Category Archives: Reviews

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.

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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

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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.

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Single Review: Turnpike Troubadours’ “The Housefire”

Rating: 8/10

Well, Lorrie’s back.

That’s almost the first thing you notice about this new Turnpike song, the reemergence of Lorrie, who first appeared in “Good Lord Lorrie” and later in “The Mercury” and can arguably be linked to several other Troubadours songs. Here, she’s a beacon of assurance, grabbing the baby and calling the fire department as the narrator’s house burns to the ground. You can tell he admires her calmness; he’s watching speechlessly as his house burns, but he reflects that Lorrie “never missed a note” as she wrapped up their baby in a coat “she found out in my ride.” Seeming to draw his strength from Lorrie, he observes that “I can live on so much less” as he stands barefoot outside with only “a photograph and my old auto 5.” Same shotgun from “The Bird Hunters?” Perhaps, and that would possibly give us another piece of the Lorrie puzzle, if indeed she’s the one the narrator of that epic is thinking of as he lifts the gun to his shoulder in the opening moments of their last album. We also have the possible links of the “logging roads” mentioned here and in that song, although in rural Oklahoma, such roads are prevalent, so I wouldn’t be as quick to assert that particular connection.

But all this is part of the mystery that makes an Evan Felker-penned tune a joy to listen to, as he weaves compelling stories together that at once make you feel like you know these characters and also give you very little information about them. But he told us the new album would have lots of narrative songs, so we may yet learn more about these characters and how it all connects. Or maybe Felker himself is adding pieces to the story as he writes. Anyway, this particular narrative is a great picture of all the little details that happened in those few moments of the house burning down. Add to that their signature stellar instrumentation, and what we have is yet another great song from this band. It’s a comfort to hear when my ears have recently been subjected to the horrors of the new songs from Luke Bryan, Dylan Scott, and Taylor Swift. IN a world with the Turnpike Troubadours, we’ll always have some good music to balance it out. Can October 20th please get here already?

Written by: Evan Felker

Album Review: Alex Williams–Better Than Myself

Rating: 7/10

Why are we surprised that Alex Williams got to release this album on Big Machine? Because it’s traditional country? Because he’s virtually unknown? Because Scott Borchetta’s label is also home to Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett?

Well, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. Thrilled, maybe, but not surprised. Scott Borchetta may be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. He signed Taylor Swift, an online sensation, with the hope that he could market to teenage girls in country, and you can’t argue with the results even if your opinion of Swift isn’t great. He signed FGL when it became clear bro country would take off. He molded Thomas Rhett to take advantage of the R&B craze taking over the country airwaves. When it became apparent that people were having second thoughts and misgivings about bro country, he signed Maddie & Tae and helped them get a #1 protest song. He signed Midland to take advantage of the cry for more traditional acts, and now he’s done arguably the most predictable, Scott Borchetta-like thing he could do in response to the growth of Americana: sign someone completely unknown with an image to match. He’s not going to go so far as to approach someone like say, Cody Jinks, though–for one, Jinks would never agree, and secondly, that would make too much sense. NO, he’s gone with the completely unknown, out of left field Alex Williams, and then when people won’t listen to Alex because they’re trying to make some sort of hipster statement and boycott the mainstream, it’s going to look like bro country, R&B, and whatever Sam Hunt is doing are truly still the best and most popular options.

So don’t buy into that plan and avoid Alex Williams just because he’s on Big Machine. Give the music a fair shake because if we all turn our backs on principle, he and others like him won’t be given a chance to succeed, and they’ll keep churning out more Thomas Rhetts.

Does that mean this Alex Williams debut is a groundbreaking piece of pure country excellence? No, not by a long stretch, but it’s got a lot of potential, and let’s remember, it’s a debut record. So with all that said, I’d like to talk about Alex Williams and his music now as opposed to the label on the back of this album.

I mentioned potential, and this record is brimming with it. Alex Williams definitely has a great, throwback country sound and style that also adds more contemporary elements. He’s got a great voice to match, and you’ll truly find country all over this record. He sounds sincere, and it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to be anything other than himself.

Unfortunately, Better Than Myself is sort of an ironic title because unlike the assertion on the title track that his songs are better than himself, the songs are not necessarily as good as Alex here. Taken on their own, they’re actually all quite good or at least decent, but they start to run together in a similar fashion to Sara Evans’ latest album because the material is too similar. There’s a lot of drinking and getting stoned on this album, and sometimes it’s like he’s just writing about drinking and such for the sake of it. In other words, it feels more like an interpretation of style, or in this case subject matter, rather than honest reflection by Williams himself. It’s difficult to say because he truly does always sound sincere and engaged, but I think it’s a fault of the fact that this is his debut record, and he’s playing it a little safe. As I say, the songs are mostly fine on their own, but Alex Williams needs to balance them with a little more depth.

But we all used to be more forgiving of artists’ debut efforts, and Alex Williams shouldn’t be an exception. It’s hard not to hear a song like “Few short Miles,” a personal track about Bobby, a mentor of Williams who died of cancer, and not want to root for this guy. This is easily the strongest track here, and you can see that if he’s given a chance, Alex could develop into a really bright spot in the mainstream. And a lot of the drinking songs are fine on their own, the record just needs some variety and perhaps a little more personality. You hear cool lyrics sprinkled throughout the record, like in “Strange Days” and “Old Tattoo.” “Last Cross” is also a fine song, closing the album with some reflection about the hard living mentioned here as he prepares to meet a lover at “the last cross left to bear.”

Ultimately, this record’s not going to change your life or anything, and it’s definitely got some tired and even cliché themes, but it’s also quite a promising debut from Alex Williams. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I enjoy that. The material is too similar, and there’s not quite enough Alex pouring out of it, but the lighthearted attitude with which this album is delivered is actually really refreshing to me. It may also help that it’s a fun, uncomplicated album that I listened to in the midst of all the turmoil going on in our world right now. I wasn’t really looking for depth when i heard this, so I probably heard it at the right time, and that may admittedly account for why I seem to be enjoying this a little more than some others talking about this album.

I don’t know if we’d all be talking about it if it hadn’t come from Big Machine, though, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. It’s good for the obvious reason that it’s pretty incredible to see an album like this get released on a major label, even premiered on NPR and such, but it’s bad because too many people are prejudging it. It’s not going to blow you away, but this is a guy we should all be able to get behind. There’s a lot of room for development, but these days, an artist doesn’t always get that time to develop, and I fear that this will be largely ignored due to people’s refusal to listen to it. Recognize this for what it is, a positive step for the mainstream.

I hope Alex Williams gets to record more albums, and that next time, I won’t be giving him such a mixed review. I hope he can develop his sound and become one of the shining lights in mainstream country, and I’m sorry he doesn’t quite do that with this record. But it’s his debut, and we all have to start somewhere. The flaws are right up front on this album, but the potential is too, and it’s up to us to make sure he gets enough time to truly live up to that potential. Not the album that’s going to “save” country music, but it’s a decent, fun record. Give it a chance.

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