to figure out, and if you have any kind of insight into that one, I’m all ears.
Megan: “Chaos and Clothes” is awful. I don’t care how deep the lyrics are, or how artsy and cool it’s meant to be, that layering of the vocal track renders it unlistenable. Jason Isbell can make, or at least agree to, better production decisions than that. That’s what makes it even worse, he’s just better than that. “Anxiety” has really grown on me, and I do agree that he didn’t need the angry production behind him to help with the song. I’m struck enough by lines like “I’m out here living in a fantasy” and “I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing” on their own,” so the production takes it down a little. I feel like he was trying to be vulnerable, and it would have been better stripped back. I’m really enjoying “Molotov” after a few listens. Nice, nostalgic love song. It sort of pales in comparison to the genius that is “If we Were Vampires,” but it’s still a great song.
Brianna: Again, I completely agree with you about “Chaos and Clothes.” It’s weird and distracting, and it doesn’t sound great. I’m glad you figured “Molotov” out. Also, nothing will beat “If we Were Vampires” this year. I’ts impossible. I mean, it’s all about mortality, and the fact that because we have it, everything means so much more. I love that song.
Megan: It’s incredible. I think the closer will be a bit underrated, but “Something to Love” is a fine piece of writing too.
Brianna: OH, you have to appreciate “Something to Love.” From my perspective, it’s all about his daughter, and how he hopes she finds something that makes her happy despite the world’s darkness. I really like the song.
Megan: I agree, closes out the restless album with some hope. All in all, after some listens, strong 8 for me. The first half and the closer are stellar, with a couple of other good songs. It’s one of those rare times I actually wish the album had been longer, because on say, a 12-song project, this might be an 8.5 or even possibly a 9, but “Chaos and Clothes” and, for me, “Hope the High Road,” bring it down too much.
Brianna: I agree with you, I have to give it an 8 as well. I was thinking 7.5 at first–I know, unpopular opinion–but honestly? “If we Were Vampires,” “Last of my Kind,” and “White Man’s World” are fantastic. Add to that the fact that I really like all the rest aside from “Anxiety” and “Chaos and Clothes,” and I like 80% of the album…so 8 it is! I too think there was a bit too much filler and/or weird production choices to bring this album up to an 8.5 or 9. All in all, this is a solid album for me, but I still say Southeastern and Something More Than Free are better albums.
Megan: I like the songs of Southeastern, but it’s too dark for me as a fan. I love Something More Than Free, and I think this, in places, is stronger. That got a 9 from me here, and it was more consistent, but honestly, I’ll play this more. This is the Jason Isbell record I’ve connected to and enjoyed most overall.

Collective Rating: 8/10

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