Album Review: Billy Strings–Turmoil & Tinfoil

Rating: 6/10

Another album here that comes from my back burner, and another one of the few bluegrass projects I’ve been able to cover this year. With the incredible amount of music to listen to, you might look at this rating and find it strange that I’d choose to pull this one from the back burner and make sure it got a full-length review in 2017. Surely there might be better stuff to highlight?

But it’s not the rating that’s important here; there are some truly disappointing sixes–as you’ll see soon–because you feel like an artist is capable of so much more. And then there are sixes where you’re excited because an artist is still developing, and you see past this project to the full potential, and with this album, it’s definitely a case of the latter.

With bluegrass in particular, there’s this stereotype hanging over the music, and often for good reason, that much of it is the same. It’s great that it stays so connected to the roots of that genre, but it often lacks the vibrancy and youthfulness needed to keep it interesting and sustain it in these times. And because of the potential for sameness, there’s also an even more pronounced urgency to set yourself apart from the rest. With Flatt Lonesome, it’s the songwriting and the sheer vocal chemistry and talent. With the Infamous Stringdusters, it’s the incredible instrumentation and the experiments with different sounds, like the bluesy tones of “This ol’ Building.” With Billy Strings, it’s experimental sounds as well, woven into this album so that you come away wondering why no one else has thought of this before.

This is most present on the front half of the album. “Meet me at the Creek” is just a stellar, nine-minute exhibition of bluegrass awesomeness. “Living Like an Animal,” though completely minimalist in its approach, staying on basically one chord, has an animal-like sound echoing through it that takes it from totally boring to infinitely interesting. The title track is similar, with long instrumental breaks and an almost Middle Eastern riff to set it apart from every other bluegrass tune endlessly parading along in this key. It’s the ability and ingenuity of Billy Strings to alter these songs only the slightest bit and recreate them as something fresh and vibrant within this incredibly restrictive genre while still keeping that genre’s roots intact which makes this most impressive. “While I’m Waiting Here” and “On the Line,” though not especially different instrumentally, do stand out for their songwriting on this half of the record. But again, songwriting is not the ultimate strength of Billy Strings or of this project, it’s the fresh, forward-thinking approach brought to the instrumentation and sound, especially on this front half.

And that’s why this particular album falls short in the back half. It starts to become no different than any other bluegrass record. Well, except for the incredibly weird, acid-dropping experience that is “Spinning,” but that’s not experimentation with bluegrass, that’s just a strange rambling about multiverses and women with skirts made of various body parts…yeah. The message is that we should all work together, but it’s delivered in the strangest way humanly possible. Other than that, though, the album is just pretty typical in the back half. That’s not to say it’s necessarily bad, and if you’re more of a bluegrass fan, you might like it better. For me, seeking out only the best in the genre, this half does little to establish Billy Strings as anything different than what’s going on in the rest of bluegrass.

However, it’s the cool, promising stuff on the front half of the record that makes Billy Strings someone to keep an eye on and which leaves me excited as a listener. This hasn’t been one of the easiest reviews to write because there’s just not a ton to say for me, especially given the boring parts of this album. But the parts of this record where Billy shines, so infused with life and spirit and bringing something absolutely unique and fresh to this genre, cannot be ignored and are the reason I kept coming back and searching for words for this project. This is not the best bluegrass album I have heard all year, but indeed, some parts of this constitute the best and most interesting bluegrass I have heard in my entire, though incredibly limited, experience with this genre. I am certainly looking forward to what Billy Strings could develop into, but for now, we definitely have some promise here.

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Album Review: Travis Meadows–First Cigarette

Rating: 8/10

Travis Meadows adds his name to the growing list of professional songwriters who are gaining a name for themselves and finding more success with their own material. As for songs written by Meadows, try “Knives of New Orleans” by Eric Church, “Riser” by Dierks Bentley, and “What We Ain’t Got” by Jake Owen. These should be enough to get your attention and keep his third album, First Cigarette, firmly on your radar.

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2017 criticizing various independent/Americana singers for their vocals. It doesn’t matter if you can write a good song if you can’t remain on pitch and/or sing with any emotion. But there’s another side to this too, and that’s understanding your tone as a singer and writing and performing songs to suit you. Travis Meadows brings a weathered, unpolished quality to his singing, and no, he’s not the greatest vocalist in that sense, but he is a fine interpreter, able to capture perfectly all the raw emotion on this record. Plus, he can indeed stay on pitch, so that’s just a bonus…but I digress. His tone may not be for everyone, but he utilizes it well here, allowing it to become a feature rather than a flaw.

And his tone actually suits the material here very well, speaking also to his talent as a songwriter, his ability to write according to his vocal strengths. The rough edges in his voice only serve to elevate this particular record because it’s a self-reflective album, sometimes looking back on the past and other times hopeful for the future, at once wistful and content. “Sideways” sets the mood perfectly, opening the album with the hard-hitting statement: “If I could buy myself a conscience that wasn’t broken, Mend every fence I drove my hard head through. Re-lock all the doors I wish I’d never opened, unlearn the things I wish I never Knew.” Meadows thinks back with nostalgia on his youth on “McDowell road” and “Pray for Jungleland,” and looks forward to making life better for his son on “Travelin’ Bone.” (And by the way, “Pray for Jungleland” is actually a good example of how a song about remembering some girl in tight jeans in your car can actually convey a real emotion and tell a real story.) He’s leaning on friends to help him through hard times on “Better Boat” and seems restless on “Hungry,” but he’s perfectly happy with his life on “Guy Like Me.” It all appears to come together on the title track, as he has learned to appreciate the little things in life, like that feeling of the first cigarette in the morning. He also states that he’s “a little more content with who I am than who I was,” which seems to be the thesis of this whole thing.

The production is another thing I’ve harped on many times in 2017, and yet this record manages to get it exactly right. Travis Meadows said that can be attributed to his producers, Jeremy Spillman and Jay Joyce, wanting it to sound like Travis would sound live in a bar. And it does sound rather organic and unpolished like that, very real and raw and fitting for this journey. Also, every song flows straight into the next, with little instrumental interludes to connect the tracks, so you take this trip right along with Travis. It’s a small detail, but it really adds a lot to this album and the sentiments being conveyed here. It makes this not an album of different songs about finding contentment with who you are and where you’ve been, but rather a single experience, a process that is being carried out throughout the record.

The album needed some brighter moments to lighten the mood and in turn make the serious, reflective stuff stand out all the more, and we get that in several places. It doesn’t quite work on “Underdogs,” as this one is kind of generic and doesn’t really say much when you get right down to it. There are a thousand songs out there like this, and while it will probably really excite live crowds, it doesn’t exactly add much to the project. It doesn’t necessarily take away much either, but lighter moments are pulled off better with “Guy Like Me” and “Long Live Cool.” The former has the personal detail which “Underdogs” lacks, seeing Travis content and happy with his life and circumstances. The latter is a nice, catchy ode to rock ‘n’ roll. This one features some lively harmonica and some nice electric guitar. This one fits well within the album context despite it being lighthearted because it carries that nostalgia so often explored on this record.

First Cigarette is getting slightly underappreciated, and I honestly can’t understand why. Travis Meadows isn’t the greatest vocalist in the world, but the roughness in his voice only adds to this record. The production is some of the best I’ve heard this year, and there’s enough sonic variety to keep it from being sleepy. The writing is nice too, and there’s a thematic structure to this album as well, not something we see on many records these days. Not a concept record, but definitely one continuous journey that finds its conclusion in the title track. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s a damn good one and is not to be overlooked in the frenzy of year-end lists. Highly recommend giving this a listen.

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Album Review: The Rest of our Life by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill

Rating: 3/10

“I Need You.” “It’s Your Love.” “Let’s Make Love.” Meanwhile, Back at Mama’s.” “like we Never Loved at All.” “Angry All the Time.” “Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me.” All excellent songs. All duets by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. All evidence that a duets album from them could truly be special.

So why is this record so bland and boring???

It’s not terrible, not in the sense that you would turn off your radio if any of this came on. Well, except for the incredibly irritating closer, “Roll the Dice.” But there’s more than one way to make a bad album, and releasing a lifeless record, particularly when you have the kind of chemistry and vocal talent these two possess, is just inexcusable. Picking good duets is one of the hardest things for vocalists to do; you have to flatter both voices and make sure the voices complement each other. It’s hard enough to choose one, never mind an album full of them. But not only do McGraw and Hill have a proven ability to do this, they have a connection and chemistry between them that goes beyond their music and in turn translates into the emotion in their songs. Maybe you don’t like Faith Hill, or maybe you think she’s too pop, but the point is, this record had endless potential for excellent, genre-defying music. And it just falls flat on so many accounts.

First of all, just because they’re married, and just because they’re singing duets, does this mean every song has to be a love song? Jason Eady and Courtney Patton didn’t do this with their duets album; hell, Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary didn’t even do this, and they chose some of the most clich├ęd duets ever to cover. With Tim and Faith, I understand the temptation to just go for love songs, and that could be excused if any of these weren’t generic, predictable, and/or hadn’t been done by them earlier in their careers. “The Bed we Made,” for example, just comes off as a cheap rip-off of the far better “Let’s Make Love.” In that song, they actually sounded impassioned. This song isn’t flattering to either of them vocally, especially straining Faith in her lower register, and generally just comes off as lifeless. That’s the problem with so many of these songs; there’s no passion. And it’s even more frustrating to listen to when you know just what kind of passion McGraw and Hill have been capable of before.

So where’s the problem? Much of it lies simply in not picking songs which flatter them both. “Speak to a Girl,” which actually is slightly better on the album because it’s actually not a love song and provides a little variety, doesn’t really work for either of them. It’s better for Faith overall, but she has to stay too much in the lower part of her register. But it’s also too high for Tim, and he doesn’t even sound like himself. You can’t hear his twang at all, and by the way, that’s another disconcerting thing here–Tim literally has twang on half of this and doesn’t on the other half. He’s definitely faking one or the other, and the ease with which he can turn off his accent is just not natural. When he forsakes his twang, he’s often singing in a higher register, like on the opener and title track, and he doesn’t sound natural at all, both because of the range and because of his tone. More effort went into making Faith sound good, probably because this is her “comeback” moment, but at times, her voice doesn’t always fit the song either. “The Bed we Made,” as previously mentioned, is much too low for her in the verses. “Break First” is another good example of this, as they sing in unison, and she sounds awkward having to sing so high. “Cowboy Lullaby” is where their voices come together the best, as well as “Damn Good at Holding On.” The former is a Tim-led track, and his twang is present in full force, inviting Faith to come with him and ride horses into the night. Her harmony blends in effortlessly here, and you’re reminded of just what they’re capable of. The latter is a Faith-led track, and once again, their harmonies actually fit here.

The problem is that even when the duets do work and fit their voices, there’s nothing especially memorable here. Where’s the unique, undying love in “I Need You” or the soul-shattering heartbreak of “Like we Never Loved at All?” The emotions here are so saccharine and the writing so generic that they ultimately don’t say anything real. The only exception is “Love me to Lie,” in which a relationship is crumbling. Faith takes the lead here, and she’s thanking Tim for being able to love her enough to lie about everything, not to hurt her by saying it’s over. I can see how some will probably really enjoy this, and I will say this one has more depth of emotion than really anything else here, but personally, I just find this horrid. If he loved her enough, he’d be honest with her…but hey, that’s just me.

Most people will either love this (mainstream listeners, Tim and Faith fans, those drawn in by sappy love songs that say nothing of importance), or else just find it meh and uninteresting (probably most of you reading here.) And taken as songs, most of these would indeed get a 4 or a 5. Sprinkle in a 6, perhaps, for “Cowboy Lullaby” and “Damn Good at Holding ON’ and a 1 or 2 for “Roll the Dice.” But it’s the incredible sameness and nothingness about this all that renders it inherently awful, and when you consider the potential it possessed, this is majorly disappointing. Even Blake Shelton’s album, which also received a 3 here, has one great song. Sure, there’s nothing horrific here, but there’s also nothing good about it whatsoever. I won’t return to any of this. None of it is worth my time, and that’s a real shame because if you listen to any of the seven songs listed at the top, you’ll understand what this record could have been–and be sorry it wasn’t.

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Memorable Songs From Overlooked Albums: November 20th

Well, during my last one of these, I said we’d probably have another soon because I already had a few in mind, but after that, I took a break, and also there weren’t as many forgettable/mediocre albums from which to draw material. This time, I think there will be another one soon, as I wrap up the year. You might even see some next time that came out before these songs, as we go through the back burner and try to get to things we’ve missed throughout the year. For now, we’ll get to some of the more recent ones and throw in a couple that have been waiting their turn for awhile. Y’all know the routine: songs from albums we didn’t cover due to time constraints, good songs from mediocre and forgettable albums, and songs from albums neither of us had much to say about but which we still felt deserved a feature.

Margo Price: “Don’t Say It”

Yes, I found Margo Price’s second album, All American Made, incredibly boring most of the way through. This was a great opener, and I also enjoyed “Weakness,”–not featured here because it was covered in Brianna’s review of her EP–but after that, it was just so sleepy. As someone who enjoyed her debut record, I was looking forward to this, and it just didn’t resonate with me. I know I’m in the minority here, and that’s part of why these features exist, to provide a space to highlight stuff I otherwise couldn’t write about and give you an opportunity to fall in love with it if you so choose.

Margo Price: “Pay Gap”

One rare moment of energy on Price’s album came here, as she candidly explored the problem of unequal pay for women. The upbeat atmosphere contrasts with the seriousness of the lyrics in a way that really works and serves to elevate the message.

Lee Ann Womack: “The Lonely, the Lonesome, and the Gone”

This one is a decent album, it’s just one I don’t have much to say about, and with the time constraints as we near the end of 2017, I don’t have time to think of words. It seemed like for every good track on her latest record, the next one or two lost me. Still, there are more good ones here than the two I’ll showcase, and of the albums listed here, this is the one I’d recommend checking out over the others. The title track is one of the strongest and also one that seems to be getting a bit underrated in terms of the songs that we’re, you know, supposed to like here.

Lee Ann Womack: “Mama Lost Her Smile”

As I say, there are others worth checking out here besides the tracks featured–most notably, the cover of “Long Black veil”–but this one is certainly deserving of all the attention it’s received. Probably the universal favorite, this one describes looking at old photographs and wondering just when and why her mother started to look unhappy. Lee Ann’s interpretive ability is on full display here.

Christian Lopez: “Swim the River”

Once again, probably in the minority here, but I just cannot get into Christian Lopez. This isn’t a terrible album, it falls into the mediocre category as well, but one thing Christian can do very well is love songs. This opener is a good example.

Christian Lopez: “Silver Line”

Another place where the potential and personality in Lopez shines forth on Red Arrow; not coincidentally, also another love song. There’s also some cool fiddle here which makes everything better.

Lindsay Ell: “Worth the Wait”

And now to the mainstream for a couple songs that I almost didn’t include here because they’ve been out since August and indeed, would have made that list that was supposed to happen shortly after the last one. But then I told myself the whole point of this is to highlight stuff that’s been overlooked, so I should do that anyway, even though it’s November now. First is the final track on Lindsay Ell’s debut album, The Project, and it’s one of the only times she actually seems to be being herself, not to mention one of the only moments you can sort of call country.

Brett Eldredge: “Cycles”

Brett Eldredge isn’t the problem with the mainstream, but he’s also not the solution, and this is honestly the only thing I can remember from his self-titled album. That said, this is a really nicely written song that explores the on-again, off-again relationship thing quite well.

The Lone Bellow: “Deeper in the Water”

Okay, so best for last, as always. I knew nothing by this group until I put on Walk Into a Storm and fell in love with this song. And then? Not much happened after that. But this one is the one I’ve been most looking forward to putting on this list.

Reflecting on: How I Came to Love Country Music

It’s written in my half of our writers page that “my first and deepest love will always be country music.” That doesn’t mean I don’t like other genres, and even within country, I’m certainly not a purist. I’ve definitely come to appreciate music from many different styles over the years, and you’ll even find me discussing some of it on this blog. But my first love was country, and it will always be my passion and the one thing I feel qualified to talk about.

So where did I get that love for country music? You might think living in Oklahoma, I was ensconced in it from the day I was born, but my parents were mostly into classic pop and rock, and it’s these styles which make up my earliest memories of music. It was later, when I started school, that I first began hearing country songs, and they came from my grandma. She’d pick me up from school, and she always had our country station playing in her car. These days, it plays 80’s and 90’s and 00’s country, but back then, in the late 90’s, it was a mix of classic and modern. She and I generally gravitated toward different sounds, but that was okay because the same station that played Merle Haggard also played the Dixie Chicks, whose record was one of the first country albums I ever owned. I remember my parents” reactions at first, not believing I was getting so much into country. Both of them eventually followed me into the genre and enjoy a lot of country from the late 90’s and early 00’s.

I didn’t always love her brand of country back then, but I did get into Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley. She didn’t always love mine, but she dearly loved Brad Paisley’s “We Danced.” We could agree on George strait in equal measure, as he seemed to bridge the gap between our generations. She always loved “I Just Want to Dance With You” and “Living and Living Well.” We drifted some as I grew older, for reasons which aren’t important here, and we didn’t see each other as much as we had when I was young. But we still had that time, that few minutes between leaving school and reaching my house, and we still had that music to share.

When I got into high school, I branched out some from country, starting to get into pop and rock and modern Christian music. I never drifted too far from country music during that time, but I was always careful throughout my time in school to not completely show my obsession with it. But it was there in full force; I sang records till I could perfect them, and I also started to write songs. And even though I was discovering other genres of music at the time, my love of country music only grew stronger. And it was during this time that my grandma was diagnosed with cancer. She fought it most of the time I was in high school. We didn’t speak much about it, and it’s not like our relationship changed, but that time we had in her car and the music we shared came to mean more. She eventually went into remission, and when I graduated high school, she was well.

I went to college for my passion, and it was there that I really became exposed to different styles of music, both through friends and through popular music courses. At this time, I drifted away quite a bit from my first love and began to explore all kinds of other music, and it’s something for which I’m still thankful. I got an appreciation for all different types of music and a newfound respect for the art of making it. Country was also going pretty much off the rails by this time (2010), so I was listening to it less and less.

But no form of musical expression can speak to real-life situations like country music, and I found my first love again when my grandma’s cancer returned, this time without hope for a cure. I wanted to listen to the music that she introduced me to, and it brought me comfort during those last days as we took care of her. We eventually lost her six years ago Sunday (Nov. 19th.) I listened to Merle Haggard and Keith Whitley and George Strait nonstop after that because it was the only thing that helped me. “I Just Want to Dance with You” will always make me think of her.

Her music brought me through that time like only music can, and it’s her love of country music that still lives on in me. I am so thankful that she introduced me to it and instilled that love in me, for music is the one thing that has always been there for me no matter what. It’s the one thing I have counted on to get me through loss, divorce, loneliness, and pain. And I can never, ever thank her enough for that gift.