Album Review: Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

Rating: 7/10

Willie Nelson.

There it is, I said it, the obligatory mention of Lukas Nelson’s father that must follow him around like a blessing and a curse and has accompanied him to every interview, review, and mention of this album, his voice, etc. It’s one reason it took me so long to review this. The music of Lukas Nelson fascinated me from the opening listen, but it takes time to separate preconceived notions about a person, and Lukas Nelson has, at least with the talent displayed on this record, earned the right to be considered both apart from and alongside his father. So let’s set all the wondering aside and consider Lukas Nelson and his music as yes, perhaps influenced by, but independent of, that of his famous father.

And the influence? Yes, it is there, but only at times, and seemingly on purpose. There’s country on this record, but also blues and rock. There’s Texas, yes, but Hawaii too, where Lukas spent much of his time partly to develop his own identity. There’s a struggle for identity here in these songs which both separates these tracks and unifies them; they sound much different from one another, but the very struggle that Lukas Nelson finds himself in seems to be the overarching theme here and holds these songs together. The result is a lot of variety, and perhaps something for everyone, though probably most will not enjoy this whole record.

The best moments here are the ones where Lukas Nelson really is just being himself. A track like the incredible “Forget about Georgia” seems to find that balance of all his influences and blend them perfectly into a sound all his own. It explores the relationship of the name of a woman and the state of Georgia; he can’t forget the woman because night after night, he sings songs about the place and is forced to recall her name. The extended outro in songs like this and “Set me Down on a Cloud” really add to the overall atmosphere of the album, creating a relaxed tone. You can imagine Lukas sitting on a beach somewhere in Hawaii playing these songs, and that suits him and the music.

But there’s also energy on this album, a thing lacking in so many country and Americana projects in 2017. “Die Alone” is a fun, catchy love song that leans closer to rock than probably any other style, and “Four Letter Word” provides an upbeat look at the perils of marriage, asserting that “real commitment is absurd. Out here in the country, forever is a four-letter word.” Inasmuch as he seems relaxed on the slower, more introspective songs, Lukas Nelson also seems to be especially engaged on the faster material. That serves to unite these songs too, as he always seems to just be generally enjoying himself.

There are some songs here that as a music fan, I just find a little boring. “If I Started Over” especially bores me, along with “Just Outside of Austin” to a degree. These are slower, more similar to the first set of songs I highlighted, but without the extended instrumental solos that brightened the first set. But some of the best songwriting can be found here, and it underscores my earlier point; the songs are so different from one another throughout the album that you probably won’t enjoy every single track on the record. But it’s simply a matter of personal taste. There’s not much critically wrong with this record, but different people will gravitate toward different tracks because this album is so varied in style and sound.

So, ultimately, it’s a bit of a difficult record to judge because the assets are also the flaws. The very struggle for identity that holds this record back also provides a nice variety throughout the album. It’s not a country record or a blues record or a rock record; it’s a Lukas Nelson record, and that’s why it’s so hard to define and also why it’s not sure of what it wants to be, because Lukas isn’t quite sure yet himself. The similarity in tone that draws comparisons between Lukas and his father, quite uncanny on certain tracks, both renders it nearly impossible not to think of Willie and also adds that inexplicable coolness embodied in the fact that Lukas carries the spirit of his father. But still, the songs where Lukas manages to insert his unique talent as a vocalist and a songwriter are the ones that hold up the strongest, and in sheer vocal talent, Lukas not only should be considered beside Willie, but might actually surpass him on that front. So go into this record appreciating that Lukas Nelson got some of the best of Willie, but even more than that, appreciate that this is unique to Lukas, and that is what makes this album so intriguing. Don’t go into it looking for straight-up country, just go into it looking for Lukas Nelson, and you’ll probably enjoy a good chunk of this album.

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Mourning the Loss of the Gentle Giant Don Williams

I remember vividly the shame and embarrassment my seven-year-old self felt when, after telling my classmates on the first day of school in response to one of those questions about what we’d all done that summer that I’d been to a concert, they asked excitedly who it was, and when I said, “Don Williams,” the ridicule began in earnest. IN the space of a few seconds, I’d gone from having one of the most exciting summer adventures to having done possibly the most nerdy thing a kid could confess to. I had been proud then of the concert I’d attended; indeed, it had been the first country show I’d ever gone to, and although I was firmly ensconced in the more modern sound of late 90’s country music, Don Williams had been one of my first introductions to the older styles. But they made me feel as if liking his music and going to his show was something to be ashamed of, and from then on, I was careful about the amount of country music fandom I allowed myself to display around them.

But now, sitting here three days after the death of Don Williams, the beloved Gentle Giant, I am forever thankful that I went to that concert back then, heard that unmistakable voice live, a voice like none other before and I daresay never will be. Years later, going through difficult times in my life, Don Williams music was often what I found myself turning back to. Even before I found all this independent, more traditional music floating around, Don Williams music brought me comfort and escape. During dark times, it was Keith Whitley who understood me, that voice wrought with emotion borne only from experience, Keith Whitley who understood pain better than maybe anyone who has ever made music, certainly better than anyone i knew. And it was Don who put a smile on my face afterword, who reminded me of happier times, simpler times. You can’t listen to a Don Williams record and not draw strength and comfort from it, and for me, it was like therapy. I wrote in a reflection piece not long ago that Don Williams songs are just relaxing. They are guaranteed to make you feel better.

I’ve been saddened, especially in recent years, as more and more artists I loved have passed on and left us their legacies. I can remember exactly where I was the morning I learned of Merle Haggard’s death, and it made me miss my grandma all over again because she used to play his music. I remember growing up with Glen Campbell’s songs, and his loss was truly painful. I still can’t get through his final record because it depresses me too much. While it’s true that I didn’t own tons of Montgomery Gentry albums, I did enjoy their music growing up, and Troy Gentry’s death is no less, and no more, tragic than Don’s. But Don Williams was a friend, even if I didn’t know him. His music lifted me up and brought me through hard times in my life, and it’s mostly all I’ve wanted to play since Friday.

If you haven’t gotten to know my friend, even though these are terrible circumstances, I encourage you to take the time to get acquainted with the Gentle Giant. That incredible voice lives on in his music, and his songs will always be here to bring us comfort, even if we’re seeking comfort from the loss of Don Williams himself.

Collaborative Review: Erin Enderlin–Whiskeytown Crier

Conversation

Brianna: So, this is an album we were both intrigued by. It’s essentially a concept album wherein each song tells the story of a member within the fictional community of Whiskeytown. After a brief introduction where all this is explained, the album kicks off with “Caroline.” I personally found this to be an interesting story, detailing teenage love gone wrong.

Megan: The concept is probably the best thing about this album. The songs are good, but they’re enhanced by the connector. You’re right, Caroline is a great character, and that story is essentially like any small-town teenage pregnancy, except I don’t think many dads end up murdering the boyfriend. You can imagine your grandma sitting around telling you that story of Caroline Radcliffe and wondering if it really happened. “Baby Sister” is a lot like that too.

Brianna: I admit, the twist where the dad murdered Caroline’s boyfriend really surprised me, and it makes the song stand out. I also agree about “Baby Sister” being a bit different, since said sister also murders someone.

Brianna: I love the instrumentation of “Ain’t it Just Like a Cowboy.” I like the imagery,as the song discusses being left by a boyfriend who is a cowboy. Is it just me, or is this song somehow a little different from your stereotypical sad love ballad?

Megan: It’s a little more reflective, I think. There are a lot of heartbreak songs on here actually, and that could potentially really bring the album down, but it doesn’t in this case because you see them as all different characters. You see the girl in “The Blues are Alive and Well,” drinking in the bar, as being different from the one the cowboy left, and different still from the woman in “Till It’s Gone” who’s drinking alone and smoking cigarettes. I love Erin Enderlin’s knack for capturing the same sentiment in so many different ways.

Brianna: Apart from the actual concept, I think her ability to so deftly draw so many different characters is what makes this album unique. I mean,aside from those slower songs, there’s also the more upbeat, sort of humorous vibe on “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes,” where a girl is smoking her ex’s cigarettes and drinking his whiskey. She was also left by her boyfriend, but again, she’s not the same woman from “Till it’s Gone.” That’s a really good point. I’m glad you brought it up.

Megan: Good point on “Jesse Joe” as well, that song adds something a little more lighthearted which still fits. I still say the best heartbreak song here, maybe the best one overall, is “The Coldest in Town.” I know you love that one too. Also have to say Randy Houser’s participation here has to be the most shockingly underrated thing on this album. Tell me again why he’s singing shit like “We Went” whenever he can nail stuff like this.

Brianna: I love that duet so much! I honestly had no clue he could sing like that. I loved the way the two of them traded places in who sang lead on the first and second choruses. It’s one of my favorite songs on this whole album. My other favorite is “His Memory Walks on Water.” I love how it’s about a bad father, but upon his death, his daughter chooses only to remember the good times. This song just really got to me.

Megan: That one connected with me as well because I think it’s something a lot of us do, only remember the good in someone. We haven’t mentioned, and I can’t believe we haven’t since we’ve talked about this so much in private, the little noises and things between songs. Birds chirping, crickets, in this case, pouring rain and church bells. Then you hear the town crier telling you all about the daughter standing there at her dad’s funeral in the pouring rain, and it’s that much more poignant.

Brianna: OH, how have we not mentioned those little sound samples? They added so much to the album because they really put you in that place. They make you feel like you’re there. I like that one with the church bell the most.

Megan: Yeah, they added a lot to the concept. Talking about favorite songs, though, mine would be “The Coldest in Town” and “Broken.” “Broken” almost had me in tears more than once. It’s talking about a woman who married a man she calls a “bastard even though he knew his daddy” when she was only eighteen. Her family was a broken one, and she didn’t know how to be anything else. She eventually gave up their baby for adoption because she believed it was the only way to break the cycle. So much emotion pouring out of Erin Enderlin on this song, it’s unreal.

Brianna: I agree about “Broken,” definitely one of my top songs. That part where she talks about giving their baby up for adoption…that was just so sad.

Megan: So, anything you didn’t like about this album?

Brianna: Well, I wish there had been a few more upbeat songs like “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes.” I also sort of wish the covers of “Hickory Wind” and “Til I Can Make it on my Own” hadn’t been included. The latter is a good song, but I just found “Hickory Wind” boring. More than that, though, I just found the cover songs jarring. They deviated from the album concept to me, since these were stories that had already been told. They took me out of the frame of mind I was in for the rest of the album. But other than that, I think Whiskeytown Crier is very good. There is a lot of heartbreak, but all the songs manage to stand on their own. I would give it an 8 overall. What about you?

Megan: “Home Sweet Home to Me” was just a little too cute to me. She sounds sincere and all that, but it just seemed cliché. I also really could have done without the covers. I didn’t think they really took away from the story like you did, but we’ve got fourteen tracks, over fifty minutes. All sad, slow material, or most of it at least. I just felt they were unnecessary. She said they were Jamey Johnson’s idea, so I am blaming him. Other than that, I thought he did a great job producing, and we haven’t said it yet, but this is one of the most straight-up, traditional country records of 2017. Also, I have to say, it’s nice to hear such a good vocalist, even more to hear a good one with her natural twang. I’d go with a light 8 as well.

Brianna: Yeah, the steel and fiddle on the album are definitely great to hear if you’re a traditional country fan. I’m glad I finally heard a new female artist I enjoy, too. I think from this conversation, it’s pretty clear Megan and I are both recommending you check this out. Though it isn’t perfect, it’s traditional, emotional, and the concept behind it is very unique.

Collective Rating: 8/10

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Reflecting On: Micky and the Motorcars – Hearts From Above

Since I have previously talked about Reckless Kelly in a Random Reflections article, it was only a matter of time until I discussed their younger brothers’ band, Micky and the Motorcars. The bands share a similar sound as far as their more rock leanings, but I’d argue that the two are different from one another. There’s Micky Braun himself, whose voice is a bit rougher than Willy Braun’s. Also, Gary Braun takes lead vocals on some songs, and on this album, they incorporated some very well-done accordion. For another thing, Micky and the Motorcars use more steel guitar in their music, making them have a country sound. Hearts From Above is my favorite album by Micky and the Motorcars, which is the reason this is the one being discussed.

Release Date: July 29, 2014

Style: Red Dirt, Rock Country

People Who Might Like this Album: Fans of Reckless Kelly, people who like their country with a bit of a rock edge

Standout Tracks: “Long Road To Nowhere”, “Destined To Fall”, “Fall Apart”, “My Girl Now”, “From Where the Sun Now Stands”

I like all of the songs on this album. However, there are twelve tracks, so I will just talk about the ones that stick out the most to me. “Long Road to Nowhere” is an interesting song, because it features the accordion I mentioned above. It’s a song about a man who regrets the end of his relationship. I love how he compares his life without her with the metaphor, “It’s a long road to nowhere, with a million miles to go, I reach for you”.

“Destined to Fall” tells the story of two people who came from broken families who were destined to fall in love with one another. The woman’s father left their family, and her mother had men in and out of their lives. As for the man in the song and whose perspective the lyrics are from, he came from a wealthy family and went to a boarding school. He broke the school’s rules, but his parents didn’t care. They just let him do whatever he wanted, so that they wouldn’t have to think about him. When he met the woman discussed in the song, they fell in love, despite their differences. I love the fiddle on this song, and how the imagery and characters are so well-developed in just a few minutes.

“Fall Apart” is another excellently drawn character portrait. This song tells of a girl who is rich and has no problems, and she just wants to escape it. She wants to have something to lose and to feel deep emotions that mean something. “She just wants to fall apart, just so she can feel it”, says the chorus. This song features some harmonica, and it works really well to set it apart. I just love how this track talks of someone who has no problems, but who wishes they had some.

“My Girl Now” is another love song. I really like the tempo and instrumentation of this one. The man in the song pleads with the woman he loves to give him a chance. If she does, he will do what he can to make her happy, and to erase the pain of her past relationships. By the end of the second verse, he’s got the girl and her life is getting better.

Finally, there’s “Where the Sun Now Stands”. It’s one of the two songs sung by Gary Braun. This is a sad song, as the lyrics detail what happened to the Nez Perce Native Americans in the nineteenth century. After a bloody war, they were promised to be returned to their homes if they would surrender. However, upon doing so, they learned that yet again, they had been lied to. The fact that these things really happened make the song that much more poignant.

If you have not heard any music by Micky and the Motorcars, I recommend checking this out. If you like Reckless Kelly, you should have no problem liking these guys. This album is a great place to start, plus it has a lot of faster and mid-tempo songs full of well-drawn characters and important topics. It has a great mix of happy and sad songs, too, and I think it is the best showcase of this band’s work.

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