Collaborative Review: The Steel Woods–Straw in the Wind

Well, you all really seemed to enjoy our collaborative review style on Chris Stapleton’s album, and several of you suggested we keep doing it. We enjoyed it as well, so we’re back with a conversation about the debut album from Southern rock band The steel woods, Straw in the Wind. This one’s a little different in style and will reflect the style of most of these if we continue; Stapleton’s was track-by-track simply because it was so short–and also because we didn’t really know how well we could pull off such a thing. Any feedback on our style would be appreciated, as we’re still perfecting it, but we’re having fun with it, and we hope you enjoy it as much as we do. With all of that said, let’s get to Straw in the Wind.

Conversation

Megan: One of the highest points on this whole record for me was the instrumentation. That’s what drew me in right away on the opener, “Axe.” On that song, it’s a nice mix of country and rock. You get hints of country, bluegrass, Southern rock, and blues throughout the album, but it’s always just fantastic.
Brianna: I completely agree on the instrumentation. They blend all these different genres seemingly without effort.
Megan: If you had to put this into one genre, what would you call it? I keep seeing them labeled Southern rock, but I’m not sure that explains all of it.
Brianna: I honestly don’t know if that’s possible to do. I mean, I do agree that Southern rock is the main thing. But they just take so many different styles and mix them up.
Megan: Yeah, and they do it so well, like you say, without effort. I think sonically, lots of people could find something to love about this album. What songs stood out most lyrically?
Brianna: Oh, “Straw in the Wind” is my favorite song here. It tells a dark story, and that was the one that hooked me on this album. Aside from that, I like the lyrics of “Better in the Fall,” which I took to be about a man loving the act of falling in love but being unable to keep the relationship alive after that. The imagery here was great. I also liked “Della Jane’s Heart,” although that one really reminded me of Turnpike Troubadours’ “Doreen.” I loved “Uncle Lloyd,” and how it talked about finding family to whom you aren’t related by blood. I also quite liked “If we Never Go.” It was a really simple song about two young people in a relationship needing to roam and be on their own away from family.
Megan: I completely agree on “Straw in the Wind,” which tells the story of a small town where travelers aren’t welcome, and what a line this is: “strangers ’round here disappear like straw in the wind.” also agree on “Della Jane’s Heart,” and that stylistically reminds me of Turnpike Troubadours as well–actually, it’s like bluegrass meets Red dirt. I think these two together make the strongest moment of the record. I’d also add “The Secret,” which has grown on me after a couple listens. It tells the secret that Satan was really a woman and not the serpent. The imagery here of a man, I presume Adam, “staring at a half-eaten apple” is on the cover, which adds to the darkness of this whole thing.
Brianna: That line from “Straw in the Wind” just sticks out above all the other lyrics on this album. I like the idea behind “The Secret” more than I do the actual song.
Megan: That’s true for me on quite a few of these songs, although not “The Secret.” There’s a vagueness in a lot of them, especially on the back half, that starts to drag the album down a little.
Brianna: Yes, and that’s the thing that really brings this album down for me. I like a song to be able to be whatever the listener makes of it, but when there are multiple instances of this, it grows tiresome. I believe the song “Whatever it Means to You” could have been a little nudge to say to the listener that the songs could mean whatever you think they do. Granted, I could be completely wrong about this, but putting in a song where you say “all that means is whatever it means to you” on a pretty vague album does tend to send that message.
Megan: Glad you mentioned that because that song really gets on my nerves. Basically, it lists a bunch of superstitions as well as signs of faith and says they mean nothing except what people make of them, and then says “all these songs” also mean only what you make of them. Lowest point on the album for me, along with “Hole in the Sky” and “Wild and Blue,” which are just forgettable filler. It doesn’t help that these three are right in a row either. actually, the song you mentioned, “If we Never Go,” is by far the best moment on the back half.
Brianna: Same for me, although I do have to mention the really cool harmonica play on “Wild and Blue.” It’s a classic song, but their version just didn’t stand out for me beyond the instrumentation. But yes, I definitely think “If we Never Go” was the best moment on that part of the album.
Megan: I didn’t know “Wild and Blue” was a cover, and I’ve literally just looked up the original, which is by John Anderson…difference: I actually like this song. You’re right, their version doesn’t stand out at all.
Brianna: Alan Jackson has a pretty good version on his bluegrass record, and that’s where I first heard the song. Compared to that, the version on this album is disappointing except in the instrumentation. That’s pretty much the way I feel about the remainder of the album too–disappointing and sometimes vague subject matter, but stellar instrumentation and good vocals.
Megan: Yep, I’d agree. NO other standouts besides the ones we’ve mentioned, but the vocals are incredible, glad you brought that up. Wes Bayliss is a fine vocalist. Instrumentation is very strong throughout. Some really great lyrical moments in here too, sprinkled among the vagueness. Overall, some filler on a 13-song album, but a really strong, promising debut from The steel woods. Nice, solid 8 from me.
Brianna: I would give this album an 8 as well. It has some filler moments as we’ve said, but also quite a few amazing ones. I can’t get the title track or “If we Never Go” out of my head. I am extremely impressed with the caliber of talent this band possesses, and despite the vagueness in some of these songs, I can’t give this album any less.

Collective Rating: 8/10

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Reflecting On: 20th Century Masters- The Millennium Collection – The Best Of Loretta Lynn

Growing up, I heard Loretta Lynn’s music a lot. Although it took me years to understand the lyrics fully, my love for her music was something I picked up quite early on in life. This album, in particular, was the one I heard the most. While I have since heard her original albums, I always come back to this greatest hits collection.

Release Date: 1999

Style: Traditional Country

People Who Might Like This Album: Fans of female artists, and those who appreciate songs about real emotions

Standout Tracks: The whole album since it’s a greatest hits collection

If you don’t know any of Loretta Lynn’s songs, this is a great place to start. You get to hear about her childhood growing up in Butcher Hollow, Kentucky, where her father worked in the coal mines, on “Coal Miner’s Daughter”. There’s also the fantastic “You Ain’t Woman Enough”, where Loretta Lynn tells a woman who’s trying to win over her husband that she isn’t going to let said woman have him. This album also features the classic “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’”, where she tells the previously mentioned husband not to come home after he’s been out drinking all night. There’s also two of her duets with fellow classic country artist, Conway Twitty. As one of the premiere sets of duet partners in country music, you can’t get any better. “Lead Me On” is a fantastic example of a cheating song from both the male and female perspective. Really, the only downside to this album is that it doesn’t contain “Fist City”.

The thing that makes Loretta Lynn so good is that she wrote relatable songs from a woman’s perspective, in a time when nearly all country stars were male. That part hasn’t changed a lot nowadays, which only means that her music applies just as strongly today as it did then. Loretta Lynn wrote about the harsh realities of growing up poor in Kentucky. Her songs discussed what it was like to be a housewife to a husband who didn’t always put her first, and she even talked about jealousy. Her music is very human and real, and it’s something I come back to, time and time again.

Buy the Album on Amazon

Album Review: Liz Rose–Swimming Alone

Rating: 6/10

If you listened to the first two Taylor Swift albums–you know, back when she did sound rather country–you’ve heard a Liz Rose song. Liz Rose is most famous for having co-written most of the songs on Swift’s first two albums and helping to make her career, lending the skill of a professional songwriter to stories from a girl over thirty years younger and somehow making the partnership work to perfection. Liz Rose also has a songwriting credit on Little Big Town’s “Girl crush,” as well as many other mainstream hits, always seeming to find that balance between commercial success and critical acclaim. So when news came that she was releasing an album, that couldn’t be taken lightly; rather, it was like hearing about Natalie Hemby, Lori McKenna, and Brandy Clark before her, definitely something to be excited and intrigued about.
The difference? Liz Rose didn’t want to make this record “pitchable.” She didn’t come into it looking for subsequent records or tour dates–in fact, she said that after she wrote the album closer, “My Apology,” she felt like the story had ended, and this might be the only Liz rose record to ever grace our presence. Also, she’s not a performer, though her vocal talent here would counter that notion. Still, you have to come into this record knowing what it is to fully get it; it’s just a little story of Rose’s life told in song, and she just happened to have Nashville connections and a publishing company, so you stumbled upon a copy.
That’s the cool thing about this record. It’s dated, but not in the timeless, throwback way of Colter wall, more like in the way of your mom or aunt or grandma telling their stories about growing up in the 50’s and 60’s. It’s trapped there in that time period, and that’s why it’s crucial to understand where Liz Rose is coming from lest it just be an out-of-date, old-fashioned affair. One of the best songs here is the opener, “Grocery Money,” where Rose tells of her mother’s sacrifice and shares the details about growing up with little but somehow always having enough to get by. You’ll hear in “Five ‘n’ Dime” how she worked with her family at one of these stores, in “Woodstock” that she was pissed off to be too young in 1969 to go, and in “Tulsa” about an adventure with her best friend when she was thirteen and ran away from home to “God knows where, Oklahoma.” You’ll get a sense of her fearlessness and motivation to carve out a career for herself in the songwriting industry, an industry she entered at the age of thirty-seven, when you hear “Swimming Alone” and learn that she’s used to finding her own way. You’ll get a glimpse into her love life with “Letters From Prison,” telling the story of a teenage boyfriend who later sent letters to her office and wanted autographs of country stars to distract him from his “personal hell,” and “Ex-Husbands,” the humorous tale of her marriage history that is the highlight of this record and has the potential to get cut despite Rose writing the album to be “unpitchable.” There are also more touching moments, like the aforementioned “My Apology,” where Liz Rose apologizes to her parents, old lovers, and even herself for her mistakes, and “Yellow Room,” where she’s missing and saying goodbye to her father. all in all, it’s a very personal, very unique reflection of her life, much like a snapshot into the life of a relative or a friend, only told in musical form.
AT the same time, that’s also the thing that holds this record back. It’s very personal and cool, but in many places so much so that it won’t be relatable to many. That’s not what Liz rose was going for here, though; she just wanted to make a record for herself. I think people who grew up in these same times will find much to relate to and to love about this album anyway, and this is why I featured it. Personally, although it’s a really cool album and idea, and although the production makes it much more catchy and less boring than these types of singer-songwriter albums generally are, it doesn’t hold up for me beyond the initial interesting glimpse into the life of Liz Rose. The songs “Grocery Money,” “ex-Husbands,” and “Woodstock” stand out above the others, and as a fan, I would pick them off the record; indeed, that’s almost what I did in order to feature Liz rose and this album. I wanted to enjoy this more, particularly as someone who respects the songwriting of Rose, but at the end of the day, a lot of it just isn’t for me, and that directly speaks to the fact that I can’t really relate to these stories and times. But it’s a record that will be for a lot of people despite, or perhaps even because of, its personal nature. People from Rose’s generation especially will connect to this album, and in light of Liz Rose’s intent with this project, the result was a cool listen if nothing else.

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You Know What? I Couldn’t Care Less About the Production on Colter Wall’s Album

Recently, I reviewed Colter Wall’s self-titled debut album, and if you haven’t heard that record, you’re honestly depriving yourself for no good reason. It’s right up there with the best of 2017 so far; it got a 9/10 here, but only just, due to one song, “You Look to Yours,” which admittedly has gotten only slightly better and less boring since my initial thoughts…but I digress.
Many outlets had a common criticism, in varying degrees of intensity, of the production. Produced by Dave Cobb, this record was minimalist to say the least–in fact, Cobb did virtually nothing, letting Colter and his guitar speak for themselves on a good portion of the album. This was quite a contrast from Wall’s debut EP which featured more interesting instrumentation and sometimes lively fiddles. I wrote that I thought that might have worked in some places on this record, and that Dave Cobb was to blame. I was careful to add that I personally thought that on this particular album, Dave Cobb did a fantastic job, getting out of the way of Colter–but I added that Colter will have to expand his sound going forward, and I agreed that the concerns of production are valid, if perhaps a little early.
But now? After listening to this several more times, and as this record becomes one of my personal favorites of 2017, as well as one of the best from a critical standpoint, I have to take back those comments. I think the production here was fantastic, as I already said, and I do think Colter’s next album can’t be more of the same without running the risk of it feeling a little stale, a la Stapleton. However, Stapleton is an easy comparison because they used the same producer; the bigger problem with Stapleton wasn’t Dave Cobb’s production as much as a general lack of passion from Chris Stapleton himself, which stands out even more on a minimalist Dave Cobb project where there’s not much going on to distract you. Now, I do have a problem with some of the production on Stapleton’s album, but my point is that it made it easy at first for me to draw comparisons with Colter Wall and seek out problems with the minimalistic approach, especially one that differed so much from Colter’s previous output.
But that’s just it; Stapleton’s two albums sound exactly the same, whereas Colter’s album and EP sound nothing alike, so I believe this means that any concern we have about him sliding into a rut with production is completely unwarranted until his next project. That concern should have no bearing on this album, and when I listen to this album, I can find no flaw in the production. Colter Wall and his guitar are enough, and that is all the more reflective of his talent and of the strength of these songs. I’m actually glad Dave Cobb got out of the way of this and let Colter and his stories shine. I can still understand people who wanted more production wise, but it is no longer my criticism–and as for expanding his sound going forward, we’ve already seen two very different sounds from Colter Wall, so I’m no longer sure we have to worry about this either. Now seriously, go listen to this album, it’s still incredible.

Single Review: Lauren Alaina’s “Doin’ Fine”

Rating: 7/10

I missed covering Lauren Alaina’s sophomore album, Road Less Traveled, back in January while I was out of the country, and it’s something I’ve regretted ever since because that album is a great example of good pop country. Lauren Alaina is someone we should all be supporting in the mainstream even if she’s more pop than country because at least she’s releasing pop songs–and sometimes actually pop-flavored country songs–that mean something. These songs actually have something to say and might also relate to a youthful mainstream audience–“Road Less traveled” may not be the best example of this, but even this pop single was trying to deliver a worthwhile message, even if the message was broad. But pop it definitely was, and even though it gave her a #1 hit, she had a lot of detractors. The thing is, though, that her album of the same name was better; much of it was personal to Lauren and, as much as that word has been run through the wringer recently, “authentic.” She spoke about her eating disorder, her father’s alcoholism, and her struggle to get onto country radio. Yes, it’s pop-flavored, but it’s the type of mainstream album we should be cheering for, and we should be happy for Lauren’s success–but it’s hard to do with a straight pop single like the title track.
So now she’s released something more pop country, and yes, more personal, to radio, and now maybe we can get behind her. Who knows if radio will play this since ON the Verge did support “Road Less Traveled,” but it’s something promising in the mainstream. Much like RaeLynn’s “Love Triangle,” this song deals with Lauren’s parents’ divorce, and though it may seem otherwise on the surface, there are some deceivingly detailed lines here too. It’s something that is so obviously Lauren Alaina’s story, with details such as her dad getting sober and her mom marrying her dad’s best friend, but at the same time, it’s broad enough to connect and relate to many people who have gone through the same thing. Basically, it sees Lauren finally fine after coming out on the other side; she always told people she was okay, but now she’s fine enough to see that people are all going through things, or that, as the song says, “everyone’s a little broken,” and these things happen. It’s a nice, reflective look on the events, and as I say, it could potentially connect with many. Time will tell if radio gives this a shot, but it’s something that would definitely improve the mainstream. Pop country being done right.

Written by: Lauren Alaina, Emily Shackleton, Busbee (I seriously doubt Busbee did any actual writing, but who knows?)

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