Melody: The Most Forgotten and Forsaken Element in Music

“Nobody even attempts to write a melody.”

These were some of the infamous words of Merle Haggard when he gave his opinion on modern mainstream country back in 2015. Interesting words because while you can find plenty of people harping on the lack of lyrical content and substance in the mainstream, or bitching about the encroachment of other genres and electronic beats into their beloved country music, not many people have commented on what may be the most rampant problem running through modern American music: the consistent lack of memorable and engaging melodies.

But even though we don’t mention it, this makes sense in the mainstream. Much of the stuff coming from Music Row is unimaginative and forgettable, and the lack of melody is only one small problem. So yeah, maybe we don’t criticize it often enough, but it’s not a stretch to see the undeniable lack of care for this crucial element in mainstream country.

But I’d argue it’s an even bigger problem in the world of Americana and independent music; yep, you know, that world where everything is good, and we can’t criticize anything. IN fact, I’d say that the mainstream is maybe the best place to find entertaining melodies these days–and no, that’s not saying a lot because so much mainstream music is just downright boring, but the majority of the songs we call “guilty pleasures” that come out of the mainstream stick with us because they’re catchy. They get stuck in our heads. Sure, we know the lyrics are stupid, maybe even at times misogynistic. But it’s the melody, and/or that lively, infectious instrumentation that keeps us liking the song despite how our mind tells us we should feel about it.

Conversely, how many Americana projects have you listened to that while there weren’t any flaws per se, there was also nothing memorable whatsoever? Maybe you read reviews or heard from listeners how great a record was, how awesome the songwriting was, etc., and for whatever reason just could not get into the album. That’s not to take away from the special art of songwriting, and it’s also true music is by nature subjective, but sometimes, albums are ruined just by a lack of effort and care for the melodies. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s is a shining example of this and indeed the inspiration for this post; equally, John Moreland’s latest might well have been the most boring record of the year if not for those catchy hooks and enchanting melodies that kept you coming back enough times to really unwrap the brilliance in his lyrics.

This problem of forsaking melodies is no doubt directly related to the equally alarming lack of quality vocalists in the independent scenes, which is itself a topic worthy of an entire post. We question whether to criticize such things as a singer’s vocal ability, and indeed, things like tone can’t be helped, but the technical abilities of singers can also be improved. Shows like The Voice and American Idol have gone to the other extreme, painting a picture of vocal ability as everything without taking into account an artist’s ability to draw an audience in emotionally. This emotional connection is more vital than technical skill, But singing is also more than emotive interpreting; this is what makes it different from reading poetry. it’s also nice to hear a great vocalist sing the hell out of a song; that’s one of the reasons Lauren Alaina’s sophomore album was such a joy to listen to.

When singer-songwriters are writing songs to fit their increasingly limited vocal ranges and abilities, their melodies become limited as well and often become somewhat of an afterthought. The results are often good lyrics that were turned into boring, lifeless songs. I’ve heard numerous Americana albums like this in 2017, brimming with good songwriting but completely forgettable. A singer may indeed possess that special thing that connects them with an audience and allows them to draw emotion out of every word, but does that matter if those magical words are translated into boring, forgettable music? Melody is what brings the lyrics to life and makes the songs resonate with us and get stuck in our heads. A script is only as good as the actors who make it come alive onstage, and lyrics on a page are only as thoughtful and relatable as the vocalist who interprets them for the world and the melody to which the songwriter sets them.

We praise songwriters, and we say we’re living in the age of the song, but it’s more like the age of the lyric. These independent/Americana types are often so caught up in telling a story and/or being deep and thoughtful that they forget what makes music such a unique and treasured art form. It’s good to be artistic, but that artistry shouldn’t replace accessibility. Even our greatest songwriters like Jason Isbell are guilty of this; there’s some brilliant material on his latest album, but some of it is honestly just forgettable melodically. This is not to take away from Jason Isbell as an artist or a lyricist, more to paint a picture of just how deep the problem goes and to illustrate that even the greatest songwriters and albums suffer from this phenomenon in 2017.

There is a lot of talk these days, especially in this blogging world, about what, if any, of the music coming out currently will be remembered years from now. Not ten or twenty, but say, fifty years down the road. Will we be listening to any music from today like people still listen to Hank? That’s a whole different discussion, but I’d argue that it’s not just the lack of substance keeping songs from having that timeless quality. It’s not just shallow radio singles that will be forgotten, but many of our greatest songwriters in both mainstream and independent music will suffer the same fate if they continue to treat melody as some sort of secondary element. It’s that indefinable thing that keeps us coming back to a song years later, that recalls a memory, a specific place and time, and has us singing a chorus we haven’t heard in so long but to which we still can recite the words. It’s the melodies which linger on in our minds and stir our hearts, and I hate to see it becoming so marginalized, even by otherwise great musicians and lyricists. So songwriters, please don’t forget this crucial part of your craft, or treat it as somehow secondary to your lyrics. It’s the thing that holds them together and gives them character, taking those thoughts from your head and words on a page and turning them into timeless songs that we’ll sing for years to come.

Album Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard–Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can

Rating: 5/10

I’ve given this album a ton of listens, and truth be told, it gets worse almost each time. It’s a difficult rating to assign because I think there are some truly excellent songs here; the problem is that they’re mixed in with some incredibly boring material that balances out the record to just be really average. It’s not necessarily a fault of the writing or of the instrumentation, it’s the sameness permeating this album that ultimately brings it down after further listens.

But let’s talk about the killer songs first because they’re sprinkled in here, reminding us what a songwriting genius Ray Wylie Hubbard really is. This album deals a lot, as its title would suggest, with God and the devil and matters of repentance and redemption. We get a truly epic tale in “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels,” as they hitchhike with Ray Wylie to Mobile, Alabama, and Lucifer recounts the story of getting banished from heaven and continuously advises Hubbard to abandon his plan of going to Nashville, saying, “it’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” He suggests that Ray Wylie go “someplace like Texas,” where they still appreciate good music. On the other side of the spectrum, Hubbard details the story of the creation and the fall in Genesis in what can only be described as a redneck retelling in the opener, “God Looked Around.” His storytelling skills are also on fine display in “House of the White Rose Bouquet,” a haunting tale about a “woman of desire” named Olivia whom the narrator once loved. She now haunts the brothel where they worked, but it’s now been turned into a theater, or as Ray Wylie calls it, “a beacon of decency.”

We have two collaborations featured on this record, and the title track is definitely going to be the one getting more attention because it features Lucinda Williams and Eric Church, but it’s the Patty Griffin harmonies on the closer, “IN Times of Cold,” that make this song the better collaboration by far. This song ends the album appropriately, reflecting on heaven but asserting that “I’ll likely take my place in hell.”

As for the title track, it’s a good narrative, and the details and melodic touches here are nice, especially considering the overwhelming sameness in much of the album which I am about to address, but Lucinda Williams’ part here just ruins this. The only word I can think to properly describe her contribution is careless; she doesn’t sing in time with Ray and Eric Church, her voice sticks out like a sore thumb, and she doesn’t sound at all engaged with the lyrics of the song. Eric Church is much more respectful of the song and the words, but it’s like Lucinda just wanted to be heard.

Why am I spending so much time harping on this particular song? Because it should have been one of the standouts. This album is filled with songs having very little instrumentation and almost no choruses. The only songs where we are not hit with the same repeated verse, over and over, until we’re virtually hypnotized by this repetition of rhythm and lack of interesting melody, are the collaborations. It’s like a breath of fresh air to hear the title track come on and get a little more variety, and then Lucinda Williams just comes along and ruins the whole thing for me.

And songwriters, what is this tendency to forsake your melodies? It doesn’t matter that the lyrics are brilliant if they’re translated into a boring, lifeless piece of music. This is what ultimately takes this album from a 7.5 straight down to a 5. The three songs I mentioned above? Yes, they’re all killer lyrically, and I stand by that, but all of them are incredibly repetitive. The lyrics hold up well enough on these songs that it doesn’t matter, but almost the whole rest of the record is so plain and forgettable that even these songs are tarnished in context. On some of the other tracks, it’s not as if the lyrics are bad. It’s just that a song is more than lyrics, and we rely on melodies to make these words come alive. Much of it just sounds so unfinished, like we’re listening to the first drafts of these songs before they were given a proper chance to find the right instrumentation and production and truly come to life. I especially get that impression listening to “Open G,” like Ray Wylie Hubbard was just messing around with his guitar and never actually intended that song to be on the final version of the record. It’s a completely pointless track, so that at least would be a legitimate explanation for its existence here.

Overall, I don’t hate this record. In fact, I think there are some truly brilliant moments here, particularly in “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels” and “House of the White Rose Bouquet.” But it’s an album whose problems emerge over time, and there’s not much longevity at all. At first, you hear some killer tracks, some decent ones, and yeah, maybe a couple boring ones to round it out. Not a perfect album, but a decent one. And then, through repeated listens, the overwhelming sameness in this record starts to wear it down. It’s a lack of care for the instrumentation and especially for the melody that if given more attention could have really changed this whole album. All in all, it just seems really uninspired, and Ray Wylie Hubbard is certainly capable of much better.

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Single Review: Turnpike Troubadours’ “The Housefire”

Rating: 8/10

Well, Lorrie’s back.

That’s almost the first thing you notice about this new Turnpike song, the reemergence of Lorrie, who first appeared in “Good Lord Lorrie” and later in “The Mercury” and can arguably be linked to several other Troubadours songs. Here, she’s a beacon of assurance, grabbing the baby and calling the fire department as the narrator’s house burns to the ground. You can tell he admires her calmness; he’s watching speechlessly as his house burns, but he reflects that Lorrie “never missed a note” as she wrapped up their baby in a coat “she found out in my ride.” Seeming to draw his strength from Lorrie, he observes that “I can live on so much less” as he stands barefoot outside with only “a photograph and my old auto 5.” Same shotgun from “The Bird Hunters?” Perhaps, and that would possibly give us another piece of the Lorrie puzzle, if indeed she’s the one the narrator of that epic is thinking of as he lifts the gun to his shoulder in the opening moments of their last album. We also have the possible links of the “logging roads” mentioned here and in that song, although in rural Oklahoma, such roads are prevalent, so I wouldn’t be as quick to assert that particular connection.

But all this is part of the mystery that makes an Evan Felker-penned tune a joy to listen to, as he weaves compelling stories together that at once make you feel like you know these characters and also give you very little information about them. But he told us the new album would have lots of narrative songs, so we may yet learn more about these characters and how it all connects. Or maybe Felker himself is adding pieces to the story as he writes. Anyway, this particular narrative is a great picture of all the little details that happened in those few moments of the house burning down. Add to that their signature stellar instrumentation, and what we have is yet another great song from this band. It’s a comfort to hear when my ears have recently been subjected to the horrors of the new songs from Luke Bryan, Dylan Scott, and Taylor Swift. IN a world with the Turnpike Troubadours, we’ll always have some good music to balance it out. Can October 20th please get here already?

Written by: Evan Felker

Pop Spotlight: Yes, I’m Talking About Kesha’s Rainbow. Sue Me.

Why am I talking about Kesha’s latest album? Even taking into account I said awhile back I was going to start spotlighting non-country stuff occasionally, why this? It’s not as if it’s got any shortage of coverage.

Truthfully? Because it’s held my attention more than any other album these past couple weeks, especially during my small break from writing.

So then, why is this long-awaited Kesha album the one I keep coming back to at the moment, especially over country records?

Well, honestly, my initial interest had, as I”m sure is a commonality among people who paid attention to this project, to do with the drama surrounding Kesha and the release of this record. I wanted to know all about #FreeKesha, and whether she’d really made music that sounded different from her ridiculously processed, virtually lifeless party music from before. And then I listened to this record and was pleasantly surprised by a lot of things, not the least of them being that she seems to understand country better than the majority of mainstream country artists. It’s reflected in the cheating song “Hunt You Down,” which is reminiscent rhythmically of “Walk the Line,” and certainly in her version of Dolly Parton’s “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” which is both unique to her and a tasteful representation of the song. Her mother wrote this song, and Kesha grew up with classic country music. She’s obviously not country, but it’s plain to see that she does respect it, and it’s cool to see Dolly Parton joining her on this song like a nod of approval. The two sound surprisingly good together as well.

Admittedly, some of my fascination and connection with this album is personal. I don’t want to insinuate that I’ve experienced even half of what Kesha would have of us believe she went through, but at the same time, I can empathize to a certain, if small, degree, and a song like “Praying” just takes me out of a place of review altogether and just leaves me in a place of solidarity with her. This is just an incredible song honestly. You can tell she’s pouring her heart into it. The same goes for “Learn to Let you Go,” which is sort of the upbeat, less serious version of this one. She’s stronger in this one, but it’s still so honest. It’s the sincerity in these and some of the other straight pop songs that make this different from her previous material; this really is Kesha. You might not enjoy the style, but a lot of this is real. Music is supposed to make you feel something, and that’s what Kesha does for much of this album.

But she’s not always reflecting on her past either. “Boots” is a very cool, fun song that shows her having moved on and found love. “Woman” is sort of like a more mature version of one of her older songs, and “Bastards” and “Let ’em Talk,” although both serious, serve to provide a lighthearted way of saying we should ignore the well, bastards, in our lives, and move on from the hatred. This record ends like that with the very cool, very atmospheric “Spaceship,” where she asserts that in death, she’ll finally be able to escape all that hatred and fly off to her home in another galaxy. This one has got to be the most interesting as far as production, so if you are drawn to weird production, I urge you to check that one out.

So, if you like pop albums, this is absolutely the best one I have heard in 2017 without question. If you are more staunchly rooted in country, i still say check out “Hunt You down” and “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You).” If you like interesting production , there may be a lot for you to enjoy here because there’s quite a bit of diversity and certainly some intriguing collaboration choices. Some of you might just hate this because well, it’s not your style, but it pleasantly surprised me, and it gave me passion to write, which is more than I can say for many country projects that have come out recently. Not in the business of rating pop albums because well, for one, I don’t listen to them as regularly as country and therefore don’t have as much to compare this to, and also because I’m no authority on pop music, but if I’m just rating this against stuff I’ve heard in 2017, without consideration of genre, this gets a solid, strong 8.

Standout Tracks: “Praying,” “Boots,” “hunt You Down,” “Spaceship,” “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You)”

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Reflecting on: The Lost Brothers–So Long John Fante

Well, one of the reasons for starting this feature was so that Brianna and I could explore older music we didn’t know and familiarize ourselves with new artists and styles, all while sharing those discoveries with you all. So today, I’m talking about something a little out of left field for me, an Irish folk band called the Lost Brothers, and their album So Long John Fante.

Release Date: 2011
Style: folk, close to what we’d call Americana but you know, it’s Irish, mixed with some hints of country and bluegrass and folk rock
People Who Might Like This Album: those who enjoy great melodies, harmonies and songwriting, those who like relaxing records, maybe those who like stuff like John Moreland’s latest album
Standout Tracks: “Bells They Won’t Ring,” “Pale Moon,” “Only By the Light of the Moon,” “Those Ancient Eyes,” “In the City,” “The Goodbye Kid,” “Killing Heart”
Reflections: Well, credit goes to my boyfriend Rob immediately, for showing me the absolutely excellent “Bells They Won’t ring” a couple years ago and introducing me to this little-known band from Ireland. Listen to this one if you only pick one track; it’s a heart-wrenching tale about love that went wrong somehow; “we will meet again, some other spring, but after all that’s been, bells they won’t, bells they won’t ring.” What a timeless lyric and sentiment, and that ability to capture timeless emotions like this runs throughout much of this album. “Killing Heart” is another good example; I’ll admit I didn’t like this one at first, but its lyrics advising a woman to stay away from him because he will hurt her with his “killing heart” just cannot be ignored.

Their melodies and harmonies are really what make this band shine the most, though, taking simple songs like “Only by the Light of the Moon” and “Those ancient Eyes” and elevating them to something special. Actually, and I didn’t write this above because the comparison is a very specific one and not really a generalization, their relaxed style and gentle harmonies remind me a lot of the Mavericks. As I say, it’s sort of a weird comparison because you’ll find a lot more energy in a Mavericks record, but the easygoing nature of this album is reminiscent of some of their material, as is the way the Lost Brothers pay careful attention to both their melodies and their harmonies.

As far as style, well, I had a hard enough time trying to define that above, but mostly, it’s folk/Americana. Apple Music helpfully calls it singer-songwriter. “Six Black Days” is pretty country, almost bluegrass even, and “Pale Moon,” which is my favorite here behind “Bells They Won’t ring,” also carries some country elements. A good portion of it tends to be acoustic or very sparse in instrumentation, allowing the group’s vocals to be the main focus, as they should be. “The Goodbye Kid” is probably the most glaring exception to this and is the one to look for if you want a little more variety in production. Maybe not quite something for everyone, as there’s not really anything overly upbeat, but there is a nice variety in style, so something for most.

Cool band. Nice, pleasant, comforting record. It will put a smile on your face.

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