Album Review: Ags Connolly–Nothin’ Unexpected

Rating: 9/10

IN my pursuit of older 2017 albums, this has to be the coolest discovery. And yeah, I’ll be totally up front with this and say I wasn’t all that interested in listening to this when it came out because the track record of UK country artists is not the greatest, especially with me. Look, I’m not about authenticity in the sense that I couldn’t give two shits what background Midland come from as long as they produce good music, and they have. If you come from Georgia or New York or London, so be it. But equally, if you come from New York, Zephaniah Ohora, don’t inject a Southern accent, just be yourself. That’s what made This Highway such a great listen; it didn’t try to be anything it wasn’t, and that in turn made it authentic. Forget trying to be rural and/or Southern, Zephaniah Ohora knows he’s not, and he’s not going to try and sell you on it. British country artists notoriously won’t do this though–instead of using their unique British perspective as a cool feature, they often try faking Southern accents and using American slang to sound more authentic and just end up sounding fake in the process. Their music is probably often completely sincere, but I can’t seem to take any of them seriously, even if the music is good. So I just never really made time to listen to Ags Connolly until someone told me on Twitter it was the best 2017 album he’d yet heard, and I decided to give Connolly a shot.

“I Hope You’re Unhappy,” the album opener, doesn’t fully convince me on Ags either, as on this track, he does have an exaggerated accent (though not to the degree of many artists who do this), but something about the song keeps me listening. I want to like him because the lyrics are so catchy and because that fiddle is so great. And then “Do You Realize That Now?” comes on and just blows me away. This is easily the best song on the whole thing, and from here on, except for little inflections, you don’t hear an American accent. IN light of that, the opener can be somewhat forgiven as well; these inflections and phrasing seem to be more a result of careful, loving study of country music rather than an ill-advised attempt to imitate the style. The opener is still a bit too exaggerated for me, but there are some moments, like in the opening line of the title track, where there’s no R in “working” at all, wherein Ags Connolly is so openly British that it pretty much makes up for these concerns.

But what really makes this record shine is the way Ags Connolly calls bars “pubs” and “haunts” and frames a whole song around the phrase, “I suppose” in a context where Americans might say, “I think” or “I guess.” It’s these subtleties throughout the album that really convey a sense of authenticity and add a personal, unique quality to the stories portrayed here. They’re still universal enough to relate to people in the States, but the familiarity here will no doubt resonate even more strongly with those from Connolly’s homeland, much like the way songs about Texas stir the hearts of those from that region. Songs like the title track and “Haunts Like This” might remind you of any old place you used to frequent–there are certainly holes in the wall all across America too, or as Ags says, “haunts like this can be found in every town”–but hearing them sung in his way specifically calls to my mind little pubs in Wales and England. That’s cool for me as an American who only got to visit them for a second, so I can only imagine that it’s a pretty awesome and rare thing if you’re a British country fan to be able to relate even more to these songs. So British country artists, take note, and keep singing about your own stuff–it’s a feature, not a flaw.

Though a couple songs lean more toward folk, the majority of this record is very traditional in sound. I mentioned that Ags Connolly has obviously studied country music, and the result is a really entertaining listen. True, you only get a few faster songs, but the variety in instrumentation more than makes up for that. There’s the fiddle in the opener and in the excellent “Neon Jail,” the steel guitar in “I Suppose,” and the piano that pops up in various places throughout the album to cheerfully remind you that it’s an underappreciated instrument in country music and to ask you why so many of Ags Connolly’s stateside counterparts have forsaken it so casually. Its most prominent appearance is in the aforementioned ode to holes in the wall “Haunts Like This,” one of those songs you should just hear. Perhaps most amazingly, there is a supply of accordion on this record second only in 2017 to that on Aaron Watson’s latest album. That accordion pretty much makes the songs “Do You Realize That Now?” and “When the Loner Gets Lonely.” I can honestly say I haven’t heard a record in 2017 with this much focus on and variety in instrumentation; production, yes, but not instrumentation itself. And while we’re on that, let me also congratulate Ags Connolly on being one of the few singer-songwriter types to actually pay attention to his melody as much as his lyrics. I’ve harped on this before, but engaging melodies are just as vital as lyrics, maybe more so, because they keep songs from being boring. And so many of these artists treat melody as some sort of secondary element, focusing too much on words so that often those words are lost when they’re translated into uninteresting musical form.

That brings me to the lyrics themselves, which are mostly really strong, and with a couple standouts sprinkled in. I’ve mentioned “Do You Realize that Now?” enough already, but it excels lyrically too, telling a story somewhere between love and introspection. Actually, love is a theme explored quite a bit here, from the hopeful “I Suppose” to the regretful “Slow Burner.” There’s also a lot of nostalgia, like in the reflective “Fifteen Years” about past love and the more folk-leaning title track about returning to an old pub where he used to play and now misses the waitress he used to know who once worked there and the customers he used to see. Often, it’s not just the lyrics that stand out, however; it’s the combination of them paired with the stirring melodies and thoughtful instrumentation that work together to produce all-around great songs.

If I had to be nitpicky about anything, I suppose–yeah, might as well use Connolly’s word–it would be that it could have benefited from another upbeat track or two like “Neon Jail” and the opener, and if you like more variety in this area, I could see how it might be a little sleepy. Personally, I don’t care about this at all; I found it to be a nice, easy listen, but it’s a criticism I can understand, even if I don’t agree with it in the slightest. The only thing that personally bothers me at all about this entire album is the exaggerated accent on “I Hope You’re Unhappy,” and that that song really doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album in general. But there’s not much to say against this record, from the stories to the melodies to the instrumentation. Hell, Ags Connolly is a pretty good singer as well, which is a nice change from what is starting to be quite an unfortunately large number of singer-songwriters these days. Most importantly, Ags Connolly doesn’t try to be anything other than himself with this record, and the result renders it inherently unique and cool in the country space. My only regret is that I didn’t discover this sooner.

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Reflecting on: Jason Eady–Daylight and Dark

I commented during my review of the new Jason Eady record back in April that it has to be one of my biggest regrets about starting Country Exclusive in June 2015 that I never got the opportunity to talk about the masterpiece that is Daylight and Dark from this platform. But hey, now we have a category for it, so I’ll take any excuse. This may be my favorite album of all time–don’t lock me into that, because it’s a close race between several, and these things are very subject to change, but it’s up there.

Release Date: January 2014

Style: traditional country/Texas country

People Who Might Like This Album: fans of really traditional country with lots of steel, people who like darker lyrical content

Standout Tracks: This is hard to do but…”Daylight and Dark,” “The Other side of Abilene,” “Temptation,” “Lonesome Down and Out,” “OK Whiskey,” “Liars and Fools,” “we Might Just Miss each Other” (featuring Courtney Patton)

Reflections: I remember the exact day I heard this…sort of. Not the exact date, and not much about the day itself prior to discovering this album, it was just one of those days back when I was first getting into this scene and before I started here where I was discovering all kinds of new music. I kept being flooded with new names to check out, and some of them were good, some of them boring, but all a cool discovery process. The thing I remember about the day I found Jason Eady was it hadn’t been an easy day for me personally, and we all know those albums and songs that connect with us and send us back to emotions and feelings long ago. It wasn’t a good time in my life when I found this album, and maybe that’s why, though dark stuff usually isn’t what I gravitate toward, something about the depth of sorrow and uncertainty in this album, coupled with all that traditional instrumentation in a time when my ears were starved for it, and topped off with the raw emotion in Jason Eady’s vocal delivery, just made me stop what I was doing and sit there and listen to this whole album. And then a good chunk of the rest of his discography. I don’t think I’ve ever done that for any artist unless I meant to sit and listen to them for review; with Jason, I heard one song and then made it the priority of my day to hear the rest. It brought me comfort and healing in a way that only certain things can–there’s a lot to be said for music that can cheer you up, and I’m a real proponent of stuff like that, but this just connected with me in a way that’s undeniable.

So now that I’ve rambled on about that, I guess I should actually talk about the songs and why it’s so great. “Daylight and Dark” is just excellent, capturing perfectly the state of mind of someone caught both literally and metaphorically between daylight and dark and not sure where to go in his life. The same sentiments echo in “Lonesome Down and Out” and more subtly so in “Late Night Diner,” even though that’s an Adam Hood cover. There’s a cleverness in the writing here that is just unmatched; even now, I hear cool new underlying things in the lyrics. That’s true on his newest record too, although not quite to this degree. He doesn’t just have “one too many” in that song, he has “one, two…many.” Also, “one becomes tomorrow.” And “we might just miss each other” means they might barely miss running into each other and not have to dredge up old feelings, they might only miss each other and not get the chance to run into each other and see where those feelings lead, and they might, after all, though they didn’t want to admit it, miss each other. This one, sung with Courtney Patton, gave me my first clue that a duets album from them would be great. These are just two of many cool examples of subtleties in the writing; in fact, the two I’ve illustrated are more obvious ones. It’s also just really country, and just a comfort to listen to. I could go on and on, but for multiple reasons, not the least of which that I am procrastinating packing for my trip by writing this, I will conclude this by saying that nothing I write will do it justice, and if you haven’t heard this, you’re missing out on one of the best and most traditional albums released in the past ten years.

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Album Review: Lauren Alaina–Road Less Traveled

Rating: 7.5/10

Of all the albums I missed covering at the beginning of the year, this one has bothered me the most. I finally did feature Lauren Alaina when her current single “Doin’ Fine” was released, and a host of behind-the-scenes factors kept me from talking about her before that, when “Road Less Traveled,” this album’s title track and first single, hit #1 on Billboard Country Airplay basically out of nowhere (although admittedly with help from On the Verge). I tried to satisfy myself with that because it just seemed too late to give her an album review, but now that I’ve finally got time–plus the inability to write anything new–I’m taking the opportunity to do what I should have done months ago and feature Lauren Alaina’s second album, Road Less Traveled.

So why the urgency to cover this, especially given the rating? Because it’s an example of good pop country, something being done right in the mainstream, and though Lauren’s gotten her fair share of praise for this album, she’s also received a lot of unfair criticism for it from people who dismiss it as too pop. That assessment in and of itself is fair; some of this is straight pop, about half, and the country-leaning half is pop-flavored, but Lauren Alaina’s not RaeLynn or Kelsea Ballerini either, churning out meaningless pop music and then labeling it country, and I think too many have dismissed her as such. IN fact, I’d argue that she’s exactly the kind of artist we should be supporting in the mainstream even if her music may not be your personal taste.

Why? Because Lauren Alaina did something very few mainstream artists–pop, country, or otherwise, can claim–she made a very personal record. Not only that, much of it is personal to her in a way that will relate to the very demographic the mainstream tries to target, and rather than release fluffy Disney material, she’s trying to say something. Sure, the style is pop country, or perhaps in her case country pop would be more accurate, but this album is an example of good songwriting eclipsing concerns of style. In the current single and album opener, Lauren Alaina tells of her parents’ divorce, even saying in the first line of the whole record, “Daddy got sober, Mama got his best friend.” “Pretty” might not work if sung by another artist, but when you know that Alaina herself had an eating disorder, lines like “all the other girls are thinner, so you skip another dinner” ring with authenticity and empathy rather than patronization. “Three,” which also fits in the more country pop half and features some nice piano, is achingly honest about Lauren’s struggles to get onto country radio, saying that she spent “six years of missing home” for only three minutes of airplay. And I haven’t even mentioned the pretty much universally accepted standout, “Same Day Different Bottle,” the beautifully sung story of her father’s alcoholism. Incidentally, this one is also the most country and showcases some really nice steel guitar.

And let’s not overlook the fact that Lauren Alaina is an incredible vocalist. True, singing talent is not everything, and as someone who knows her fair share about music, I’ll be the first to tell you that. Too many times, we see people who no doubt have amazing voices win some singing competition and then fade into obscurity partly due to the fact they’re just spectacularly clueless about everything else relating to the business of music and being a musician. It also takes far more than vocal ability to be a great singer; you have to convey emotion and connect with your listeners, and that will go a lot further toward sustaining your career than a ridiculous range and all the fancy runs in the world. But equally, there’s another side to this, where more than half the Americana albums I’ve heard in 2017 have featured a singer that was merely adequate, sometimes flat-out off-key. One specific album comes to mind that featured absolutely great instrumentation and production, lots of good songwriting, nice melodies–and sung by anyone else, I’d have reviewed it and loved it, but I couldn’t get past the voice. And tone is not something any singer can help, so it’s what you do with it that matters most, like Rod Melancon with Southern Gothic and Robyn Ludwick on This Tall to ride, but if you can’t sing on key, I can’t take your music seriously. Anyway, all that semi-tangent aside, I then turn on Lauren Alaina’s record, and I hear not just good, but excellent, stellar, ridiculous vocal quality on tracks like the heartbreak song “Painting Pillows” and the previously mentioned “Three,” coupled with that ability to be subtle and pull out emotion like in “Think Outside the Boy,” (which features mandolin, look, more country), and I just breathe a sigh of relief.

Sure, there’s some stuff on this album I could do without, and yes, it’s all on the pop part of the record. “Holding the Other” comes to mind first because it’s just such a fluffy and pointless love song thrown in on an otherwise empowering album. Placing it between “Same Day different Bottle” and “Pretty” only made its shallow nature stick out more. “Next Boyfriend” is catchy, and the hook is pretty clever, but it doesn’t work for me as much because the cadence and rhythm isn’t flattering to Lauren’s incredible vocal ability. The same is true in “Queen of Hearts,” which also suffers massively from overproduction and from parts of it sounding nearly identical melodically to Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It.” still, there’s some of the more pop tracks here that work just fine and prove it can be done right. “My Kinda People” is the best candidate to explain this, exhibiting some pretty deceivingly intelligent lines despite it being a lightweight song. “Road Less Traveled” probably shouldn’t have gotten a #1 at country radio, and I get the criticisms with it because the lyrics do have some inconsistency, but she just sings the hell out of it, and I enjoy it. Plus, it sort of fits the album theme–well, that’s the album title, so naturally–of being yourself, but it’s expressed in a more lighthearted way than some of the more serious stuff. “Crashin’ the Boys’ Club” also works for me, but it’s one that I’m not going to try to defend because it’s just going to be a song you either love or hate upon listening.

I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind about Lauren Alaina here. Hell, it’s been six months since this came out, so most of you, if not all of you, have an opinion anyway. She’s not going to be for everyone, certainly not for strict traditionalists. But she’s the kind of artist, and this is exactly the sort of record, that we need to be successful in 2017. This album has something to say, and it speaks to that ever narrow demographic so desperately courted by country’s mainstream in a way that’s both real and understanding. I once read, on a comment on something somewhere, that pop country is good when it takes good pop and good country and mixes them, and that that’s what’s wrong with the majority of today’s stuff. Well, this is good pop and good country, and Lauren Alaina does a pretty nice job of blending them together. One of the mainstream’s best albums in 2017 so far.

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The Country

The Pop

Album Review: Laws of Gravity by the Infamous Stringdusters

Rating: 8.5/10

In my mission to cover older 2017 albums, absolutely the first one that deserves to be in line is the Infamous Stringdusters’ Laws of Gravity. Several reasons exist for this–it’s been out longer than any of the others I haven’t had time to write reviews for, going back all the way to the second week of January, I didn’t even know about it until the last week of May due to missing out on a huge chunk of January/February albums by being out of the country, and it’s a bluegrass record, not to mention a kickass bluegrass record. Remember when I reviewed Dailey & Vincent’s Patriots and Poets earlier in the year and talked about how we need more bluegrass coverage? Well, fast forward to July, and that’s the only bluegrass album I’ve covered in 2017. And it’s a shame because this one is just so damn good.

Think bluegrass sounds old-fashioned? I dare you to say that after one listen to this album; no, after one listen to one minute of the opening song, “Freedom.” I don’t know how, but the Infamous Stringdusters manage to sound at once vintage and forward-thinking all throughout the record. Think bluegrass all sounds the same? Try asserting that after you’ve heard the wonderfully bluesy tones of “This Ol’ Building” and the slightly more modern-sounding “Let me Know.” Think that yeah, the instrumentation is good, and all that fiddle and banjo is cool, but lyrics are secondary? To that, I submit the exhibits “Black Elk” and “1901: a Canyon Odyssey,” both excellent story songs. Basically, this is the album to introduce people to bluegrass with–yeah, I know I’ve only heard like, twelve albums myself at this point, but if your friend who sure, maybe can get behind some country but is bluegrass ignorant, is looking for something, refer them straight to this.

And no disrespect to Dailey & Vincent because there really were some good songs on that album, but my knowledge of bluegrass, or rather my lack thereof, was proved apparent when I heard this record and realized just how cool it could actually get. That’s an apology to bluegrass more than an underrating of Dailey & Vincent, it’s just that this 8.5 is miles better than that 7, and it sort of renders that 7 more like a 6 to 6.5. But back to the album at hand.

I mentioned the things that set Laws of Gravity apart in the world of bluegrass, but it’s only fair to the genre and to this band to be a little cliché and talk about the ridiculous instrumentation. Fiddles, banjos, mandolins, etc., all played with speed and precision, character and nuance, and, as stated, at once embodying the past but managing to stay very fresh and modern. There’s an indefinable quality to this album that makes it special and which it’s hard to put into words; this inability to accurately describe my feelings in a way that does the record true and full justice, along with the time constraints, has kept me from writing this down even after having become quite acquainted with the record. It’s something intangible that you get from hearing this music, something warm and lively and maybe just fun. It’s like, even when they’re spinning a sad tale, those fiddles just put a smile on your face, like the bluegrass equivalent of what Turnpike Troubadours manage to accomplish with songs like “Seven Oaks” and “Doreen.” I don’t think it’s something I can fully explain, but that minute of “Freedom” that you take to figure out it’s not old-fashioned will also make you fully aware of what I mean.

At thirteen tracks, this runs a bit long. There are some truly great lyrical moments here, but songs like “Soul searching” and “back Home” are generally lost in the mix for me when I listen because they possess neither great lyrics nor overly remarkable instrumentation. “Vertigo” also could have been trimmed, although it does hold my attention a bit more because it features some cooler instrumentation and more interesting chords. It’s not that any of the songs are bad, but at thirteen tracks and especially fifty-four minutes, it could have benefited from losing some of the filler. It would have made an absolutely incredible ten-track album.

As it is, this is still a very good record from the Infamous Stringdusters, and I’m just sorry it took me so long to give it a proper write-up. I don’t know much about bluegrass, and I’m not going to pretend to, but I do know good music ,and friends, this most certainly is it. You probably have already done so since I’m so ridiculously late to the party, but if you haven’t, go check this out!

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I’m leaving today for the beach, so I won’t be around for 11 days, although you can probably still find me on Twitter; actually, you can definitely find me on Twitter on the days that I’ll be taking the 20-hour journey from here to the coast. Probably some on the actual trip as well. Anyway, there will still be stuff to read, since July was utterly slow and boring for new albums. It gave me the opportunity to catch up on albums I missed from months back (well, basically, from the last huge trip I took when I randomly took it upon myself to go to the UK.) So, it won’t be new stuff, but there will be some stuff from very early 2017 that I took some time to write about during the achingly slow month that July has been. OH, and I did write a reflection as well last night which I hadn’t planned to do, but when you’re avoiding packing for an 11-day trip, you’ll do such things. So there’s that. Anyway, I’ll talk to y’all on here when I get back! 🙂