Memorable Songs From Overlooked Albums: June 26th

Yeah, okay, so three of these four albums are quite forgettable, but I still think I prefer the term “overlooked” because I don’t want to single out stuff that isn’t forgettable as such, and for the stuff that is, I’ll have plenty of time to tell you when I bring up the songs. For new people or people new to this feature, this is a semi-regular feature that pops up whenever enough songs are there to make one, and it consists of songs from forgettable/mediocre albums, songs from albums we didn’t cover due to time constraints or out of deference to artists, and songs from albums that we just didn’t have anything to say about but still thought some tracks deserved a feature. Today’s, like last time, is pretty eclectic.

Shannon McNally: “Banshee Moan”

Shannon McNally’s album, Black Irish, is the one that stands out here as not forgettable. In fact, it’s actually pretty great, but seven of the twelve tracks are covers, and just because of time constraints, I’m not reviewing this. The thing is, though, that Shannon said she wanted to “let the best songs win” when she picked the covers–but the best songs on the album are the three that she had a hand in writing. So I’m featuring them here today so that you can get to know her. Would love to see her release a whole album of original music. This one was written for women struggling in the music industry, and it’s the best one on the record.

Shannon McNally: “I Went to the Well”

The interesting thing about the covers on Shannon’s record is that she covers everything from country to Americana to blues. This original one has more of a bluesy slant, and it shows off that side of her voice.

Shannon McNally: “Roll Away the Stone”

The three that McNally wrote or co-wrote are all right in a row on her record, and after the slow, sad “Banshee Moan” and the easygoing “I Went to the Well,” we get this upbeat, fun track to close things. This one’s also more bluesy and features some great saxophone.

Ray Scott: “Livin’ This Way”

Ray Scott promised more grit on his latest record, Guitar for Sale, and that seemed to be true with the first two songs. Then it just got pretty boring. There are some other decent songs on Ray’s album, but the first two really stand out above the rest and give the record the energy it needed and should have sustain throughout.

Ray Scott: “Put Down the Bottle”

This is really almost the same song as “Livin’ This Way”–well, more like its antithesis. The former is the explanation for why Ray lives like this, this one is an acknowledgement that one of these days he should think about changing. Anyway, he has a knack for these types of songs.

Luke Combs: “When it Rains it Pours”

Honestly, I know this has been met with mixed opinions, but personally? Thank God he chose this as the single because it’s truly the only thing that stood out for me on his debut album, This One’s For You on first listen. AS you’ll see, another song did end up making this list, but man, this has to be the most boring, safe, forgettable album I’ve heard in 2017. I know the single, as I said, has been greeted with mixed reception, but sue me, it’s just fun. The narrator’s girlfriend leaves him after he had a “time” out one night–that’s why some people think he was just a jerk to begin with, but it’s really not all that clear about what exactly he did–and then he goes on a complete lucky streak, and his life is all the better for her leaving. I just love this, I can’t help it.

Luke Combs: “I Got Away With You”

I kept hearing about the potential Luke showed on the back half of his record, so I gave that half another shot, and this love song did emerge that second time as quite unique and memorable.

Lady Antebellum: “Somebody Else’s Heart”

And finally we come to the comeback album by Lady A entitled Heart Break, and let me tell you, this record is not bad per se, but it’s just boring as all hell by the end. It’s mediocre, not awful, but there were three songs that stood proudly out of it to show the true potential of this group, and in doing so, they ultimately took down the value of the whole thing. This one is not as great as the last two, but it’s a nice song about two friends who want more but are afraid of what the next day will bring and wish they could love the other tonight with “somebody else’s heart.”

Lady Antebellum: “Famous”

A very nice and vividly detailed song about all the pitfalls of being famous and in the spotlight. There’s even a steel guitar solo in this one.

Lady Antebellum: “Hurt”

And the best for last; honestly, I love this song. It’s just beautiful, from the melody to the vocals to the lyrics about being so in love with someone that you’d do anything for them but also knowing they could take their love back at any time and knowing your vulnerability. As the song says, “if you’re reckless with your love just to take it back, you could hurt somebody like that.” Just listen to this.

Album Review: Jon Wolfe’s Any Night in Texas is One Giant Cliché

Rating: 3.5/10

Remember when I said in Texas, just like Nashville, there are basically two paths? One is the more serious, singer-songwriter path, and the other is the more commercial one, and neither are inherently awful. In fact, I like Aaron Watson’s latest record just fine; that’s a fun, uncomplicated album, and there are a few deeper songs sprinkled in as well. But the point is, I’m not criticizing Jon Wolfe and Any Night in Texas because it’s not some groundbreaking Texas country masterpiece–it’s just that it’s one cliché after another, and instead of being fun and lighthearted, it’s mostly just generic bullshit. And if it came out of Nashville, we’d all be saying so, but since it’s Texas-flavored, we hesitate–but if I’m going to sit here and praise the considerable amount of good pouring out of Texas and Oklahoma, I also can’t ignore the bad that comes with it.

It’s not as if Jon Wolfe hasn’t made safe, commercial-sounding Texas country before, but the amount of moonlit back roads and riding shotgun all over this record would rival that on some of Luke Bryan’s albums–also, I thought bro country had died? And when I said Texas-flavored, just look at the title; “any night in Texas” is perfect here because it’s all the worn-out clichés of mainstream country, plus songs like “Boots on a Dance floor” to make the album more Texan. But just because it’s more Texan, that doesn’t mean it’s more (dare I say it) authentic–just because Wolfe says in the title track that wild kisses on back roads can happen “any night in Texas,” are we supposed to think this is any better or more original than mainstream songs saying the same damn thing? And if we’re not on back roads, you guessed it, we’re in clubs and bars. “Airport Kiss” is essentially a request by this guy in a bar to have his girlfriend make out with him right there as if they were in the airport, or as if he were about to go to war. And then there’s “A Country Boy’s Life Well-Lived,” which wastes some truly great fiddle on pandering lyrics about a hard-working man; we get “cold beer,” “boots,” “American made”–you get the picture.

Sunny Sweeney arrives on the heartbreak song “Drink for Two,” and I felt sure her appearance would save this track. She does make it better, but even this is a little of a letdown; the song is saying that the only good thing about losing each other is that they can now drink twice as much. To be fair to this song, I think it could have been better with more interesting production…and that leads me to my next point.

There’s nothing wrong with making fun songs and albums, and look, clichés aren’t always the end of the world. It’s just that if you’re going for this, you need to make the production lively and interesting, and through most of this record, it’s anything but that. I heard it described as stiff, and that’s a great way to put it; if you’re going to make songs like this, at least do it right. And this goes even more for Texas artists than Nashville artists because Texas artists have such a commitment to live music. I don’t even think these songs would sound interesting live.

So, the brightest spots here are the aforementioned “Drink for Two” and the closer, “Long Song.” I did think sunny Sweeney would have made the former a highlight, but like I said, the production really took that song down. Still, that one is at least more interesting. “Long Song” is another one in a club or a bar, but it’s got a better premise, as the narrator is hoping for more time to spend with this woman, but if it’s their last dance at the end of the night, he at least wants it to be a long song. This one, again, is more interesting, and it tries to go a little deeper than the surface.

There are a couple of other brighter moments on the album too, and right now you might be wondering why I didn’t just feature some of this in “Memorable Songs.” Well, several reasons. One, even the brighter moments are honestly not memorable, and I don’t think I’ll return to any of this. Two, because Texas artists and independent artists should be judged equally with the mainstream, and if this came out of Nashville, we’d all be quick to criticize it. It’s not better just because it came out of Texas. Three, honest criticism from me adds to the validity of my praise of artists within the Texas scene, and when I say John Baumann made a damn good record, you can believe that and not question whether I’m biased toward Texas and Red Dirt music. And finally, and most importantly, because Texas artists can learn a lesson from Nashville; you have freedom to be yourself in the Texas scene, so use it. Don’t try to cater to trends, it usually always fails spectacularly. Be a Jason Eady or be an Aaron Watson, but don’t be something you’re not, especially when you don’t have to in order to please some label–it’s not the lighthearted material on this album that kills it, it’s the clichés, the way it sounds fake, and perhaps most of all, the way Jon Wolfe just sounds bored here. I don’t care what type of artist Jon Wolfe wants to be, but it’s obvious this record isn’t him, and at the end of the day, I just want to hear Jon Wolfe. I wish I heard him on Any Night in Texas, and I’m sorry to say I don’t.

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The Decent

The Texas-Flavored Cliché

Album Review: Eli Young Band–Fingerprints

Rating: 6/10

So, walking a line between being a reviewer/critic and being a fan is not easy, and it’s something I’ve always tried to balance. I’ve always tried to separate my favorite stuff from stuff that might be the “technical” best, but I’ve also never been afraid to admit being a fan of something or of a particular artist. At the end of the day, I am both, and there are times that call for both–when I reviewed John Moreland, I had to be a critic and acknowledge the greatness in the songwriting even if it might not be relatable to everyone, and when I reviewed the latest Zac Brown Band album, I wrote as a fan who had mixed feelings about their return to their roots. With the Eli Young Band, I think it is right to write as an unashamed Eli Young Band fan, a fan who did like their early Texas sound better but was admittedly happy with them right up until the God-awful Turn it On EP. I was just hoping they’d get back to themselves with this release and stop chasing trends–and they said openly that they went into this record responding to songs that fans resonated with the most, so credit to them for that. So now, as a fan, did this album resonate with me and take the band back to their sound that I grew to love?

Well, it did in places. IN fact, overall, I think the Eli Young Band went in completely the right direction with this, and it’s probably that benefit of the doubt that makes this a 6 rather than a 5 because honestly, of these eleven tracks, I enjoy five of them and could do without six. But there’s nothing inherently awful in the other six, it’s just that they’re bland and mediocre, and Eli Young Band is capable of releasing better. It’s the strength in the promising half that outshines the mediocrity in the rest, and that’s what I want to focus on.

So, the album starts out strong with “Saltwater Gospel” and “Fingerprints.” Admittedly, I was not a “Saltwater Gospel” apologist when I first heard it, but I’ll freely acknowledge I was wrong; the message here is more clever than I gave it credit for, pointing out that you can be close to God on the beach or out in nature without going to church. I really have no idea why I objected to this before because this is pretty much my entire philosophy on the subject, but I’m here for it now. “Fingerprints” is a sex song, more specifically a sex song between two people in a troubled relationship or perhaps exes, that can’t let go; it’s the writing and more so the production in this that make it stand out. There’s something intense about the production that just adds to this and makes it really interesting. And then, well, basically there’s almost nothing noteworthy for eight tracks. I make no exaggeration here when I say that the first time I listened to this album, it was late at night, and I nearly fell asleep here–and the only reason I didn’t was the wonderful “Skin and Bones” breaking up the boredom here. This is a very nice love song; the woman is literally a part of him, “she’s in my skin and bones.” There’s some very nuanced and thoughtful writing in this as well; it’s impressive. I can’t stress enough that when these songs are good, they’re pretty awesome. So anyway, then it’s back to bland and sleepy for awhile until we get to the last two, “God Love the Rain” and “The Days I Feel Alone.” The former is another sex song, this time of the tender variety, detailing a night spent waiting out a storm. The chorus here cleverly uses “she” to talk about both the woman and the rain to say things like “she’ll heal your heart, feed your soul, cover you, and make you grow, bring you back to life, and wash away the pain. God love the rain.” Carolyn Dawn Johnson is featured here–yes, I didn’t know she was still around either, what a cool thing to discover–and she adds something special to it. Normally, I prefer duets to feature both artists more–well, to be fair, this is not credited as a duet–but the gentle harmony she brings to this track says more than giving her a verse. “The Days I Feel Alone” deals with life on the road and the pressures of the distance in relationships; this one is another highlight and is said to be a personal one for Mike Eli. I do probably have some bias toward this because I can relate to a good chunk of it, but it’s one I enjoyed.

Now, let’s talk about all those sleepy tracks for a moment. I said I gave this a 6 because there’s nothing downright awful there, just bland. “Old Songs” was going for a nice, nostalgic feel, and “Never Again” was going for another “Fingerprints,” but it ended up being a more pop-infused and less interestingly written version. “Once” was going for a nice theme too, saying that a man can only make some mistakes one time before he loses the woman. There are glimpses of potential even on these bland tracks, and while I still stand by my earlier comment that the Eli Young Band is capable of much better–indeed, there’s much better on this record–they’re certainly headed in the right direction.

This record is both a disappointment and a relief to me as an Eli Young Band fan. It’s disappointing because it’s not a triumphant return to their early days, and in that respect, it reminds me 100% of ZBB’s album. However, it’s a relief because the Eli Young Band strayed arguably much farther off their path than ZBB, and I’ll just be brutally honest here and say I had little hope of them returning. So it’s nice to see some good, and even great songs here, and it’s cool to see them listening to their fans and trying to go back to something with more substance. I won’t lie and say they succeeded throughout the record, but this is significant progress for the Eli Young Band, and there are some standout moments here too that have me hopeful for their future.

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Reflecting On: Reckless Kelly – Under the Table & Above the Sun

Reckless Kelly is the band that initially got me into the red dirt and independent country scene. I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to discuss them in a Random Reflections article, but I’m fixing that as of today. This album is not my favorite by the band, but it does feature “Nobody’s Girl”, which is the song that first captured my attention.

Release Date: 2003

Style: Red Dirt, rock country

People Who Might Like This Album: People who don’t mind a little rock mixed with country, those who appreciate a fiddle solo

Standout Tracks: “Nobody’s Girl”, “Desolation Angels”, “Vancouver”, “You Don’t Want Me Around”

This album starts out great. When you hear the opening guitar and drums of “Let’s Just Fall”, you’re instantly treated to what a classic, rocking Reckless Kelly song sounds like. The lyrics are clever too, they go “I know we could both fall flat, let’s just fall. Leave it at that”. It’s not a standout track, but I do really like it. “Nobody’s Girl” is one of my favorite songs by the band. As I said above, it’s the one that hooked me, but the fact that it’s held up for me over years of listening is a testament to its strength. It’s all about how a woman keeps men at a distance due to how her father left her mother without a word. Now she’s bitter and refuses to let anyone get close. When I was showing Megan this song, I brought up my favorite lines. “Everybody wants you but you don’t wanna care, so you keep em at a distance with the frown you wear”. That part is just super-catchy, and it never gets old for me. Another classic that just so happens to be on this album is “Desolation Angels”. It’s all about a traveling man who is looking for more out of life, but who is also trying to run from anything permanent, or harsh feelings. . “Wealth and matter has never made much sense to me, it’s bought a lot of souls but never has it set one free” is yet another example of the great writing these guys put out. Also, I love the fiddle on this song!

“Vancouver” is also great. There are a lot of cities mentioned within the lyrics, but it just makes the song more relatable to me. I like that it’s slower, and a love song. It really shows off how vulnerable the band can get. The man in the lyrics wonders where his love is as he’s getting drunk, and she’s off somewhere breaking hearts. “You Don’t Want me Around” is another faster song. It involves a man who wants to be with a girl, but she doesn’t share the same feelings. This one isn’t as deep as a song like “Desolation Angels”, but I just really like the music behind this one, and it’s catchy.

Like I said before, this is not my favorite album by Reckless Kelly. This one has a couple of their best songs ever, though. Also, as it features the track that really got me into the music that is my most favorite today, I figured it was the perfect thing to cover. If you have never looked into Reckless Kelly, I think everyone should give them a chance.

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Album Review: John Baumann–Proving Grounds

Rating: 8.5/10

Texas country and Red dirt, despite all of the many influences and sounds, still really comes down to two sides, just like its Nashville counterpart–there’s more of an equal playing field in Texas and Oklahoma, and that’s ultimately the difference, but the point is, you still have your serious, singer-songwriter types and your more pragmatic, commercial types. The former would be the Jason Eadys and Courtney Pattons and Jamie Lin Wilsons, and the latter would be the Aaron Watsons and Josh Abbotts, and the beauty of it all is that each artist gets to choose their own path. And then sometimes, you get artists like Turnpike Troubadours; I remember Jamie Lin Wilson telling me they could play in listening rooms or big venues because Evan Felker writes deep songs “that also make you want to party.” And it would seem that John Baumann has managed to capture that spirit as well on his latest album, Proving Grounds, effortlessly blending the serious and the fun, the bright and the dark, into a really enjoyable album, an album that I think will have quite a lot of mileage throughout the year.

John Baumann has said that this is his most personal record, and you can feel that echoing throughout the album, from the stirring opener, “Here I Come,” to the nostalgic closer, “Pontiacs,” which goes on for over eight minutes. The opener details Baumann’s dreams as a child to one day become a successful singer-songwriter and reflects on his life now as he gets closer to being a “high plains troubadour.” I think “High Plains Troubadour” would have been a great name for this record. The closer, as I mentioned, is nostalgic and sees John Baumann as an adult, wishing for just one more day to be young. Admittedly, this is not one of my personal favorite tracks, but it does serve as a closing thought to the journey started in “Here I Come,” and together, the two frame the album nicely. In between, we learn, in sharp detail, the pain of Baumann’s father dying in “Old Stone Church,” and how each family member coped in their own way. With its simple melody and honest, glaringly specific lyrics, this one stands out proudly on the album and will relate to anyone who has been through the pain of losing a loved one despite it being so personal to Baumann.

In less autobiographical, but no less serious, moments, there’s the beautiful love song “Turquoise” and the thoughtful “Lonely in Bars”–I’d like to take a moment to point out that the former takes place entirely by a river in the moonlight, and that the latter is about two people meeting in a bar and the offer for more, and yet neither of these songs manage to be clichéd, disrespectful, generic, etc. IN “Turquoise,” the only parts of the woman we ever hear about are her “turquoise eyes” and it never goes further than “the first kiss I plan to give her.” In the latter, the story line goes far deeper than just meeting at a bar and hooking up; you hear the details about the woman not having a ring and having been in a troubled relationship with an older man, and you hear the narrator making the offer to stop being lonely in bars and see what happens, “embarrassment be damned.” Either of these, especially “Lonely in Bars,” could legitimately be mainstream hits, or they could have been, if they were less well-written or respectful. Essentially, they started with moonlit rivers and midnight bars, the foundations for mainstream hits, and then actually progressed into great songs.

Mixed in with all these great songs, we get the fun side of John Baumann. “The Trouble with Drinkin'” has got to be one of the catchiest songs I’ve heard this year; that fiddle is awesome, and it would be great live. There’s another one dealing with addiction in “Heavy Head,” and the beauty in “Turquoise” is followed by the more lighthearted “Love #1” which could be seen as the continuation to that song. Texas songwriters are often criticized–and many times rightfully so–for their continuous references to Texas, but “Holding it Down” manages to be clever, witty, and catchy despite this. There are so many artists that could take a lesson from this–you can make a song about Texas in a smart way. “When Ophelia Comes to Town,” with its lively, rocking production, is one of my personal favorites here, and one of the most fun; it details all the things the narrator does to get ready for a woman to visit, and all the things they’ll do once she arrives. I wasn’t expecting the twist at the end, and I almost wish it had stayed fun because in the end, he gets word that “Miss Ophelia’s dead.” But the song’s still fun, and it’s still one of the standouts for me.

So, if you haven’t figured it out, this is a great album. It’s got some excellent songwriting, and it’s a good balance between the serious and fun songs. Hopefully, John Baumann continues in this direction, writing more personal stuff, because this is where his writing shines, and I think it will only get better. This is one of the best Texas country albums released in 2017 so far and one that gets better with each listen.

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