Song Review: Ashley Monroe’s “Hands on You”

Rating: 7.5/10

First of all, whose idea was this to release the new Ashley Monroe single on the very same day that Kacey Musgraves is debuting new songs and giving us information on her next album? Invariably, Musgraves is going to overshadow Ashley Monroe today, and this becomes especially important when you take into account the ridiculous competition which has been manufactured among the very few women allowed to release country projects on major labels. It just seems like bad marketing strategy to release Ashley’s first song in three years on a day where it has to compete with Kacey Musgraves for attention and coverage…but I digress. It’s here, so let’s discuss the song.

So yeah, this is a sex song. Or, if you like, it’s an “almost-sex song,” as apparently the narrator didn’t actually get to have sex and instead is now lying in bed alone wishing for the things they could have done. It’s hard to review a song like this because they are what they are, but the main concern really becomes how well a singer can pull this off, and Ashley does well with it, giving a convincing performance and selling the lyrics well. Lyrically, it also manages to draw a good line between generic and overly detailed, so that the lines are specific enough within these parameters to make this song stand out among many that are similar. It’s also worth noting, especially in an environment where Maren Morris characterized women in country as having to be sexy all the time but not allowed to actually be sexual or express their desires, that Ashley Monroe seems to be breaking this stereotype here and is quite comfortable admitting these things.

The melody can start to get slightly samey after awhile, and it’s a good thing there’s an interlude breaking up the verses, but a bridge might have added something more to the song. There’s also some ambiguity inn the lyrics; the biggest question is why didn’t they lay their hands on each other? Was she simply shy, guilty about another relationship, or something else? It works because it can apply to many situations, and also the focus is really not meant to be on this part, but still, there could have been a line or two explaining this a little better, perhaps in the nonexistent bridge. She calls it “forbidden company” at one point, so would this have been adultery?

This is definitely Monroe’s least country moment to date, not really going completely in favor of pop country, but mostly adding that East Nashville vibe which has become even more cliché in independent and lesser-known mainstream music than Luke Bryan singing about tailgates. Not saying it doesn’t work on this song because it’s actually produced quite well, but it’s been done to death, and if her whole album is like this, it will be a shame to see such a traditional voice being used for more polished and modern music. For now, though, it does fit this song, and this is definitely a better start than “On to Something Good” was for The Blade. Promising song overall, and I look forward to her album.

Written by: Ashley Monroe, Jon Randall

Celebrating Courtney Patton’s Record Release Live at The Blue Door

So, continuing with the 2018 resolution to take in more live music, I returned to The Blue Door Sunday (2/18), to see Courtney Patton and help celebrate the release of her excellent new record, What it’s Like to Fly Alone. Now, I’ve talked about this venue a lot–and yes, the next concert I have in mind will likely be somewhere else–but I cannot emphasize enough the uniqueness of it, the BYOB policy that has people cracking beers from their ice chests in the middle of songs, the way Courtney can ask us if anyone brought any whiskey for her throat and have someone walk up onstage to hand it to her, etc.

Of course, just like John Baumann earlier this year and Jason Eady last year, Courtney Patton is an artist who thrives in this kind of setting. Jamie Lin Wilson once said to me, in relation to women filling smaller venues than men in general, that “Courtney Patton’s thoughtful, beautiful songs that make people cry” wouldn’t make someone put down a pitcher of beer and go listen. She meant that an artist like Courtney Patton shines in a small listening room like this, where people come to listen to a show–and yes, drink some beer from their ice chest–rather than to drink and hear some music in the background.

I’ve learned something unique from each live performance this year, and I’ve tried to keep these posts focused on that, making them lighter and shorter than actual reviews. After all, this 2018 exercise is more about the merits of live music in general than any one particular artist. With Patton, there were two things that stood out, one being how much you can come to appreciate songs live after hearing the stories behind them. The title track from the new record is a great example of this. Courtney told the story of how, one night after a bad show in Austin that had her calling Jason Eady, her husband, crying and threatening to quit music altogether, a hawk flew from out of nowhere and nearly hit her car. She decided it was God telling her to calm down, go home, and rethink everything. She wrote a metaphorical song about her and that hawk. That song means so much more to me now, even as someone who enjoyed it on the album. But hearing her tell the story and explain the inspiration just added a whole new level of depth to the verses about the hawk. She also talked about “Open flame,” how the opening line was inspired by her daughter after they were dancing near a burning candle on the coffee table; Courtney suggested, “Let’s not dance around an open flame,” and her daughter told her that sounded like a country song. It became an “almost-cheatin’ song,” as she says, on her new record.

The other thing about Courtney Patton was the way she handled messing up the lyrics to a song; indeed, people were talking right on the front row, which at The Blue door is pretty much within spitting distance of the artist, and she noted to us that this distracted her, but after calmly saying the opening lines to “Walk Away” incorrectly three times, she just moved on, flipped us all off good-naturedly, and skipped that song completely. I respect that a lot. It’s not about the mistakes you make; rather, it’s how you deal with them and move on, and Courtney Patton handled that situation admirably.

In short, this was another great show. As I say, I’m not really in the business of reviewing live stuff per se, but Courtney Patton is certainly another artist I’d recommend seeing live. It’s been a good journey so far in 2018, and I can’t wait to share more live music experiences with you all.

Best Live Songs: “What it’s Like to Fly Alone (Hawk Song),” “Round Mountain,” “Fourteen Years,” “Red Bandanna Blue,” and her cover of Gene watson’s “Fourteen Carat Mind”

P.S. Courtney, if you read this, I think I speak for everyone at The Blue Door when I say that you owe us a cover of “Night Moves.”

Album Review: Brandi Carlile–By the Way, I Forgive You

Rating: 8/10

I would like to forgive Pastor Tim.
I forgive you for deciding not to baptize me when I was a teenager for being gay.
It was not so much that you wouldn’t or couldn’t do it because of the tenets put in place by the baptist rules and traditions, but because you waited until all my family and friends were present and waiting in the pews for the ceremony.
I don’t believe you did it to humiliate me – I think you struggled with the decision and simply ran out of time… I think you probably still do struggle with it.
I’d like you to know that I still love you and that I understand we’re all on a journey together, trying our best to walk through the world with honor and dignity – but what I want you to know most of all is that you did not damage my faith. Not in god, not in humanity and not in myself.
The experience inspired me to help other gay kids and my spiritual LGBTQ brothers and sisters come to terms with the disappointments they’ve endured on the rugged road to peace and acceptance. I think you’d appreciate that process.
You’ve helped far more people than you’ve hurt and you helped me too.
Thank you 
xobc

These words came from Brandi Carlile as part of the promotion ahead of this release, as she encouraged fans to share their own stories of forgiveness. Sometimes, background information is irrelevant when discussing an album, but with this record, it’s important to understand Brandi’s empathy for people, her ability to put herself in the place of others, and her search for forgiveness, no matter how hard it might be. These songs seemingly don’t have much to do with one another on the surface, but her ability to understand and empathize with others connects these tracks and explains the title of this record perfectly.

Unwrapping this album takes time, and taking in all that Brandi Carlile has to say here can be quite honestly daunting at first. I say sometimes that a record is an easy listen; this release is anything but easy to listen to, as there’s not really a moment of levity or relief on the entire project, except for perhaps “The Mother.” That said, it’s certainly a record that will make you feel something, one that will be relatable to people in many difficult situations, and one that carries much hope and understanding within it.

The greatest asset here is Brandi herself. It’s her ability to command her voice, her intensity and power on songs like “The Joke,” and the way every note seems to come from a place of pure passion. Sometimes, that passion comes because the songs are personal; I mentioned “The Mother,” and this one is the closest thing to a light moment, as she’s thankful for her daughter Evangeline. Still, even here, there’s some underlying pain, as she mentions the sacrifices she’s made and remarks that the world has been against them. She also adds a touch of personal pain and experience to “The Joke,” as she reaches out to kids who don’t fit normal stereotypes, letting them know that in the end, the joke will be on the ones who laughed at them.

Perhaps even more valuable than her personal experience, though, is the unique ability of Brandi Carlile to put herself in another’s place and make you feel all of their pain and suffering with her voice and lyrics. She sings about addiction on “Sugartooth,” weaving a tale of a man who fights the battle all his life only to commit suicide. She reminds us, “no point now to judge him in vain. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know the pain.” It’s a startling reminder that maybe, under different circumstances, that could have been any of us. She wrote a song here called “Fulton County Jane Doe” specifically to remind people thinking about committing suicide that they were once loved, that they were called something sweet by someone once which means something more than Fulton County Jane. She wants all these downtrodden people to know she thinks of them and prays for them. We all could learn from her compassion.

Forgiveness, like the album’s title would suggest, does serve to tie these tracks together and give the record a cohesive feel. The opener, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” sees Carlile letting go of an forgiving an ex, indeed thanking her for bringing Brandi to this point in her life. She’s displaying that empathy again, as she can put herself in her ex’s shoes and understand that leaving Brandi was hard for this woman as well. “Whatever you Do” arrives in the middle of the record with another story of love, this one implying that she loves this person so much that it’s actually affecting her life and dreams. For most of the song, this one is just simply Brandi Carlile and her acoustic guitar, allowing the depth of the lyrics to shine, as well as that commanding presence in her voice. The album closes with a return to love and forgiveness, tying the whole thing together with a moving piano ballad called “Party of One.” Here, Carlile is sitting alone in a restaurant after a fight with her lover. She’s not ready to leave the relationship, simply wanting some time alone. By the end of the song, she’s going home to be with her lover because in the end, no argument is worth giving up that love. She’ll forgive and work through this because she knows that this love means more than anything which came between them. It’s a really powerful way to close the album, and the string section comes in at the end to add to the intensity of the song and the message.

All that said, this is not a perfect album. The highs are incredibly high, but there are some lows. “Hold out Your Hand” just doesn’t work on any level, most notably the vocals, as instead of commanding the song in her usual way, Brandi just seems to be shouting over everything on this track. It comes off more like a lot of noise than a wall of sound, which is what I think they were going for here. “Harder to Forgive” fits in with the themes running through the album, but it’s the ninth track of ten, and it doesn’t really say anything as profound as the other songs before it. The others paint the pictures through compelling stories and relatable characters, whereas this song’s message is almost too transparent. We’ve already heard this done much better. “Fulton County Jane doe” also could have gone a little deeper; the foundation is great, but it’s a little underdeveloped lyrically, particularly in the verses, and unlike a lot of the other songs here, it’s also not that interesting melodically.

Overall, though, this is a solid record. For those of you who like to get caught up in the rating, this is one that I debated quite a lot because I can see this album either growing on me with time as the depth of the material continues to impact me, or getting a bit older after awhile because of the sheer intensity of this project. Consider this a tiny, light 8 for now, with a lot of room to change. For those of you more concerned with finding good music, there are some incredible songs here, and Brandi Carlile is certainly a forced to be reckoned with vocally. This may not be the record for everyone, but it’s certainly a good one.

Buy the Album

Album Review: Courtney Patton–What it’s Like to Fly Alone

Rating: 9/10

I know, I know, this record isn’t available on Spotify or Google Play, at least for the time being. There aren’t even any videos up on YouTube. It makes arguably even less sense, then, that it can be streamed on Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited, as opposed to just being a record available only for purchase through digital download or by buying physical copies. The merits, or lack thereof, of exclusivity can be debated, but that’s not going to change the fact that if you want to hear this new Courtney Patton release, many of you are going to have to look somewhere other than your favorite streaming outlet.

And you know what? Frankly, that’s a real shame, because this new Courtney Patton album deserves to be heard, indeed is probably worth supporting via a purchase rather than simply streaming it–but so many people are going to overlook it instead because that’s just how this often works in 2018.

So don’t be one of those people who misses out on the best record of 2018 so far because of silly things like this.

“This record is full of songs about people who have had to fly alone in some way, whether through grief, loss, life choices, addiction, or love,” says Patton about her latest effort. She goes on to say that it’s not always a depressing thing, that sometimes flying alone can help us figure out who we are and our destinies. It’s evident in this album as well, as there are definitely some melancholy moments, but the whole thing is far from a sad, lonely affair. There’s also a sense of hope and purpose running through this album which connects these characters and their stories.

For each character, flying alone seems to be slightly different. Many of them are here because of their own choices, as Patton explained. There’s the narrator of “Round Mountain,” a woman who abandoned her family after finally admitting that she wasn’t cut out for a life of raising babies and being married to a man she didn’t love. The woman here has made some mistakes and bad choices, like sleeping with another woman’s husband, but she neither apologizes for herself nor makes excuses. She’s not trying to run from what she’s done, and she’ll admit that it was wrong, but it’s also not something she’s sorry for; rather, she’s just stating the facts. It’s the same with the woman from “Devil’s Hand,” as she states that she wanted to see if his hand “felt as warm as it looked,” and that she understood what she was doing when she walked down this path. The narrator of “Open Flame” is self-aware as well, but she’s trying to walk away before the choice of adultery ruins her life and hurts her husband. She won’t be alone physically because she’ll go home to her husband, but she’ll be lonely because, as she says, she wants and needs this man instead of the one she married.

“Words to my Favorite Memory,” which first arrived in acoustic form on Patton’s duets album with Jason Eady, appears here again to explore the grief/loss side of flying alone. This song does a nice job of illustrating the connections we all have to certain songs and stories; the narrator here can’t play “My Favorite Memory” by Merle Haggard anymore because she was spinning the record when she received a call that her lover had died. “Fourteen Years” is a personal one for Courtney, written about her sister, who died tragically in a car accident and is referenced briefly in Courtney’s song “So This is Life.” “Red Bandanna Blue” was inspired by the loss of Kent Finlay, formerly the owner of Cheatham street Warehouse, although this one is written somewhat ambiguously and could be seen as a song about simply missing someone. Similar to “This Road to You,” it could be taken as a song about missing a friend or lover who simply isn’t present at the time.

Speaking of which, “This road to You” is a good example of a character still flying alone, but only for a time. This narrator is simply alone because of distance, and doing her best to get back to the one she loves. It adds a nice moment of levity to some of the darker material here. “Shove” is another one that adds a brighter moment to the album and sees a character admitting to needing some help, not being able to do it all by herself anymore. This one certainly works better in the context of the album than it did as the lead single, and really, all of these songs except possibly the cover of “Gold standard” really fit together lyrically to paint one overall picture, a picture that comes together in the title track.

As great as its lyrics are, however, this album’s strongest points lie in its instrumentation and production. Traditional through and through, this record can’t be labeled Americana or even mistaken for the Texas country sound that one might attach to this artist’s name. This can’t be called anything but stone cold, three-chord country. There’s plenty of fiddle happily contributing here, especially on “Round Mountain” and the title track. Steel guitar cries out in “Devils’ Hand,” “Red Bandanna Blue,” and “Fourteen Years,” making the last three songs of this album the place for steel enthusiasts to start. The piano makes its presence felt in several places as well, particularly on “Open Flame” and “Fourteen Years.” Instrumentally, this is an improvement from Courtney Patton’s last record; while that one was traditional throughout also, this one explores more variety within those parameters, adding texture and color to certain songs. And eat your heart out, Americana artists, this is beautifully, cleanly produced, without any ridiculous attempts to sound retro or throwback or you know, like shit just for the sake of sounding like shit. Courtney produced this herself, and she did a fantastic job with it.

So yeah, in short, there’s not a lot wrong with this record at all. The only thing I can maybe say is it could have had perhaps another upbeat moment, but that’s me being very nitpicky, as this also is an improvement from her last album in terms of variety in tempo and mood. IN fact, I’d have sooner taken out a track like the “Gold Standard” cover that doesn’t add to the theme of the album than added anything to what feels like a complete story. The lyrics and stories work very well together to paint this picture. The production is tasteful and pretty much nearly flawless. You can tell a lot of care went into this album both lyrically and musically, and the result is the best record yet to grace our presence in 2018. Courtney Patton should be proud of this.

Buy the Album

Montgomery Gentry’s Final Album is Something to be Proud Of

Rating: 8/10

So let’s discuss the elephant in the room, Troy Gentry’s tragic passing in a helicopter accident just days after this album was finished. This will be the duo’s final album–at least unless we get some unreleased material later, as is often the case after artists pass away–and while that’s maybe made this record more significant to a lot of people, especially long-time Montgomery Gentry fans, the fact is that it ultimately has no bearing on this album or how we should receive it.

And that may seem like a strange start to this review, or a strange opinion for a reviewer/critic to hold, not taking something as significant as a death into account when evaluating a record. After all, it’s often context that helps to unwrap an album, and although we try to separate artist’s personal lives from their careers, often their lives and unique personal experiences produce the most compelling, heartfelt music. If nothing else, it may seem easier said than done for me to tell you not to let Troy’s death affect your assessment of this effort because I write this as someone who has enjoyed some Montgomery Gentry music in her time but is also not overly familiar with them, and is certainly not someone who could be classified as a huge fan of the group.

But in this case, Troy Gentry’s death has put a lot of emphasis on this record, and not necessarily an emphasis this record was seeking when he and Eddie Montgomery wrapped it up two days before his passing. It wasn’t a “final album.” It wasn’t written with anything in mind but making a new record. There were no underlying messages here, no evidence the band would break up, no reflections on the end of life as there are for some older artists, as they contemplate possibly producing their last project. It was not an album that was even partly done and then amended once Troy had died, allowing the shadows of his death to be cast over it, a finality to be added to it via some unreleased material or tributes from other artists. It was nothing more than Montgomery Gentry’s ninth studio album, and that’s part of its beauty, and why it’s so important that this record is strong, mostly forsaking their trend-chasing material of the last couple albums for more of what made them so popular earlier in their careers–because they weren’t doing this to go out on a high note, they were just making a good record. And it’s incredibly sad that this has to be their last one.

That said, it’s so relieving to hear a good record from them. Because they weren’t trying to make a good final impression, this could have been anything from a staunch return to their early modern country rock blend to a full-blown embarrassment of a trend-chaser, or really anything in between. And there is one downright awful and unfortunate trend-chasing selection here in “Get Down South,” so let’s just get that out of the way. This is clichéd, uninteresting, and the attempt to rap is…ill-advised, lets’ go with that.

Other than that, though, this is a really solid collection of tunes. “Better Me” is one that is inevitably going to hit people harder due to the circumstances, as Troy Gentry takes the lead and sings about trying to become a better version of himself. But it was a good song already, and delivered with a sincerity that adds to the lyrics. “Crazies Welcome” is one of the most traditional songs I’ve ever heard from the duo, basically embracing all types of people with all their imperfections. I think this song also goes deeper than that, alluding to the fact that real people with real stories make better music than perfect people with nothing out of place. They want scandal, and things that will make us cry; they’ve had enough of everything being done the right way. Basically, I think they’re saying that Nashville and country music should welcome real, crazy people back into the fold if there’s any hope of making the genre interesting and believable again.

Several of these songs remind me of other songs previously recorded by Montgomery Gentry. “Feet Back on the Ground” is sort of like a more traditional and more specific version of “Back When I Knew it All,” as the narrator is taking time out of his day to catch up with his mom. He reflects on how he used to be in a hurry to leave, but now he can’t go more than a few days without talking to her. “”Drive on Home” is similar to “Lucky Man,” except this one is Troy Gentry’s version and decidedly more modern. “King of the World” is a lot like that earlier song as well, and let me tell you, if you can’t smile from this song, you’re wound up too tight. Just a simple, groovy little track that everyone should enjoy.

Actually, that’s the thing about so much of this album, it’s simple in a way that’s not pandering, yet there’s nothing deep about it at all. It’s fun, light, easy to listen to. “That’s the Thing About America” comes dangerously close to pandering, but even that’s got more to it than the surface, as it’s not just an ode to our country or even to our soldiers, but a reminder that everyone can say what they want here, all opinions are valid, and the beauty of this country is that one can just as soon burn the flag here as die for the nation. “Shotgun Wedding” is surprisingly smart as well, framing the whole thing around the line “shotgun wedding, and a boy in a bulletproof vest.” Even “Needing a Beer” goes deeper than its title implies, and although it’s basically still about sitting in a bar drinking a beer, it doubles as a nod to all the hardworking people who can’t be there, like teachers, first responders, and soldiers.

For the most part, their sound returns to a more signature blend of modern country and rock characteristic of their earlier stuff. There are even some more traditional-leaning moments here like in “crazies Welcome” and “Feet Back on the Ground.” The most modern/pop-leaning song, aside from the calamity that is “Get down South,” is “What’cha Say we Don’t.” A lot of people are going to hate this on principle, but it works for this listener despite the sound. I thought I would hate it also, but the smart lyrics about trying to save a relationship on the brink of collapse–instead of doing the easy, predictable thing and just letting it fall apart–actually redeem this song. Even “Drink Along Song” isn’t bad for what it is, which, as you can guess, is pretty much just that.

Overall? Sue me, I like this. And it’s got nothing to do with Troy Gentry’s death, or the fact that this is probably Montgomery Gentry’s final album. In fact, that’s not even relevant, as this album was completed before his passing. If anything, it’s more about the fact that this was Montgomery Gentry just getting back to being themselves, to being the reason that people fell in love with them in the first place. It’s similar to what I said about Brad Paisley’s album last year; if you didn’t like him before, that album wasn’t going to change your opinion, and I don’t think this record will be making any new fans of Montgomery Gentry. However, it will bring those fans back who were unhappy with the direction they were taking on their last couple albums, and now, it will be a nice farewell and allow them to leave on a high note. To quote an earlier song from them: “that’s something to be proud of.”

Buy the Album