Collaborative Review: Wade Bowen–Solid Ground

For our first collaboration of 2018, Brianna and I discussed Wade Bowen’s first original solo album in four years.


Megan: So, Solid Ground. Seems like an appropriate title. Very solid album, and very much feels like Wade Bowen settling fully back into the Texas scene after not making a solo record in four years.

Brianna: I think it’s fitting, too. He’s getting back into the swing of things after a long delay in albums.

Megan: Yeah, it’s certainly nice to have some new Wade Bowen music, well overdue. This one has some nice Mexican flavor as well, like Vaquero from Aaron Watson. I enjoy that. Would be nice to see this continue to be a thing in Texas music.

Brianna: I’m definitely in favor of more Mexican flair in my Texas country. I have a lot of love for the sound of the accordion, so the fact that it shows up here makes me very happy.

Megan: The accordion makes an appearance on several songs. We also get some Spanish guitar licks and even some mariachi style stuff on “Day of the Dead.” This song is one of the highlights for me.

Brianna: “Day of the Dead” is awesome. It both calls to Mexican beliefs and talks about lost love. It’s a standout for me both lyrically and musically.

Megan: Yes, and it has some excellent metaphors, like saying the love between him and his ex has “gone home to Jesus.” Actually, it’s interesting that you make that connection with this song, tying the themes of death and lost love together, because both death and lost love pop up in several places on this album. Or maybe not exactly lost love, but not necessarily love going smoothly. “Couldn’t Make You Love Me” and “Broken Glass” are obvious examples, and “So Long 6th street” alludes to this as well.

Brianna: Also my favorite song, “Anchor.” It also has those metaphors in spades, like the rock versus a stone. He wonders if his partner still loves him, and if he’s her anchor, or if he’s just a rock she drags around. I love it because he’s speaking about a mature relationship, where you think things would be perfect, but instead, he’s wondering if everything has become boring to her.

Megan: “Anchor” is one of my favorites too, and it also explains where the title Solid Ground came from. AS for the death side of the equation, it arrives in the heart of the album on two very different songs. There’s “Death, Dyin’, and Deviled Eggs,” which is reflective and almost peaceful. And then “7:30,” which is either a reference to the time of morning or to the fact the song goes on for over seven minutes–or maybe both–but it captures the exact moment the narrator finds out a loved one has died.

Brianna: Both of those songs are great. “Death, “Dyin’, and Deviled Eggs” explores all of the inane things that we do when someone passes away. Like you said, it’s both sad and peaceful, though it could be seen as partly bitter, seeing as things do go according to a sort of routine whenever there’s a death. It’s an interesting song.

Megan: That’s interesting, I never thought of it in the bitter sense.

Brianna: Well, I just think you could take it as him feeling wrong about how quickly and by rote someone is laid to rest, if that makes sense.

Megan: It makes total sense, good point.

Brianna: As for “7:30,” it puts you right there in the moment. It’s a very painful song, and the fact that things are included like coffee that’s not even cold just makes it all the more real. I will say, though, that I did get a bit bored at the extended instrumental side of things in that song.

Megan: Man, it was exactly the opposite for me. The instrumental allowed me to sit and think of people I’d lost and what that felt like. It was a very real and painful moment for me as a listener that first time, and it’s as if the writers and producers sensed that, like Wade knew he needed to get out of the way of the song and in turn allow that song to become uniquely relatable and heartbreaking to everyone who heard it. I will say that I was not overjoyed by “Acuna” head of the release, but in the album context, “Acuna” was exactly what I needed after this, and it took nearly the whole song to get my head clear. This is why album context and song placement are two sorely underrated concepts.

Brianna: You know, I never thought about that part of the song in those terms. I think you might be onto something there. I agree about “Acuna,” that it’s a song I like better now that I’ve heard the album. I like how reflective it is.

Megan: I think it fits in very well with the Texas theme. It’s very much a Texas record without really being obvious. There’s “So Long 6th Street” about Austin, and that song, and the Mexican undertones, and other little atmospheric things. And something you pointed out to me as well, the excellent cover of “Calling All demons.” I’ll let you tell them more about that because I had not a clue, but the point I’ll make is it’s a very Texas artist thing to do to cover another Texas artist. Also to collaborate with other Texas artists, like he does with Jack Ingram and Miranda Lambert, but not in the way of Nashville, where everyone’s name is always on the track. They do it more out of a sense of family. All those little things point to this being his Texas album. It’s sort of like something you said to me earlier, that Wade Bowen’s made a Texas record without actually saying “Texas.” And I’ll add here, without doing anything dumb and cliché like one would normally do on such an album.

Brianna: He’s made a great Texas record. It does make me wish I knew all the places he talks about because I imagine anyone who does will have a great time with this album. In regards to the cover of “Calling All demons,” I think it’s a good one. It’s slower and less bluesy than when Seth James sang the song on the album Adventus by The Departed, but Wade Bowen certainly makes it his own. His version is more thoughtful, like the majority of the songs on this record.

Megan: I’ll have to hear that version, thanks for bringing my attention to it. As for thoughtful, I think that perfectly sums up this record. Good variety of instrumentation and subjects, and some very interesting songwriting. Not quite perfect, a filler moment or two, but nothing downright bad or even quite skip-worthy. All in all, very solid, like its title suggests. Nice slice of Texas country music. Solid 8.5 from me.

Brianna: I would agree. I do think this album needed some more upbeat moments, (so even though I don’t love “Fell in Love on Whiskey,” I think it was needed.) The instrumentation was very cool. The lyrics were reflective and thoughtful overall. I, too, give this a rating of 8.5. This will probably end up as my favorite Wade Bowen album.

Collective Rating: 8.5/10

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Album Review: First Aid Kit–Ruins

Rating: 8/10

I recently called Caitlyn Smith’s debut a benchmark of vocal ability–and this latest record by Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, known collectively as First aid Kit, might just be the benchmark of harmony, and how to express lyrics already so potent in even deeper ways with just the right chords and dissonance. Similar to the Secret Sisters, these siblings have an uncanny ability to bring out that forgotten element of music and make harmony one of the key factors of their musical expression. Melody and vocal ability are not the only musical elements being thrown out the window in the age of the song, and duos like these are necessary to help remind us of the dying art and great importance of harmony.

So take all the harmonic nuances and chilling chords of a Secret Sisters record, but add much more variation in style. The Secret Sister’s’ latest record was minimalist, allowing their vocals and harmony to be the main focus. First Aid Kit’s approach is to showcase their incredible singing with backdrops of folk/Americana, (“Fireworks,” “Ruins,”) pop, (“Rebel Heart,” “It’s a Shame,”) and stone cold country (“Postcard.”) IN this way, the production is varied and interesting and only serves to elevate the sister’s talent and prove they can excel at more than one style. It’s also what might hold them at arm’s length from traditionalists and more mainstream fans alike, but rather than their sound feeling like it can’t make up its mind, it feels defined. Far more than many, First aid Kit have, for the most part, a distinct handle on how best to produce a particular song to let that song live up to its full potential and resonate with its listeners.

Then we add to all of this all the complex and heightened emotions of a breakup record, triggered by Klara’s own recent split, and this record gets a touch of the same restlessness and self-discovery which marked Lilly Hiatt’s latest album, Trinity Lane. Similar to that record, this First aid Kit release largely captures a moment in time and all the various emotions sparked by that moment. There’s a sense of loss on some songs, regret on others, and a thread of hope running through the entire album that connects the whole thing and makes it cohesive, regardless of the varying styles and moods.

It’s hard to single out individual songs from this project because the whole thing tells its own story and takes a complete journey, contributing more as a finished product than as the sum of separate songs. Certainly the most country offering here is the charming, shuffling “Postcard,” which makes great use of the piano, an instrument I’d have liked to have found more on this album after hearing its effect on this song. It’s hard to question the ever-building five-minute opener, “Rebel Heart,” either, although this one does decidedly lean more towards the folk pop side of things. There’s vulnerability on “Fireworks,” reflection on “My Wild Sweet Love,” and forward-thinking resolve on “It’s a Shame.” It all works together and serves a purpose, and really, for the first eight tracks of this ten-track journey, there is no measurable misstep.

It does end on a bit of a whimper, however, at least compared to the extremely high bar the sisters set for themselves earlier, especially across the first half of this record. “Hem of her Dress” is the glaring exception to their smart production choices, bursting forth into some sort of loud, boisterous, almost mariachi ending that completely takes away from the thoughtful lyrics of the song and does not match with the acoustic feel at the beginning. The closer, on the other hand, called “Nothing Has to be True,” is very smart sonically but doesn’t carry as much weight lyrically as some of the other material here. Maybe it’s just the standards to which I’m holding this talented group, but it definitely seems like First Aid Kit end this record at a decidedly lower point than the one at which it started. That’s not to take away too much from a great album, but honestly, halfway through this release, I thought we might be looking at the first 10/10 of the year.

And that’s mostly what you should take away from this review, that a good portion of this album is not just good or even great; rather, a good portion of this album is flawless. The production is interesting and tasteful, the writing is smart both melodically and lyrically, and the harmonies are stellar. I mentioned that some people might not get this group, people on both sides of the divide, but perhaps a better way to view First Aid Kit is that they’ve got something to offer everyone, and all of it is quality music of substance. For this listener, a lot of it happens to work, but if your tastes are stricter, maybe you’ll gravitate solely toward the more traditional “Postcard” or the more modern “Rebel Heart.” Whatever your natural inclination, I encourage you to give these sisters and this album a listen; talent and good music cross all genre lines.

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January Playlist on Spotify and Apple Music

One of the resolutions of Country Exclusive this year was to incorporate more playlists, and the goal is to release a short one each month, provided there’s enough good music that month which deserves to be highlighted. Some of this is stuff we’ve already reviewed, some of it will be reviewed shortly, and some of it is just good stuff we heard in January. So if you haven’t gotten a chance to check out Caitlyn Smith, Meghan Patrick, or Laura Benitez and the Heartache yet, here’s a good opportunity to sample their music. Also included are some songs from First Aid Kit’s great new record, a highlight of January from Anderson East called “Cabinet door” which may go on to be one of the best songs of the year, and a tune from some guys you’ve never heard of but soon will, known as The Lost Brothers. Thanks as always to Zack for providing this on Spotify.

Apple Music users, you can now follow me there @countryexclusive for this and updates of all our future playlists which will be added there, as well as the Saving Country Music Top 25 playlist for which I’ve recently become the Apple maker. For January’s playlist:
Click Here

For Spotify:

Album Review: Mike and the Moonpies–Steak Night at the Prairie Rose

Rating: 7.5/10

If you’re looking for something new and fresh in the Texas scene, I invite you to get acquainted with Mike and the Moonpies and their latest record, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose. This is not going to blow you away with especially well-crafted lyrics or wow you with some groundbreaking sound; rather, it’s just a solid collection of fun, upbeat country tunes. But sometimes, that’s all you really need. It can make writing a review difficult because there isn’t much to say, but it makes the listening easy, and even welcome after digesting some deeper albums.

You’ll find a couple moments of greater depth on this album, however. The title track and album highlight is a great little narrative and ode to his father, centered around a place called The Prairie Rose where they shared drinks and listened to bands while he was growing up. Pick this one if you only single out one track from the record. “Beaches of Biloxi” straddles the line between light and serious as it details the unfortunate loss of all the narrator’s money at a casino in Mississippi. It’s delivered in a somewhat offhanded way, but a closer look at the lyrics reveals that he’s losing his savings and quite probably his wife due to the gambling. This one is another standout. “The Last Time” and “The Worst Thing,” though neither are really album standouts, also dig for something more serious on this otherwise lighthearted affair.

But it’s the fun songs that really bring out the personality on this album and from this band. We’ve got an opener here solely about some guy on their road crew, complete with plenty of great traditional instrumentation. Actually, I’ll go ahead and insert that the lively, most definitely country instrumentation throughout this record is one of its greatest strengths and makes for an engaging, energetic listen. I’ll give Mike and the Moonpies this: after a 2017 filled with many mid-tempo, boring Americana affairs, they’ve started off 2018 right with the vibrancy and spirit on this album. The organ seems to be a favorite instrument of this group, and I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone else utilize it quite as much in recent memory. The closer, “We’re Gone,” sees the band on the road again, traveling from town to town and spending all their money as soon as they make it at each show. There’s the almost ridiculous “Might be Wrong,” a song which would have come off as a completely self-absorbed moment of arrogance had the narrator not hit on this girl outrageously throughout the verses and then declared in the chorus that perhaps he’s spectacularly wrong, and maybe she doesn’t want him after all. There’s “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be,” taking a message that certainly can relate to a lot of people and adding specificity and humor. And you can’t help but smile at “Getting High at Home”–the title here should be self-explanatory.

There honestly isn’t much else to say about this record. This will be my shortest album review to date, but it’s an album that isn’t conducive to extensive analysis and critical thought. Fans of traditional Texas country, or Texas country that blends in a little rock, you’ll enjoy this. It may not blow you away, but it’s just a solid, upbeat record that proves you don’t have to be serious or deep or thought-provoking all the time in the independent scenes while simultaneously making a case that you can make fun music with smarter lyrics than much of the stuff released in the mainstream. More can be gleaned about this project from listening to it than from reading my words. So go listen, it’s definitely an album worth checking out.

Fun little record, a nice breath of fresh air that should put a smile on your face.

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Album Review: Caitlyn Smith–Starfire

Rating: 7.5/10

Let’s establish two things about this album before we go any further. One, it is not country, and Apple’s label of “singer-songwriter” is only slightly more appropriate, as basically it’s pop, or perhaps folk pop. Two, it’s not claiming to be anything other than itself, and maybe that’s why, even though it comes from Nashville, and Smith has written songs for country artists, we should just treat this as a musical endeavor, independent of genre. It would be different if Caitlyn Smith were marketing this as country, or if her brand of pop were even remotely radio-friendly, or if she weren’t anything but herself on this record. But she’s being authentic, and for some, it might take a couple listens to get that, or at least it did for this listener. But if you take Caitlyn for Caitlyn, and you value quality music, you’ll enjoy and appreciate this effort.

So what is it about this flavor of pop music that makes it so different from radio-friendly material? certainly the title track, with its catchy lyrics and rising chorus, would be a pop radio hit in a different world, but even this has more substance than 90% of what you’ll find on either modern pop or country radio. But even more than the substance, it’s the organic and intimate nature of most of the album which sets it apart. “East side Restaurant,” a heartbreak song in which the narrator makes the other side of town seem as far away as if her ex were across the ocean, only works because the production isn’t overdone, and you feel as if you’re sitting there with Caitlyn in the restaurant. “Scenes From a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday” carries that same intangible, almost live feel, so that it’s as though you’re sitting in the bar in another booth , observing the same people described in the song. And “Cheap Date” wouldn’t be half as good if it didn’t sound so intimate, speaking of forsaking a date night on the town for a romantic night at home. The warm piano here really adds a nice touch to this track as well.

And not enough can be said about Caitlyn Smith as a vocalist. It’s not just her insane range and power, shown off on the aforementioned “East side Restaurant” and “Tacoma,” but also the incredible depth of feeling in songs like “House of Cards.” She can slay a fun, sultry song like “Contact High,” and then blow you away with her vulnerability on “This Town is Killing Me.” It should be noted that this one is the most country and is the one you should start with if you’re a strict traditionalist. Here, Caitlyn tells us in heartbreaking detail the struggles she has gone through and continues to experience on a daily basis just to make it in Nashville. She sings, with such conviction that it’s impossible not to sympathize with every word, “I wanted it so bad, and now I just wanna go home.” And oh yeah, then there’s the range and power, and moments like on “Tacoma” where Caitlyn nails the key change a cappella by holding out a ridiculous note with such raw intensity that you can’t help but be impressed. It’s rare to find such a wonderful technical singer who can also convey so much emotion, and I know I’ve made much of this, but independent artists, take note. This album is the benchmark of vocal ability among all albums I’ve reviewed on this site to date, and the one which shatters all arguments for good writing eclipsing a superior voice. I can tell you now that this same record, with the same songwriting, and even the same intimate sound, left in the hands of a less competent vocalist, would be mediocre at best and absolutely boring at worst.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some boring moments on the album as it is, and sometimes, it seems like Caitlyn and/or her team were going to the other extreme, showing off her voice in lieu of strong songwriting. The first two songs on the album are unfortunately two of its weakest tracks lyrically, and this is part of the reason that it took me awhile to warm up to this record. Then you get to “Starfire,” and it all comes together, blending that amazing voice with better melodies and smarter lyrics. After that, there’s not really a bad moment at all, except for “Don’t Give up on my Love,” a pretty forgettable track in the middle of the album.

The great part of this record, though, is that all those strong songs just keep getting stronger. This album has already grown on me significantly and will continue to do so. There’s always something new to uncover in the lyrics or a moment to be awed by vocally. The terrible part of this record? Caitlyn’s heartbroken line in “This town is Killing Me,” as she whispers, “Nashville, you win. Your steel guitars and broken hearts have done me in.” Nashville, you embrace plenty of things that aren’t stone cold country, and yet here you are, overlooking the ridiculous crossover talent of Caitlyn Smith. Is it because she’s female, or because her songs have substance and character? Is it because even though she’s singing pop music, she’s being 100% herself, and you know you can’t manipulate her into some sort of Music Row tool? Or is it just that you haven’t embraced talent in so long, you have no idea what to do with it when it’s right in front of you? Whatever the case, Caitlyn Smith and her talent deserve better. She deserves more than obscurity and songs that, in her words, “Never see the light.” I hope she will break out with this album, as she rightfully should.

As noted, traditionalists may be opposed to this record because of personal taste, but I encourage you, if you can get past genre lines and recognize talent and good music for what they are, please check this album and artist out.

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