Category Archives: Reviews

Album Review: The Rest of our Life by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill

Rating: 3/10

“I Need You.” “It’s Your Love.” “Let’s Make Love.” Meanwhile, Back at Mama’s.” “like we Never Loved at All.” “Angry All the Time.” “Just to Hear You Say That You Love Me.” All excellent songs. All duets by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. All evidence that a duets album from them could truly be special.

So why is this record so bland and boring???

It’s not terrible, not in the sense that you would turn off your radio if any of this came on. Well, except for the incredibly irritating closer, “Roll the Dice.” But there’s more than one way to make a bad album, and releasing a lifeless record, particularly when you have the kind of chemistry and vocal talent these two possess, is just inexcusable. Picking good duets is one of the hardest things for vocalists to do; you have to flatter both voices and make sure the voices complement each other. It’s hard enough to choose one, never mind an album full of them. But not only do McGraw and Hill have a proven ability to do this, they have a connection and chemistry between them that goes beyond their music and in turn translates into the emotion in their songs. Maybe you don’t like Faith Hill, or maybe you think she’s too pop, but the point is, this record had endless potential for excellent, genre-defying music. And it just falls flat on so many accounts.

First of all, just because they’re married, and just because they’re singing duets, does this mean every song has to be a love song? Jason Eady and Courtney Patton didn’t do this with their duets album; hell, Rhonda Vincent and Daryle Singletary didn’t even do this, and they chose some of the most clich├ęd duets ever to cover. With Tim and Faith, I understand the temptation to just go for love songs, and that could be excused if any of these weren’t generic, predictable, and/or hadn’t been done by them earlier in their careers. “The Bed we Made,” for example, just comes off as a cheap rip-off of the far better “Let’s Make Love.” In that song, they actually sounded impassioned. This song isn’t flattering to either of them vocally, especially straining Faith in her lower register, and generally just comes off as lifeless. That’s the problem with so many of these songs; there’s no passion. And it’s even more frustrating to listen to when you know just what kind of passion McGraw and Hill have been capable of before.

So where’s the problem? Much of it lies simply in not picking songs which flatter them both. “Speak to a Girl,” which actually is slightly better on the album because it’s actually not a love song and provides a little variety, doesn’t really work for either of them. It’s better for Faith overall, but she has to stay too much in the lower part of her register. But it’s also too high for Tim, and he doesn’t even sound like himself. You can’t hear his twang at all, and by the way, that’s another disconcerting thing here–Tim literally has twang on half of this and doesn’t on the other half. He’s definitely faking one or the other, and the ease with which he can turn off his accent is just not natural. When he forsakes his twang, he’s often singing in a higher register, like on the opener and title track, and he doesn’t sound natural at all, both because of the range and because of his tone. More effort went into making Faith sound good, probably because this is her “comeback” moment, but at times, her voice doesn’t always fit the song either. “The Bed we Made,” as previously mentioned, is much too low for her in the verses. “Break First” is another good example of this, as they sing in unison, and she sounds awkward having to sing so high. “Cowboy Lullaby” is where their voices come together the best, as well as “Damn Good at Holding On.” The former is a Tim-led track, and his twang is present in full force, inviting Faith to come with him and ride horses into the night. Her harmony blends in effortlessly here, and you’re reminded of just what they’re capable of. The latter is a Faith-led track, and once again, their harmonies actually fit here.

The problem is that even when the duets do work and fit their voices, there’s nothing especially memorable here. Where’s the unique, undying love in “I Need You” or the soul-shattering heartbreak of “Like we Never Loved at All?” The emotions here are so saccharine and the writing so generic that they ultimately don’t say anything real. The only exception is “Love me to Lie,” in which a relationship is crumbling. Faith takes the lead here, and she’s thanking Tim for being able to love her enough to lie about everything, not to hurt her by saying it’s over. I can see how some will probably really enjoy this, and I will say this one has more depth of emotion than really anything else here, but personally, I just find this horrid. If he loved her enough, he’d be honest with her…but hey, that’s just me.

Most people will either love this (mainstream listeners, Tim and Faith fans, those drawn in by sappy love songs that say nothing of importance), or else just find it meh and uninteresting (probably most of you reading here.) And taken as songs, most of these would indeed get a 4 or a 5. Sprinkle in a 6, perhaps, for “Cowboy Lullaby” and “Damn Good at Holding ON’ and a 1 or 2 for “Roll the Dice.” But it’s the incredible sameness and nothingness about this all that renders it inherently awful, and when you consider the potential it possessed, this is majorly disappointing. Even Blake Shelton’s album, which also received a 3 here, has one great song. Sure, there’s nothing horrific here, but there’s also nothing good about it whatsoever. I won’t return to any of this. None of it is worth my time, and that’s a real shame because if you listen to any of the seven songs listed at the top, you’ll understand what this record could have been–and be sorry it wasn’t.

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Album Review: Ned LeDoux–Sagebrush

Rating: 7/10

So, this is one of those albums that it’s a bit hard to talk about, and there’s not a ton to say about it in the first place, but that doesn’t mean it should be overlooked by any means. It’s an album that falls into that solid, consistent category, refreshing and comforting but not necessarily groundbreaking. And if you know anything about Ned LeDoux or his intentions with this project, this is arguably doing everything it set out to accomplish. That’s not to say it’s a perfect record, or one of the best of the year, it’s just to say that it serves its purpose quite well, and for that, some might rate it higher than my solid 7.

If you’re unfamiliar with Ned LeDoux or his aims here, he’s essentially trying to honor his father Chris LeDoux, a rodeo cowboy who sold his records independently out of a truck and wrote songs about cowboy themes and simple living. I wrote that we shouldn’t fixate on the fact that Lukas Nelson is Willie’s son, but with Ned, he wants you to remember his father. He’s going to make similar records, and you go into it knowing you’ll hear tales of the West, of eight-second rides, of endless stretches of the Wyoming prairie. And it works because like his father before him, he’s actually lived this life, so you can’t call him anything but authentic. And really, he’s making his father proud.

The biggest strength of this record, unlike oh, the majority of this year’s albums, is actually the production. It’s the western feel to this that keeps you listening, especially if you gravitate, as I do, toward western themes. The more country rock production serves to elevate many of these tracks, even when they’re lacking lyrically, and I’m glad these details were not overlooked or thought of as second to the lyrics.

Lyrics indeed are the weakest point of this record, and you aren’t really sold on Ned LeDoux as a lyricist at all until track four, when “Some People Do” comes on. This is an ode to the previously mentioned Wyoming prairie, complete with its bitter winters and miles of waterless land. But to the people that live here, it can be paradise. It reminds you that country is as much a story of the West as it is of the South, and you come away wondering why so few country projects lately explore this part of the genre’s heritage. “Better Part of Living” is also one of the better songs lyrically; this one deals more with life lessons and cautions us that the best things in life “can’t be measured out in pay.” For the traditionalists, this one is one of the most country, with some lovely steel echoing in the mix. And “The Hawk” is nothing less than a beautiful tribute to his father, stating that he believes his dad came back as a hawk to watch over their family. It seems there has been a hawk on the ranch ever since he died, always keeping watch over them. His dad dreamed that he could fly and be free like a hawk, and now he seems to be there with them. The simple acoustic guitar here really allows the words to be the focus, and I don’t know how anyone can come away from this song without being moved.

There are also a couple of covers of his father’s songs here. “Johnson County War” is one of the standouts despite this, giving us a great story song about the Powder river settlements in the 1880’s. There’s also a duet version of “This Cowboy’s Hat,” featuring, of all people, Chase Rice, who actually sounds surprisingly good here. This one tells of an encounter between a cowboy and a motorcycle gang. In the end, they realize they actually have a lot in common, as the cowboy’s hat is as important to him as their leather jackets are to them.

All in all, this is nothing earth-shattering, but it’s a solid, consistent effort that certainly does Chris LeDoux proud. And with songs like “Better Part of Living” and “Some People Do,” Ned LeDoux is showing his own potential as a songwriter as well. This is an album that’s going to appeal more to people who enjoy western themes, as well as to people who value interesting production more than groundbreaking lyrics. Nice, pleasant listen.

A final thought from Ned himself: “The Old West may have changed some, but it sure as hell ain’t dead.”

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Sorry, but I Don’t hate Keith Urban’s “Female”

Rating: 5/10

I tweeted during the CMA’s that Keith Urban’s latest single, titled “Female,” was “quite a good song actually.” I didn’t say it was country, and I’d like to make two things clear here–one, Urban’s forsaking of his guitar talent to produce pop/adult contemporary stuff like this irks me beyond any semblance of reason, especially as a proud owner of his first six records, (you know, when he actually tried), and two, after being forced to hear this from virtually everywhere this past week, my opinion of the song has gone down some. Now it’s just there for me. It just exists. But apparently the fashion among everyone is to hate it with all vehemence and even, for some, to find it offensive. And as a woman, I’d like to add some equilibrium to that argument.

Even among people who hate this with all passion, there is a consensus that Keith’s heart was in the right place trying to say something and speak out about the recent rash of sexual assault claims and the systematic discrimination of women in general. And let me tell you, we need men to speak out about this. I keep seeing people say versions of, “well, the industry would make more of a statement by actually playing more women,” and I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment that this becomes an empty gesture if it’s not backed up by the actual inclusion of more women in say, the very industry in which Keith Urban makes his living. But having said that, if only women write about this and speak about this, nothing will change because in many cases, it’s mostly women who will listen. We need men to be up front about this, and I applaud Keith Urban for showing the leadership to do that, not to mention for recording this and releasing it in a timely manner when mainstream Nashville notoriously takes forever to transition songs from a pen and paper to the final product.

Keith Urban’s colossal mistake? Not actually writing the song himself, but recording a song penned in part by Shane McAnally. The verses in this song are actually quite good, and they address real, specific issues like how people say women deserved what they got because they wore tight skirts, or how many Christian men excuse their behavior toward their wives and other women because God made Adam first. The problem is that listastic thing characteristic of writers like McAnally and so many others who write by committee, coming out in full force to infect the chorus by throwing out a bunch of descriptors of women…oh, and some words like “suit of armor” and “river wild” that have absolutely nothing to do with women at all. It’s hearing this all week that has taken the song down for me, and yet it’s that part which will probably give this song its only fighting chance at radio. Still, it can’t be denied that country radio, an industry undeniably rampant with sexism, will hesitate to play this, and again, the fact that Keith Urban doesn’t give a shit about that should be commended. But it’s the efforts of McAnally and his cowriters to still make this song radio-friendly that deprive it of any substance, or at least that make the parts with substance somehow matter less.

So, I could take or leave this song when it comes down to it. It’s there, it exists, it stands at a 5 rating, and i daresay it’d be a 6 if it in any way, shape, or form resembled country. I don’t hate it. I don’t find it offensive, as some people have, for its use of the word “female,” although I understand how this can be offensive in certain contexts and by certain people. I don’t find the descriptors in the chorus stereotypical so much as lazy; it’s just a list of words thrown in there to, like I say, try to make this work on radio. So, it’s a great effort by Keith Urban, and it falls short in the writing, and ultimately, a song that could have said a lot, and indeed does manage to say something worthwhile in its verses, doesn’t really execute all the way through. That said, the vitriol this song is receiving is unnecessary. It’s forgettable, and perhaps a missed opportunity by Keith Urban, but it’s not the horrific mess some would claim it to be, at least not for this listener.

Written by: Shane McAnally, Nicolle Galyon, Ross Copperman

Album Review: Dori Freeman–Letters Never Read

Rating: 8.5/10

Dori Freeman was one of the coolest discoveries of 2016 for me, coming from out of nowhere and making an absolutely killer debut album. Bringing an Appalachian sound to her brand of country, she displayed a unique talent for taking the traditional and timeless and keeping it forward-thinking and fresh. And not just traditional country either, but vintage pop, bluegrass, and folk as well, proving that the best artists aren’t trapped by genre lines but simply write and perform material that suits them and their individual talents.

Read: Album Review: Dori Freeman Impresses With Her Self-Titled Debut

It seems one of Dori’s talents is a knack for simplicity, and another is instinctively knowing what works for her. IN fact, this record literally feels like a continuation of that first project, and that’s not a bad thing at all. It doesn’t feel like leftovers from the first record or seem as if it’s lacking something new to expand Dori’s sound; rather, it’s like a comforting reminder that Dori Freeman is going to be an artist you can count on for quality music. She’s still mixing up the styles, still singing a lot about love, and even has another a cappella tune on this album in the cover of “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog,” an old Appalachian song written by her grandfather. So yeah, it’s literally not breaking any new ground, but when something was flawless the first time, why deviate from it?

As mentioned, love is certainly a prevailing theme running through this record. Sometimes, it comes from a place of sheer contentment. “If I Could Make You My own” is sweet and simple in its delivery, and sung by anyone else, the poetic lyrics might come across as sappy and overdone, but Freeman exudes a sincerity that just makes it work to perfection. The same goes for “Turtle Dove.” This one leans more toward that folk/vintage pop style than the former, more traditional country song, and again, it’s delivered with such sincerity that you can’t help but believe the sentiments Dori is expressing.

But more often than not, we’re dealing with the darker sides of love and relationships. “Lovers on the Run” confronts men who make excuses for walking away because they can’t commit, asserting that one day, they will be lonely. This one feels a bit like “Go on Lovin'” from her debut album, but this is told in a more general sense rather than addressed to a specific person. “Just Say it Now” finds Dori confronting the impending end of a relationship and saying that she’s about to be back where she was before it began, “wondering what men are ever looking for.”

And then we have the stunning pair of songs, “That’s all Right” and “Cold Waves.” The former sees Freeman in an abusive relationship with an alcoholic; “you’re passing out, and I’m turning blue.” That natural thing in her voice which sells the sap on “Turtledove” also captures the desperation and heartbreak perfectly here. But despite that, she sings from a place of defiance as she tells the man, “You’ll be the only one whose cross you cannot bear” and looks ahead to when she won’t be with him anymore. She does eventually move on, as conveyed on the album’s crown jewel, “Cold Waves.” This is where the album all comes together, as she’s found a new love, presumably the one from “Turtle Dove,” but the previous abuse still haunts her every day. This is a fantastic song, describing the ongoing pain that she must deal with for the rest of her life as “cold waves” and “blue haze” that surrounds her and makes it hard to push through on some days. Though she is now happy, she will always carry this around with her like a weight, and she prays that her daughter will never know this type of heartache. This has to be one of the best songs written on this subject because it neither paints the abuse as something that permanently debilitated her nor as something from which she can ever completely move on. It’s probably the most realistic song about this that I have ever heard, and as I say, it serves to bring the different parts of the record together as well.

This album is indeed simple, and at only twenty-eight minutes of music, it can seem a little short, especially when four of these ten offerings are covers. But it’s also hard to second guess either the brilliant bluegrass arrangement of “Over There” or the aforementioned “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ dog.” These two songs placed in the heart of the record really add that wonderful Appalachian flavor unique to Dori Freeman and so often overlooked in modern country, both mainstream and independent. And let me just add, how many vocalists in the independent scenes can sing a cappella like this? appreciate the vocal quality of Dori freeman, her smooth, undoubtedly country tone, her ability to enunciate clearly, and understand what it takes to pull off stuff like this song because many of her peers simply couldn’t. “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight” is definitely the weakest of the covers; it’s a solid song and a good performance from Dori, but it seems slightly out of place on the record. I wouldn’t call it filler by any stretch, but it just doesn’t really go with the rest of the material here.

In short, this is another great album from Dori Freeman, and she continues to make her mark as a rising artist in the independent country/Americana realms. Her commitment to the old styles and especially to the Appalachian sound is refreshing and indeed sets her apart from many of her counterparts. This is a sparse, simple record, yes, but with Dori Freeman, this is all it takes; in fact, less is often more. It’s not strictly country, but because of her diversity with several different styles, there’s really something here for everyone. Definitely recommend checking this one out.

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Album Review: Lilly Hiatt–Trinity Lane

Rating: 7/10

Since there’s only one new album I even care about listening to this week, it seems that now would be a good time to start clearing albums from the back burner, especially since we’re getting near the end of 2017, and everyone seems to be working on those infamous lists. And the first one I have to get to is the latest record from Lilly Hiatt, released back in August and one of the most fascinating records I’ve heard this year.

The interesting thing about this album is it’s a mood record; no, not in the sense of say, the latest records from Sam Outlaw or Willie Nelson, not slow and easy and relaxing. And not in the sense of something like the Shinyribs album either, where you have to be in the mood to not take anything too seriously in order to really enjoy it to the fullest. Trinity Lane is an emotionally charged affair, a breakup record that captures all the ups and downs and in-betweens felt during that period, and just as Lilly Hiatt had to be in a certain head space to create it, you have to be in a certain mood to appreciate it. I’ve given this one many listens before forming my final opinion, and my conclusion is that if you’re happy, in a generally good mood, this album goes down to a 5 or a 6. It’s when you can empathize with Lilly and understand somewhat the emotional state from which she’s writing and singing that you really begin to appreciate this album.

As I say, this is a breakup record, and the beauty of it is that it manages to detail all the different emotions, even contradicting ones. For example, she’s apologizing for being, in her own words, a bitch on “The Night David Bowie Died,” yet saying that she gave the relationship her all in “Everything I had.” Here, she seems to deny any responsibility she might have claimed in the former song. Sometimes you see her trying to move on and fix her own problems, like in the title track, and other times, she’s emotionally out of touch and obsessing over her ex, as told in the song “Different, I Guess.” She seems heartbroken over the breakup often, but at other times, she seems to embrace freedom. “Records,” one of the album’s standouts, details how music can help us through things like this, and Hiatt states in that song, “I’ll take lonely if it means free.” The biggest strength of this album is that it depicts all these different stages of dealing with the breakup; real life is like that, and sometimes our emotions change daily. I’m sorry Lilly Hiatt had to go through all this to make this record, but it produced some truly cool and interesting art.

That said, the album as a whole is more interesting than some of the songs. A few of them stand out individually, and this is one of the rare times I’ll list the standout tracks for the album at the bottom because if you don’t choose to listen to the entire thing, some of the songs don’t stand as well on their own. “I Wanna Go Home” is a good example of this, as she’s traveling around searching for answers. It adds a good angle to the overall story, but it’s kind of forgettable on its own. “Different, I Guess” is also vital to the story, but the melody is just strange, and she tries to cram a whole bunch of words into the chorus that shouldn’t fit there which makes it one of the more awkward tracks. “All Kinds of People” is pretty forgettable too, as it doesn’t really flatter her voice and is done better by other songs on the album.

But there are also moments on this album that manage to stand out even apart from the overarching story. The aforementioned title track can get stuck in your head quite easily, as well as “The Night David Bowie Died.” It’s easy to relate to these as well, and you feel a bit less like an observer and more like you share a common ground with Hiatt on these tracks. “Sucker” and “So Much You Don’t Know” create a great moment toward the end of the record, as Lilly veers more into the territory of self-reflection, wistful that she didn’t get to show her ex parts of her life that were important to her. In the latter, she’s wishing he asked about her, saying that she always was the one inquiring about his life. You get the sense that as the album progresses, she’s realizing the issues that had been present in the relationship. These two tracks stand out above the overarching theme as well because again, they are more universally relatable and not just unique to Lilly’s situation. We all want to share certain parts of ourselves with someone and have them care enough to want to know those details about us.

This is a fascinating record and has been easily the hardest thing for me to assign a rating to in 2017. The album as a whole is going to appeal to those who like darker, more emotional music, and if you’re not in the right mood to enjoy it, I would recommend just listening to specific songs. It’s also not strictly country; rather, it falls into the Americana realm, so if you are looking for more traditional stuff, this probably won’t be your thing either. “So Much You Don’t know” is pretty country, but then again, “The Night David Bowie Died” isn’t even close. So it’s not necessarily an album that I think everyone reading this will appreciate, but for the right audience, it’s quite a good one, and there are some great songs that many of you will enjoy regardless.

Standout Tracks: “Trinity Lane,” “The Night David Bowie Died,” “Records,” “Imposter,” “Sucker,” “So Much You Don’t Know”

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