All posts by Megan

Album Review: Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real

Rating: 7/10

Willie Nelson.

There it is, I said it, the obligatory mention of Lukas Nelson’s father that must follow him around like a blessing and a curse and has accompanied him to every interview, review, and mention of this album, his voice, etc. It’s one reason it took me so long to review this. The music of Lukas Nelson fascinated me from the opening listen, but it takes time to separate preconceived notions about a person, and Lukas Nelson has, at least with the talent displayed on this record, earned the right to be considered both apart from and alongside his father. So let’s set all the wondering aside and consider Lukas Nelson and his music as yes, perhaps influenced by, but independent of, that of his famous father.

And the influence? Yes, it is there, but only at times, and seemingly on purpose. There’s country on this record, but also blues and rock. There’s Texas, yes, but Hawaii too, where Lukas spent much of his time partly to develop his own identity. There’s a struggle for identity here in these songs which both separates these tracks and unifies them; they sound much different from one another, but the very struggle that Lukas Nelson finds himself in seems to be the overarching theme here and holds these songs together. The result is a lot of variety, and perhaps something for everyone, though probably most will not enjoy this whole record.

The best moments here are the ones where Lukas Nelson really is just being himself. A track like the incredible “Forget about Georgia” seems to find that balance of all his influences and blend them perfectly into a sound all his own. It explores the relationship of the name of a woman and the state of Georgia; he can’t forget the woman because night after night, he sings songs about the place and is forced to recall her name. The extended outro in songs like this and “Set me Down on a Cloud” really add to the overall atmosphere of the album, creating a relaxed tone. You can imagine Lukas sitting on a beach somewhere in Hawaii playing these songs, and that suits him and the music.

But there’s also energy on this album, a thing lacking in so many country and Americana projects in 2017. “Die Alone” is a fun, catchy love song that leans closer to rock than probably any other style, and “Four Letter Word” provides an upbeat look at the perils of marriage, asserting that “real commitment is absurd. Out here in the country, forever is a four-letter word.” Inasmuch as he seems relaxed on the slower, more introspective songs, Lukas Nelson also seems to be especially engaged on the faster material. That serves to unite these songs too, as he always seems to just be generally enjoying himself.

There are some songs here that as a music fan, I just find a little boring. “If I Started Over” especially bores me, along with “Just Outside of Austin” to a degree. These are slower, more similar to the first set of songs I highlighted, but without the extended instrumental solos that brightened the first set. But some of the best songwriting can be found here, and it underscores my earlier point; the songs are so different from one another throughout the album that you probably won’t enjoy every single track on the record. But it’s simply a matter of personal taste. There’s not much critically wrong with this record, but different people will gravitate toward different tracks because this album is so varied in style and sound.

So, ultimately, it’s a bit of a difficult record to judge because the assets are also the flaws. The very struggle for identity that holds this record back also provides a nice variety throughout the album. It’s not a country record or a blues record or a rock record; it’s a Lukas Nelson record, and that’s why it’s so hard to define and also why it’s not sure of what it wants to be, because Lukas isn’t quite sure yet himself. The similarity in tone that draws comparisons between Lukas and his father, quite uncanny on certain tracks, both renders it nearly impossible not to think of Willie and also adds that inexplicable coolness embodied in the fact that Lukas carries the spirit of his father. But still, the songs where Lukas manages to insert his unique talent as a vocalist and a songwriter are the ones that hold up the strongest, and in sheer vocal talent, Lukas not only should be considered beside Willie, but might actually surpass him on that front. So go into this record appreciating that Lukas Nelson got some of the best of Willie, but even more than that, appreciate that this is unique to Lukas, and that is what makes this album so intriguing. Don’t go into it looking for straight-up country, just go into it looking for Lukas Nelson, and you’ll probably enjoy a good chunk of this album.

Buy the Album

Mourning the Loss of the Gentle Giant Don Williams

I remember vividly the shame and embarrassment my seven-year-old self felt when, after telling my classmates on the first day of school in response to one of those questions about what we’d all done that summer that I’d been to a concert, they asked excitedly who it was, and when I said, “Don Williams,” the ridicule began in earnest. IN the space of a few seconds, I’d gone from having one of the most exciting summer adventures to having done possibly the most nerdy thing a kid could confess to. I had been proud then of the concert I’d attended; indeed, it had been the first country show I’d ever gone to, and although I was firmly ensconced in the more modern sound of late 90’s country music, Don Williams had been one of my first introductions to the older styles. But they made me feel as if liking his music and going to his show was something to be ashamed of, and from then on, I was careful about the amount of country music fandom I allowed myself to display around them.

But now, sitting here three days after the death of Don Williams, the beloved Gentle Giant, I am forever thankful that I went to that concert back then, heard that unmistakable voice live, a voice like none other before and I daresay never will be. Years later, going through difficult times in my life, Don Williams music was often what I found myself turning back to. Even before I found all this independent, more traditional music floating around, Don Williams music brought me comfort and escape. During dark times, it was Keith Whitley who understood me, that voice wrought with emotion borne only from experience, Keith Whitley who understood pain better than maybe anyone who has ever made music, certainly better than anyone i knew. And it was Don who put a smile on my face afterword, who reminded me of happier times, simpler times. You can’t listen to a Don Williams record and not draw strength and comfort from it, and for me, it was like therapy. I wrote in a reflection piece not long ago that Don Williams songs are just relaxing. They are guaranteed to make you feel better.

I’ve been saddened, especially in recent years, as more and more artists I loved have passed on and left us their legacies. I can remember exactly where I was the morning I learned of Merle Haggard’s death, and it made me miss my grandma all over again because she used to play his music. I remember growing up with Glen Campbell’s songs, and his loss was truly painful. I still can’t get through his final record because it depresses me too much. While it’s true that I didn’t own tons of Montgomery Gentry albums, I did enjoy their music growing up, and Troy Gentry’s death is no less, and no more, tragic than Don’s. But Don Williams was a friend, even if I didn’t know him. His music lifted me up and brought me through hard times in my life, and it’s mostly all I’ve wanted to play since Friday.

If you haven’t gotten to know my friend, even though these are terrible circumstances, I encourage you to take the time to get acquainted with the Gentle Giant. That incredible voice lives on in his music, and his songs will always be here to bring us comfort, even if we’re seeking comfort from the loss of Don Williams himself.

Collaborative Review: Erin Enderlin–Whiskeytown Crier

Conversation

Brianna: So, this is an album we were both intrigued by. It’s essentially a concept album wherein each song tells the story of a member within the fictional community of Whiskeytown. After a brief introduction where all this is explained, the album kicks off with “Caroline.” I personally found this to be an interesting story, detailing teenage love gone wrong.

Megan: The concept is probably the best thing about this album. The songs are good, but they’re enhanced by the connector. You’re right, Caroline is a great character, and that story is essentially like any small-town teenage pregnancy, except I don’t think many dads end up murdering the boyfriend. You can imagine your grandma sitting around telling you that story of Caroline Radcliffe and wondering if it really happened. “Baby Sister” is a lot like that too.

Brianna: I admit, the twist where the dad murdered Caroline’s boyfriend really surprised me, and it makes the song stand out. I also agree about “Baby Sister” being a bit different, since said sister also murders someone.

Brianna: I love the instrumentation of “Ain’t it Just Like a Cowboy.” I like the imagery,as the song discusses being left by a boyfriend who is a cowboy. Is it just me, or is this song somehow a little different from your stereotypical sad love ballad?

Megan: It’s a little more reflective, I think. There are a lot of heartbreak songs on here actually, and that could potentially really bring the album down, but it doesn’t in this case because you see them as all different characters. You see the girl in “The Blues are Alive and Well,” drinking in the bar, as being different from the one the cowboy left, and different still from the woman in “Till It’s Gone” who’s drinking alone and smoking cigarettes. I love Erin Enderlin’s knack for capturing the same sentiment in so many different ways.

Brianna: Apart from the actual concept, I think her ability to so deftly draw so many different characters is what makes this album unique. I mean,aside from those slower songs, there’s also the more upbeat, sort of humorous vibe on “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes,” where a girl is smoking her ex’s cigarettes and drinking his whiskey. She was also left by her boyfriend, but again, she’s not the same woman from “Till it’s Gone.” That’s a really good point. I’m glad you brought it up.

Megan: Good point on “Jesse Joe” as well, that song adds something a little more lighthearted which still fits. I still say the best heartbreak song here, maybe the best one overall, is “The Coldest in Town.” I know you love that one too. Also have to say Randy Houser’s participation here has to be the most shockingly underrated thing on this album. Tell me again why he’s singing shit like “We Went” whenever he can nail stuff like this.

Brianna: I love that duet so much! I honestly had no clue he could sing like that. I loved the way the two of them traded places in who sang lead on the first and second choruses. It’s one of my favorite songs on this whole album. My other favorite is “His Memory Walks on Water.” I love how it’s about a bad father, but upon his death, his daughter chooses only to remember the good times. This song just really got to me.

Megan: That one connected with me as well because I think it’s something a lot of us do, only remember the good in someone. We haven’t mentioned, and I can’t believe we haven’t since we’ve talked about this so much in private, the little noises and things between songs. Birds chirping, crickets, in this case, pouring rain and church bells. Then you hear the town crier telling you all about the daughter standing there at her dad’s funeral in the pouring rain, and it’s that much more poignant.

Brianna: OH, how have we not mentioned those little sound samples? They added so much to the album because they really put you in that place. They make you feel like you’re there. I like that one with the church bell the most.

Megan: Yeah, they added a lot to the concept. Talking about favorite songs, though, mine would be “The Coldest in Town” and “Broken.” “Broken” almost had me in tears more than once. It’s talking about a woman who married a man she calls a “bastard even though he knew his daddy” when she was only eighteen. Her family was a broken one, and she didn’t know how to be anything else. She eventually gave up their baby for adoption because she believed it was the only way to break the cycle. So much emotion pouring out of Erin Enderlin on this song, it’s unreal.

Brianna: I agree about “Broken,” definitely one of my top songs. That part where she talks about giving their baby up for adoption…that was just so sad.

Megan: So, anything you didn’t like about this album?

Brianna: Well, I wish there had been a few more upbeat songs like “Jesse Joe’s Cigarettes.” I also sort of wish the covers of “Hickory Wind” and “Til I Can Make it on my Own” hadn’t been included. The latter is a good song, but I just found “Hickory Wind” boring. More than that, though, I just found the cover songs jarring. They deviated from the album concept to me, since these were stories that had already been told. They took me out of the frame of mind I was in for the rest of the album. But other than that, I think Whiskeytown Crier is very good. There is a lot of heartbreak, but all the songs manage to stand on their own. I would give it an 8 overall. What about you?

Megan: “Home Sweet Home to Me” was just a little too cute to me. She sounds sincere and all that, but it just seemed cliché. I also really could have done without the covers. I didn’t think they really took away from the story like you did, but we’ve got fourteen tracks, over fifty minutes. All sad, slow material, or most of it at least. I just felt they were unnecessary. She said they were Jamey Johnson’s idea, so I am blaming him. Other than that, I thought he did a great job producing, and we haven’t said it yet, but this is one of the most straight-up, traditional country records of 2017. Also, I have to say, it’s nice to hear such a good vocalist, even more to hear a good one with her natural twang. I’d go with a light 8 as well.

Brianna: Yeah, the steel and fiddle on the album are definitely great to hear if you’re a traditional country fan. I’m glad I finally heard a new female artist I enjoy, too. I think from this conversation, it’s pretty clear Megan and I are both recommending you check this out. Though it isn’t perfect, it’s traditional, emotional, and the concept behind it is very unique.

Collective Rating: 8/10

Buy the Album

Melody: The Most Forgotten and Forsaken Element in Music

“Nobody even attempts to write a melody.”

These were some of the infamous words of Merle Haggard when he gave his opinion on modern mainstream country back in 2015. Interesting words because while you can find plenty of people harping on the lack of lyrical content and substance in the mainstream, or bitching about the encroachment of other genres and electronic beats into their beloved country music, not many people have commented on what may be the most rampant problem running through modern American music: the consistent lack of memorable and engaging melodies.

But even though we don’t mention it, this makes sense in the mainstream. Much of the stuff coming from Music Row is unimaginative and forgettable, and the lack of melody is only one small problem. So yeah, maybe we don’t criticize it often enough, but it’s not a stretch to see the undeniable lack of care for this crucial element in mainstream country.

But I’d argue it’s an even bigger problem in the world of Americana and independent music; yep, you know, that world where everything is good, and we can’t criticize anything. IN fact, I’d say that the mainstream is maybe the best place to find entertaining melodies these days–and no, that’s not saying a lot because so much mainstream music is just downright boring, but the majority of the songs we call “guilty pleasures” that come out of the mainstream stick with us because they’re catchy. They get stuck in our heads. Sure, we know the lyrics are stupid, maybe even at times misogynistic. But it’s the melody, and/or that lively, infectious instrumentation that keeps us liking the song despite how our mind tells us we should feel about it.

Conversely, how many Americana projects have you listened to that while there weren’t any flaws per se, there was also nothing memorable whatsoever? Maybe you read reviews or heard from listeners how great a record was, how awesome the songwriting was, etc., and for whatever reason just could not get into the album. That’s not to take away from the special art of songwriting, and it’s also true music is by nature subjective, but sometimes, albums are ruined just by a lack of effort and care for the melodies. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s is a shining example of this and indeed the inspiration for this post; equally, John Moreland’s latest might well have been the most boring record of the year if not for those catchy hooks and enchanting melodies that kept you coming back enough times to really unwrap the brilliance in his lyrics.

This problem of forsaking melodies is no doubt directly related to the equally alarming lack of quality vocalists in the independent scenes, which is itself a topic worthy of an entire post. We question whether to criticize such things as a singer’s vocal ability, and indeed, things like tone can’t be helped, but the technical abilities of singers can also be improved. Shows like The Voice and American Idol have gone to the other extreme, painting a picture of vocal ability as everything without taking into account an artist’s ability to draw an audience in emotionally. This emotional connection is more vital than technical skill, But singing is also more than emotive interpreting; this is what makes it different from reading poetry. it’s also nice to hear a great vocalist sing the hell out of a song; that’s one of the reasons Lauren Alaina’s sophomore album was such a joy to listen to.

When singer-songwriters are writing songs to fit their increasingly limited vocal ranges and abilities, their melodies become limited as well and often become somewhat of an afterthought. The results are often good lyrics that were turned into boring, lifeless songs. I’ve heard numerous Americana albums like this in 2017, brimming with good songwriting but completely forgettable. A singer may indeed possess that special thing that connects them with an audience and allows them to draw emotion out of every word, but does that matter if those magical words are translated into boring, forgettable music? Melody is what brings the lyrics to life and makes the songs resonate with us and get stuck in our heads. A script is only as good as the actors who make it come alive onstage, and lyrics on a page are only as thoughtful and relatable as the vocalist who interprets them for the world and the melody to which the songwriter sets them.

We praise songwriters, and we say we’re living in the age of the song, but it’s more like the age of the lyric. These independent/Americana types are often so caught up in telling a story and/or being deep and thoughtful that they forget what makes music such a unique and treasured art form. It’s good to be artistic, but that artistry shouldn’t replace accessibility. Even our greatest songwriters like Jason Isbell are guilty of this; there’s some brilliant material on his latest album, but some of it is honestly just forgettable melodically. This is not to take away from Jason Isbell as an artist or a lyricist, more to paint a picture of just how deep the problem goes and to illustrate that even the greatest songwriters and albums suffer from this phenomenon in 2017.

There is a lot of talk these days, especially in this blogging world, about what, if any, of the music coming out currently will be remembered years from now. Not ten or twenty, but say, fifty years down the road. Will we be listening to any music from today like people still listen to Hank? That’s a whole different discussion, but I’d argue that it’s not just the lack of substance keeping songs from having that timeless quality. It’s not just shallow radio singles that will be forgotten, but many of our greatest songwriters in both mainstream and independent music will suffer the same fate if they continue to treat melody as some sort of secondary element. It’s that indefinable thing that keeps us coming back to a song years later, that recalls a memory, a specific place and time, and has us singing a chorus we haven’t heard in so long but to which we still can recite the words. It’s the melodies which linger on in our minds and stir our hearts, and I hate to see it becoming so marginalized, even by otherwise great musicians and lyricists. So songwriters, please don’t forget this crucial part of your craft, or treat it as somehow secondary to your lyrics. It’s the thing that holds them together and gives them character, taking those thoughts from your head and words on a page and turning them into timeless songs that we’ll sing for years to come.

Album Review: Ray Wylie Hubbard–Tell the Devil I’m Gettin’ There as Fast as I Can

Rating: 5/10

I’ve given this album a ton of listens, and truth be told, it gets worse almost each time. It’s a difficult rating to assign because I think there are some truly excellent songs here; the problem is that they’re mixed in with some incredibly boring material that balances out the record to just be really average. It’s not necessarily a fault of the writing or of the instrumentation, it’s the sameness permeating this album that ultimately brings it down after further listens.

But let’s talk about the killer songs first because they’re sprinkled in here, reminding us what a songwriting genius Ray Wylie Hubbard really is. This album deals a lot, as its title would suggest, with God and the devil and matters of repentance and redemption. We get a truly epic tale in “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels,” as they hitchhike with Ray Wylie to Mobile, Alabama, and Lucifer recounts the story of getting banished from heaven and continuously advises Hubbard to abandon his plan of going to Nashville, saying, “it’s better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” He suggests that Ray Wylie go “someplace like Texas,” where they still appreciate good music. On the other side of the spectrum, Hubbard details the story of the creation and the fall in Genesis in what can only be described as a redneck retelling in the opener, “God Looked Around.” His storytelling skills are also on fine display in “House of the White Rose Bouquet,” a haunting tale about a “woman of desire” named Olivia whom the narrator once loved. She now haunts the brothel where they worked, but it’s now been turned into a theater, or as Ray Wylie calls it, “a beacon of decency.”

We have two collaborations featured on this record, and the title track is definitely going to be the one getting more attention because it features Lucinda Williams and Eric Church, but it’s the Patty Griffin harmonies on the closer, “IN Times of Cold,” that make this song the better collaboration by far. This song ends the album appropriately, reflecting on heaven but asserting that “I’ll likely take my place in hell.”

As for the title track, it’s a good narrative, and the details and melodic touches here are nice, especially considering the overwhelming sameness in much of the album which I am about to address, but Lucinda Williams’ part here just ruins this. The only word I can think to properly describe her contribution is careless; she doesn’t sing in time with Ray and Eric Church, her voice sticks out like a sore thumb, and she doesn’t sound at all engaged with the lyrics of the song. Eric Church is much more respectful of the song and the words, but it’s like Lucinda just wanted to be heard.

Why am I spending so much time harping on this particular song? Because it should have been one of the standouts. This album is filled with songs having very little instrumentation and almost no choruses. The only songs where we are not hit with the same repeated verse, over and over, until we’re virtually hypnotized by this repetition of rhythm and lack of interesting melody, are the collaborations. It’s like a breath of fresh air to hear the title track come on and get a little more variety, and then Lucinda Williams just comes along and ruins the whole thing for me.

And songwriters, what is this tendency to forsake your melodies? It doesn’t matter that the lyrics are brilliant if they’re translated into a boring, lifeless piece of music. This is what ultimately takes this album from a 7.5 straight down to a 5. The three songs I mentioned above? Yes, they’re all killer lyrically, and I stand by that, but all of them are incredibly repetitive. The lyrics hold up well enough on these songs that it doesn’t matter, but almost the whole rest of the record is so plain and forgettable that even these songs are tarnished in context. On some of the other tracks, it’s not as if the lyrics are bad. It’s just that a song is more than lyrics, and we rely on melodies to make these words come alive. Much of it just sounds so unfinished, like we’re listening to the first drafts of these songs before they were given a proper chance to find the right instrumentation and production and truly come to life. I especially get that impression listening to “Open G,” like Ray Wylie Hubbard was just messing around with his guitar and never actually intended that song to be on the final version of the record. It’s a completely pointless track, so that at least would be a legitimate explanation for its existence here.

Overall, I don’t hate this record. In fact, I think there are some truly brilliant moments here, particularly in “Lucifer and the Fallen Angels” and “House of the White Rose Bouquet.” But it’s an album whose problems emerge over time, and there’s not much longevity at all. At first, you hear some killer tracks, some decent ones, and yeah, maybe a couple boring ones to round it out. Not a perfect album, but a decent one. And then, through repeated listens, the overwhelming sameness in this record starts to wear it down. It’s a lack of care for the instrumentation and especially for the melody that if given more attention could have really changed this whole album. All in all, it just seems really uninspired, and Ray Wylie Hubbard is certainly capable of much better.

Buy the Album