Album Review: Nikki Lane–Highway Queen

Rating: 8/10

For those unfamiliar with Nikki Lane, Highway queen is her third studio album. I will admit to having checked out lane before, but not really being impressed by either of her two previous records. This was mainly due to production, and Nikki apparently wasn’t sold on it either. She has stated that for this album, she wanted a producer who wouldn’t overshadow her and who would bring out the best in her. So her boyfriend, Americana artist Jonathan Tyler, helped produce this record, and what we get is a great showcase of Nikki lane and her talent.

The album opens with the catchy, upbeat “700,000 Rednecks,” a lighthearted song about all the hardships of being a musician, and all the things “it takes to get to the top.” I am very careful about designating something outlaw country–in fact, I am not sure I have ever labeled anything I have reviewed here as such–but that’s what comes to mind with this song and throughout much of the record. A few tracks lean more toward Americana, but mostly I would call it outlaw country. “Highway queen” is a fun, upbeat track that seems to be a personal anthem for Nikki. The woman in the song lives on the road and travels alone; “the highway queen don’t need no king.” “Lay You down” is another upbeat track about a woman watching her man leave her and asking who will be there for him when he dies alone. The instrumentation, which is the strongest point of the record, is catchy, but it doesn’t really go with the lyrics, and for me, this is one of the weaker tracks.

“Jackpot” is a highlight of the album; this is a fun love song comparing true love to finally hitting the jackpot in Vegas after putting in so many quarters that came up short. If you pick one Nikki Lane song to listen to, make it this one. “Companion” is a more serious love ballad, and once again, for me it is a weaker track. Lane’s voice and style just don’t work as much on these types of songs as they do on the more rocking, upbeat, fun tracks. “Big Mouth” is one of those; it’s literally a song about telling someone to shut the hell up and stay out of her business. Think Kacey Musgraves lyrics but with Miranda Lambert attitude. “Foolish Heart” is another more serious song, this time about ffinally finding love but fearing losing it all again. This one is better than the previous serious tracks. “Send the Sun” is the type of love song Nikki Lane excels at; much like “Jackpot,” it is more lighthearted. It’s about long-distance love; while they miss each other at night, they promise to “send the sun your way, wake you up with a dawn full of golden rays.” Even though the miles separate them, they can’t imagine being with anyone else.

I have listened to “Muddy Waters” several times, and honestly I have no idea what it’s trying to convey. It’s a pleasant song musically and lyrically, but it seems underdeveloped somehow. Lane repeats, “I don’t believe ’cause I don’t wanna believe” but it’s pretty unclear what she’s referring to. Maybe someone more intelligent than me can figure it out. The album ends with the excellent “Forever Lasts Forever,” and for the first time on the record, Nikki really nails a serious song. This one is about divorce. The lyrics in this song really paint a great picture; “we swore for better or worse, and it was better at first, and worse at the end. They say forever lasts forever till forever becomes never again.” Lane also brings out the emotion in this song well, and it closes the album on a high note.

This is the best place to start with Nikki Lane’s music. The instrumentation is definitely the high point of the record. Lyrically, some of the serious songs don’t connect with me as much, but Lane proves she can deliver them well with “Forever Lasts Forever.” The highlights are the more fun tracks like “Jackpot,” “Highway queen,” and “700,000 Rednecks.” This is a really unique style like that of outlaw country, and Nikki’s unique voice works well with it. I”d definitely recommend getting to know this album and Nikki Lane.

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Country Exclusive Welcomes a New Writer

So, this running a blog and keeping up with all this new music can be overwhelming. I have heard the same from several fellow bloggers. I have no idea how Trigger at SCM does it alone, and he writes more than all of us combined. For that, he deserves the utmost respect. For all the rest of us, or at least for me, it gets overwhelming. More than that, there are lots of albums I listen to but just can’t seem to put my thoughts about them onto paper. I am extremely proud of how far Country exclusive has come and grateful to the readers and commenters that make it happen and seem to want to hear what I have to say. I want to see it grow even further, to cover more music, and ultimately to reach more people and showcase more deserving artists.
With that in mind, I am happy to welcome another writer, Brianna, to Country Exclusive. You can expect her arrival within the next couple of weeks. Brianna is a fellow lover of country music, especially the more traditional and alternative music that many of us embrace, and she also does reviews of books. Our connection came, as many great connections do, somewhat by accident, in a conversation over a game of poker. I am excited to welcome her and learn from everything she has to say. Different perspectives are always great to have, and reading the same opinion can be tiresome at times. It’s great to have different opinions and observations about the same song or album. Most importantly, we’ll get to talk about more good music this way, and that can only be a good thing. 🙂
Oh, and one more thing. With Brianna coming onboard, I will have more time, so I’m thrilled to announce Female Fridays are coming back. They won’t be every Friday like before, but you can expect them once or twice a month. I know many of you really enjoyed that feature, and it was one of my favorite things to write. You’ll be seeing their return very soon. Finally, thank you all for making Country Exclusive what it is today because without you, I’d still be boring my family with my facts and opinions and perpetual ranting about country radio. And without you, I wouldn’t have this problem of not being able to cover everything on my own because I’d be writing to the air. So thank you for blessing me with this problem, and Brianna and I look forward to sharing more great country music with you all.

Single Review: “The Fighter” by Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood

Country Rating: 0/10
Pop Rating: 3/10

I remember when Keith Urban actually tried. Now, there are a lot of traditionalists who have probably hated or at least dismissed Keith Urban from the start. His music always had pop and rock influence, and I can see how many strict traditionalists wouldn’t enjoy it. But there’s no denying his talent as a musician, singer, and songwriter. There was a time when he wrote many of his songs and sang with passion. As a reviewer, I can say without bias that he produced a lot of good pop country throughout his career, and as a music fan, I can say with absolute bias that I owned every Urban album right up through Get Closer. He’s recorded some great music in his time, and if you have any doubt of this, go listen to “Stupid Boy” and “The Luxory of Knowing.”

And then, somewhere around Keith’s American Idol stint, and the single “Little Bit of Everything,” all that talent started going to waste, and Urban’s passion and musicianship was lost in the wake of cringe-worthy pop music and the chasing of money and continued mainstream relevancy at all costs. It’s one thing when Kane Brown or Thomas Rhett gives us bad music, but Keith Urban knows better, and his self-awareness leaves me much more disgusted by “John Cougar, John deere, John 3:16” than by some arguably worse singles from these artists. All of this brings me to his latest effort, “The Fighter,” which may be his biggest insult to the genre and former Keith fans yet.

“The Fighter” has no semblance of country anywhere. It is generic pop music with electronic beats and some of the least impassioned vocals I’ve ever heard from either Keith or Carrie Underwood. Yes, that’s right, I forgot to mention Underwood’s part in this, but that is understandable, since mostly she just repeats the same three lines in the chorus like a bored backup singer. The song itself is about Keith Urban being a fighter for Underwood, who presumably got out of a bad relationship and needs to feel protected. The premise of Keith Urban being this type of guy is unintentionally hilarious, and Carrie Underwood doesn’t work as the character who needs to lean on him either. “What if I fall? What if I cry?” she keeps asking. It’s just annoying and doesn’t seem like her at all. There are some other obnoxious lyrics in the verses; Keith sings, “He never knew what he had, thank God.” So he is glad that she went through the hell of the previous relationship so that she would end up with him. Also, the line “he didn’t deserve you ’cause your precious heart is a precious heart” is just downright lazy ssongwriting. This song should be laughed off country radio, but it’s not even much better as a pop song and would probably be laughed off pop radio, so country is where it will stay. Reiterating why country radio will play it would be beating a dead horse, so I’ll spare you all that. But it’s artists like Keith Urban, who know better than this, can do better than this, and have done better than this, but choose instead to resort to absolute laziness because it will sell, that say more about the state of the genre and the fans who will buy this than anything else. The real tragedy is not that Urban recorded “The Fighter,” but that in 2017, he can get away with recording songs like this because that’s all he needs to do to sell records. This is one of the worst songs of his career, and without a doubt the worst song to which carrie Underwood has lent her voice.

Single Review: Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man”

Rating: 9/10
What a great day in the lives of Zac Brown Band fans, one of which I’ll unashamedly admit is me. After producing three great albums, including 2012’s excellent Uncaged, the band, or more accurately Zac Brown himself, disappointed the majority of their fan base with 2015’s Jekyll + Hyde. It was not exactly a bad album, and there were even some great songs from it, but it was all over the place in terms of style and seemed more like a Zac Brown solo project at times. Brown promised a return to their roots with their upcoming album Welcome Home, already made promising by the choice of producer Dave Cobb, and thankfully, the first single delivers.

“My Old Man” sees the narrator looking back on the life lessons his father taught him, as well as reflecting on how to be a better man and pass those lessons on to his son. It reminds me thematically of George strait’s “Love Without End, Amen.” The acoustic guitar in this song is gorgeous, and there is some great fiddle play too, a sound that was noticeably and sadly lacking on their last album. Also, this song showcases the great harmony of the band that was forsaken all too often on Jekyll + Hyde. In short, this is where they belong, and zac Brown band fans everywhere should be joyful.

Album Review: Saints Eleven–Coming Back Around

Rating: 8/10

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows it is one of my personal favorite things to highlight the Red Dirt music coming out of Texas and Oklahoma. Growing up, I heard it all the time on my local Oklahoma stations, and when it began to virtually disappear from the airwaves a few years ago, I marked it as just another instance of quality country music being forsaken for the sake of commercial success. It wasn’t really until I started this blog that I realized many country fans all across the nation and the world had never heard the Red Dirt music which was a part of my heritage. One of my proudest moments running this site was last year when I reviewed the self-titled album by the Turnpike Troubadours, helping to introduce people for the first time to a band I’ve known since the beginning of their existence. It’s true that Texas country/Red Dirt can claim its fair share of bad music and radio-friendly singles, but highlighting the tremendous amount of quality music it produces has become of special importance to me. With that in mind, I come to my thoughts on the third studio album from Saints Eleven, a Texas-based band who have been making a name for themselves within this scene for several years. Lead singer Jeff Grossman promised a return to their roots with this record, and I came in eager to hear it.

The album opens with “My Heart,” and right away, I have to point out the fiddle. Turnpike Troubadours fans, this might satisfy your need for fiddle until they release their next album. The actual song is a nice love song about a man proposing to a woman and telling her that nothing will ever keep them apart. The title track, “Coming Back Around,” brings the signature blend of fiddles and rock guitars so familiar in Texas music. The narrator here is seeking redemption and apologizing to God and everyone for everything he’s done in the past. He knows he’s done a lot of things wrong, but now he is changing and “coming back around.” “Heartbreak Songs” is an ode to the classic country songs about cheating and drinking that seem to have disappeared. There are lots of songs lamenting this, but this one stands out because the man needs the songs to help him through his loneliness; Bring back those old lonesome heartbreak songs, they make me feel better, and not so alone.”

“Shelter Me” is a contradiction; it’s an upbeat, fun song about hard times and pain, and needing a shelter through life’s struggles. It reminds me of “Seven Oaks” by Turnpike Troubadours in the fact that both songs make you smile about otherwise depressing things. An album highlight is “For Those Who Came,” a song in which a dead man is addressing his family and friends, all those that came to his funeral. He seems more upset for them than for himself because he knows he is going to a better place. The piano and acoustic guitar blend really well in this song, and I almost wish drums hadn’t come in in the middle. “Sunday drive” is the antithesis of “Shelter Me,” the former lamented all of life’s hardships while this one embraces the little things in life like Sunday drives, spending time with family, and making a difference in the lives of others. It’s interesting that they are separated by a song about death because they represent vastly different ways of going through life. Track placement is important, and I think these three tell a bigger story together than individually.

The only song not written by Grossman is a cover of “Crying Time” by Buck Owens. This is vastly different to the original, and I much prefer this lighthearted version of a heartbreak song. “Strange Round Here” tells the story of a married man who leaves town to find work and has an affair with a waitress, who mysteriously goes missing after telling him she’s pregnant. I am a fan of story songs in general, although this one ends a bit abruptly and could have been slightly more developed. “Almost Home” seems to be autobiographical; it’s a song about a man on the road trying to console his wife and children. “Let Them Go” features Courtney Patton, a name that immediately gave it promise. The man turns to alcohol for comfort while his wife prays to God and wonders why her husband can’t reach out to her instead. He never quits drinking and eventually dies. It’s definitely another high point of the album, and Courtney Patton’s voice certainly adds to it. The album closes with “The Same,” a nice love song that ends the record on much the same note as it began. This one features some excellent steel guitar and tells of a couple who enjoy spending time together regardless of what they are doing.

This is a really solid album and a nice introduction to Saints Eleven. It’s definitely country throughout, and the instrumentation is certainly the record’s greatest strength. The songwriting is solid, and the music seems to come from an honest place. The strongest tracks are “My Heart,” the title track, “For Those Who Came,” and “Let Them Go.” There’s nothing really groundbreaking about this release, but it’s a good album from start to finish and a nice place to begin with Saints Eleven.

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