Memorable Songs From forgettable Albums: March 22nd

So, I honestly just thought of the idea for this feature while I was sitting here for what has to be at least the fifth time trying to articulate something intelligent to say about Josh Turner’s latest album, Deep South. That album is not really a bad record, but fell short of the expectations of a lot of Josh Turner fans, including myself, and honestly, after this review, the only song I’m probably ever going to listen to again is “Lay Low.” It’s very hard to sit down and write about an album like this because it’s not bad enough to warrant a rant but it’s not good enough to praise and if it’s not worth my time to listen to, it’s difficult to make it worth my time and energy to write about. The same is true for Little Big town’s latest effort because, while it’s definitely a step in the right direction after Painkiller, it’s not something I want to listen to again. The problem is that the good songs on these albums get overlooked when the records don’t get reviewed. So I think I’ve found a way to highlight standout songs on less than stellar albums in a way that benefits the artists and better serves the music, all while saving myself and you the time of discussing mediocre music. You can expect these features whenever, well, I feel that there have been enough songs sliding through the cracks to warrant one. 🙂 let me know what you guys think!

Natalie Hemby: “Cairo, IL”

Yes, I know, this album came out in January, and I should have talked about it then, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. The overall album has a very sleepy feel to it, and I didn’t have much to put to paper. But this is one of the best songs of the year, and it’s better to recognize it late than never. It’s a beautiful, stripped-back song about a Mississippi river town, now a shell of what it once was. If you haven’t heard it yet, do it now. You will fall in love with it.

Natalie Hemby: “Time Honored Tradition”

The other standout of Puxico that shouldn’t go overlooked. Just an easygoing, nostalgic track where once again, the production and lyrics really work.

Little Big Town: “Better Man”

I will go right ahead and say strict traditionalists aren’t going to like this because it’s way more pop than country. It’s the songwriting that got to me on this, and it’s no surprise that Taylor swift wrote it. That’s going to immediately turn some people off and immediately make others hit play. I almost didn’t even include it because most have already heard it since it was a radio hit, but it did stand out for me on their album, so here it is.

Little Big Town: “Beat UP Bible”

This one is the most country on their otherwise pop/adult contemporary album and tells the story of a Bible that’s been in the family for generations. It’s also one of the most interesting moments on The Breaker. Kimberly Schlapman can’t be anything but country, and if they’d give her the lead on more songs, they’d be going in a much better direction.

Alison Krauss: “You Don’t Know Me”

Alison Krauss’s classic covers album Windy City is an interesting one. There’s nothing wrong with it at all, and by placing this song here, I’m really kind of calling the album forgettable. It’s really quite good but sleepy. It’s not really for me, and it’s something I respect more than I enjoy. I thought there were some good covers, especially “Gentle on my Mind.” However, this one really stood out above the others and stood out more than as a great cover, it stood out as a great Alison Krauss song.

Josh Turner: “Lay Low”

Well, you probably all know this one too, as this came out ahead of an album meant to be released in March 2015, but as it was the very song that inspired this feature in the first place, I thought it deserved to be here. As far as Josh turner’s album, there are probably Josh fans who are going to get behind it more than I did, but basically it was just underwhelming and lackluster, and then you had this great song “Lay Low” sticking out like a sore thumb to remind you of better days.

Album Review – AJ Hobbs – Too Much is Never Enough

Rating: 8/10

When Megan first approached me about checking out this album, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d actually never heard of AJ Hobbs, but when she told me he was saying his music was “outlaw soul”, I knew I had to give it a shot. Let me tell you, he delivers on both fronts.
This album was quite unique from anything I’ve heard in a while. AJ Hobbs is a good singer, with a nice soulful voice. His backing band was awesome, particularly his steel guitar player. He put horns throughout this album on occasion too, and I haven’t seen that since Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. Finally, there were his backup singers. They were soul singers, and even though they were just his backing vocalists, they really helped this album be more than just an outlaw country album. All that is to say that AJ Hobbs’ self-appointed label of “outlaw soul” is very fitting.
The opening track “Too Much is Never Enough” is pretty great. It’s fast with a party vibe. Except that the good times can actually be a bit too good. One beer is too much, but too much is never enough, as he says in the song. Things slow down for “Life Without You”. The sentiment of this track is nice because he’s basically saying his life, though crazy, isn’t worth living without his wife or girlfriend. The only thing that really made this song stand out is the tempo change and guitar solo near the end. “The Loser” starts a bit of a trend with this album. The main character is tired of his nine-to-five job, and the bindings of domestic life. He’d much rather be out on the road making music. I found AJ Hobbs’ portrayal of weariness quite convincing, and it definitely helps the song stand out.
Then there is “The Bottle Let Me Down”. It’s a cover of the Merle Haggard classic, with a slower, bluesy slant. There are some really great horns in this version. It’s not my thing personally, since I like the more country versions, but if you like soul and blues music, check this one out. “Daddy Loved the Lord” is one of my favorite songs off the album. It’s got some awesome piano in it for starters, even a solo. The actual lyrics are all about how a family split up due to a father who was a drug addict and alcoholic. He was religious, but he still couldn’t love his family enough to keep them all together. “East Side” isn’t my favorite song off of the album, but it has a nice theme behind it. The main character pledges to be there for a troubled movie star whom he loves, regardless of whether her troubles are of her own making, or just those of the fast changes of life.
“Shit Just Got Real” stands out right away due to the driving guitars and tempo. It’s a breakup song, where the main character is just tired of his life. He’s sick of being busy, is resigned to the fact that his wife threatens to leave him for being an alcoholic, and all he wants is just the money to pay his bills. This song’s instrumentation is great, with some very well-done guitar play. Once again, Hobbs skillfully portrays world-weariness. I love these kinds of songs from him.
I noticed the fiddle on the next song right away. “Are You Going to Tennessee?” is forgettable, other than that. It tells the story of a man who just wants to go to Tennessee where he could feel like he belonged, and not have to think about anything. The man is a musician, so it makes sense, but the theme of wanting to escape is a bit old at this point.
Due to this, “A Whole Lot of You and Me” is a nice break from all the tired songs on this album. It’s about a man who just wants to spend time with the woman he loves. A relatively happy song is nice to hear from Hobbs, even though it doesn’t completely stand out as unique. “Take it Slow” is the only duet on this album. It features Dominique Pruitt, whom I’d never heard of. I like how soulful her voice is. It involves two people meeting in a bar. The reason that that isn’t totally cliche is because you find out that the two are exes, who just can’t seem to leave each other alone. While I appreciated that it featured two exes, I thought the voices didn’t properly fit together. I ended up liking the duet more than I first thought, but it does take a minute to really get into the song.
“Waylon & Merle” shows off the steel guitar that’s so great on this album. The song itself is about a musician who has no luck, so he dedicates his songs to Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard, because those two knew the secret to musical success, and that’s what he is striving for. Finally, there’s “Tomorrow I’ll be Hurtin’”. You’d think it is a party song, but no. In actuality, it’s one of the darker tracks on this album, since it features a musician, once again. He puts on a show for the crowd, but then struggles to make money the next day. I think this is a great song to close the album out with, because it really represents a lot of what AJ Hobbs is trying to say here.
With all that said, Too Much is Never Enough is quite a striking album. AJ Hobbs is very convincing in his portrayal of the world-weary man. He does repeat this theme quite a bit, but I just can’t help liking the songs. What can I say? I love a singer who can portray emotion with vocal skill and delivery. Plus, he reminds me a bit of Jackson Taylor on his faster songs with the outlaw attitude. I think if you like musicians who do what they want, and if soul music is even remotely appealing to you with your country, this will be an album you should check out.

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Album Review: Way Out West by Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives

Rating: 10/10

Recently, a friend of mine, James, was wondering which country song was, in his words, “the most satisfying musically.” He stipulated that lyrics could not be taken into account; he wanted a song that stood out simply for its musicality. He had asked my boyfriend Rob, a fellow fan and student of country music, and Rob and I were stumped for some time. It’s more of a difficult question than it seems because country is a lyric-driven genre. Musical arrangements are generally simple, and it’s hard to find something especially mind-blowing musically within a genre that relies so heavily on storytelling to make its points. The best answer I could come up with at the time was Reba’s “The Night the Lights went out in Georgia.” but I didn’t have access to this album then. Way out West has not earned this rating for its lyrical content, and I think it will be misunderstood and perhaps underappreciated by some for that reason. Country listeners generally look for a story, for honest and clever songwriting, and that part of this record won’t blow you away. but what Marty Stuart has done here musically, capturing a place and time and setting it so perfectly to music, cannot be ignored, and the fact that his vision did not come lyrically makes it even more of a risk within the country format and therefore all the more remarkable.

That’s not to say that the lyrics are a weak point of this album, but you won’t find moments of lyrical brilliance. On a good portion of it, you won’t find lyrics at all. They seem to be placed into songs almost as an afterthought, and only where they belong. Probably the best songwriting comes on the title track, and there are some nice lyrical moments in “air Mail Special,” “Whole Lotta Highway,” and “Please don’t Say Goodbye” as well. As I say, it’s certainly not a weak point, but there is no cohesive story running through this record in the lyrics, and they won’t blow you out of the water on their own.

The story, and the thing that will blow you out of the water, is in the music and mood. The songs and lyrics aren’t all about the American West, but this record is western through and through. Like last year’s Southern Family, this is a portrait of a place and culture. But Southern Family relied on stories to be southern; this record relies on sound and mood to be western. There’s Native American influence and Mexican influence too, arguably making this an even better representation than Southern Family, a record noticeably lacking in African-American influence and thus ignoring a major part of Southern culture. Marty Stuart recognizes that Native American and Mexican influence are as important in painting a portrait of the west as desert ballads. The aforementioned “Please don’t Say Goodbye” has absolutely nothing to do with the West; you won’t even hear references to deserts or California or wide open spaces here, like you do on some of the other tracks that otherwise aren’t really about the West, but there’s still no doubt that this song is western and belongs on the record. It’s in the music and mood, and it allows Marty Stuart to explore other lyrical themes and still produce a cohesive album.

It’s also why there are so many instrumental tracks and why this review isn’t a track-by-track affair. When you drive across west Texas, and there’s emptiness around you for miles, words can’t do justice to the way you feel. The same thing applies to the mountains in Colorado and the Badlands in South Dakota. Words would be inadequate to describe any of this, and yet somehow this record paints pictures of it all. You get the feeling listening that Marty Stuart felt that, in some places, words would just be interrupting, and far be it for me to take an experience like this and break it down into words and tracks. And by the way, credit to The fabulous Superlatives, relied on so heavily to make this album and these pictures come alive.

All I can say about this record is go listen to it. Nothing I can write here will do it justice because it is an album meant to be heard to be fully appreciated. I said on Twitter, and Leon of Country Music Minds quoted me, that you have to be in a very specific, not necessarily sober, mindset to fully get this, and I think that’s especially true after a couple listens. But sober or not, it can blow you away if you listen, and if you’re in the right frame of mind to enjoy it. As I said, I think some will misunderstand it because country is such a lyrically focused genre, but this album tells a story in an understated way, in a way that so few country projects have done, and the risk it takes should be commended. Now, stop reading this and go listen to the best album of 2017 so far.

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Album Review: Sunny Sweeney–Trophy

Rating: 8.5/10

If Sunny Sweeney is a name you’ve never heard of, or maybe only know from that one top ten hit from a few years ago, “From a Table Away,” you should get to know her. Aside from that one hit, she has had little mainstream success but has gained significant recognition in the Texas scene, becoming the first woman to have back-to-back #1 singles on the Texas Music Chart in 2015.

Read: Female Fridays: featuring Sunny Sweeney

Having enjoyed all three of her previous albums and especially loving the last two, concrete and Provoked, this was one of the 2017 releases I was most anticipating. Well, after listening to it, I can say Sunny Sweeney has delivered us another great record.

The album opener, “Pass the Pain,” is a real, honest look at drinking to cope with heartbreak. The narrator knows the consequences but still tells the bartender to do their job and keep the drinks coming. That theme of knowing the consequences permeates the album, making the lighthearted “better Bad Idea” and “Pills” fun moments because the consequences can’t be ignored. “Better Bad Idea” is a complete acknowledgement that various things such as getting drunk and high aren’t the best ideas, but that isn’t stopping the people in the song. “Pills” sees the narrator confronting an old friend about their previous addictions to well, pills, and wondering if that friend is still addicted. She freely admits to thinking about it all the time even after having been clean for years. Sunny Sweeney has a knack for making songs like this fun and honest. That lighthearted honesty makes the title track a highlight of the record. I heard “Trophy” two years ago when Sunny opened for Miranda Lambert, and I’ve been eager to see it on an album ever since. It’s about the ex-wife of Sunny’s husband calling her a trophy wife, to which she responds, “He’s got a trophy now for putting up with you.” This is one you really need to listen to; case in point, it stuck with me for two years.

As I said, Sunny Sweeney is adept at being honest in her writing, and that comes through on serious tracks as well. An understated highlight of the album is “Grow old With Me,” a love song in which she states, “If I had one regret it’s that I didn’t find you sooner” but asserts that “Love don’t give a damn about time” and is content to grow old with her lover. Another highlight of the record is “Bottle by my Bed,” a heartbreaking song about how much Sweeney longs for a baby, and how even though her friends who have children are jealous of her lifestyle, she would give it all up to have a family. This is the kind of honesty that country music should be embracing. This is an artist being vulnerable and sharing a part of herself with listeners through her music. Another vulnerable moment is the album closer, “Unsaid.” Here, Sweeney sings of all the things left unsaid between her and someone who has just died. She wishes she could have apologized and regrets that there isn’t any time left for such things. The stripped-back instrumentation on this song really allows Sunny to bring out the raw emotion of the lyrics. She also conveys that emotion well on the cover of Jerry Jeff Walker’s “I Feel Like Hank Williams Tonight,” making it seem like her own.

Two songs that didn’t stand out for me as much are “Nothing Wrong with Texas” and “Why People Change.” The former has some nice fiddle and tells of all the great things about Texas. It’s elevated because it speaks of Sunny leaving before she realized how much she appreciated it, so it’s unique and once again honest, but even though it’s solid,, it’s another one of a thousand solid songs about Texas. I think this one will resonate with other listeners more than it did with me. The latter is another solid song about divorce and where the narrator and her ex are now, but again, it doesn’t stand out as much as some of the other tracks. Still, there’s not a bad song on this record, and none of it feels like filler either.

Once again, this is a great album from Sunny Sweeney. From the more traditional country tracks like “Pass the pain” to the more upbeat, Texas country offerings like “Pills,” production and instrumentation are definite high points of this record. Also, you will not want for fiddle and steel, so that is a bonus. Even more than that, though, the lyrics set this album apart. Trophy is filled with honest, clever songwriting, and it should be noted that Sweeney had a hand in writing eight of these ten tracks, an accomplishment that is refreshing in music today. Fans of traditional country, Texas country, or just honest songwriting, go check out this album and Sunny Sweeney.

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Album Review: Rhiannon Giddens–Freedom Highway

Rating: 8.5/10

It’s taken me quite a few listens to put my feelings about this album into words. Even now, it’s one of the more difficult albums I’ve ever discussed, but it’s definitely worthy of discussion. For those unfamiliar with Rhiannon Giddens, she’s the wonderful voice on Eric Church’s “Kill a Word,” a song that speaks out against all the evil in the world, from racism to hate to loneliness. Giddens has also released an album of covers, but this is her first album of original material and my first exposure to her outside the Church song. The album she delivers is as complex in sound as it is in theme, taking us on a journey from the days of slavery to the Civil Rights movement to the racism and police violence of today. None of these are easy issues to address, but Giddens has brought us a record that can open our eyes and teach us much about our history, all in a way that is more observation than judgment, more storytelling than sermon, and at once grieved by the past but hopeful for the future.

The album opens with the slow-burning “At the Purchaser’s Option,” and right away, we are told the story of a slave whose owner has raped her; now she has a baby boy, and she can’t help but love him even though she knows someday he will be sold. It’s a great opener and sets the tone of the album well. Next is a cover of “The Angels Laid Him Away.” The acoustic instrumentation really allows Rhiannon’s voice to shine, and her ability to convey emotion is something that will be an ongoing highlight of the record. This is the first of several smart covers chosen for the album. “Julie” is a standout of the record; it’s another acoustic-driven track, this one another, more complicated slave narrative. Both Julie and her mistress sing here; it appears that they had a good relationship and may have even been in love, but Julie has found out the mistress has sold her children and leaves when the Union soldiers come. I applaud Rhiannon Giddens for recording a song as complex as this one.

Giddens does an excellent job with the cover of “Birmingham Sunday,” a song about the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church murder by the KKK. The perspective shifts to today’s issues with the funky “Better Get it Right the first Time.” This one is upbeat and somehow lighter on the surface in the midst of a dark album, but the lyrics are some of the most thought-provoking on the whole record. Giddens repeats the line, “Young man was a good man,” in between recounting the details of his life; he did his best to live right but went to one house party and ended up being shot by police. Rhiannon’s nephew, Justin Harrington, adds a rap to the song that elevates it, telling the story from the young man’s perspective. The conclusion is that for black Americans, there aren’t second chances, so “You better get it right the first time.” This is another highlight of the record. “We Could Fly” is another standout, speaking of the hope that comes after death and flying away from what the song calls “the bonds of earth.” It’s the opposite of “Better get it Right the first Time,” dark on the surface but one of the more uplifting tracks on a somber record.

Speaking of light moments, next is the fun, lighthearted “Hey BéBé.” I wouldn’t necessarily say it adds to the album, but it’s definitely catchy and serves as a break from the intensity. The horns in this are just cool. At the same time, as a song itself, it doesn’t stand out; it says more in the context of the album. “Come Love Come” is another slave narrative, this time about a slave couple waiting to be reunited. The woman waits for her lover in Tennessee. This is a solid song, but it doesn’t have the same impact as the other slave stories; I don’t know if it’s because this is the third one or if this one just doesn’t resonate as much as the others. The soulful “The Love we Almost Had” is another light moment about a love that could have been. This one works better than “Hey BéBé” as a diversion from the dark themes of the record because it is more understated, whereas “Hey BéBé” almost sticks out like a sore thumb. “Baby Boy” is my least favorite track; it’s another acoustic song about Mary watching over Jesus, or possibly also any mother watching over her son. It’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t add anything to the record. The instrumental “Following the North Star” follows, and I have to say, I think it would have been a nice prelude to “Julie,” but it works well here before the closer and title track, a cover of “Freedom Highway.” The album ends in more of a place of hope than it began, asserting that the quest for freedom is daily and ongoing.

This is a great piece of history and commentary, using storytelling to bring us a message that can’t be delivered by activists or preachers, but only through art. It’s an album that can teach us all something if we let it, and that’s one of the most compelling things about music. I will say that it is held back for me a little because it won’t hold up as well as other albums, especially the latter half. even the excellent front half won’t have the staying power of some other records because it’s not something you will probably pull out months later for some nice, relaxing music. But that’s not what this album was meant to do. It was meant to be respected more than enjoyed and to teach and preserve pieces of history in an effort to keep the same mistakes from occurring in the future. IN that regard, this record excels, and for that, Rhiannon Giddens should be praised.

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