Album Review: Blake Shelton Sets the Bar Ever Lower with Texoma Shore

Rating: 3/10

Okay, so Blake Shelton didn’t make a whole album about screwing on tailgates or hooking up in clubs. IN that respect, this is indeed a more mature, grown-up effort–well, for the most part, but we’ll get to the exceptions later. And in that sense, it’s better and arguably more mature than the material being released by his counterparts. So it’s his best album in a few years, right? Maybe not back to vintage, country, pre-Voice Shelton, but still better?

Not even close–in fact, as mostly a Shelton apologist who has found songs to love even on his more recent efforts, let me make this clear; what we have here in Texoma Shore is Blake Shelton’s worst, laziest, most underwhelming album to date.

The problem? It’s literally the same song for most of this; he’s happy, in love with Gwen Stefani, and bent on expressing that in the most generic, boring, cookie-cutter ways possible. “I’ll Name the Dogs” is probably the only interesting song of this bunch; indeed, it had many hopeful for this new record, and it’s quite a good song, but it’s also pretty much a rip-off of “Honeybee.” Still, that could be excused, especially if there were more originality on the other songs. I could go into more detail, but literally, I’ve explained over half the album with my description of generic/boring love songs. I’m not against love songs certainly, and I’m happy that Blake and Gwen are happy, but these are uninspired, forgettable versions of the same thing, some of which have been done better by Shelton himself. Take “Why Me,” for example. Wouldn’t you rather hear “God Gave me You?” There’s more than one way to make a bad album, and although this is more mature than say, “Body Like a Back Road,” I can’t excuse the laziness that went into this project. It seemed like his last album, If I’m Honest, was every generic breakup sentiment rolled into a record without really saying anything at all, and this one is the same thing, only now it’s every generic sentiment of newfound love. Come on Blake, you can go deeper than the surface.

And let’s not assume this album has no “Body Like a Back Road” moments either. Seriously, Blake, what the fuck is this song “Money?” This is maybe even worse than Backroad” in the sense that that song is at least somewhat catchy, I suppose. This is literally some misogynistic bullshit about being white trash and saying that this girl is money, complete with Blake being the worst example of a rapper in the history of ever. Say what you want about “Boys Round Here,” but at least that song has a melody you can remember. This is not even good at being terrible, and frankly, singlehandedly takes this album down from generic and bland to bad. And there’s also the incredibly stupid “AT the House,” which is essentially every party/hookup song ever, except that instead of being on a tailgate or in a bar, they decide to keep it at home. No self-respecting country singer should ever utter the line, “go ahead and get your freak on,” but we do find that here, thereby making this just embarrassing.

But give credit where credit is due, and this album is not without some, if few, redeeming qualities. As I said before, “I’ll Name the Dogs” isn’t bad at all for what it is, even considering it’s a rip-off. “Got the T-Shirt” is a pretty good breakup song using some nice metaphors to tell the story; Blake also delivers this quite convincingly, and the melody is good too. This one is easily the highlight of the whole thing and probably the only one I’ll return to. “Turnin’ me On” isn’t bad either, and Blake has always had a knack for these types of songs–think “Sangria,” “Lay Low,” “Who Are You When I’m Not Lookin’.” There are some cringe-worthy lyrics sprinkled in here, but the atmospheric production it’s going for is interesting, and as I say, Shelton can pull these songs off well.

“I Lived It,” the album closer, is the other one we’re all supposed to appreciate, but I’ll take the unpopular stance of not liking this song at all. I separate it from the generic crap found on the rest of the record because it’s more country-sounding and depicts examples from small-town living, presumably from his childhood in Oklahoma. I think a lot of people might like this, but for me, it fails in the context of the album because the chorus talks all about how growing up like that made him the person he is today. Okay, so if that’s true, why are you lending your voice to shit like “Money” and singing lines like “go ahead and get your freak on?” It’s like the moment where he admits he’s capable of more, and his past albums have proven that, so why not deliver?

Blake Shelton has been quite a polarizing character with traditional country fans over the past several years, especially since his stint on The Voice. He’s definitely released some bad singles, but I would argue that even on the albums where he turned further and further away from his country roots, there were always some great songs buried in there. This? Well, “Got the T-Shirt” is the best, but even that’s just pretty good. The other brighter spots are decent. There’s nothing to blow you away like a “Lonely Tonight” from his previous records. This is a disappointing, underwhelming effort from Blake Shelton, and even if it’s more mature than the stuff being put out by most of the mainstream, it represents Shelton setting the bar even lower for himself. And that’s a shame because he can make so much better music.

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Album Review: Flatt Lonesome–Silence in These Walls

Rating: 7/10

In what has admittedly been a mostly failed effort to cover more bluegrass, there is no discovery that has excited me more than the accidental one of Flatt Lonesome. My knowledge of them comes directly as a result of the cool connections I have made from doing this, as Alex Grant of Critically Country requested them on Zack Kephart’s radio show. It was their cover of Dwight Yoakam’s “You’re the One” that I heard that day, and I can honestly say I am not sure I have been as excited about anything I’ve heard this year as I was about that song. It was the warm instrumentation, the ridiculous harmonies, the emotion in the vocals, just everything. I was just impressed, and I was really looking forward to this album and a chance to introduce them to more people. And now that I’ve heard it? It’s not perfect, but you should damn well check out Flatt Lonesome.

I mentioned the harmonies, and they continue to blow me away on this record. “All my Life” and “It’s Just Sad,” the album’s first two tracks, make the strongest moment and showcase their harmonies to the greatest effect. “It’s Just Sad” is a wonderfully written heartbreak song which counters the notion that bluegrass is primarily focused on instrumentation. The details here like how the narrator plays records that remind her of her lover, and half of her still loves them, but the other half can’t stand to listen, really make this song come alive. It’s also unclear whether she was left or widowed, and this makes the song even better, as you can see both sides to the narrative. Kelsi Robertson Harrigill has a vocal tone similar to that of Sara Evans coupled with an uncanny ability to draw feeling and emotion out of every syllable.

After this and the wistful “All my Life,” it is nice to hear something lively and upbeat like “Build me a Bridge,” and the band can pull this style off well too. It’s hard not to hear a song like the closer, “You’re the Reason,” and not smile or get it stuck in your head. But that’s also the beauty of this band; while they can pull off the lively instrumentation almost expected in bluegrass, they also have the songwriting and the vocal ability to go with it. Bluegrass is such a restrictive genre that in order to separate yourself from the sameness often associated with it, you have to add something unique, and Flatt Lonesome certainly do that, both in their careful attention to melodies and harmonies and in the depth of their songwriting.

And I can’t underestimate the value in the sheer vocal ability of this group, as well as the chemistry in the harmonies. They take songs that might seem rather average on paper and put an unforgettable stamp on them. Take a song like the simple love ballad “Falling,” for instance. In the hands of most other bands, this song is probably just boring, but with the excellent harmonies and heartfelt sincerity in the simple words, Flatt Lonesome make it an understated standout of the record.

That’s not to say this album doesn’t have its flaws, and as often happens, some of its strengths also are weaknesses at times. Although Flatt Lonesome is a group best at slow-burning, serious songs, the songwriting has to match, and this does drop off a little in the middle of the album, thereby making that part a little sleepy. Just one more upbeat, fun break probably would have helped this a great deal. “Draw me Near,” though certainly beautiful and showing off all those great harmonies, just simply didn’t need to go on that long. I have listened to this numerous times, and I still can barely remember “Where do You Go,” so I would have been happy if they’d just left that off altogether.

But really, I don’t have any major complaints, and it’s one of those albums that balances out to be consistent, although unlike say, Midland’s which was solid all the way through, this one has some real shining moments and some forgettable stuff. Still, the result is somewhat the same in that it doesn’t give me a whole lot to say; it’s a simple record, and a good one, and one that’s being underrated and overlooked by too many people. Part of why it might not have gotten as much attention is obviously because it’s bluegrass, but another part may have to do with the fact that there’s really not a lot to say, and it’s kind of hard to write about. But it’s not worth overlooking them because this band is one of the brightest spots in bluegrass music right now, and if you’re like me–as in pretty much woefully ignorant of that genre and trying to become better informed–Flatt Lonesome should be right at the top of your list. I think they have tremendous potential, and this album is another nice addition to their discography. If you’ve got any interest at all in getting more familiar with bluegrass, Flatt Lonesome is most certainly a great place to begin.

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