Album Review: Sarah Jane Scouten–When the Bloom Falls From the Rose

Rating: 7/10

Lindi Ortega, Whitney Rose, and most recently, Colter Wall–all exhibits for the argument that Canada is producing some very cool and unique country artists, artists that are taking their own perspective and usually Canadian folk influences and lending them to American country music to create some very good and frankly, just cool, music. I could add other names too, these are just the three I felt most qualified to comment on given my familiarity with their material. The latest artist we can add to the evidence is Sarah Jane Scouten, who blends country, folk, swing, and sometimes even more contemporary styles on her latest record, When the Bloom Falls From the Rose.

It’s an interesting title for a record, and nature is indeed referenced quite a lot in Sarah Jane’s imagery. Colter Wall’s writing is slightly similar; he writes about the past in story, while Sarah Jane Scouten echoes the past in the primitive metaphors and images she references in her songs. There’s a beauty in the way she writes–“in an acre of shells, you’ll find just one pearl” has been blowing my mind for weeks in the way it explains in such simplicity the rarity of finding someone to love. It’s such a simple statement on the surface, but think of the vastness of the beach, and then apply that to one of the next lines in the same song, “How could I ever love somebody else when I know that you’re in the world?” That line on its own might be in any love song, and it’s beautiful on its own too, but after you’ve just realized this person is a pearl in a beach full of shells, then yeah, of course, how can she not love him? “Acre of Shells” is not only the standout of this album, it’s one of the best songs of 2017. She uses other cool imagery like this in the title track and in “Rosehips for Scurvy” as well, and you get the sense that Sarah Jane Scouten has a deep and profound love and respect for nature.

There are some other cool moments in the writing, though none are as brilliant as that opener of “Acre of shells,” but that’s not the strongest point of the record overall. The strongest point, and I’m so glad I get to say this about a folk/Americana album this year, is the production. No, not just the production itself, the variety in production. The title track manages to blend the traditional and contemporary very nicely and features some pretty cool fiddle, sort of like the way Aaron Watson might feature it if he leaned toward folk. I love when fiddle is used to drive songs along like this; it doesn’t always have to arrive in a fiddle solo. There’s the swinging “Coup de Ville Rag,” which is cool enough to feature a clarinet. ON slower stuff like “Acre of Shells” and especially “Crack in Your Windshield,” there are extra little production details that frankly, a lot of other people just don’t pay attention to which make these songs come alive and separate Scouten from so many other songwriters. Much credit goes to her producer Andre Wahl for bringing out the best in her and in these songs. There’s even “Bang Bang,” which is rocking, or maybe rockabilly, since it’s still really throwback, which comes after “Acre of Shells” to be fun and bright and just plain refreshing. Who knew that in 2017, you could actually get some personality on a record like this? That’s no disrespect to any record I’ve reviewed here, more so a comment to the ones I’ve heard but couldn’t get into because despite good writing, they lacked something. There have also been some I’ve enjoyed immensely that still could have benefited from a fun moment like “Bang Bang” or “Paul,” which comes later on this album and sees Sarah Jane scouten cheerfully explaining that she can’t be tied down, or more accurately, “the more you try to make me good, the more that I’ll do bad.” I’ts just so refreshing to see her embracing this less serious side of herself, and equally to see the variety in production and mood on this album.

This is not a perfect album, but it gets so many things right that other projects, especially in 2017, have lacked. The songwriting is not necessarily great throughout, although in some places it’s very strong, and on “Acre of Shells,” it’s absolutely fantastic. But the variety and the production and really, the care that was put into this album by both Sarah Jane Scouten and her producer should be commended.

Cool artist. Nice, pleasant little record.

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Reflecting On: Marty Robbins – Gunfighter Ballads And Trail Songs

I have alluded to my love for Marty Robins in the past, and I figured that it was about time that I discussed one of his albums in detail. It may be a cliché choice, but for this week’s reflection, I’m going to discuss what is probably his biggest album, Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs.

Release Date: September 1959

Genre: The Western side of country and western

People Who Might Like This Album: Those who like cowboy stories and songs

Standout Tracks: “Big Iron,” “They’re Hanging Me Tonight,” “Utah Carol,” “Running Gun,” “El Paso”

The thing about Marty Robbins is, a lot of his songs are stories. They are sung stories, but stories nonetheless. Many of them do not have a traditional chorus, just one or two phrases that link the whole thing together. “Big Iron” is a fantastic example of this. It’s all about how an outlaw underestimates a ranger who had come to take him in. Even though I have heard the song multiple times, I still find myself drawn to the story and what will happen next.

Then, there’s “They’re Hanging Me Tonight.” It’s all about a man who was going to be hanged for murder. He had killed his ex-girlfriend because she’d left him for another man. He knew it wasn’t right, but he did it anyway. What I find interesting about this song is that the man does not run, he knows he deserves his punishment.

I love the melody of “Utah Carol”. The story is sad too. A cowboy was in love with his boss’s daughter, and so he put a blanket on his saddle so that she could ride his horse easier. The blanket caused a stampede, and though she tried to tie the blanket in place, she fell off the horse and into the cattle, while doing so. Utah Carol tried to save her, and was ultimately successful, but he himself was killed. This is one of my favorite songs, just because it’s such a poignant tale. He saved the girl he loved, but not himself.

“Running Gun” is a fantastic song. A man leaves his girl far behind, because he feels guilty for becoming a paid killer. He planned to send for her when he’d reached Mexico, but never got that far as the man was killed by a bounty hunter who was faster than him. He knows that the bounty hunter will one day face someone else who is faster than him, but his last thoughts are of his girlfriend and how a woman should never love a running gun.

Lastly, there’s “El Paso”. I cannot talk about Marty Robbins without mentioning it. This is his best-known song, and for good reason. In it, he tells yet another story. This time, it’s all about a man who was in love with a Mexican dancer. He got jealous of a cowboy who captured her attention one day, and a gunfight ensued. He killed the stranger and rode away from El Paso, where the song is set. However, he eventually went back because he missed the dancer, and when he got there, he was killed. I remember watching TV as a kid, and a countdown of the best songs of all time was on. I don’t recall if it was just in country, but “El Paso” either made number one, or close to it. Either way, I was fascinated, and it led me to Marty Robbins’ other music. It’s still my favorite song of his.

Like I said before, Marty Robbins does a lot of story songs, and this album is almost nothing but. I love a good story song, though, and I’m pretty sure my love for them started here when I first heard “El Paso”. Another thing I love about Marty Robbins is his voice. I have never heard anyone who sounded like him. Of course, everyone has different voices, but something about his particular voice and singing style is just fantastic. If you like music set in the West or cowboy stories, I highly recommend checking this album out if you have not.

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Album Review: American Grandstand by Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary

Rating: 7/10

Yeah, I don’t usually talk about cover albums, especially when the album in question features covers so obvious as some of the ones here, like “Golden Ring” and “Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man.” But July is slow, and it gives me time to listen to this, and this album proves there are exceptions to everything.

Rhonda Vincent and Daryle singletary are a notable exception in this case, somehow managing to take timeless songs and make them sound fresh. It speaks to the quality of their individual voices, as well as to the way they blend together flawlessly and manage to convey emotion so well that they can breathe new life into songs which are almost tired by now. A couple of the songs on this record still sound a little superfluous or obligatory, even if the actual singing is good, but “After the Fire is Gone” is one of the best covers here, closely followed by “Above and Beyond” and “One.” These three covers open the album with its strongest moment and promptly erase any misgivings you might have had about another covers project. I’ll go right ahead and establish my classic country ignorance yet again by saying “After the Fire is Gone” is one I’d never heard before, and I have to say, after getting acquainted, I think I prefer this version.

And let’s not overlook the fact that these are actually duets, not new versions with backing vocals or versions where one person sings the lead, and the other has a token line or two. These are real, old-fashioned duets; it actually takes both of them to make these songs work, and each brings a valuable contribution to every track. They enhance each other vocally, as good duet partners should. They feed off one another like iron sharpens iron. Their harmonies are stellar. Appreciate that actual duets, not the kind with a few lines by a secondary performer, are incredibly hard to pull off. The male/female duet brings in a whole set of other problems, as you have to find a key that is flattering to both voices. Appreciate all that for a second, and then realize we’ve got a whole album of them here. I appreciate Jason Eady and Courtney Patton’s Something Together album–in fact, you’ll find that got a higher rating here than this, and it’s been criminally underrated and unnoticed–but my biggest criticism for it was that some songs felt less like duets and more like acoustic versions with backing vocals. That’s probably just due to the fact that they couldn’t agree on a flattering key for fourteen songs without relegating one of them strictly to harmony sometimes. But that’s never the case here, not even on one song, and musically, that’s pretty amazing.

The covers are cool, but I don’t think they’ll all hold up. Some of them, like the aforementioned “Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man,” just feel a little too obvious, as though Vincent and Singletary felt like there was some sort of unwritten rule that they couldn’t make a duets album without including certain songs. That’s mostly the reason for the 7; I just feel like even though this is cool now, a good portion of it will wear off once you do get past their incredible singing. I mean, it may take awhile to actually get past said singing, but when this happens, it’s the lesser-known covers, and more than these, the originals, that will last. Appreciate this for a second too–take all of that I said about arranging a duet, and then imagine the difficulty involved in writing them. But we do have several originals here, like the title track and “As We Kiss Our World Goodbye.” These serve to add a sense of legitimacy to the album and will make it outlast the novelty factor.

This is not some earth-shattering release that will change your world, but it is a very country album full of great songs and sung by an outstanding pair of voices. But what makes it special is the chemistry in those voices, and the fact that this record keeps up that long-standing and proud tradition of country duets. And duet partners–George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway, and in more recent days, Garth and Trisha, Vince and Reba. More recent than that? Think of Blake and Miranda, or even Tim and Faith for pop country. The point is, that tradition has survived throughout country’s history, and no, it’s not the same thing as Maren Morris selling herself out to blend into Thomas Rhett’s “Craving You” for three lines to score a #1 hit. This is a great showcase of real country duets, just another one of many traditions being forsaken by the mainstream. So it’s a great thing to get a record like this in 2017, to see that the country duet is still very much alive and well, and here’s to hoping that it’s not the last from these two excellent duet partners.

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Single Review: Sara Evans’ “Marquee” Sign”

Rating: 6/10

Sara Evans–yet another name to be added to the list of artists who produced a string of quality music, both traditional and more pop-leaning, and then unceremoniously got spit out by the Nashville machine when they perceived that her usefulness to them had expired. Music Row has just as big a problem with casting its older artists aside as it does with fostering its female talent, so since Sara’s got both strikes against her, it’s no surprise that this release is an independent one. But she spent nearly twenty hears on a major label, so she had a great run, and often label independence can bring an artist like this freedom to make the kind of music they want to make and be a positive step creatively.

But it’s clear from listening to “Marquee sign,” one of the pre-released tracks from Sara’s upcoming album Words, due out Friday, (7/21), that Evans has absolutely no idea what to do with her newfound independence.

It’s not that this offering is a bad song; in fact, under the production and process, it’s a pretty good one. Lyrically, it’s got some nice metaphors, and although the idea of wishing there had been a sign to let you know an ex was going to be trouble is a little simplistic, there’s some good imagery in the verses that carries the idea in a more subtle way. Lines like “I wish you were a pack of cigarettes ’cause you would have come with a warning before I let you steal my breath” display a more imaginative way of conveying the same ideas. It’s certainly a relatable theme, and Sara Evans gives a technically great vocal performance as always.

But it’s the way that that technically great performance is robbed of the emotion by the overproduction, rendering her almost lifeless in places and too happy for the song’s material in others, that ultimately makes this song an uneven listen. The chorus particularly emphasizes that lifeless quality–it’s catchy, sure, but you don’t connect with anything she is supposedly feeling here at all. You have cheerful echoes of “lit up like a marquee sign” in the background after the last chorus belying the premise that this is actually a heartbreak song. Sara Evans has always done some more pop-leaning stuff, and done it in a good way, so it’s not the style itself here that doesn’t work, it’s the overproduction and the way it can’t really settle on a specific style. It leans sometimes toward pop country, other moments to pop rock, and then there are times it goes almost bluesy, like in the outro. It just seems very unsure of itself, and that probably speaks to Sara Evans’ current state of mind.

There’s a good song underneath, and this reminds me painfully of the first song by a promising new artist who hasn’t quite developed their sound. You see promise and potential, but the problems are also front and center. But you root for the artist because they’re still developing, and you know that time can iron out the rough spots and make them shine, if only they don’t succumb to the pressures of the spotlight and the whims of a label. The problem with Sara Evans is that she’s already been on that label for nearly twenty years, and now she’s left alone to try to find her own sound. Some artists find independence a blessing and embrace the creative freedom they’ve always wanted, but others struggle to adapt, and it would seem, at least from this song, that Sara Evans is in the latter category. But just like a new artist with a debut album, we can’t judge too much off one single, so we wait for Words and hope it will see Sara Evans taking more of a definite direction with her music.

Written by: Sara Evans, Jimmy Robbins, Heather Morgan

Travis Tritt Endorses Chris Stapleton and “Honest to God Country Music” in Live Show

First, let me say that you need to make it a point to see Travis Tritt live if you get the opportunity. I got the chance Friday (7/14), and it’s an incredible experience. You’ll get country, Southern rock, and even some blues, and you’ll leave amazed at the vocal ability and range of styles covered by Tritt, not to mention impressed by his own guitar picking and the talent of his whole band and drawn in by his infectious attitude onstage.

AT some point during many country shows lately, you’ll usually get some reference to the crappy state of modern mainstream music–Jason Eady made mention of this to considerable approval–and/or nods to older artists and perhaps covers of these artists’ songs–both Jason Eady and Dwight Yoakam covered Merle Haggard at recent events I attended. In these respects, Travis Tritt was no different; he asked us all if we were fans of “honest to God country music” and then quickly stipulated that he didn’t mean “a lot of what you hear today.” He went on to cite artists like Waylon Jennings, George Jones, and Loretta Lynn before introducing his song “Outlaws Like Us,” previously recorded with Hank Jr. and Waylon. He apparently doesn’t rate Luke Bryan too high on the list because after a couple minutes of downright impressive guitar picking, he finally broke into the song with a cheerful, “Eat your heart out, Luke Bryan!” to ridiculous applause.

But there is one new artist that Travis Tritt not only respects but actually covered later in the show. After remarking on the newer artists in country music and saying that it makes him feel good when they say he influenced them, he said, in order to honor that, he’d do a song from his favorite new country artist. That’s not something you see every day; it’s one thing for him to cover one of his own influences, but to pay respect to a younger, newer artist by covering their song at your show is the ultimate stamp of approval. And with that, he announced “a little Chris Stapleton song,” “Nobody to Blame.”

It’s not just that it’s Chris Stapleton he picked, although that’s certainly noteworthy in itself given Stapleton’s lack of radio support and traditional leanings. It’s that he’s showing leadership by choosing to cover a new artist’s song at all, especially one that doesn’t fit the mainstream mold. Like I say, it’s no small thing for an established artist to cover a newer one, even given the incredible streak Stapleton’s been on. And when he’s out there saying stuff like not all country that’s around today is real, and “eat your heart out, Luke Bryan,” he’s not just approving of Chris Stapleton, he’s setting Stapleton apart and saying that here’s an artist in 2017 who’s doing it right. That in turn sets Tritt apart from the “old farts and jackasses” who want country to stay in a box and never move forward. We all know Tritt has been vocal in the past about things like Beyoncé being booked on the CMA’s, but this support of an artist like Stapleton proves he’s not just here to complain. It’s a great way of doing his part to show leadership in the genre. Cool stuff, glad I got to witness it!