Album Review: Sara Evans — Words

Rating: 6.5/10

This has proven to be one of the more difficult albums I’ve ever covered here. It’s an album full of great songs–a couple of throwaway tracks that surely didn’t need to be here, but mostly, these are great songs. But lump them all into an album, and the result is a project that runs together, particularly in the back half. The individual songs are greater than the sum of their parts, and this makes it hard to judge.

Words feels highly stereotypical in the fact that it features fourteen female songwriters, a fact which was made much of ahead of this release, and that twelve of these fourteen songs are about love in some form–new love, relationships ending, or the aftermath and rebuilding process afterword. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and most of the songs are good or at least decent, but it’s the sameness in them which hurts the album as a whole and which only further reinforces the all too familiar stereotype that women only sing and write about love. Again, that’s not bad as it relates to Sara Evans; if Sara wants to sing about love for the majority of this record, then more power to her, but if you’re going to go for similar themes, you have to go for variety in production, and other than a couple exceptions, there’s not much variety in this area either. add in a couple of songs about something else, and the true greatness in some of these tracks would have only shone more brightly.

But let’s talk about the songs themselves for a moment because a few do manage to separate themselves from the bunch anyway and stand out as very nice additions to Sara Evans’ discography. The front of the record is the strongest, featuring the more country-leaning opener, “Long Way Down” and the country pop “All the Love You Left Me,” both very nice heartbreak songs. The former takes a more upbeat attitude and features fun instrumentation while the latter sees Sara in a more vulnerable position and showcases one of her best vocal performances here. “Diving in Deep” is probably a little too cheesy for some, but it works well for me; it’s the first of the new love variety and is just catchy as all hell. “Marquee Sign,” at this point on the album, is definitely the weakest, but it seems like an outlier, and four songs in, this record really holds a lot of promise.

Then we get easily the two worst songs of the bunch, “Like the way You Love Me” and “Rain and Fire.” “Like the Way You Love Me” is just a generic piece of filler about how she finally found someone better than all the assholes she’s been with, and “Rain and Fire” is a really obnoxious track about this guy who is supposedly having problems with his girlfriend, and Sara, who just met him tonight–think every bro country song we’ve ever criticized for this–is basically telling him to leave this girl and that she’d be better for him. Honestly, I don’t know why people haven’t made a bigger deal of this because lyrically, it’s like the female, albeit more well-written and decidedly more catchy, version of “Break up with Him.” Yeah, not a fan of this song.

The rest is just sort of mediocre. Here’s where the album runs together and where if there were some breaks in the material, the back half could have been much better. “Make Room at the Bottom” is the most memorable one on this half; this is a simple heartbreak song previously done by Ashley Monroe, and Sara Evans offers a fine version too. “Night Light” is admittedly nothing special lyrically, but the melody is just really beautiful, and I find myself coming back to this one simply for the sound of it. “I Need a River” does provide a break in the material, and it’s also more country-sounding, so you would think I would love it, but it’s just sort of decent for me. I do appreciate its message about getting back to the simpler things in life and the much-needed diversion from love songs. The other break comes in “Letting You Go,” a personal song about watching her son grow up, but honestly, the reference to her song “Born to Fly” here just ruins this song for me. It feels too calculated. “I Don’t trust Myself” features some truly cool verses, as one thing leads to another in Sara’s effort to avoid thinking about an ex, but the chorus just repeats the title line, so it feels anticlimactic. Evans gives a great vocal performance on “I want You,” but again, it’s underdeveloped lyrically. The title track is a decent heartbreak song, but by the eleventh track, I’ve already heard this quite enough, and other songs have done it so much better. All these songs, though, with the exception of “Letting You Go,” would have had more potential if they weren’t lumped together, and indeed do sound better on their own.

Overall, the only really bad songs here are “Like the Way You Love Me,” “Rain and Fire,” and “Letting You Go.” And many people will like the last one, it’s just ruined for me. There are a lot of really great songs here, and if there had been more variety, they would have stood out more. There are some that manage to stand out anyway, particularly near the front of the record. But the songs are better than the album as a whole, and although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this record, I’d certainly check out the songs and maybe pick out a few. I don’t normally recommend cherry-picking–that’s reserved for Memorable Songs–but this album is the perfect example of a group of songs that will sound better in playlists than all together.

Good songs, mediocre album.

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Review: Justin Payne’s Coal Camp EP, aka a Love Letter to West Virginia

Rating: 9/10

EP’s are second-class projects. They are largely ignored by the media and by fans, and why release one when you could just wait until you have enough songs and money to release a full-length album? All arguments that have been leveled, and fairly, at EP’s over the years, especially lately when the format is on the rise, and the convention seems to be to release a four-song EP, only to have those same songs be part of a full album released a few months later.

But EP’s have their place in music, and sometimes the format can even work better than a full-length record. Occasionally, they can tell a cohesive, gripping story in a few songs that might run together into a pretty boring 10-track affair. Justin Payne (also known some as Justin Dean Payne) and his 6-track, 24-minute love letter to the coal region of West Virginia give us a perfect example of what a great EP means.

A coal miner from Boone County, West Virginia, Justin Payne pours out the love for his homeland and the empathy for the people of the region all over this record. It’s a journey from childhood memories in the opener, “Growin’ Old,” with its details of secondhand clothes and picking up cans, to the haunting “Miner’s Soul,” laden with steel guitar and told from the point of view of a miner now at peace in heaven trying to communicate that message to his family. WE get a painful sense of the toll that mining life takes on families in “Piece of my Life” and “make a Little Time,” but the former also rejects the idea of leaving West Virginia for Nashville because it isn’t home. Payne sings, “that town don’t understand me, no, they don’t like my kind. They don’t care about the truth down there, and they don’t deserve a piece of my life.” It seems that despite all the hardships that come with life in this region, leaving is not an option; the whole thing can be summed up in the line “my heart and love, they lie tucked down between two hills” in the song “Holler Home.”

The production here is simple and sparse but still quite varied. The opener is a little more upbeat, and the closer, “The Mines,” serves as a lighthearted break from the rest of the album with its hand-clapping and catchy melodies. IN fact, I’d have probably switched the places of this one and “Miner’s Soul,” so there would be a breath of fresh air in the middle of the record, and so the album could have gone from childhood to death and also ended with the best song. As mentioned before, “Miner’s Soul” has some incredible steel guitar, and “Holler Home” features some lovely fiddle play. It all keeps Justin Payne and his stories in the forefront as it should, but there’s enough variety in the instrumentation and production to keep it interesting. This is another thing that wouldn’t work as well on a whole album because it would tend to get boring, but as it is, it serves to add another element of cohesiveness and consistency so often hard to achieve on such short projects.

The highest point of this record, though, is something you get just by listening. It’s something indefinable that comes out in the obvious love Justin Payne has for this place and these people. It’s the emotion he breathes into these songs and the way the mine references come from experience. Authenticity does not have to be present to make good music, and you don’t have to be from West Virginia to sing about these things or to appreciate it, but there’s also something irreplaceable about an actual coal miner telling these stories. It’s not because you believe him more, it’s because he believes it, and that comes out in the depth of feeling he puts into his songs. If I heard this entire EP sung by someone else, it wouldn’t be nearly as good–not because that person wasn’t a West Virginian or a coal miner, but because that person could not put the kind of raw pain into these songs that Justin Payne pours into them naturally. And again, this would not be as effective on a longer project; as it is, with 6 songs, you come away from it with a deeper understanding and respect for these people and blown away by Justin’s ability to lay all this out so perfectly and also so concisely.

Don’t overlook this because it’s short. It’s a simple, understated project, but it perfectly captures West Virginia and the coal mining region and immortalizes them in a way that is timeless.

Note: All proceeds from the sale of Coal Camp will go to help local food banks and charities in Justin Payne’s community.

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Reflecting On: Ricky Van Shelton – Greatest Hits Plus

Ricky van Shelton is an interesting artist. I will readily admit that I do not know his studio albums that well, which is something that I really need to remedy. Since I still would like to talk about his music, though, I thought I’d talk about a collection of his biggest songs entitled Greatest Hits Plus.

Release Date: August 11, 1992

Style: Traditional Country

People Who Might Like This Album: Those who love the 90s country sound, people who like love songs

Standout Tracks: “Somebody Lied,” “Statue of a Fool,” “From a Jack to a King”

This album starts off with one of my favorite songs by Ricky Van Shelton, “Just As I Am”. It’s a love song all about how he was accepted, just as he was. I love this song, because it’s all about knowing that despite someone’s flaws, they still have good parts to them. I love the steel guitar in this song too.

“Somebody Lied” is my favorite song on the whole album, I think. It’s fantastic in that it tells the story of a man who gets a call from his ex. He says he got over her the day she left him, and someone is making up stories about him crying over her, and talking about her. What would it matter if the rumors were true, would it change how she feels, he wonders. Would she show up to help him heal? It doesn’t matter though, because it wasn’t him, just someone who looks a lot like him and loves someone like her. The most poignant moment in the song for me, because I know it so well, is when he sings about someone saying he showed her picture to a stranger, and he sings “don’t you think I’ve got no pride?” It’s incredible, really.

Because I can’t seem to stop talking about the love songs, I’ll discuss “I’ll Leave This World Loving You”. It’s my second favorite, I think. It’s basically about how a man will leave the world loving a woman, even though she’s leaving him. His voice in this song is really amazing, and when combined with the lyrics, it really creates the feelings he’s trying to convey.

I know that “Statue of a Fool” is a cover, but this is my absolute favorite version of this song. His voice really makes the lyrics of the song shine. The lyrics describe a man who let love get away from him, and now he bitterly regrets it. This is the first version of the song I ever heard, and for me, it’s what I come back to whenever I want to listen to the song. I just love the imagery and how it’s describing the statue and how it resembles him.

Then, there’s a duet with Dolly Parton, “Rockin’ Years”. This is the very first song I heard by Ricky Van Shelton. I love how it details the story of two people pledging to stand by each other throughout their lives. They’ll be there for one another always, and they won’t ever stray from each other. I think these two really shine together, and it’s a great place to start if you have never heard of Ricky Van Shelton.

I also love “From a Jack to a King”. I believe this is another cover, but again, I love this version. The card puns are fantastic, detailing how he is the “king of her heart” because of “lady luck”. The song is more upbeat, and I like the cleverness of the lyrics.

As I’ve said before, I think Ricky Van Shelton is pretty underrated. I love his singing, and he does emotional songs very well. There are some more upbeat songs on this album, I just highlighted my favorites which mostly happen to be slower and more emotional. I think you’re definitely missing out if you don’t at least check out his music and see if he’s your kind of vocalist.

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