Album Review: David Nail–Fighter

Rating: 7/10

David Nail is one of those artists that flies under the radar a lot in Nashville, never really selling out to trends, always producing decent or solid albums–in short, he’s one of the artists out there proving pop country doesn’t always equal bad music. I’ve always been impressed with Nail and thought he had a lot of potential, particularly on his songs “The Sound of a Million Dreams” and “Turning Home.” That all shines through in his fourth album, Fighter, his best album to date and definitely what I look for in good pop country.

The album opens with “Good at Tonight,” an upbeat anthem featuring Brothers Osborne that would be a great second single choice. I am surprised by how much I enjoy this song because it’s similar to a lot of songs out there, speaking about living life to its fullest and seizing the moment. “I ain’t much for the morning but I’ve always been good at tonight.” The production makes this enjoyable–it features accordion and is something I can call pop country, as opposed to similar, overproduced straight pop songs. “Night’s on Fire,” the first single follows–this is the typical song about hooking up by a river. However, this one is not terrible, as it has really nice descriptions and focuses on the experience and the surroundings rather than just having sex. I didn’t review it when it came out because it’s just there; it’s mediocre and filler, but it does serve the purpose of proving there is a better way to portray this overdone story. “ease Your Pain” is about a man saying he can be there for a woman and well, ease her pain; I would probably enjoy this more if it didn’t compare love to a drug because I am personally sick of that metaphor. Still, it’s a solid pop country song.

The first truly amazing moment on the album is “Home.” This is a collaboration with Lori McKenna featuring excellent piano and acoustic guitar. It speaks of home in a bittersweet way, about leaving and coming back, etc. David Nail’s strength is his voice, and it really shines on songs like this. Also, this makes me look forward to Lori McKenna’s album tomorrow! Next is “Lie With Me,” a song about a man asking a woman to “lie” with him and pretend she is staying, even though he knows she is about to leave. This song could have been better, but it does suffer from some overproduction, especially in some very distracting cymbals. Next is “I Won’t Let You Go,” another excellent collaboration, this time with Vince Gill. Vince Gill is a great choice; both Vince and David Nail have strikingly strong, tenor voices, neither really traditionally country but both undeniable in talent and sincerity. This song is about the relationship between a man and his wife; “I know that this is hard to do, you loving me, me loving you, so long since we have felt brand-new, but I won’t let you go.” The production works well in this one and allows their voices to shine.

“fighter,” the album’s title track, is next. This is admiring a woman who stays beside him through struggles; it doesn’t stand out on the first listen, but it will on the second. There is also a soft fiddle on this track that really adds to it. “Babies” feels very personal to Nail and is about how he lived his life as a thrill seeker, but now “I’ve found a better kind of crazy now that I got babies.” It’s a refreshing moment of honesty that mainstream country really needs. “Got me Gone” is similar to “Night’s on Fire”–it’s not a terrible song, but it doesn’t really add anything to the album and could have been left off it. In fact, it probably does less than “night’s on Fire,” because that made a decent single choice, and this, while still being about a woman who turns him on, has really bland and boring production that probably wouldn’t serve that purpose either. “Champagne Promise” is the moment where a good song is ruined by production; this is a good pop song but is not country at all. Here, the narrator has realized that the woman will be nothing more than a “champagne promise,” a one-night stand. It’s really a pretty good song, but the production is just completely wrong. The album concludes with “Old Man’s Symphony,” an absolutely brilliant track featuring Bear and Bo Rinehart of Christian band Needtobreathe. This is an autobiographical song about David Nail’s father, a man who “plays the piano, any song you wanna hear.” Nail sings about living in his shadow and moving to Nashville, despite the whole town saying “I could never make it here if my dad never did. Guess there is a part of me that still agrees with them.” If you only pick one song to listen to from this album, please make it this one.

Overall, this is a really solid album from David Nail. His voice really stands out, and the collaborations are excellent. There are some production issues, and a couple songs could have been scrapped, but the songwriting is brilliant in some places, and at its worst, is forgettable. Even the radio-friendly filler from David Nail is better than most similar stuff from mainstream country, and the album can, for the majority, be called pop country and not straight pop. For the most part, David Nail has delivered us a nice example of good pop country music.

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Album Review: Sean McConnell’s Self-Titled Album

Rating: 9/10

One of the most enjoyable things about being a reviewer is the ability to introduce people to new and deserving artists. Sean McConnell’s name is not new–he has had an established name in the Texas scene for fifteen years, recording numerous albums as well as writing for better-known artists like Wade Bowen and the Randy Rogers Band. But for casual fans and many serious fans of country music, his new self-titled album will be the first encounter with Sean McConnell. I will immediately say it is not strictly country; some songs are more country than others, but the album leans more toward Americana, or perhaps the rock side of the Texas/red dirt sound. As I’ve said often, it is not the album to buy for fiddle and steel, but there is a lot to love about this album.

The album opens with “Holy Days,” an upbeat, pop rock song about the early days of the band and a girl from the past. McConnell has said much of this album is autobiographical, and this song seems to reflect that, pointing to the days when his band was starting to gain popularity. The driving production fits this song and sets the tone of the album. “Ghost Town” follows–this one is more country rock and sees McConnell visiting his old hometown, only to discover everything has changed, and the people here are all strangers. He sees everything as it once was, but it will never be the same. The lyric “I can’t tell if I wanna build a shrine or just burn it to the ground” captures the conflict in this song perfectly. “Bottom of the Sea,” a re-recording from an earlier EP, is more of the upbeat style found in the opener. the lyrics shouldn’t be overlooked, though–“the hardest part of living is knowing that you’re gonna die, trying to leave a legacy with only so much time. I don’t know about you but I’m getting sick and tired of living on the surface and in between the lines.” The lighthearted production can distract a little from the seriousness of the song at first, but after a couple listens, that starts to add to the song.

Beautiful Rose” is the first song I would call strictly country. The stripped-back production and country instrumentation work well here, as McConnell sings about how life is not always what you expect it to be–“but I’ll take the thorns for this beautiful rose.” It’s a simple, quiet moment on a mostly upbeat album. ‘Hey Mary” is a fun, lighthearted song about trying to make Mary fall in love. McConnell says she can crash at his house, and he will sleep on the floor and let her vent about the guy who made her cry. He says one day he will sing her this song and prove that he knew all along she would fall in love with him eventually. “Best We’ve Ever Been” sees a couple just spending a day together, celebrating their years together and that they are still just as much in love–“Baby, we had no idea, and I would do the same thing if we did.” It’s a simple little song that paints love as just wanting to spend time with each other.

One of the definite highlights of the album is the autobiographical “Queen of St. Mary’s Choir.” sean McConnell sings about his life as “the product of desire between the guitar kid from Hudson and the queen of St. Mary’s choir.” He embraces the characteristics he got from both his paretns, and that he became a musician. Another highlight is “Running underwater”–this one sees McConnell dealing with personal struggles and calling on Jesus to help, if indeed God is out there. The imagery in this song hit me the first time–“Oh, what a dream I had last night. I could not scream, I could not fight. And the more I pushed, and the more I pried, it got harder and harder, like running underwater.” The production and the lyrics blend perfectly here, and it is one you should just listen to. “One Acre of Land” is another very country song and another highlight. McConnell says that he doesn’t have a lot of money but “we could build a dream right where we stand on one acre of land.” It’s another one that speaks for itself with a listen. The album closes with “Babylon,” a song in which a broken relationship is compared to Babylon. This is another one like “Running Underwater,” where the songwriting paints wonderful pictures. “we’re a tattered flag where the mighty fell, we’re a rusty coin in a wishing well, we’re the only lie that you couldn’t sell, Babylon.” Sean McConnell sings this with incredible emotion, and the song builds throughout to match the intensity. It’s an excellent way to close a great album, although ten songs leaves me wishing it were a bit longer.

Overall, this is a great album. The songwriting is excellent in places, and although it isn’t the most country thing out there, it fits within Americana well. It blends styles nicely, and the production on each song works well with the lyrics. Sean McConnell said this album was somewhat personal and autobiographical, and it reflects that authenticity. This is definitely an album worth checking out!

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Single Review: Miranda Lambert’s “Vice”

Rating: 8/10

Well, it has been a long time, and it is good to be back. I think it appropriate that my first review in several months should be of possibly my most personally anticipated single of 2016. It is no secret to anyone who reads this how I feel about Miranda Lambert, and besides this, her next album has been especially anticipated by many following her divorce from Blake Shelton and his subsequent, obnoxiously public relationship with Gwen Stefani. None of this matters at all and should mostly be left to gossip sites, but it must be pointed out here because it will most likely have a direct effect on Lambert’s musical direction. With that in mind, we have the lead single from what will be Miranda’s sixth album, “Vice.”

“Vice” opens with a needle on vinyl and then just Miranda singing. The first thing I notice is how vulnerable she sounds. She sings about a woman who goes through different vices, including drinking and waking up in places she doesn’t know how she came to. She knows she keeps making mistakes, but she can’t seem to help it. There is an honesty in this song that country music lost years ago, and the fact it’s coming on a lead single is unbelievable. “Standing at the sink looking in the mirror, I don’t know where I am or how I got here. The only thing that I know how to find is another vice.” I can’t think of the last time I heard such raw honesty in a lead single. She wasn’t looking for radio play when she co-wrote this. As for the production, it’s not something we’ve yet heard from Miranda Lambert; it’s neither the strong country of Revolution nor the pop rock sound dominating Platinum. It’s something in between, like the raw country rock sound of Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood or parts of Lindi Ortega’s Faded Gloryville. It works on this song, and it is definitely a better direction than Platinum, although I still prefer the sound of Revolution. Having said that, I am interested to hear the upcoming album. Unlike the general overproduction on Platinum, “Vice” maintains something raw and real. This is a good different direction for Miranda Lambert. If “Vice” is any indication, the album could be a truly honest one and a standout in the mainstream this year.

Review: William Michael Morgan EP

Rating: 8/10

In the constant fight to take back country music, many people point to the outlaw movement of the 1970s and call on another Willie or Waylon–an “outlaw” who will ignore labels altogether and make the music he or she wants to make. The outlaws were responsible for turning country back from the softer, more commercial Nashville sound, and modern examples of this might be Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson, both achieving major success without the support of Nashville (although Simpson has since gained Nashville’s attention.) One could also point to Texas artists such as the Turnpike Troubadours, content to stick to their own sound and style rather than sell out for a quick road to greater fame. These “outlaws” are certainly necessary if country music is ever to be saved–but there is another kind of savior, less talked about but no less important. In 1981, one Texas-based artist was signed to MCA for one single. He was thought to be too traditional for radio, but he was given one chance. That artist was George Strait, who would go on to have arguably the biggest career in country music and who remains signed to MCA to this day. He did as much to save country music as the outlaws, but from a different, more radio-friendly angle. In 2016, we need these advocates just as much as the Jason Isbells and Turnpike Troubadours of the world, maybe more, because they are the ones who will start to turn the tide from the inside. This is why we fight and root for Chris Stapleton, Maddie & Tae, and now, William Michael Morgan.

William Michael Morgan, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Mississippi, caught the attention of traditionalists last year when he released the single, “I Met a Girl,” co-written by none other than country music antichrist Sam Hunt. I’ll be honest here; I was underwhelmed by the song itself, but I was impressed with Morgan’s traditional country voice and style, as well as the fact that he’d rearranged a Sam Hunt co-write into a decent country song, and I was ready to hear more. An EP is only a taste of what we can expect from an album, and it is certainly not the ideal way to judge an artist–this is the first one I’ve reviewed–but this EP reinforces my faith in William Michael Morgan as someone whom we should be watching.

The front half of the EP is slightly more radio-friendly than the back half. It is obvious William Michael Morgan and his team are trying to appeal to more modern country fans while still sounding traditional. “Vinyl” is a solid song about an old-fashioned love that is classic, like a vinyl record. I notice immediately two things: this song is very country, while still being relatively radio-friendly, and the repeated references to “girl.” This repeating of “girl” is akin to bro country and might be annoying to people, but this is a love song; it’s not a song about hooking up in a cornfield. Its lyrics are respectful, and it sounds country. Next is “Beer Drinker,” a song attributing all the things that get done, from the steak you’re eating to the hot tub you’re enjoying, to the work of beer drinkers. This could be seen as clich├ęd and pandering lyrically, but it comes across more like George Strait’s “Stop and Drink,” a fun, catchy song we all accept as lighthearted country that doesn’t take itself too seriously. “I Met a Girl” is next, and it works better on the album; it’s a simple love song about just this–meeting a girl and being infatuated with her. Once again, though the lyrics could be better, they are respectful and simple, and this is the type of song that could do well on radio. The thing which impresses me most with this half of the EP is how country it sounds; this is the half with songs that could be successful singles, and yet Morgan stays very country and makes his approach quite clear.

However, the weakness with the front half of the EP is the lyricism. The songs are solid, but nothing holds my attention. “Lonesomeville,” the only song co-written by William Michael Morgan, changes this. Here we have a simple, traditional country heartbreak song; the narrator is living in Lonesomeville and missing a woman who left. It’s something a thousand country songs have said before, but at the same time, this simplicity and honesty is lost to us in 2016. It’s the emotion of George Strait and Alan Jackson, simple and relatable to listeners everywhere. This simplicity is present again in “Cheap Cologne,” in which the narrator lies in bed while his woman is out at a bar, probably cheating–“She don’t smoke cigarettes, and I don’t wear cheap cologne.” This reminds me stylistically of something Keith Whitley might have sung in the late 80s, steeped in steel guitar but looking ahead to more modern country. The EP closes with “Backseat Driver,” a song about a father sending his son off with “a Bible on the dash and a map tucked in the door, I can’t be your backseat driver anymore.” This song is more modern-sounding, but the lyrics here are very strong and make it a standout.

This EP is all we have to go on with William Michael Morgan, and it’s not the best way to form an opinion of an artist, but Morgan shows a lot of potential. The strengths are his country voice and commitment to a more traditional sound. We need people like Morgan, who will sound traditional but who can bring that sound into the mainstream with simplicity and honesty. There are much better albums, and this EP certainly has its flaws, mainly the lyrics. However, William Michael Morgan is one of the bright spots in mainstream country music, and we can be thankful for another voice in the fight to take country back. I’ll be looking forward to a full-length album from him!

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Album Review: Vince Gill–Down to my Last Bad Habit

Rating: 7.5/10

Vince Gill has had one of the most successful careers in country music history, earning numerous awards, as well as inductions into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the Grand Ole Opry. Unlike other artists his age, he is aging gracefully. He isn’t pulling an Alabama and releasing a “Southern Drawl” in misguided hopes for radio play. He is still making the records he wants to make, and his signature tenor voice has been unaffected–if anything, it has only grown stronger on this record. Even if you don’t like Vince Gill’s discography, you probably like Vince Gill himself; he seems to be one of the most respected and well-liked people in the business. In fact, it took me some time to review this record because I am an unashamed Vince Gill fan. But I have finally hit on the problem with this album–it’s not a bad album by any stretch, and there are a few songs you will keep coming back to, which I will point out. If you aren’t a Vince Gill fan, you may really enjoy this album–but if you are familiar with his work, this will mostly just make you want to listen to better Vince Gill material.

As I said earlier, Vince is making the albums he wants to make; he has a songwriting credit on every track and was a producer. It is for this reason that I can’t immediately dismiss the production on this record, but I do want to address it now, lest I should have to on every song–the production is heavily influenced by r&b, although not the trend-chasing r&b of Thomas Rhett, more like an age-appropriate version. I might call this 80’s R&b country, and since this was obviously Vince’s decision, I won’t critique it, except where it especially helps or hinders certain songs.

“Reasons for the Tears I Cry,” the album’s opener, is a heartbreak song. Vince Gill’s voice is as strong as ever as he sings, “I got reasons, reasons for the tears I cry.” This immediately introduces the adult comtemporary/r&b country production which sets the stage for much of the record. This production works really well for the title track, another heartbreak song in which Vince says that he gave up smoking and drinking and his old friends for a woman–all the things she’d left him for. But, “the one thing that I’ll always be addicted to, oh I’m down to my last bad habit, you.” This is one of the standout songs that works because of its slow-burning, bluesy production. “Me and my Girl” is more country-influenced, and is just an easygoing love song that is pleasant to listen to; this one gets better with more listens and is another one you will find yourself taking away from the album.

“Like my Daddy Did” is a song about a man asking a woman to marry him–but she’s afraid that he will walk out on her like her father did. This is one case where I love Vince’s voice and the songwriting, but I think it would have made a great country song; it makes a pretty good adult contemporary song. “Make You Feel Real Good” is one of the fun, upbeat songs signature of Vince Gill; this one is about a man attempting to seduce a woman. “Baby doll, you know I would make you feel real good.” This one is more country and just suits Vince Gill; it’s just fun. “I Can’t Do This” is a beautifully written song about a man watching his ex with another man; Vince’s voice delivers the emotion wonderfully, but it’s another moment where I wish for more country production. We’re all aware of what kind of emotion Vince Gill can evoke in a guitar, but this song features piano. Songs like this make a review difficult, because there’s nothing wrong with it–it’s just not what Vince Gill is capable of.

“My Favorite Movie” is one of the weaker love songs, this one about a love that is real but it is better than anything on Hollywood screens. It’s easier to dismiss a song like this than “I Can’t Do This,” because here the lyrics aren’t great either. “One More Mistake I Made” is the most adult contemporary of the bunch, even featuring a trumpet. If this entire album hadn’t been such a sonic shift for Gill, this song might have been an interesting experiment–as it is, it’s a piece of great songwriting that is made completely bland by production. “Take Me Down” features Little Big Town and is about a woman who can “take me down every time you come around and make me surrender for you.” The driving production fits this perfectly; this song reminds me of something Fleetwood Mac might have recorded. Good to see Little Big Town contributing to something worthwhile, after their wasted collaboration with Miranda Lambert on “Smokin’ and Drinkin’.” This is what they should be doing.

Next is another collaboration, this one with Cam on a song called “I’ll be Waiting For You.” This is another standout of the record; their voices blend flawlessly, and a song like this reminds you of Vince Gill’s skill at love songs. This one is also very country. Definitely listen to this song. I am pleased that both of the collaborations were highlights of this record. “When it’s Love” is a solid song about, well, knowing when it is love–“When it’s love, it’s like a wild raging river, when it’s love, feel like you’ve been delivered. You might as well just surrender when it’s love.” This song could have been helped by different production, but it’s still solid. Then the album closes with the stunning “I Feel a Sad One Comin’ On (a Song for George Jones),” and here is the Vince Gill I’ve been waiting for. Here is his guitar crying, and the sadness of “Go Rest High on That Mountain” and “I Call Your Name.”

It’s this song at the end that ultimately brings down the record; there were great songs on it, but now they pale in comparison when you hear the potential of Vince Gill. And as a Vince Gill fan, every time I get to this point, all the goodwill I felt toward this record is replaced by desire to listen to other Vince Gill work. However, as a reviewer, I cannot deny that this album is actually quite good in and of itself. Regardless of the r&b influence, it features excellent vocals throughout and great songwriting throughout a good portion of it. The collaborations are standouts, as is the title track. It’s almost unfortunate the Jones tribute is at the end, cheapening the rest of the album–but that’s exactly what it does. Give these songs a listen. As a collection of songs, they ar quite good. But as an album, Vince Gill can deliver much better.

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