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

Rating: 7/10

I missed covering Lauren Alaina’s sophomore album, Road Less Traveled, back in January while I was out of the country, and it’s something I’ve regretted ever since because that album is a great example of good pop country. Lauren Alaina is someone we should all be supporting in the mainstream even if she’s more pop than country because at least she’s releasing pop songs–and sometimes actually pop-flavored country songs–that mean something. These songs actually have something to say and might also relate to a youthful mainstream audience–“Road Less traveled” may not be the best example of this, but even this pop single was trying to deliver a worthwhile message, even if the message was broad. But pop it definitely was, and even though it gave her a #1 hit, she had a lot of detractors. The thing is, though, that her album of the same name was better; much of it was personal to Lauren and, as much as that word has been run through the wringer recently, “authentic.” She spoke about her eating disorder, her father’s alcoholism, and her struggle to get onto country radio. Yes, it’s pop-flavored, but it’s the type of mainstream album we should be cheering for, and we should be happy for Lauren’s success–but it’s hard to do with a straight pop single like the title track.

So now she’s released something more pop country, and yes, more personal, to radio, and now maybe we can get behind her. Who knows if radio will play this since ON the Verge did support “Road Less Traveled,” but it’s something promising in the mainstream. Much like RaeLynn’s “Love Triangle,” this song deals with Lauren’s parents’ divorce, and though it may seem otherwise on the surface, there are some deceivingly detailed lines here too. It’s something that is so obviously Lauren Alaina’s story, with details such as her dad getting sober and her mom marrying her dad’s best friend, but at the same time, it’s broad enough to connect and relate to many people who have gone through the same thing. Basically, it sees Lauren finally fine after coming out on the other side; she always told people she was okay, but now she’s fine enough to see that people are all going through things, or that, as the song says, “everyone’s a little broken,” and these things happen. It’s a nice, reflective look on the events, and as I say, it could potentially connect with many. Time will tell if radio gives this a shot, but it’s something that would definitely improve the mainstream. Pop country being done right.

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

Album Review: Robyn Ludwick–This Tall to Ride

Rating: 7.5/10

If you want a good endorsement for Robyn Ludwick and her music, Jamie Lin Wilson recommended her to me back in September when I asked her to give us the names of some Texas country females we should be listening to. Robyn’s also the sister of Charlie and Bruce Robison which definitely counts for a lot in the Texas scene. I could go on with more of an introduction, but those two points alone should get you interested right away, even before we get into the fascinating album that is This Tall to Ride.

This Tall To Ride–yeah, that’s certainly an appropriate name because this record and the material presented here won’t be for the faint of heart. Like a height restriction on a roller coaster, the title is there to warn unsuspecting listeners, and to let you know just what kind of ride you’re embarking on, and indeed to offer you the chance to turn around at the last minute and avoid this adventure altogether. It’s a ride that takes you through life on the streets and lonely motels, and tells stories of coping with hard times by turning to vices. Yeah, that last has been done a thousand times in country–but not Robyn Ludwick’s way, where the vices are often cocaine and casual, or even solicited, sex. I counted the word “cocaine” twelve times on this record, and you don’t hear a lyric like the opening line to the excellent “Texas Jesus” in just any country project–“She says baby, I don’t jerk just anyone, but this one’s under the table, it’s gonna be loads of fun. But he don’t care, she’s like Mexican heroin, and it’s blockin’ his hurt for awhile.”

That theme of blocking hurt and pain permeates this album, and it’s what makes all the drug references somehow fit; it’s like rock lyrics, but told with a country songwriter’s care for crafting a story, almost the opposite of the way in which Texas country artists normally mix the two genres. Robyn Ludwick writes and sings in a manner that makes you feel all the sorrow of these characters and understand why they often turn to drugs and strangers for comfort. She has taken their lives and almost made them seem glamorous, and that takes as much of a talent as writing your own stories in song, if not more–it’s interesting that she can step so well into these roles and sing with such conviction. And that’s not what she’ll sing about on this whole album, but it’s where her writing shines brightest, and it’s where the unique, sort of raspy tones in her vocal quality work to perfection to add a rough edge to these songs. That rawness in her voice especially enhances “Freight Train,” one of the other standout moments on this album.

This record is a bit hard to judge because there’s some filler mixed in with some absolute gems. You have some truly excellent songs; I already mentioned “Freight Train” and “Texas Jesus,” and I can add “Bars Ain’t Closin’,” “Lie to Me,” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” to that too. “Bars Ain’t Closin'” features some nice steel guitar as well and tells a great, desperate story of heartbreak and missing someone; it’s cool to hear more country instrumentation paired with lyrics like Robyn’s, and it makes her and these songs all the more unique within this subgenre of Texas country. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Shoes” speaks of life on the streets, and those sighs explain perfectly what the main characters were seeking when Ludwick sings, “she didn’t love him, but on the streets, you get hungry man.” But then, mixed in with these standouts, there are just some bland tracks like “Love You For It,”–which is an unfortunate opener that won’t hold your attention like an opener should–and “Junkies and Clowns.” Nothing bad on the album, just really mediocre songs, especially in comparison to some of the others–definitely what Country Perspective would have dubbed wallpaper. It was really difficult to rate this, and in that respect, it reminded me of Jaime Wyatt’s latest album because the good here is absolutely great, but there’s also some really average to balance it out. The one thing I will say for the weaker tracks, though, is that the melodies are engaging. IN fact, melody is one of the strongest points of the album all the way through, and it serves to add another element of accessibility to lyrics like these that might not otherwise be enjoyable and/or relatable.

Overall, this is just a cool, unique album. No, it’s not going to be for everyone, but that’s part of music and art, and the fact that this could be polarizing speaks both to the talent and audacity of Robyn Ludwick and to the fact that this record had something to say. Credit to Robyn for telling the stories of people so often ignored and/or misunderstood by society, and for allowing us all a glimpse into their lives and perspectives, exploring themes so seldom ventured into in country music. There’s some damn great music on here too; some of these tracks are honestly just brilliant in songwriting, and their melodies will stay with you. There’s some mediocrity and filler, and based on the outstanding parts of the album, Robyn Ludwick is capable of better, but it balances out to be a solid album, and worth your time, if indeed you’re ready for the roller coaster. Cool record, glad I went along for the ride.

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Album Review: Zac Brown Band–Welcome Home

Rating: 7/10

My relationship with the Zac Brown Band has been a storied one, and this is one time I’m not even going to try and separate my thoughts as a reviewer from my thoughts as a fan because I’ve been a loyal Zac Brown Band fan from the very beginning. I loved their first three albums and their experimentation with Dave Grohl. When Jekyll + Hyde came out of left field, with its genre-hopping and sending EDM songs to country radio, I was less than enthused by it, especially after Uncaged. However, I should say that that album had some very fine tracks, and more than anything else, my issues with it had to do with the length, as well as the way it felt like a Zac Brown solo project and not the Zac Brown Band. There wasn’t enough fiddle, there weren’t enough harmonies, and even though there are some really standout tracks on that record, it’s just not the Zac Brown Band. So yeah, as a fan, I wanted them to return to their roots–no, not necessarily to country, but just to being the Zac Brown Band again.

So, it is with mixed feelings that I write this, after giving Welcome Home several listens. You have to give Zac Brown credit; he listened to the uproar from his extremely loyal fans and basically did a 180, reversing the band back to their country roots. Hell, the first song off this thing is even called “Roots,”–and that’s where the problem with this starts. It’s all so calculated and forced, and you can tell, at least for much of this record, that even though Zac’s catering to his fans instead of lying to them, his heart is not in this. That’s why I can’t separate my thoughts as a reviewer because most of these songs aren’t really that bad. Yeah, there’s some weak lyrical content, in “Real Thing” especially–that line “genuine, made in the USA” almost screams contrived. “Family Table” suffers from weak lyrics too, and it’s also just a little cheesy; it’s another case of the band taking this whole getting back to their roots thing too far. I could say all that, and it’s all true. But that’s not ultimately my problem with this record. My problem is I don’t hear the passion and heart in Zac Brown throughout this record that I used to on his earlier albums and yes, that I did in places on their last album. Ultimately, an artist should make the music they want, fans be damned, and I’m just not sure Zac Brown is anymore. That’s no excuse for releasing “Beautiful Drug” to country radio, especially after he said he wouldn’t, but making music like this just to appease his fans isn’t the answer either, even if I’m one of the fans who wished for it.

Despite that, there are some really good things about this album. The fact that they did a 180 of course means that once again, you hear harmonies and fiddles, and they do sound like a band. That’s refreshing to hear, and this album is very consistent throughout. As songs themselves, some of these are really solid and even great–in fact, it reminds me of a debut album, where it’s not perfect, but you can see potential. It’s just that we know what this band is capable of, so it goes back to being calculated and not living up to the potential of the band.

And then you have those moments where their passion does shine through, like on “Start Over,”–yes, we always have one beach song on every Zac Brown Band album, but if we didn’t, would that be right? This one is about getting back to a good place in a relationship with a lover and getting away to the beach. It’s one place where they all sound like they’re having fun and enjoying what they’re singing about. I can also hear that in “Long Haul” and “Your Majesty,” both of which are nice love songs and definitely an improvement over the filler love songs on their last album. “My Old Man” is another standout, featuring lots of nice harmonies, acoustic guitar, and fiddle. That cover of John Prine’s “All the Best” is exceptional, and it’s here, on the album closer, that I can really hear the passion in Zac Brown that came out in their earlier songs. Actually, if we’re being honest, I didn’t know it was a cover at first, and Zac Brown made me believe this song when I heard it.

There’s not really a bad song here, and even on the weaker tracks, it’s still nice to hear the harmonies and the country instrumentation. I’m glad to see the Zac Brown Band once again sounding like a band. But it’s glimpses of what they could be, popping up to remind you what they’re like when they’re all fully engaged, which ultimately just make this album a nice, pleasant listen instead of a great, victorious return to form for them. I still enjoy it because at the end of the day, they make some fine music, and I’m also just a Zac Brown Band apologist. But I want to hear more than good songs, I want to hear the heart and soul of this band and Zac Brown, and I don’t on this record, at least not on most of it. And as a Zac Brown Band fan, I’m going to listen to Welcome Home quite a lot, and it will probably grow on me because I just like them–but I’m going to go ahead and say it before my bias as a fan clouds my judgment. If Zac Brown’s heart lies in EDM music, or rock music, or anywhere outside his roots, then that’s where he should be, and I’m starting to think that despite this album’s name, home might not be where he wants to be anymore.

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A Note to my Fellow Bloggers

I’m not saying readers can’t get anything out of this, but mainly this is directed at my fellow country bloggers who may read this and get something of value from it. I’ve seen blogs shut down, go on hiatus, change format, question themselves, whatever you want to call it, in some form or fashion, quite a lot these past few months, and I took a break for most of 2016. I see so many people who have come to be friends in this little world questioning where they go with their blogs and trying to find themselves and figure out what works for them. And I definitely don’t have it all figured out; Country Exclusive is so much different than it was when it started in 2015. Back then, it was much more structured and scheduled; we covered charts and had scheduled opinion pieces, and you know what? That sucked the joy right out of it for me.

The key part of that? For me. So I had to come back and figure out what parts I enjoyed. I love the reviewing, and I love talking about random topics such as this, but not on a scheduled basis, where I feel pressured to come up with something. It may be different for all of you, but my point here is find what makes you passionate, and then do that. Be yourself.

I was originally going to write a post this week on the value of honesty and criticism in music, and how we shouldn’t give up on the mainstream and/or the negative viewpoints. Country exclusive was founded on honesty above all else, and there’s a reason my Twitter handle is @honest_country. With that in mind, be yourself when it comes to review. If you have something unpopular to say, say it; we won’t ostracize you for it. And let’s be blunt here, growth is a big concern for all of us–Saving Country Music is perhaps the most hated institution in all of country media/journalism/blogging, and it’s also the most unflinchingly honest, and yes, the most viewed–with maybe the exception of stuff like Taste of Country, but certainly when it comes to independent country music journalism. Trigger is nothing if not himself, so if it’s growth you’re worried about, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there.

But back to the main point…just be yourself, and find what makes you passionate about this whole thing. You started doing this for a reason, just like I did. You all obviously loved it at one point, and I hate to see so many people lose that part of it as they copy other styles or try to be something they’re not. All of that’s hard though, and it comes with time, and I’m speaking as someone who went through it, and has come out, mostly, on the other side. Just get back to doing this because you love it, or else it’s not worth doing.

So, I’ll get back to reviewing music now, I just thought I’d share that with you all, and maybe you can get something from my personal experience.

Reflecting on: Zac Brown Band–Uncaged

Before I discuss their new album, I’d like to take a moment to talk about their masterpiece Uncaged, which is one of my favorite albums of all time.

Release Date: 2012
Style: grounded in country, but really with a little bit of everything, from reggae to country rock to bluegrass to R&B
Who Might Like This Album: really anyone, because there’s really something for everyone here…so, fans of good music
Standout Tracks: “Goodbye in Her Eyes,” “Sweet Annie,” “Overnight,” “Natural disaster,” “The Wind,” “Island Song,” “Lance’s Song”
Reflections: I just listed tracks 3 through 9 on this album, and yeah, it’s pretty much amazing song after amazing song right through that entire stretch. But really there’s not a bad song here, and if I were reviewing this today, I’d have to give it a ten. You can say what you want about this band and their genre bending, but it works fine on “Island Song” which is all but reggae country–by now I think ZBB have recorded enough songs to start this subgenre–and it works to absolute perfection on “Overnight,” which is a straight-up R&B seduction song. I think their last album took this too far in places, and it was certainly a jarring listen, but the length and the fluffy love songs always bothered me more than the exploration of other genres by this band. They needed a song on that record like “Colder Weather” or like “Sweet Annie,” the amazing standout love song from this album, certainly country and featuring lots of fiddle and the great harmony the band is known for. I can’t say enough about this album, and I don’t know if they’re ever going to top it, but the day they do will be incredible because this record is fantastic, and if they can manage to produce a better one, we should all be lining up to buy it. If somehow you have never sat down and listened to Uncaged, in its entirety and all its glory, please do it now. This is one of the best country records to have graced our presence in the past ten years, and maybe the best one out of the mainstream in that time frame. And by the way, when they say, “country should evolve,” this is the type of stuff they should mean–because this is how you stay grounded in country while delivering something fresh and unique and lasting.

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