All posts by Megan

Album Review: Meghan Patrick–Country Music Made me do It

Rating: 8/10

The problem has never been modern country. The problem has never been country mixing with pop or rock. The problems lie in the total eradication of country by these genres to the point you can’t call something pop country anymore because it’s just straight pop slapped with a country label, and too often it’s shitty, generic pop music to add insult to injury. So many traditionalists and especially purists will never find anything to value in modern styles of country music, and that’s perfectly fine as it relates to personal taste. But not all contemporary country is bad, and that’s why it’s so refreshing to see this being done right.

Enter Canadian country artist Meghan Patrick and her new album, Country Music Made me do It. Strict traditionalists, you probably aren’t going to find much to enjoy here–it’s not an album loaded with fiddle and steel by any means. But except for very small instances like on Maddie & Tae’s debut album, the instrumentation is organic, and more importantly, these are good slices of songwriting, enhanced by a great vocalist and by melodies that resonate, two things that are unfortunately too hard to come by at times in the independent scenes.

Even though it’s definitely modern, nailing down the specific sound of this album is a bit tricky. Sometimes, Meghan Patrick blends country and rock, like on the album highlight, “Walls Come Down,” a catchy as all hell tune that details the lives of a family whose secrets are laid bare when both parents have affairs. The sister has her own demons as a result, and as Patrick sings, “sometimes love just ain’t enough to keep the devil out of that picture-perfect house.” In a just world, this would be a 2018 radio hit. Another good country rocker is the defiant “Hardest on my Heart,” wherein Meghan details damaging her liver and her reputation, among other things. There are a lot of songs that detail stuff like this, being a badass and a rebel, to the point they can be a little cliché, but this one works because she acknowledges that her reckless behavior has been harder on herself than anyone. She’s not just proud of breaking hearts and being a strong woman; rather, she’s admitting the toll it takes on her as well as others. And of course there’s the excellent title track and opener, an autobiographical tale of her passion to follow country music.

Other songs could be classified more as pop country. “Bad Guy” and “Small Town” are the two strongest examples of this style, together creating a story in the heart of the album that details the end of a relationship. She has been the one to leave, and the whole town is talking about her, but it seems there is more to this story, and even though it was technically her who left, she didn’t do it without her reasons. Now it seems that the man, especially on “Bad Guy,” is trying to paint her as well, the bad guy, when there are actually two sides to the story. “Small Town” is the continuation, as she’s leaving behind a town that once felt like home to her because she’s sick of hearing the people talking about her behind her back and exchanging half-truths. Both songs indicate that she hasn’t totally moved on herself despite being the one to end it, and together, they create a great moment.

But she’s not always leaving behind relationships and breaking hearts. “George Strait” is a pretty worrisome title, but it’s a surprisingly well-framed love song with actual clever references to Strait songs, so that it becomes more than just a name-drop of the singer. “Case of Beer and a Bed” is one of the best songs here lyrically, as she sings of a couple whose best moments came when they could afford little, and all they needed was each other. Now they are caught up in trying to have more; this song is a reminder that the best things in life are often free, and as Meghan says, “life has a way of complicating love.” This one, though certainly modern, is also one of the most country. “The Way You Apologize” also sees Patrick in a rare vulnerable moment; here, she’s pretty sure the man she’s with is lying to her, but she can’t quite get over him enough to leave him. Not necessarily the best thing on the record, but it serves a nice purpose of showing another side to Meghan Patrick besides the heartbreaker portrayed throughout much of this album.

The only time the style becomes a little too pop is on the small town anthem “WE Got it All.” The lyrics are strong, a noteworthy fact because this had the opportunity to be one giant cliché, and the songwriting saved it from that. It’s just not great sonically. “Underrated” is also just kind of weird–it’s a strange hook to call your lover underrated, and it also has a bit of that East Nashville vibe that’s been done to death and which also doesn’t really suit the otherwise excellent, strong vocals of Meghan Patrick. “Feel me Gone” is easily the best vocal performance here, but the lyrics do fall slightly short, as the narrator is going to the bar alone because her man needs to “feel me gone” and lie awake by himself. She makes it clear that she’s not going to cross the line and just wants him to feel like she’s leaving, but it’s too vague about why he deserves this. Is he not appreciating her at home? Has he cheated on her or left her alone at night wondering, so that she wants him to feel the same way? The vocals here really are outstanding, so this is a minor problem, but having said that, if the lyrics were developed a little more here, this song could have been a standout of the whole record.

But the flaws on this album are minimal, and this is the first truly exciting discovery of 2018 for me. Not the album to buy if you want fiddle and steel, but if you like modern country, you’ll find a lot to enjoy. The melodies are catchy, and the songwriting holds up quite well. IN an ideal world, this is what mainstream country in 2018 would sound like. A great example of contemporary country done right.

Buy the Album

Some Thoughts on Seeing John Baumann Live at The Blue Door

My 2018 live music New Year’s resolution continued on Friday, (Jan. 19th), when I had the opportunity to see John Baumann live at The Blue Door, a great little listening room in Oklahoma City. I reviewed a Jason Eady show there last April, and I was excited to return to the venue.

I hadn’t known beforehand that this would be an acoustic show, but in a room like this, and with songwriting like that of Baumann, this turned out to be a very welcome thing. It became a really cool, intimate performance. Some of his songs are actually even better suited for this type of show. “Turquoise,” for example, already a highlight of his latest record Proving Grounds, actually sounded better stripped back with just the vocals and acoustic guitars. It takes a certain caliber of songwriting to be able to pull off this type of thing without it becoming “samey,” and John Baumann’s certainly qualifies.

But it wasn’t all the slow, thoughtful numbers you might expect from a show like this. There were nice lighter moments in songs like ‘bible Belt,” a story of growing up in the South and the first song Baumann says he felt like they wrote, and “Holding it Down,” a fun ode to Texas that he remarked should have been taken off the set list for a show in Oklahoma. There were also many breaks for humorous stories, like the inevitable butchering of his last name by concert promoters and his band’s fondness for puzzles. That ability to engage with the audience is great in any live setting, but it especially works at The Blue Door and listening rooms like it because in a small, intimate setting like this, it’s like John Baumann’s just gotten out his guitar and started performing in your living room. And why wouldn’t the guy performing informally in your living room take some breaks to talk about puzzles and Farkle?

I’ve seen two very different shows in two very different settings so far this year, and each one offered unique things to appreciate about live music. I’m only two into what will hopefully be at least twelve shows this year, but I’m already finding a deeper appreciation for the art of live music from these artists. Thanks, John Baumann, for another great live show to add to my 2018 concert series.

Best Live Acoustic Songs: “Turquoise,” “Here I Come,” “Bible Belt,” “Midland”

Song Review: Carrie Underwood’s “The Champion” (featuring Ludacris)

Super bowl Anthem Rating: 5/10
Overall Rating as a Song: 2/10

So let’s assume this song stays a sports thing. Carrie Underwood and Ludacris are a terrible pair on paper, but maybe I can see appealing to a wider audience with this collaboration. The lyrics are generic, but maybe this is also what you need, just something to hype people up for the Super Bowl. I could take it or leave it I guess, but it serves its purpose and isn’t really hurting anyone at all with is existence.

But let’s now view this as a Carrie Underwood song, and actually, let’s not even take into account that it might be sent to country radio. Obviously it’s pop and has no shred of country in it whatsoever, and if it gets serviced to the country airwaves, this will be another problem altogether, but for a moment, let’s ignore this because of the artist in question. Carrie Underwood has never claimed to be strictly country, has always released pop singles, and has even sent songs to pop radio. She’s never been holding the torch for traditional country, even if she’s been a beacon of talent in the mainstream, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that this single favors electronic beats over fiddle and steel.

What should be a surprise, however, and should be met with disgust by all Carrie Underwood fans everywhere, is the absolute butchering of a world-class voice by one, distorting and transforming her to sound almost robotic, and two, by forcing her to sing something so lacking in any measurable melody. This song relies on rhythm, except for one or two spots before the chorus where you hear Carrie break free and subsequently weep for the fact that her voice is kept constrained to these four or five notes and choppy rhythms. Carrie Underwood is better, and indeed, this song could have been better even for what it is had her voice been allowed to shine. This is Underwood’s best quality, and it’s being utterly ignored here. And let’s hope this is a standalone single and not some horrifying glimpse into the sound of her next album; country pop is one thing, straight pop is another, but singing pop infused with hip-hop phrasing and beats is on quite a different level and does not suit the particular vocal quality and talents of Carrie Underwood. The voice that gave us the stunning tribute to country’s fallen greats and the Las Vegas victims on live television should not be forced into these boxes in some sort of misguided effort to stay relevant.

And what about the part of Ludacris in all this? Well, admittedly, the spelling out of “champion” is a bit irritating, but his part actually comes off better than Carrie’s, and well it should, because Ludacris is at least in his lane here. Carrie Underwood doesn’t even sound comfortable singing this–which almost makes too much sense since she doesn’t ever sing stuff like this…but I digress.

But I don’t want to focus too much on Ludacris, for if this does stay a sports anthem, or even if it goes to pop radio, there won’t really be an issue with him. If this comes to country radio, again, obviously it’s a different story, but for now, Ludacris is not the problem with this song. The problem is it doesn’t fit Carrie Underwood in the slightest. So let’s hope it stays a harmless NFL hype song, and that her subsequent singles and album won’t carry this influence–because this, friends, is not Carrie Underwood, and it shows.

Starting the New Year off Right with Jason Isbell

It is the #1 goal of this outlet and especially for myself in 2018 to see and discuss more live shows. We stress the importance of albums, but in this streaming age, it’s arguably even more vital to go out and support our favorite artists through ticket sales and buying merchandise. Plus, seeing a live performance often provides a new appreciation for an artist you may already love, and it can also make us fans of artists whose studio recordings we don’t necessarily enjoy.

Both of these things happened for me on Thursday night, (Jan. 4th), at the Criterion in Oklahoma City, where I saw James McMurtry and Jason Isbell. Mostly, I’ll keep this focused on Isbell, but I’ll say this about McMurtry–here’s an independent/Americana artist I have respected but never really gotten into in the past. Seeing him live made me understand exactly what people like about his music. Honestly, he’s a better vocalist live than his studio recordings would have us believe, and I enjoyed quite a lot of these songs. It’s a testament to the value of live music in general, and why we shouldn’t pass judgment on an artist solely on the basis of their recorded material.

As for Jason Isbell, I’m not sure I can put into words his ability to interpret a lyric–and not only that, but to take a heartbreaking tear-jerker of a song like “Speed Trap Town” and make it work in a live setting with people singing along to it. He proves that you don’t have to be singing happy, fun songs live to move an audience, or even to leave an audience feeling happier and carefree when you’re done. And my apologies to the song “Anxiety,” a track which I underrated considerably on Isbell’s latest record. Granted, I still prefer the live version, but hearing Jason’s live version makes the studio version all the more authentic and believable. On the record, it’s hard to tell how much of the song is personal to Jason and how much of it is just him writing about this issue for other people; when he comes out and opens a show with a song like this, with all his heart and soul in the words, with all the hopes of bonding with the crowd hinged on that song of desperation and depression, you know it means something to him. He doesn’t come out singing something content, or even something like “Cumberland Gap,” an admittedly emotional song but one which at least is rocking and fun. Instead, he comes out with “Anxiety” and leaves the listener with no illusions about what this is going to be.

And that’s why, when you get to “Speed Trap Town” and all the other songs like it in Jason Isbell’s catalog not necessarily “suited” for such things as live shows, you damn well pay attention. “Last of my Kind” cuts even more in a live setting, and “Hope the High road,” though I still don’t enjoy that song, is more convincing. And you’d have to be a fool to do “If we Were Vampires,” a song about death and treasuring every moment with the one you love as if it were your last, as an encore of all things, but Jason Isbell can, and did.

And all of that works because he sings with such conviction that you feel whatever emotion he’s conveying, and that’s the beauty in live music, and music in general, and what makes Jason Isbell able to connect with so many people and his music able to be classified in so many genres. He just sings what he feels, and the results are proving to be timeless, as he’s becoming the face of independent music and a voice for this insurgency in the mainstream by music of substance and quality. This is exactly the kind of artist you should make it a point to see live even if you’re not really an Isbell fan because he embodies what is unique and beautiful about the experience of sharing live music. And if you’re not really an Isbell fan, don’t worry–after seeing him live, you certainly will be.

Best Live Songs: “Anxiety,” “Tupelo,” “Last of my Kind”

New Year’s Resolutions/Goals for 2018

Just some things we’ve discussed and would like to try our best to make happen in 2018…of course, we know the fate of many New Year’s resolutions, so bear that in mind, and be patient, as this is a reminder to ourselves and by no means a guarantee that these things will happen, even as much as we’d like to see them. But here are some things we have in mind for Country Exclusive in the coming year, and feel free to add any thoughts/suggestions.

1. Lots More Live/Concert Reviewing
So much of independent music is reliant upon ticket sales and buying merchandise; even as much as we support albums in this scene, live music is still the bread and butter of so many of these artists and a great way to both support them and see them in another light. The goal is to see and talk about a live show once a month, but obviously this will be affected by availability, finances, and possibly by the small blind hindrance of transportation depending on where things are. This one will be starting off perfectly right, however, as I am having the great fortune of seeing Jason Isbell on Thursday night.

2. Playlists
Let’s face it, people often just listen to these more than albums, and one thing I wanted to do in 2017 was provide playlists more often so that people could sample more music. It didn’t happen until the end of the year, but that one seems to have been very well-received on both platforms, so hopefully, we can provide them more often on both Apple Music and Spotify. This one could be dependent on some behind-the-scenes factors as well, mostly due to the fact that neither Brianna nor I use Spotify and would primarily be utilizing our resident visual consultant Zack for that particular platform.

3. Return of the Reflections
They’re not coming back every week, or rather, they’re not coming back every week unless we have something to say every week. They’re not coming back scheduled, and they never went away because of anything other than time constraints during the last quarter of the year, but our features on older music will continue proudly. This is an area sorely lacking in coverage on these independent sites, and we enjoy writing them as much as people seem to like reading them.

4. More Bluegrass
Yeah, I said this in 2017 as well, but I didn’t write it down–and maybe, if I had, it would have been there to stare at me as I failed spectacularly to cover this great subgenre of music. We’ll try to do better here in 2018.

5. Continuing to Highlight Unique Artists
One of the coolest things about this year’s top albums list was that several of the entries were albums that only Country exclusive covered. Both Brianna and i discovered and reviewed material here not covered by any other independent outlet this year, and we seek to continue this in 2018, so that even more music can be heard and appreciated.

6. More Coverage
In 2017, we ended with 80 albums/EP’s reviewed and 27 featured in Memorable Songs, for a total of 107 albums covered here, not counting reflections and non-country stuff. I don’t want to set a specific goal for 2018 because I refuse to sit down and write about something just to fill a quota; rather, I want to write because I feel passion about the subject. But the hope is still to cover more music, as it was doable in 2017. Collaborative reviews will continue, as will the Memorable Songs feature that seeks to highlight good music from mediocre and forgettable albums, albums we heard and considered but did not review in full.

7. And finally, just to continue to be an honest, equal-opportunity establishment that answers to no one and spreads good music. We look forward to sharing more great music with you all in the coming year!