Category Archives: Reviews

Album Review: Luke Bryan–What Makes You Country

Rating: 4.5/10

Okay, so honestly, this is the kind of album that really doesn’t give me much passion to write. It’s not great, it’s not terrible, it just exists. The vast majority of it is just kind of forgettable. That’s a pretty good summary of this, and I could take the quality songs from this and easily fit them into Memorable Songs.

But the fact that I can pull songs from this into that feature is improvement in and of itself. I feel I at least owe Luke a proper review because he’s showing some maturity and making at least marginally better music. His last album was mostly horrendous, and I’ve hated a good majority of his singles for the past five years. So when you go from spectacularly awful to okay, and even sprinkle in some quality, it should be commended. I’ve been one of Luke Bryan’s biggest critics–anyone who knows me at all will know this–and so I can’t ignore it when the guy’s making better music.

So let’s talk about the quality because you actually do get a few really solid tracks here. “Drinking Again” reminds you that one, Luke can actually use his charisma for good, as opposed to singing hookup songs in trucks, and two, that not all drinking songs are bad. This one’s fun and catchy and would make a good single. I daresay his fans would have enjoyed it more than the insufferable mess that is “Light it Up,” and hopefully, he will release this. “Most People Are Good” is just simply a nice song, and when the world’s going to hell all around us, we need stuff like this to remind us it’s not as bad as the media would have us believe. This is not going to be anyone’s Song of the Year or anything, but it’s a case of less is more, and it’s just nice to hear a song like this. Also, the production, as is actually the case for most of this record, is much closer to pop country than much of Bryan’s previous output, and although modern, this actually sounds like it should be allowed to be in the genre. “Land of a Million Songs” displays some of that too, as we have some prominent piano featured here, and the song itself is another highlight, an extremely well-written tune about doing anything to make it in the music business and constantly looking for things to say and adding verses to your songs. I can’t believe we’re getting a song like this from Luke; actually, it reminds me of a hidden gem we might have seen on one of Blake Shelton’s more recent albums–you know, before he released this current piece of shit. Side note here, isn’t it sad that Luke Bryan has actually produced a better album than Shelton this year?…but I digress.

Then we’ve got some decent songs–not anything necessarily to write home about, but definitely some more proof that Bryan strove for more maturity with this project. “Pick it Up” actually portrays a grown man–I didn’t know the same person who sang “Light it Up” was capable of this–hoping his son will learn from him and adopt some of his cool habits and good values. It’s kind of cheesy, but I’m sure it’s personal to Luke, and that’s more than I can say about every sex anthem by a river in a truck he’s ever produced. The title track isn’t bad either; it’s pretty catchy, and the overall idea is nice, asserting that anyone can be country, and it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what background you have. Good idea, but played out badly, as he then asserts he’s country because of pretty much all the clichés he normally uses in all his other songs. Still, I see what it was going for, and I’ll give him some credit. Same goes for “Sunrise, Sunburn, Sunset,”–it’s the same clichés as well, but at least there’s a story and a bit of depth to this.

There’s nothing that makes me cringe quite like any of Luke’s previous work, except the God-awful “Light it UP.” Even his loyal fans aren’t liking this too much, as they know it’s creepy and lame. His neurotic obsession with his cell phone would be enough to make me break it off if I were the girlfriend, but hey, that’s just me. Also, like him or not, Luke does have charisma, allowing him to pull off a lot of his previous material, and here, he just sounds completely checked out. The whole thing would really just be lifeless and boring but for the embarrassing lyrics. We don’t have anything else that horrible, but we do get some ill-advised R&B sex jam attempt in “Hungover in a Hotel Room” that just shouldn’t exist. It is just not sexy in the least bit and therefore does not accomplish its purpose at all. And there’s “She’s a Hot One,” which honestly sounds like a leftover from one of Bryan’s bro country albums that didn’t make the cut–and understandably, because it’s like a wannabe version of all those songs. I can’t be too disgusted by this one because it’s just…lame.

As for the rest, there’s literally nothing to say. It just runs together. The good thing here is that none of this is atrocious, and Luke Bryan has certainly proven he’s capable of atrocious. The bad thing is that although it’s a major improvement for Luke, it’s still not a good album. It’s just under exactly half good, and that’s simply because it drags along to fifteen tracks. “Win Life,” there at the end, isn’t a bad song, but by this point, you’re just tired of listening. They could have trimmed this down a little and risen this rating to a 5, even a 6. As it is, the ultimate flaw is it’s uninteresting. But that’s also a noticeable sign of growth because while the quality does stand out, the lesser material mostly just fades into the background. Coming from someone as polarizing as Luke Bryan, that’s improvement, and maturity, and he’s shown both on this album. I hope we get more interesting selections next time, but he’s definitely going in the right direction, even if he’s not quite there yet with this record.

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The Good

The Terrible

Album Review: Walker Hayes–Boom

Country Rating: -1/10
Overall Rating: 1/10

You think that negative rating is a joke, or a hyperbole, or at the very least an attention-getting device. No, it’s a reflection of how absurd it is that we’ve reached a point in time where we’re actually calling this country. I shouldn’t even have to comment on this album at all because it is so far out of my lane, so far removed from anything closely resembling music that I feel qualified to speak on, and yet that’s exactly why I’m compelled to call bullshit on this. Merle Haggard, Don Williams, and yes, even the more modern-sounding Troy Gentry are all rolling over in their graves somewhere right now from the knowledge that we’ve massacred country music like this. I dare you, any of you, to listen to anything from this record and tell me how it in any way, shape, or form resembles anything close to country. I dare you to tell me how you’d know, if listening to any one of these tracks, you were listening to a country radio station. It’s even worse than Sam Hunt because hell, at least Hunt was original. Granted, his spoken word/singing crap was and is a terrible idea, but original it was; Walker Hayes is the wannabe who can neither sing nor rap with even half the charisma of Hunt…and shame on country music for allowing itself to be tampered with this way; no other genre has so little self-respect, but country is forever in this identity crisis. God forbid people actually think we’re “too” country, so we let in shit like this.

The first half of this album is absolutely, mind-blowingly, shockingly awful. We start with “Beautiful,” which isn’t the worst thing here, but it’s essentially Walker missing an ex for well, we don’t ever really get too much of a reason except that she’s physically beautiful. So, potentially good idea turned basically into a shallow piece of crap that ultimately says nothing. OH, and I’ve mentioned this, but he cannot sing. “Shut up Kenny” is one of the worst things here–he’s driving around sick of hearing Kenny Chesney’s music because it reminds him of an ex, but instead of, I don’t know, turning off the radio, he just continues to yell at Kenny to shut up. He does contemplate ripping the radio out of the dash, though, which would somehow be easier than turning it off, I suppose. And then we have the ultimate douche anthem, the infamous single “You Broke up With Me.” Worst single of the year no doubt. The narrator here is just a completely self-absorbed jackass, and also, adding to the bad singing and bad rapping, we now have bad whistling. I’ll give “Halloween” credit for the idea it was going for, taking off masks and revealing yourself to the one you love, but the total lack of personality and his complete inability to rap make this pretty unlistenable as well.

And then this first half comes to the ultimate, horrifying conclusion of “Dollar Store.” Now, this, I think, at least knows that it’s stupid. At least I hope it does because if not, this singlehandedly proves Walker’s total lack of self-awareness. I think it knows it’s idiotic, though; it’s essentially a song about being dirt poor and going to the dollar store–“down to the dollar store, buy you whatever you holler for” would be an embarrassing enough line on its own, but someone needs to tell this guy that in country music, we put r’s in “store” and “for.” This song honestly could have been written in an actual country way, minus the stupid lyrics about being a sugar daddy and without all the urban phrasing, and been pitched to someone like Brad Paisley, and we’d all probably enjoy it. As it is, words cannot describe the horror and stupidity of this track…and yet, it’s not even the worst thing on this album.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves because at track 6, and yes, I’m as surprised as you are, we actually find a song that isn’t immediately horrible. Two, in fact. “Beer in the Fridge” is a heartbreak song, and he’s basically fighting a war with himself over whether to drink his last beer. He gave up drinking for the ex, but she’s also the reason he wants to be drunk. He still can’t sing, but I’ll give this song credit for actually being well-written and also for not making him sound like a giant douche. “Beckett” is pretty obnoxious, but again, he doesn’t sound like a complete douche, as he’s describing his child’s innocence and acceptance of people and saying he wishes he were more like that. I find this one pretty annoying and sappy, but it should be given a bit of credit for the idea. I don’t have much to say about “Mind Candy,” as it’s essentially Beautiful Part 2. It’s a terrible song as well, but after some of the earlier tracks, I can’t be shocked by this point…except for the fact he manages to name-drop Willie Nelson here in the most disgusting instance of blasphemy on one of these “country” records I’ve ever heard. Still, nothing can be as bad as what I’ve already suffered through on the opening half, right?

“Prescriptions” arrives to toss that ill-conceived theory right out the window. If this is released in 2018, I will tell you now that it will be the worst single of that year and quite possibly many years to come. This is another douche anthem, and I can’t even believe this is possible, but this guy is even more of a jackass than the “You Broke UP With Me” dude. He opens this thing by declaring that he’s trying to be mature about his break up and seeing his ex with someone else…okay, maybe this is possible given “Beer in the fridge,” but doubtful given “You Broke up With Me.” Then we get the most creepily detailed list of shit he’d like to happen to her…he wants her and her boyfriend to be drunk and half asleep one night, her to accidentally say his name instead of the new guy, them to fight about it, the boyfriend not to be able to get over it even though she promises him that it meant nothing, their entire relationship to crumble, them to seek therapy, and the therapist to have nothing to offer but prescriptions…if that doesn’t say mature, friends, I don’t know what does. OH, I should say that he adds that he was kidding, kinda.

Again, I’ll give credit where it’s due, and after the incredibly hate-filled song we’ve just been subjected to, it’s hard to imagine the next and final song would actually be mature and feature an example of love and kindness. This one is personal to Walker Hayes and describes Craig, a man he met in church who helped them out when the family was struggling and needed money. It’s a good illustration of a man living out his faith, and the personal details do add to this. It’s still not country by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, but this is actually a pretty good song in its rightful genre. It’s also the only example of actual passable rapping, although his singing still leaves much to be desired. Still, it’s the only time you can actually see a bit of personality to Hayes, well, personality beyond that of a completely self-absorbed asshole.

I can’t be fair to this album without highlighting the very few bright spots, and I’ve done that. That said, this is a terrible album and a slap in the face to country music. Walker Hayes is probably capable of more–see “Craig”–but he’s proven by his complete change of character since the Sam Hunt trend arrived that he’ll shape himself into anything that’ll sell. On his previous songs, he actually could carry a tune–it’s like he’s purposely forsaken his vocal ability to do this spoken word crap, and that’s all the more unfortunate because he can’t rap to save his life for most of this record. Plus, it’s not remotely country, and the challenge still stands if any of you want to try and contradict this opinion. Add to all that the fact that he comes off as a douche throughout a good chunk of this record, and yeah, it makes for a spectacularly awful listen.

P.S. And the title is about the stupidest thing I have ever heard…really?

P.P.S. If you want to purchase this, kindly go somewhere else. I love my readers too much to post such a link.

The Horrific

The Better

Collaborative Review: Chris Stapleton–From a Room, Volume 2

Our collaborative reviewing began with Chris Stapleton, and it seems, due to the ill-advised releasing of this album in December, our last joint effort for 2017 will also be Chris Stapleton. December is notoriously horrible for album sales, and I can only guess at why we’re getting this release now…but anyway.

Conversation

Megan: So, before we talk about Volume 2 itself, how are you feeling now that you’ve heard both albums? My biggest takeaway from this whole thing is that 1 and 2 together would have made a great single album, maybe trimmed down some. As it is, these are both just decent albums. Also, we collectively gave Volume 1 an 8, and I’d be interested to know how it’s holding up for you at this point.

Brianna: I think they would have made a really good album combined and trimmed down, too. As it is, these are really just too short, and I think they suffer for that. I still feel the same about the songs, but I don’t think Volume 1 was his best work. Or, for that matter, Volume 2.

Megan: Volume 1 just hasn’t held up at all for me despite it being a really good listen. There’s not too much to point out that’s wrong with it, but you’re right, it’s just too short. It wouldn’t even be top 25 for me at this point for albums this year, and it was on my midyear list. That’s how much it’s fallen off. No staying power long-term. I see less consistency in Volume 2, but I also see a few much better songs and more variety in terms of production.

Brianna: I just go back and listen to individual songs off of Volume 1, so I have to agree. As for this one, I do like all the variety in the song production and in the tempos. But yes, the songs are somehow just more forgettable this time around.

Megan: The production for me is a plus. We didn’t have something upbeat like “Midnight Train to Memphis” the first time. It was all just kind of mid-tempo. That song is one of the highlights for me here.

Brianna: That’s what i like. A lot of songs on both Traveller and Volume 1 were mid to slow tempo. This one’s got all different kinds, and I really enjoy that a lot. It’s great because he shows off how he can do blues, rock, and country.

Megan: Yeah. So, what were the biggest highlights for you as far as individual songs? I know we agree on at least one of these.

Brianna: “Scarecrow in the Garden” is one of his top songs to date. I love the melody, the production, the lyrics…My second favorite is “Millionaire.” It reminds me a little bit of “Broken Halos” because of how much the guitar leads and the tempo, but the lyrics make them two very different songs. “A Simple Song” is amazing because I love how it gives little snapshots of life’s sadness, but he’s got his family, so everything is ultimately all right.

Brianna: Ooh, and I like “Drunkard’s Prayer” too. It’s ultimately a heartbreak song, and I love the acoustic production. It lets his voice shine. What about you?

Megan: I definitely agree on “Scarecrow.” For a little more detail, it’s the story of a family farm passed down through generations that is now basically falling apart. I also think this one is made better by the fact that Stapleton for once isn’t belting, and his telling of the story is nuanced and respectful, keeping you focused on the most important part. I’d echo you on your other three pretty much word for word. If I could have these four plus “Midnight Train to Memphis” plus some of Volume 1, this would all become miles better.

Megan: Another note on the belting…that singlehandedly distracts me from “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight” here because in the chorus, I can’t always understand what he is saying since he is too focused on well, belting. He can sing the phone book in a technical sense, but much like “Death Row” from Volume 1, his delivery kind of ruins that song for me.

Brianna: You know, I think the fact that he just sings the lyrics on “Scarecrow” without any real embellishment makes it that much better. I’m glad you pointed that out. “Friendship” has a nice melody and message about being good friends, but it’s otherwise not memorable. “Midnight Train to Memphis” is a nice rock song about a prisoner, but it just doesn’t do it for me like it does for you. As for the rest…I can’t lie, they really bore me and don’t stick out. Like you, I’d combine about half of this album with some of Volume 1 to make one great album.

Brianna: And I agree on his singing of “Nobody’s Lonely Tonight.” I mean, yes, he can sing, but the world knows that by now. He’s got a great voice, but I do wish he wouldn’t overdo it sometimes.

Megan: As for “Friendship,” I actually found that song to be pretty much God-awful, lol. It just says nothing, other than some ultra sappy crap about being friends. The rest of the album is just boring and forgettable. “Hard Livin'” is very cool instrumentally, but unlike “Midnight Train,” it doesn’t stick melodically or lyrically. “Tryin’ to Untangle my Mind” I actually really enjoyed live, but the recorded version just lacks something.

Brianna: NO, “Hard Livin'” definitely doesn’t stick for me at all. I have to go back and listen just to refresh myself, and that’s not a good thing. “Tryin’ to Untangle my Mind” somehow manages to bore me. I should like both of these songs because they’re different from all the others production wise, but still, there’s something missing. I guess for me, Chris Stapleton either has songs that are really awesome or songs that are just kind of forgettable.

Megan: This is really hard to rate because of its size. As an album, I would give it a 6.5, but I will also come back to it more than Volume 1, at least as far as individual songs. Personally, I gave Volume 1 an 8.5, and speaking today, I would lower that to your grade of 7.5. The difference is that Volume 1 is a more solid, consistent effort, and this one has some infinitely better songs mixed in with some complete filler. The good songs here are usually much better than those on the first volume. But it’s a nine-song effort, and there’s not any room for error. And as an album, it’s just not that memorable. That said, if I could take the best from both albums and combine them, it would be an 8 or a 9.

Brianna: I think I have to give it a 6.5 as well. I’d even go so far as to just give it a 6, but since the production and song tempos vary so much, 6.5 is probably better. I’m sad to say that only four out of the nine songs are ones I’ll come back to. Like you, I really, really wish he’d taken the best songs off these two albums and combined them, trimming the least memorable ones along the way. I think an album like that would have been pretty amazing.

Collective Rating: 6.5/10

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Album Review: Billy Strings–Turmoil & Tinfoil

Rating: 6/10

Another album here that comes from my back burner, and another one of the few bluegrass projects I’ve been able to cover this year. With the incredible amount of music to listen to, you might look at this rating and find it strange that I’d choose to pull this one from the back burner and make sure it got a full-length review in 2017. Surely there might be better stuff to highlight?

But it’s not the rating that’s important here; there are some truly disappointing sixes–as you’ll see soon–because you feel like an artist is capable of so much more. And then there are sixes where you’re excited because an artist is still developing, and you see past this project to the full potential, and with this album, it’s definitely a case of the latter.

With bluegrass in particular, there’s this stereotype hanging over the music, and often for good reason, that much of it is the same. It’s great that it stays so connected to the roots of that genre, but it often lacks the vibrancy and youthfulness needed to keep it interesting and sustain it in these times. And because of the potential for sameness, there’s also an even more pronounced urgency to set yourself apart from the rest. With Flatt Lonesome, it’s the songwriting and the sheer vocal chemistry and talent. With the Infamous Stringdusters, it’s the incredible instrumentation and the experiments with different sounds, like the bluesy tones of “This ol’ Building.” With Billy Strings, it’s experimental sounds as well, woven into this album so that you come away wondering why no one else has thought of this before.

This is most present on the front half of the album. “Meet me at the Creek” is just a stellar, nine-minute exhibition of bluegrass awesomeness. “Living Like an Animal,” though completely minimalist in its approach, staying on basically one chord, has an animal-like sound echoing through it that takes it from totally boring to infinitely interesting. The title track is similar, with long instrumental breaks and an almost Middle Eastern riff to set it apart from every other bluegrass tune endlessly parading along in this key. It’s the ability and ingenuity of Billy Strings to alter these songs only the slightest bit and recreate them as something fresh and vibrant within this incredibly restrictive genre while still keeping that genre’s roots intact which makes this most impressive. “While I’m Waiting Here” and “On the Line,” though not especially different instrumentally, do stand out for their songwriting on this half of the record. But again, songwriting is not the ultimate strength of Billy Strings or of this project, it’s the fresh, forward-thinking approach brought to the instrumentation and sound, especially on this front half.

And that’s why this particular album falls short in the back half. It starts to become no different than any other bluegrass record. Well, except for the incredibly weird, acid-dropping experience that is “Spinning,” but that’s not experimentation with bluegrass, that’s just a strange rambling about multiverses and women with skirts made of various body parts…yeah. The message is that we should all work together, but it’s delivered in the strangest way humanly possible. Other than that, though, the album is just pretty typical in the back half. That’s not to say it’s necessarily bad, and if you’re more of a bluegrass fan, you might like it better. For me, seeking out only the best in the genre, this half does little to establish Billy Strings as anything different than what’s going on in the rest of bluegrass.

However, it’s the cool, promising stuff on the front half of the record that makes Billy Strings someone to keep an eye on and which leaves me excited as a listener. This hasn’t been one of the easiest reviews to write because there’s just not a ton to say for me, especially given the boring parts of this album. But the parts of this record where Billy shines, so infused with life and spirit and bringing something absolutely unique and fresh to this genre, cannot be ignored and are the reason I kept coming back and searching for words for this project. This is not the best bluegrass album I have heard all year, but indeed, some parts of this constitute the best and most interesting bluegrass I have heard in my entire, though incredibly limited, experience with this genre. I am certainly looking forward to what Billy Strings could develop into, but for now, we definitely have some promise here.

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Album Review: Travis Meadows–First Cigarette

Rating: 8/10

Travis Meadows adds his name to the growing list of professional songwriters who are gaining a name for themselves and finding more success with their own material. As for songs written by Meadows, try “Knives of New Orleans” by Eric Church, “Riser” by Dierks Bentley, and “What We Ain’t Got” by Jake Owen. These should be enough to get your attention and keep his third album, First Cigarette, firmly on your radar.

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2017 criticizing various independent/Americana singers for their vocals. It doesn’t matter if you can write a good song if you can’t remain on pitch and/or sing with any emotion. But there’s another side to this too, and that’s understanding your tone as a singer and writing and performing songs to suit you. Travis Meadows brings a weathered, unpolished quality to his singing, and no, he’s not the greatest vocalist in that sense, but he is a fine interpreter, able to capture perfectly all the raw emotion on this record. Plus, he can indeed stay on pitch, so that’s just a bonus…but I digress. His tone may not be for everyone, but he utilizes it well here, allowing it to become a feature rather than a flaw.

And his tone actually suits the material here very well, speaking also to his talent as a songwriter, his ability to write according to his vocal strengths. The rough edges in his voice only serve to elevate this particular record because it’s a self-reflective album, sometimes looking back on the past and other times hopeful for the future, at once wistful and content. “Sideways” sets the mood perfectly, opening the album with the hard-hitting statement: “If I could buy myself a conscience that wasn’t broken, Mend every fence I drove my hard head through. Re-lock all the doors I wish I’d never opened, unlearn the things I wish I never Knew.” Meadows thinks back with nostalgia on his youth on “McDowell road” and “Pray for Jungleland,” and looks forward to making life better for his son on “Travelin’ Bone.” (And by the way, “Pray for Jungleland” is actually a good example of how a song about remembering some girl in tight jeans in your car can actually convey a real emotion and tell a real story.) He’s leaning on friends to help him through hard times on “Better Boat” and seems restless on “Hungry,” but he’s perfectly happy with his life on “Guy Like Me.” It all appears to come together on the title track, as he has learned to appreciate the little things in life, like that feeling of the first cigarette in the morning. He also states that he’s “a little more content with who I am than who I was,” which seems to be the thesis of this whole thing.

The production is another thing I’ve harped on many times in 2017, and yet this record manages to get it exactly right. Travis Meadows said that can be attributed to his producers, Jeremy Spillman and Jay Joyce, wanting it to sound like Travis would sound live in a bar. And it does sound rather organic and unpolished like that, very real and raw and fitting for this journey. Also, every song flows straight into the next, with little instrumental interludes to connect the tracks, so you take this trip right along with Travis. It’s a small detail, but it really adds a lot to this album and the sentiments being conveyed here. It makes this not an album of different songs about finding contentment with who you are and where you’ve been, but rather a single experience, a process that is being carried out throughout the record.

The album needed some brighter moments to lighten the mood and in turn make the serious, reflective stuff stand out all the more, and we get that in several places. It doesn’t quite work on “Underdogs,” as this one is kind of generic and doesn’t really say much when you get right down to it. There are a thousand songs out there like this, and while it will probably really excite live crowds, it doesn’t exactly add much to the project. It doesn’t necessarily take away much either, but lighter moments are pulled off better with “Guy Like Me” and “Long Live Cool.” The former has the personal detail which “Underdogs” lacks, seeing Travis content and happy with his life and circumstances. The latter is a nice, catchy ode to rock ‘n’ roll. This one features some lively harmonica and some nice electric guitar. This one fits well within the album context despite it being lighthearted because it carries that nostalgia so often explored on this record.

First Cigarette is getting slightly underappreciated, and I honestly can’t understand why. Travis Meadows isn’t the greatest vocalist in the world, but the roughness in his voice only adds to this record. The production is some of the best I’ve heard this year, and there’s enough sonic variety to keep it from being sleepy. The writing is nice too, and there’s a thematic structure to this album as well, not something we see on many records these days. Not a concept record, but definitely one continuous journey that finds its conclusion in the title track. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s a damn good one and is not to be overlooked in the frenzy of year-end lists. Highly recommend giving this a listen.

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