Album Review: Alex Williams–Better Than Myself

Rating: 7/10

Why are we surprised that Alex Williams got to release this album on Big Machine? Because it’s traditional country? Because he’s virtually unknown? Because Scott Borchetta’s label is also home to Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett?

Well, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. Thrilled, maybe, but not surprised. Scott Borchetta may be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. He signed Taylor Swift, an online sensation, with the hope that he could market to teenage girls in country, and you can’t argue with the results even if your opinion of Swift isn’t great. He signed FGL when it became clear bro country would take off. He molded Thomas Rhett to take advantage of the R&B craze taking over the country airwaves. When it became apparent that people were having second thoughts and misgivings about bro country, he signed Maddie & Tae and helped them get a #1 protest song. He signed Midland to take advantage of the cry for more traditional acts, and now he’s done arguably the most predictable, Scott Borchetta-like thing he could do in response to the growth of Americana: sign someone completely unknown with an image to match. He’s not going to go so far as to approach someone like say, Cody Jinks, though–for one, Jinks would never agree, and secondly, that would make too much sense. NO, he’s gone with the completely unknown, out of left field Alex Williams, and then when people won’t listen to Alex because they’re trying to make some sort of hipster statement and boycott the mainstream, it’s going to look like bro country, R&B, and whatever Sam Hunt is doing are truly still the best and most popular options.

So don’t buy into that plan and avoid Alex Williams just because he’s on Big Machine. Give the music a fair shake because if we all turn our backs on principle, he and others like him won’t be given a chance to succeed, and they’ll keep churning out more Thomas Rhetts.

Does that mean this Alex Williams debut is a groundbreaking piece of pure country excellence? No, not by a long stretch, but it’s got a lot of potential, and let’s remember, it’s a debut record. So with all that said, I’d like to talk about Alex Williams and his music now as opposed to the label on the back of this album.

I mentioned potential, and this record is brimming with it. Alex Williams definitely has a great, throwback country sound and style that also adds more contemporary elements. He’s got a great voice to match, and you’ll truly find country all over this record. He sounds sincere, and it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to be anything other than himself.

Unfortunately, Better Than Myself is sort of an ironic title because unlike the assertion on the title track that his songs are better than himself, the songs are not necessarily as good as Alex here. Taken on their own, they’re actually all quite good or at least decent, but they start to run together in a similar fashion to Sara Evans’ latest album because the material is too similar. There’s a lot of drinking and getting stoned on this album, and sometimes it’s like he’s just writing about drinking and such for the sake of it. In other words, it feels more like an interpretation of style, or in this case subject matter, rather than honest reflection by Williams himself. It’s difficult to say because he truly does always sound sincere and engaged, but I think it’s a fault of the fact that this is his debut record, and he’s playing it a little safe. As I say, the songs are mostly fine on their own, but Alex Williams needs to balance them with a little more depth.

But we all used to be more forgiving of artists’ debut efforts, and Alex Williams shouldn’t be an exception. It’s hard not to hear a song like “Few short Miles,” a personal track about Bobby, a mentor of Williams who died of cancer, and not want to root for this guy. This is easily the strongest track here, and you can see that if he’s given a chance, Alex could develop into a really bright spot in the mainstream. And a lot of the drinking songs are fine on their own, the record just needs some variety and perhaps a little more personality. You hear cool lyrics sprinkled throughout the record, like in “Strange Days” and “Old Tattoo.” “Last Cross” is also a fine song, closing the album with some reflection about the hard living mentioned here as he prepares to meet a lover at “the last cross left to bear.”

Ultimately, this record’s not going to change your life or anything, and it’s definitely got some tired and even cliché themes, but it’s also quite a promising debut from Alex Williams. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I enjoy that. The material is too similar, and there’s not quite enough Alex pouring out of it, but the lighthearted attitude with which this album is delivered is actually really refreshing to me. It may also help that it’s a fun, uncomplicated album that I listened to in the midst of all the turmoil going on in our world right now. I wasn’t really looking for depth when i heard this, so I probably heard it at the right time, and that may admittedly account for why I seem to be enjoying this a little more than some others talking about this album.

I don’t know if we’d all be talking about it if it hadn’t come from Big Machine, though, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. It’s good for the obvious reason that it’s pretty incredible to see an album like this get released on a major label, even premiered on NPR and such, but it’s bad because too many people are prejudging it. It’s not going to blow you away, but this is a guy we should all be able to get behind. There’s a lot of room for development, but these days, an artist doesn’t always get that time to develop, and I fear that this will be largely ignored due to people’s refusal to listen to it. Recognize this for what it is, a positive step for the mainstream.

I hope Alex Williams gets to record more albums, and that next time, I won’t be giving him such a mixed review. I hope he can develop his sound and become one of the shining lights in mainstream country, and I’m sorry he doesn’t quite do that with this record. But it’s his debut, and we all have to start somewhere. The flaws are right up front on this album, but the potential is too, and it’s up to us to make sure he gets enough time to truly live up to that potential. Not the album that’s going to “save” country music, but it’s a decent, fun record. Give it a chance.

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Memorable Songs From Overlooked Albums: August 22nd

Man, these have been really piling up with my two trips and slight break from writing, so although I haven’t written one in awhile, you can probably expect another one quite soon. For new people, here we have songs from forgettable/mediocre albums, songs from albums we didn’t cover due to time constraints and/or out of deference to artists, and songs from projects we didn’t have much to say about but still felt some tracks deserved a feature. These appear when there are enough songs sliding through the cracks to make one, and as I say, you probably won’t have long to wait before the next one.

Carrie Elkin: “New Mexico”

This Carrie Elkin record, The Penny Collector, goes in that category of not giving me anything worthwhile to say about it. It’s been out for awhile, and I’ve given it several listens, and it isn’t that I don’t enjoy it–in fact, I think she’s been underrated considerably–but my review of the album would be uneven. It’s very dark and moody, having been inspired mostly by her father’s passing. I advise people who lean toward darker material to check this one out, but I’m not getting into the whole thing. This song is a lovely ode to Carrie’s homeland and a nice opener for the whole thing, and you can see where she drew the inspiration for this record.

Carrie Elkin: “Always on the Run”

This is one of the more interesting tracks in terms of production here. It’s kind of hard to describe really; the song is reflecting on how in life, we’re constantly running, and the lyrics and the melody add a hurried feel to everything that enhances it.

Carrie Elkin: “Live Wire”

This is easily my favorite of the album, as it’s a little more lighthearted, and the production is a little more interesting. If there were more production moments like this one, it would have really added a lot to this record. Having said that, it doesn’t really fit in with the tone of the album, and that’s what makes it a great song for me. I’ve heard Carrie Elkin’s voice compared to that of Linda Ronstadt, and it’s never more apparent than on this song. As a huge fan of Ronstadt, this is easily the standout of the album for me, even if it might seem out of place on this particular record. I can’t argue with the brilliant lyric, :life half empty is a life half spilled” either. If you liked the other two, you may not enjoy this one; equally, if you found the other two too dark or boring, check this one out.

Whiskey Shivers: “Cluck ol’ Hen”

And now we switch gears from a dark, depressing affair to a punk/bluegrass album that arguably has too much energy for its own good. I’ll give it this; Some Part of Something has stellar instrumentation throughout. But this album is just a little too crazy to be taken all that seriously. This one is a nice interpretation of an old bluegrass tune.

Whiskey Shivers: “Fuck You”

Yep, not much to say about this, the song speaks for itself. It’s a final farewell to an ex who, according to the singer, “always asked me for a song.” Be careful what you wish for I guess.

Whiskey Shivers: “Liquor, Beer, Wine, and Ice”

Here it is: the proof that you can make a small-town partying song and actually have it be catchy and yes, intelligent. Nice, fun song.

Jim Lauderdale: “Sweet Time”

For any of you who know me well, you know that I have a propensity to listen to new albums on a Friday or Saturday afternoon in the background while I play online poker. Why? Because it gives me something to do other than just stare into the distance contemplating the album, and also because if a record can hold my attention while that attention is divided, I know it’s worth giving more listens and possibly a review. Admittedly, sometimes I get distracted, and I have to give some records more listens to make sure I gave them a fair chance. This usually happens with deeper albums, but these require several listens anyway. All that to say, after the first listen to this London Southern album, I thought it was my fault that I couldn’t remember a single thing after the opener. No, it’s simply the fact that this is, hands down, the most boring record released in 2017. So, here’s the opener, which is really quite a nice song. But don’t use it as a stepping stone to possibly check out an album I didn’t review because I promise you, after that, there is nothing noteworthy here whatsoever.

Joe Nichols: “I’d Sing About You”

I intended to review this album actually, but time got in the way. If I did review Never Gets Old, it would probably get a 5, maybe a 6. Lots of mediocre material on the record, nothing awful except “Tall Boys” which is truly atrocious. But there are also some highlights, and even though this is probably the one most people know since it’s been released as a single, it deserves to be featured here as a bright spot on Joe’s album.

Joe Nichols: “WE All Carry Something”

Probably my favorite on this record. Joe Nichols’ sincerity shines through this song as he sings about real-life situations and the burdens that we all must endure. This would have been a radio hit ten years ago.

Joe Nichols: “Billy Graham’s Bible”

That sincerity I mentioned before really carries this track, as Nicols sings about being made for someone just like Billy Graham’s Bible and Willie Nelson’s guitar. It’s a shame this album didn’t have more like this one and “We All Carry Something” because tracks like these really show the potential in Joe Nichols. Who knows if he’ll ever live up to it on a whole album, but at least we can hope for a few songs like this sprinkled throughout his records.

Reflecting On: Jason Boland & The Stragglers – Rancho Alto

Jason Boland & the Stragglers is one of the best bands making country today. Their instrumentation, lyrics, and vocals all combine to make the perfect package. When thinking of which album I wanted to discuss by this band, I debated between this one and their 2013 release, Dark and Dirty Mile. I settled for Rancho Alto because it has the first song I ever heard by the band on it, and it’s the first album I ever bought from these guys.

Release Date: 2011

Style: Traditional Country

People Who Might Like This Album: Those who love their country music with great singing, lyrics, and instrumentation, Fans of the Turnpike Troubadours, Fans of anything authentically country

Standout Tracks: “Down Here in the Hole,” “False Accuser’s Lament,” “Woody’s Road”

The album starts off with one of the band’s best songs, “Down Here In the Hole”. It details the day of a miner who gets trapped in the mine. The line that gets to me the most is “The sun never shines down here in the hole”. The man in the song is mining because he needs the money. The track ends when he gets trapped in the mine, and nobody knows if he fell or was shoved. The instrumentation is stellar with some great fiddle play. It’s a faster song, too, which you wouldn’t expect with this subject matter.

Another favorite from this album is “False Accuser’s Lament”. The song tells the story of a man who lied about seeing someone commit a murder. The person telling the story doesn’t know if the man he accused actually did it, but he wanted the money for a new plow and to keep his land. The banker offered to pay the man in the song, along with some others, to say that they’d seen a specific man shoot someone. This is because the banker’s wife had cheated on him with the person the banker wanted imprisoned for committing murder. In the end, the false accuser loses everything to the banker due to bad weather destroying his crops. . This is yet another story song that I think is fabulous. The steel guitar and fiddle make this song stand out instrumentally, too. This track is just so layered, because you have the jealous banker bribing poor people to say the man his wife cheated on him with had committed murder. You also have the main character in the song detailing his remorse and how he keeps seeing the accused man be killed. It’s just fantastic.

“Woody’s Road” is the first song I ever heard by Jason Boland & the Stragglers. Upon doing some research, I discovered that the song was actually written by Bob Childers, but I have not heard any other version. I love this song. It’s a tribute to Woody Guthrie. The man in the song tries to follow Woody Guthrie’s example of being a friend to everyone, rambling, and doing his best to help everyone. I confess, I do not know all that much about Woody Guthrie, but this song certainly has always made me curious about him. Adding to the lyrics is the stellar instrumental talent of the Stragglers, and the great melody, and I was hooked.

The rest of the album is good, but these three songs are my favorites. “Woody’s Road” certainly led me to discovering the Stragglers, and I have not regretted it since. They make some of the finest country music being produced today, and I hope everyone reading this will check them out.

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Review – Margo Price – Weakness EP

Rating: 6/10

I will readily admit that I have not listened to Margo Price’s debut album. Despite the buzz around its release, I just never got to it. Therefore, when this new EP came out, I figured I’d give it a shot since it’s only four songs long to see if Margo Price is my kind of singer.

It turns out that I did not have long to wait to see what I thought of her voice, as it was a bit weak on the title track, which is also the EP’s opener. The lyrics aren’t bad, detailing how sometimes her weakness is stronger than she is, and she is overcome by it. As much as I like the lyrics, though, her voice is what brings the song down for me. It seems like she tries overly hard. I do like the fiddle, however.

The second song, “Just Like Love”, has some darker instrumentation, which I liked. The lyrics talk about how love is not the gentle emotion we all think it is, and that we are all the same, as humans. I think Margo Price’s vocals are a bit better here, and I do like the guitar. I just wish her voice had not been so far back in the mix for this one. Combined with the tempo of the song and the way her vocals were mixed, “Just Like Love” felt a bit sleepy.

“Paper Cowboy” is both my most and least favorite song. The lyrics are great as they discuss a man who is all talk and no action. I like all of the little digs she takes at him, too. Where this song loses me, though, is when the track diverges from singing to total instrumental. Said instrumental goes on for about three minutes or so, and I quickly got bored. Her band is quite talented, but I tend to get less excited about songs outside of the classical genre if there are no words.

Lastly, there is “Good Luck (For Ben Eyestone)”. I really like her voice in the chorus of this song. As she references him being up in the sky and hoping he can see through the stars, I am assuming this song is dedicated to someone who has passed away. She hopes he thinks of her where he is. That is definitely a great sentiment, and I like the lyrical content of the song a lot.

Overall, the lyrics for all of the songs are strong, and Margo Price has a really good backing band. I question some of the production choices, as well as the style of singing used on “Weakness”. While Margo Price does have some songs where her vocals are really well-done, I did not love this EP. I listened to it a few days before I wrote this review, and had to go back and re-listen again in preparation to write this. I was surprised by what the songs say, so that just means that it was rather forgettable. I think if you like female-sung country, you should give this a chance to see if Margo Price’s music is your thing.

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Album Review: Tyler Childers–Purgatory

Rating: 8.5/10

If you’ve been living in blissful ignorance of Tyler Childers and his music, I invite you to rectify this, and quickly, so that when he blows up as he rightfully should, you can say you were ahead of the curve and that you knew about this cool eastern Kentucky native before it was cool. I am not claiming to be one of the many people bombarding sites like Saving Country Music asking for updates on Childers for months and years prior to this release; in fact, I had never heard of him either until that voice came belting out of Colter wall’s album on “Fraulein” in May. It’s rare that someone can make such an impression with just a verse, but that killer voice and the unique, sort of raspy, weathered tones and cracks, especially in Tyler’s higher register, made a lasting impression on this listener.

So we come to Purgatory, and while I wouldn’t say there’s one moment absolutely blowing me away on the level of Tyler’s participation in “Fraulein,” this is a really great album. It’s a record of hard living–drinking, smoking, cocaine, women–and the rare, special women that can turn you from such vices. I wouldn’t say it’s thematic throughout, but it does seem like Tyler is on an endless cycle of screwing up, falling in love, and turning back to vices again after the heartbreak or simply because like he says in “Whitehouse Road,” “it’s a damn good feelin’ to run these roads.” The title track seems to link the subject matter somewhat with its lines like “Catholic girl, pray for me, you’re my only hope for heaven.” It seems that Childers is seeking a place in purgatory because he knows he can’t, or won’t, change, but he believes in hell and wants to avoid it. A lot of this album is delivered in a somewhat lighthearted, offhanded manner, but these underlying themes do seem to be running through it, however unintentionally. It’s also very much a Kentucky record, and although universal in theme, there’s a bit of Tyler’s home in the references and in that accent which certainly adds to this album.

The strongest tracks here are the ones that best showcase that raw power and intensity unique to Tyler Childers and his voice. The opener, “I swear (To God”), is the best example, beginning the record in fine fashion with its spirited narrative and details of waking up with a shiner and not knowing “what all happened.” “Whitehouse Road” also captures some of that quality in his voice, and this one is just an all-around great song. On the softer part of the record, “Lady May” stands out, again because it showcases Tyler well, with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. “Honky Tonk Flame” and “Universal Sound” also stand out because they add something personal to the album and together tell the story of Tyler Childers’ love affair with music. “Universal sound” is a bit ironic because it really doesn’t sound like the rest as far as the production, but the heart in it just makes this song, and you believe every word he’s saying. There’s also a line in this one that seems wistful and adds to those underlying tones, as he reflects that when he was young, music was all he needed; now, “I think about the vices I’ve let take me over time,” as if he wishes he still only needed music.

The one thing that holds this record back slightly is the fact that while I genuinely enjoy every song here, and some are even real standouts, there could be even more. As mentioned before, there’s no single moment on this record that would make an impression on me quite like the moment Childers had on the Colter Wall album, even if the entire record is pretty great as a whole. Some of this is just due to playing it safe with the keys; “Tattoos” could be higher, but it’s probably recorded in this key for the sake of the fiddle, which indeed makes the song. “Born Again” could be higher too. It’s that place in his higher register where the part of Tyler Childers that is so wonderfully unique resides, and I just wish we heard it in more moments on this album. It’s as if Tyler Childers has not yet quite recognized his full potential as a vocalist, and/or it wasn’t given enough consideration during production. Other than that, the production is actually quite excellent, and credit to Sturgill Simpson for that, for making it varied and interesting throughout and keeping it true to Tyler and his sound. As far as these aspects, it’s actually one of the best production efforts I’ve heard in 2017. But back to the vocals…it’s a difficult criticism because there’s nothing really wrong with this record at all–in fact, it’s turning out to be one of my personal favorite listens of the year–but it could have been even more, and that only speaks to the full talent of Tyler Childers. It’s a case of an excellent vocalist who sounds like a good one here, and while I probably shouldn’t complain because the independent scene is strapped for even good vocalists at the moment, I can’t help feeling Tyler is selling himself a little short in that department.

So, overall, this is a fine album, and Tyler Childers is a name you need to know. It’s got variety in production, catchy melodies, and great songwriting throughout. It’s a good balance between the more fast-paced stuff and the love ballads, so even though there’s some similarity in theme, none of it runs together, and it makes for an engaging story. The only real problem with this whole thing is that it could have been even better, and that’s a compliment to Childers and a reflection of the standards to which I have held him. Nevertheless, Purgatory will be one of my most played 2017 albums, and he should be very proud of it.

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