Album Review: Courtney Patton–What it’s Like to Fly Alone

Rating: 9/10

I know, I know, this record isn’t available on Spotify or Google Play, at least for the time being. There aren’t even any videos up on YouTube. It makes arguably even less sense, then, that it can be streamed on Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited, as opposed to just being a record available only for purchase through digital download or by buying physical copies. The merits, or lack thereof, of exclusivity can be debated, but that’s not going to change the fact that if you want to hear this new Courtney Patton release, many of you are going to have to look somewhere other than your favorite streaming outlet.

And you know what? Frankly, that’s a real shame, because this new Courtney Patton album deserves to be heard, indeed is probably worth supporting via a purchase rather than simply streaming it–but so many people are going to overlook it instead because that’s just how this often works in 2018.

So don’t be one of those people who misses out on the best record of 2018 so far because of silly things like this.

“This record is full of songs about people who have had to fly alone in some way, whether through grief, loss, life choices, addiction, or love,” says Patton about her latest effort. She goes on to say that it’s not always a depressing thing, that sometimes flying alone can help us figure out who we are and our destinies. It’s evident in this album as well, as there are definitely some melancholy moments, but the whole thing is far from a sad, lonely affair. There’s also a sense of hope and purpose running through this album which connects these characters and their stories.

For each character, flying alone seems to be slightly different. Many of them are here because of their own choices, as Patton explained. There’s the narrator of “Round Mountain,” a woman who abandoned her family after finally admitting that she wasn’t cut out for a life of raising babies and being married to a man she didn’t love. The woman here has made some mistakes and bad choices, like sleeping with another woman’s husband, but she neither apologizes for herself nor makes excuses. She’s not trying to run from what she’s done, and she’ll admit that it was wrong, but it’s also not something she’s sorry for; rather, she’s just stating the facts. It’s the same with the woman from “Devil’s Hand,” as she states that she wanted to see if his hand “felt as warm as it looked,” and that she understood what she was doing when she walked down this path. The narrator of “Open Flame” is self-aware as well, but she’s trying to walk away before the choice of adultery ruins her life and hurts her husband. She won’t be alone physically because she’ll go home to her husband, but she’ll be lonely because, as she says, she wants and needs this man instead of the one she married.

“Words to my Favorite Memory,” which first arrived in acoustic form on Patton’s duets album with Jason Eady, appears here again to explore the grief/loss side of flying alone. This song does a nice job of illustrating the connections we all have to certain songs and stories; the narrator here can’t play “My Favorite Memory” by Merle Haggard anymore because she was spinning the record when she received a call that her lover had died. “Fourteen Years” is a personal one for Courtney, written about her sister, who died tragically in a car accident and is referenced briefly in Courtney’s song “So This is Life.” “Red Bandanna Blue” was inspired by the loss of Kent Finlay, formerly the owner of Cheatham street Warehouse, although this one is written somewhat ambiguously and could be seen as a song about simply missing someone. Similar to “This Road to You,” it could be taken as a song about missing a friend or lover who simply isn’t present at the time.

Speaking of which, “This road to You” is a good example of a character still flying alone, but only for a time. This narrator is simply alone because of distance, and doing her best to get back to the one she loves. It adds a nice moment of levity to some of the darker material here. “Shove” is another one that adds a brighter moment to the album and sees a character admitting to needing some help, not being able to do it all by herself anymore. This one certainly works better in the context of the album than it did as the lead single, and really, all of these songs except possibly the cover of “Gold standard” really fit together lyrically to paint one overall picture, a picture that comes together in the title track.

As great as its lyrics are, however, this album’s strongest points lie in its instrumentation and production. Traditional through and through, this record can’t be labeled Americana or even mistaken for the Texas country sound that one might attach to this artist’s name. This can’t be called anything but stone cold, three-chord country. There’s plenty of fiddle happily contributing here, especially on “Round Mountain” and the title track. Steel guitar cries out in “Devils’ Hand,” “Red Bandanna Blue,” and “Fourteen Years,” making the last three songs of this album the place for steel enthusiasts to start. The piano makes its presence felt in several places as well, particularly on “Open Flame” and “Fourteen Years.” Instrumentally, this is an improvement from Courtney Patton’s last record; while that one was traditional throughout also, this one explores more variety within those parameters, adding texture and color to certain songs. And eat your heart out, Americana artists, this is beautifully, cleanly produced, without any ridiculous attempts to sound retro or throwback or you know, like shit just for the sake of sounding like shit. Courtney produced this herself, and she did a fantastic job with it.

So yeah, in short, there’s not a lot wrong with this record at all. The only thing I can maybe say is it could have had perhaps another upbeat moment, but that’s me being very nitpicky, as this also is an improvement from her last album in terms of variety in tempo and mood. IN fact, I’d have sooner taken out a track like the “Gold Standard” cover that doesn’t add to the theme of the album than added anything to what feels like a complete story. The lyrics and stories work very well together to paint this picture. The production is tasteful and pretty much nearly flawless. You can tell a lot of care went into this album both lyrically and musically, and the result is the best record yet to grace our presence in 2018. Courtney Patton should be proud of this.

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Montgomery Gentry’s Final Album is Something to be Proud Of

Rating: 8/10

So let’s discuss the elephant in the room, Troy Gentry’s tragic passing in a helicopter accident just days after this album was finished. This will be the duo’s final album–at least unless we get some unreleased material later, as is often the case after artists pass away–and while that’s maybe made this record more significant to a lot of people, especially long-time Montgomery Gentry fans, the fact is that it ultimately has no bearing on this album or how we should receive it.

And that may seem like a strange start to this review, or a strange opinion for a reviewer/critic to hold, not taking something as significant as a death into account when evaluating a record. After all, it’s often context that helps to unwrap an album, and although we try to separate artist’s personal lives from their careers, often their lives and unique personal experiences produce the most compelling, heartfelt music. If nothing else, it may seem easier said than done for me to tell you not to let Troy’s death affect your assessment of this effort because I write this as someone who has enjoyed some Montgomery Gentry music in her time but is also not overly familiar with them, and is certainly not someone who could be classified as a huge fan of the group.

But in this case, Troy Gentry’s death has put a lot of emphasis on this record, and not necessarily an emphasis this record was seeking when he and Eddie Montgomery wrapped it up two days before his passing. It wasn’t a “final album.” It wasn’t written with anything in mind but making a new record. There were no underlying messages here, no evidence the band would break up, no reflections on the end of life as there are for some older artists, as they contemplate possibly producing their last project. It was not an album that was even partly done and then amended once Troy had died, allowing the shadows of his death to be cast over it, a finality to be added to it via some unreleased material or tributes from other artists. It was nothing more than Montgomery Gentry’s ninth studio album, and that’s part of its beauty, and why it’s so important that this record is strong, mostly forsaking their trend-chasing material of the last couple albums for more of what made them so popular earlier in their careers–because they weren’t doing this to go out on a high note, they were just making a good record. And it’s incredibly sad that this has to be their last one.

That said, it’s so relieving to hear a good record from them. Because they weren’t trying to make a good final impression, this could have been anything from a staunch return to their early modern country rock blend to a full-blown embarrassment of a trend-chaser, or really anything in between. And there is one downright awful and unfortunate trend-chasing selection here in “Get Down South,” so let’s just get that out of the way. This is clichéd, uninteresting, and the attempt to rap is…ill-advised, lets’ go with that.

Other than that, though, this is a really solid collection of tunes. “Better Me” is one that is inevitably going to hit people harder due to the circumstances, as Troy Gentry takes the lead and sings about trying to become a better version of himself. But it was a good song already, and delivered with a sincerity that adds to the lyrics. “Crazies Welcome” is one of the most traditional songs I’ve ever heard from the duo, basically embracing all types of people with all their imperfections. I think this song also goes deeper than that, alluding to the fact that real people with real stories make better music than perfect people with nothing out of place. They want scandal, and things that will make us cry; they’ve had enough of everything being done the right way. Basically, I think they’re saying that Nashville and country music should welcome real, crazy people back into the fold if there’s any hope of making the genre interesting and believable again.

Several of these songs remind me of other songs previously recorded by Montgomery Gentry. “Feet Back on the Ground” is sort of like a more traditional and more specific version of “Back When I Knew it All,” as the narrator is taking time out of his day to catch up with his mom. He reflects on how he used to be in a hurry to leave, but now he can’t go more than a few days without talking to her. “”Drive on Home” is similar to “Lucky Man,” except this one is Troy Gentry’s version and decidedly more modern. “King of the World” is a lot like that earlier song as well, and let me tell you, if you can’t smile from this song, you’re wound up too tight. Just a simple, groovy little track that everyone should enjoy.

Actually, that’s the thing about so much of this album, it’s simple in a way that’s not pandering, yet there’s nothing deep about it at all. It’s fun, light, easy to listen to. “That’s the Thing About America” comes dangerously close to pandering, but even that’s got more to it than the surface, as it’s not just an ode to our country or even to our soldiers, but a reminder that everyone can say what they want here, all opinions are valid, and the beauty of this country is that one can just as soon burn the flag here as die for the nation. “Shotgun Wedding” is surprisingly smart as well, framing the whole thing around the line “shotgun wedding, and a boy in a bulletproof vest.” Even “Needing a Beer” goes deeper than its title implies, and although it’s basically still about sitting in a bar drinking a beer, it doubles as a nod to all the hardworking people who can’t be there, like teachers, first responders, and soldiers.

For the most part, their sound returns to a more signature blend of modern country and rock characteristic of their earlier stuff. There are even some more traditional-leaning moments here like in “crazies Welcome” and “Feet Back on the Ground.” The most modern/pop-leaning song, aside from the calamity that is “Get down South,” is “What’cha Say we Don’t.” A lot of people are going to hate this on principle, but it works for this listener despite the sound. I thought I would hate it also, but the smart lyrics about trying to save a relationship on the brink of collapse–instead of doing the easy, predictable thing and just letting it fall apart–actually redeem this song. Even “Drink Along Song” isn’t bad for what it is, which, as you can guess, is pretty much just that.

Overall? Sue me, I like this. And it’s got nothing to do with Troy Gentry’s death, or the fact that this is probably Montgomery Gentry’s final album. In fact, that’s not even relevant, as this album was completed before his passing. If anything, it’s more about the fact that this was Montgomery Gentry just getting back to being themselves, to being the reason that people fell in love with them in the first place. It’s similar to what I said about Brad Paisley’s album last year; if you didn’t like him before, that album wasn’t going to change your opinion, and I don’t think this record will be making any new fans of Montgomery Gentry. However, it will bring those fans back who were unhappy with the direction they were taking on their last couple albums, and now, it will be a nice farewell and allow them to leave on a high note. To quote an earlier song from them: “that’s something to be proud of.”

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Collaborative Review: Wade Bowen–Solid Ground

For our first collaboration of 2018, Brianna and I discussed Wade Bowen’s first original solo album in four years.

Conversation

Megan: So, Solid Ground. Seems like an appropriate title. Very solid album, and very much feels like Wade Bowen settling fully back into the Texas scene after not making a solo record in four years.

Brianna: I think it’s fitting, too. He’s getting back into the swing of things after a long delay in albums.

Megan: Yeah, it’s certainly nice to have some new Wade Bowen music, well overdue. This one has some nice Mexican flavor as well, like Vaquero from Aaron Watson. I enjoy that. Would be nice to see this continue to be a thing in Texas music.

Brianna: I’m definitely in favor of more Mexican flair in my Texas country. I have a lot of love for the sound of the accordion, so the fact that it shows up here makes me very happy.

Megan: The accordion makes an appearance on several songs. We also get some Spanish guitar licks and even some mariachi style stuff on “Day of the Dead.” This song is one of the highlights for me.

Brianna: “Day of the Dead” is awesome. It both calls to Mexican beliefs and talks about lost love. It’s a standout for me both lyrically and musically.

Megan: Yes, and it has some excellent metaphors, like saying the love between him and his ex has “gone home to Jesus.” Actually, it’s interesting that you make that connection with this song, tying the themes of death and lost love together, because both death and lost love pop up in several places on this album. Or maybe not exactly lost love, but not necessarily love going smoothly. “Couldn’t Make You Love Me” and “Broken Glass” are obvious examples, and “So Long 6th street” alludes to this as well.

Brianna: Also my favorite song, “Anchor.” It also has those metaphors in spades, like the rock versus a stone. He wonders if his partner still loves him, and if he’s her anchor, or if he’s just a rock she drags around. I love it because he’s speaking about a mature relationship, where you think things would be perfect, but instead, he’s wondering if everything has become boring to her.

Megan: “Anchor” is one of my favorites too, and it also explains where the title Solid Ground came from. AS for the death side of the equation, it arrives in the heart of the album on two very different songs. There’s “Death, Dyin’, and Deviled Eggs,” which is reflective and almost peaceful. And then “7:30,” which is either a reference to the time of morning or to the fact the song goes on for over seven minutes–or maybe both–but it captures the exact moment the narrator finds out a loved one has died.

Brianna: Both of those songs are great. “Death, “Dyin’, and Deviled Eggs” explores all of the inane things that we do when someone passes away. Like you said, it’s both sad and peaceful, though it could be seen as partly bitter, seeing as things do go according to a sort of routine whenever there’s a death. It’s an interesting song.

Megan: That’s interesting, I never thought of it in the bitter sense.

Brianna: Well, I just think you could take it as him feeling wrong about how quickly and by rote someone is laid to rest, if that makes sense.

Megan: It makes total sense, good point.

Brianna: As for “7:30,” it puts you right there in the moment. It’s a very painful song, and the fact that things are included like coffee that’s not even cold just makes it all the more real. I will say, though, that I did get a bit bored at the extended instrumental side of things in that song.

Megan: Man, it was exactly the opposite for me. The instrumental allowed me to sit and think of people I’d lost and what that felt like. It was a very real and painful moment for me as a listener that first time, and it’s as if the writers and producers sensed that, like Wade knew he needed to get out of the way of the song and in turn allow that song to become uniquely relatable and heartbreaking to everyone who heard it. I will say that I was not overjoyed by “Acuna” head of the release, but in the album context, “Acuna” was exactly what I needed after this, and it took nearly the whole song to get my head clear. This is why album context and song placement are two sorely underrated concepts.

Brianna: You know, I never thought about that part of the song in those terms. I think you might be onto something there. I agree about “Acuna,” that it’s a song I like better now that I’ve heard the album. I like how reflective it is.

Megan: I think it fits in very well with the Texas theme. It’s very much a Texas record without really being obvious. There’s “So Long 6th Street” about Austin, and that song, and the Mexican undertones, and other little atmospheric things. And something you pointed out to me as well, the excellent cover of “Calling All demons.” I’ll let you tell them more about that because I had not a clue, but the point I’ll make is it’s a very Texas artist thing to do to cover another Texas artist. Also to collaborate with other Texas artists, like he does with Jack Ingram and Miranda Lambert, but not in the way of Nashville, where everyone’s name is always on the track. They do it more out of a sense of family. All those little things point to this being his Texas album. It’s sort of like something you said to me earlier, that Wade Bowen’s made a Texas record without actually saying “Texas.” And I’ll add here, without doing anything dumb and cliché like one would normally do on such an album.

Brianna: He’s made a great Texas record. It does make me wish I knew all the places he talks about because I imagine anyone who does will have a great time with this album. In regards to the cover of “Calling All demons,” I think it’s a good one. It’s slower and less bluesy than when Seth James sang the song on the album Adventus by The Departed, but Wade Bowen certainly makes it his own. His version is more thoughtful, like the majority of the songs on this record.

Megan: I’ll have to hear that version, thanks for bringing my attention to it. As for thoughtful, I think that perfectly sums up this record. Good variety of instrumentation and subjects, and some very interesting songwriting. Not quite perfect, a filler moment or two, but nothing downright bad or even quite skip-worthy. All in all, very solid, like its title suggests. Nice slice of Texas country music. Solid 8.5 from me.

Brianna: I would agree. I do think this album needed some more upbeat moments, (so even though I don’t love “Fell in Love on Whiskey,” I think it was needed.) The instrumentation was very cool. The lyrics were reflective and thoughtful overall. I, too, give this a rating of 8.5. This will probably end up as my favorite Wade Bowen album.

Collective Rating: 8.5/10

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Album Review: First Aid Kit–Ruins

Rating: 8/10

I recently called Caitlyn Smith’s debut a benchmark of vocal ability–and this latest record by Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, known collectively as First aid Kit, might just be the benchmark of harmony, and how to express lyrics already so potent in even deeper ways with just the right chords and dissonance. Similar to the Secret Sisters, these siblings have an uncanny ability to bring out that forgotten element of music and make harmony one of the key factors of their musical expression. Melody and vocal ability are not the only musical elements being thrown out the window in the age of the song, and duos like these are necessary to help remind us of the dying art and great importance of harmony.

So take all the harmonic nuances and chilling chords of a Secret Sisters record, but add much more variation in style. The Secret Sister’s’ latest record was minimalist, allowing their vocals and harmony to be the main focus. First Aid Kit’s approach is to showcase their incredible singing with backdrops of folk/Americana, (“Fireworks,” “Ruins,”) pop, (“Rebel Heart,” “It’s a Shame,”) and stone cold country (“Postcard.”) IN this way, the production is varied and interesting and only serves to elevate the sister’s talent and prove they can excel at more than one style. It’s also what might hold them at arm’s length from traditionalists and more mainstream fans alike, but rather than their sound feeling like it can’t make up its mind, it feels defined. Far more than many, First aid Kit have, for the most part, a distinct handle on how best to produce a particular song to let that song live up to its full potential and resonate with its listeners.

Then we add to all of this all the complex and heightened emotions of a breakup record, triggered by Klara’s own recent split, and this record gets a touch of the same restlessness and self-discovery which marked Lilly Hiatt’s latest album, Trinity Lane. Similar to that record, this First aid Kit release largely captures a moment in time and all the various emotions sparked by that moment. There’s a sense of loss on some songs, regret on others, and a thread of hope running through the entire album that connects the whole thing and makes it cohesive, regardless of the varying styles and moods.

It’s hard to single out individual songs from this project because the whole thing tells its own story and takes a complete journey, contributing more as a finished product than as the sum of separate songs. Certainly the most country offering here is the charming, shuffling “Postcard,” which makes great use of the piano, an instrument I’d have liked to have found more on this album after hearing its effect on this song. It’s hard to question the ever-building five-minute opener, “Rebel Heart,” either, although this one does decidedly lean more towards the folk pop side of things. There’s vulnerability on “Fireworks,” reflection on “My Wild Sweet Love,” and forward-thinking resolve on “It’s a Shame.” It all works together and serves a purpose, and really, for the first eight tracks of this ten-track journey, there is no measurable misstep.

It does end on a bit of a whimper, however, at least compared to the extremely high bar the sisters set for themselves earlier, especially across the first half of this record. “Hem of her Dress” is the glaring exception to their smart production choices, bursting forth into some sort of loud, boisterous, almost mariachi ending that completely takes away from the thoughtful lyrics of the song and does not match with the acoustic feel at the beginning. The closer, on the other hand, called “Nothing Has to be True,” is very smart sonically but doesn’t carry as much weight lyrically as some of the other material here. Maybe it’s just the standards to which I’m holding this talented group, but it definitely seems like First Aid Kit end this record at a decidedly lower point than the one at which it started. That’s not to take away too much from a great album, but honestly, halfway through this release, I thought we might be looking at the first 10/10 of the year.

And that’s mostly what you should take away from this review, that a good portion of this album is not just good or even great; rather, a good portion of this album is flawless. The production is interesting and tasteful, the writing is smart both melodically and lyrically, and the harmonies are stellar. I mentioned that some people might not get this group, people on both sides of the divide, but perhaps a better way to view First Aid Kit is that they’ve got something to offer everyone, and all of it is quality music of substance. For this listener, a lot of it happens to work, but if your tastes are stricter, maybe you’ll gravitate solely toward the more traditional “Postcard” or the more modern “Rebel Heart.” Whatever your natural inclination, I encourage you to give these sisters and this album a listen; talent and good music cross all genre lines.

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January Playlist on Spotify and Apple Music

One of the resolutions of Country Exclusive this year was to incorporate more playlists, and the goal is to release a short one each month, provided there’s enough good music that month which deserves to be highlighted. Some of this is stuff we’ve already reviewed, some of it will be reviewed shortly, and some of it is just good stuff we heard in January. So if you haven’t gotten a chance to check out Caitlyn Smith, Meghan Patrick, or Laura Benitez and the Heartache yet, here’s a good opportunity to sample their music. Also included are some songs from First Aid Kit’s great new record, a highlight of January from Anderson East called “Cabinet door” which may go on to be one of the best songs of the year, and a tune from some guys you’ve never heard of but soon will, known as The Lost Brothers. Thanks as always to Zack for providing this on Spotify.

Apple Music users, you can now follow me there @countryexclusive for this and updates of all our future playlists which will be added there, as well as the Saving Country Music Top 25 playlist for which I’ve recently become the Apple maker. For January’s playlist:
Click Here

For Spotify:

The Most Destructive Criticism is Indifference