Category Archives: Reviews

Album Review: Lauren Alaina–Road Less Traveled

Rating: 7.5/10

Of all the albums I missed covering at the beginning of the year, this one has bothered me the most. I finally did feature Lauren Alaina when her current single “Doin’ Fine” was released, and a host of behind-the-scenes factors kept me from talking about her before that, when “Road Less Traveled,” this album’s title track and first single, hit #1 on Billboard Country Airplay basically out of nowhere (although admittedly with help from On the Verge). I tried to satisfy myself with that because it just seemed too late to give her an album review, but now that I’ve finally got time–plus the inability to write anything new–I’m taking the opportunity to do what I should have done months ago and feature Lauren Alaina’s second album, Road Less Traveled.

So why the urgency to cover this, especially given the rating? Because it’s an example of good pop country, something being done right in the mainstream, and though Lauren’s gotten her fair share of praise for this album, she’s also received a lot of unfair criticism for it from people who dismiss it as too pop. That assessment in and of itself is fair; some of this is straight pop, about half, and the country-leaning half is pop-flavored, but Lauren Alaina’s not RaeLynn or Kelsea Ballerini either, churning out meaningless pop music and then labeling it country, and I think too many have dismissed her as such. IN fact, I’d argue that she’s exactly the kind of artist we should be supporting in the mainstream even if her music may not be your personal taste.

Why? Because Lauren Alaina did something very few mainstream artists–pop, country, or otherwise, can claim–she made a very personal record. Not only that, much of it is personal to her in a way that will relate to the very demographic the mainstream tries to target, and rather than release fluffy Disney material, she’s trying to say something. Sure, the style is pop country, or perhaps in her case country pop would be more accurate, but this album is an example of good songwriting eclipsing concerns of style. In the current single and album opener, Lauren Alaina tells of her parents’ divorce, even saying in the first line of the whole record, “Daddy got sober, Mama got his best friend.” “Pretty” might not work if sung by another artist, but when you know that Alaina herself had an eating disorder, lines like “all the other girls are thinner, so you skip another dinner” ring with authenticity and empathy rather than patronization. “Three,” which also fits in the more country pop half and features some nice piano, is achingly honest about Lauren’s struggles to get onto country radio, saying that she spent “six years of missing home” for only three minutes of airplay. And I haven’t even mentioned the pretty much universally accepted standout, “Same Day Different Bottle,” the beautifully sung story of her father’s alcoholism. Incidentally, this one is also the most country and showcases some really nice steel guitar.

And let’s not overlook the fact that Lauren Alaina is an incredible vocalist. True, singing talent is not everything, and as someone who knows her fair share about music, I’ll be the first to tell you that. Too many times, we see people who no doubt have amazing voices win some singing competition and then fade into obscurity partly due to the fact they’re just spectacularly clueless about everything else relating to the business of music and being a musician. It also takes far more than vocal ability to be a great singer; you have to convey emotion and connect with your listeners, and that will go a lot further toward sustaining your career than a ridiculous range and all the fancy runs in the world. But equally, there’s another side to this, where more than half the Americana albums I’ve heard in 2017 have featured a singer that was merely adequate, sometimes flat-out off-key. One specific album comes to mind that featured absolutely great instrumentation and production, lots of good songwriting, nice melodies–and sung by anyone else, I’d have reviewed it and loved it, but I couldn’t get past the voice. And tone is not something any singer can help, so it’s what you do with it that matters most, like Rod Melancon with Southern Gothic and Robyn Ludwick on This Tall to ride, but if you can’t sing on key, I can’t take your music seriously. Anyway, all that semi-tangent aside, I then turn on Lauren Alaina’s record, and I hear not just good, but excellent, stellar, ridiculous vocal quality on tracks like the heartbreak song “Painting Pillows” and the previously mentioned “Three,” coupled with that ability to be subtle and pull out emotion like in “Think Outside the Boy,” (which features mandolin, look, more country), and I just breathe a sigh of relief.

Sure, there’s some stuff on this album I could do without, and yes, it’s all on the pop part of the record. “Holding the Other” comes to mind first because it’s just such a fluffy and pointless love song thrown in on an otherwise empowering album. Placing it between “Same Day different Bottle” and “Pretty” only made its shallow nature stick out more. “Next Boyfriend” is catchy, and the hook is pretty clever, but it doesn’t work for me as much because the cadence and rhythm isn’t flattering to Lauren’s incredible vocal ability. The same is true in “Queen of Hearts,” which also suffers massively from overproduction and from parts of it sounding nearly identical melodically to Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It.” still, there’s some of the more pop tracks here that work just fine and prove it can be done right. “My Kinda People” is the best candidate to explain this, exhibiting some pretty deceivingly intelligent lines despite it being a lightweight song. “Road Less Traveled” probably shouldn’t have gotten a #1 at country radio, and I get the criticisms with it because the lyrics do have some inconsistency, but she just sings the hell out of it, and I enjoy it. Plus, it sort of fits the album theme–well, that’s the album title, so naturally–of being yourself, but it’s expressed in a more lighthearted way than some of the more serious stuff. “Crashin’ the Boys’ Club” also works for me, but it’s one that I’m not going to try to defend because it’s just going to be a song you either love or hate upon listening.

I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind about Lauren Alaina here. Hell, it’s been six months since this came out, so most of you, if not all of you, have an opinion anyway. She’s not going to be for everyone, certainly not for strict traditionalists. But she’s the kind of artist, and this is exactly the sort of record, that we need to be successful in 2017. This album has something to say, and it speaks to that ever narrow demographic so desperately courted by country’s mainstream in a way that’s both real and understanding. I once read, on a comment on something somewhere, that pop country is good when it takes good pop and good country and mixes them, and that that’s what’s wrong with the majority of today’s stuff. Well, this is good pop and good country, and Lauren Alaina does a pretty nice job of blending them together. One of the mainstream’s best albums in 2017 so far.

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The Country

The Pop

Album Review: Laws of Gravity by the Infamous Stringdusters

Rating: 8.5/10

In my mission to cover older 2017 albums, absolutely the first one that deserves to be in line is the Infamous Stringdusters’ Laws of Gravity. Several reasons exist for this–it’s been out longer than any of the others I haven’t had time to write reviews for, going back all the way to the second week of January, I didn’t even know about it until the last week of May due to missing out on a huge chunk of January/February albums by being out of the country, and it’s a bluegrass record, not to mention a kickass bluegrass record. Remember when I reviewed Dailey & Vincent’s Patriots and Poets earlier in the year and talked about how we need more bluegrass coverage? Well, fast forward to July, and that’s the only bluegrass album I’ve covered in 2017. And it’s a shame because this one is just so damn good.

Think bluegrass sounds old-fashioned? I dare you to say that after one listen to this album; no, after one listen to one minute of the opening song, “Freedom.” I don’t know how, but the Infamous Stringdusters manage to sound at once vintage and forward-thinking all throughout the record. Think bluegrass all sounds the same? Try asserting that after you’ve heard the wonderfully bluesy tones of “This Ol’ Building” and the slightly more modern-sounding “Let me Know.” Think that yeah, the instrumentation is good, and all that fiddle and banjo is cool, but lyrics are secondary? To that, I submit the exhibits “Black Elk” and “1901: a Canyon Odyssey,” both excellent story songs. Basically, this is the album to introduce people to bluegrass with–yeah, I know I’ve only heard like, twelve albums myself at this point, but if your friend who sure, maybe can get behind some country but is bluegrass ignorant, is looking for something, refer them straight to this.

And no disrespect to Dailey & Vincent because there really were some good songs on that album, but my knowledge of bluegrass, or rather my lack thereof, was proved apparent when I heard this record and realized just how cool it could actually get. That’s an apology to bluegrass more than an underrating of Dailey & Vincent, it’s just that this 8.5 is miles better than that 7, and it sort of renders that 7 more like a 6 to 6.5. But back to the album at hand.

I mentioned the things that set Laws of Gravity apart in the world of bluegrass, but it’s only fair to the genre and to this band to be a little cliché and talk about the ridiculous instrumentation. Fiddles, banjos, mandolins, etc., all played with speed and precision, character and nuance, and, as stated, at once embodying the past but managing to stay very fresh and modern. There’s an indefinable quality to this album that makes it special and which it’s hard to put into words; this inability to accurately describe my feelings in a way that does the record true and full justice, along with the time constraints, has kept me from writing this down even after having become quite acquainted with the record. It’s something intangible that you get from hearing this music, something warm and lively and maybe just fun. It’s like, even when they’re spinning a sad tale, those fiddles just put a smile on your face, like the bluegrass equivalent of what Turnpike Troubadours manage to accomplish with songs like “Seven Oaks” and “Doreen.” I don’t think it’s something I can fully explain, but that minute of “Freedom” that you take to figure out it’s not old-fashioned will also make you fully aware of what I mean.

At thirteen tracks, this runs a bit long. There are some truly great lyrical moments here, but songs like “Soul searching” and “back Home” are generally lost in the mix for me when I listen because they possess neither great lyrics nor overly remarkable instrumentation. “Vertigo” also could have been trimmed, although it does hold my attention a bit more because it features some cooler instrumentation and more interesting chords. It’s not that any of the songs are bad, but at thirteen tracks and especially fifty-four minutes, it could have benefited from losing some of the filler. It would have made an absolutely incredible ten-track album.

As it is, this is still a very good record from the Infamous Stringdusters, and I’m just sorry it took me so long to give it a proper write-up. I don’t know much about bluegrass, and I’m not going to pretend to, but I do know good music ,and friends, this most certainly is it. You probably have already done so since I’m so ridiculously late to the party, but if you haven’t, go check this out!

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Album Review: Sarah Jane Scouten–When the Bloom Falls From the Rose

Rating: 7/10

Lindi Ortega, Whitney Rose, and most recently, Colter Wall–all exhibits for the argument that Canada is producing some very cool and unique country artists, artists that are taking their own perspective and usually Canadian folk influences and lending them to American country music to create some very good and frankly, just cool, music. I could add other names too, these are just the three I felt most qualified to comment on given my familiarity with their material. The latest artist we can add to the evidence is Sarah Jane Scouten, who blends country, folk, swing, and sometimes even more contemporary styles on her latest record, When the Bloom Falls From the Rose.

It’s an interesting title for a record, and nature is indeed referenced quite a lot in Sarah Jane’s imagery. Colter Wall’s writing is slightly similar; he writes about the past in story, while Sarah Jane Scouten echoes the past in the primitive metaphors and images she references in her songs. There’s a beauty in the way she writes–“in an acre of shells, you’ll find just one pearl” has been blowing my mind for weeks in the way it explains in such simplicity the rarity of finding someone to love. It’s such a simple statement on the surface, but think of the vastness of the beach, and then apply that to one of the next lines in the same song, “How could I ever love somebody else when I know that you’re in the world?” That line on its own might be in any love song, and it’s beautiful on its own too, but after you’ve just realized this person is a pearl in a beach full of shells, then yeah, of course, how can she not love him? “Acre of Shells” is not only the standout of this album, it’s one of the best songs of 2017. She uses other cool imagery like this in the title track and in “Rosehips for Scurvy” as well, and you get the sense that Sarah Jane Scouten has a deep and profound love and respect for nature.

There are some other cool moments in the writing, though none are as brilliant as that opener of “Acre of shells,” but that’s not the strongest point of the record overall. The strongest point, and I’m so glad I get to say this about a folk/Americana album this year, is the production. No, not just the production itself, the variety in production. The title track manages to blend the traditional and contemporary very nicely and features some pretty cool fiddle, sort of like the way Aaron Watson might feature it if he leaned toward folk. I love when fiddle is used to drive songs along like this; it doesn’t always have to arrive in a fiddle solo. There’s the swinging “Coup de Ville Rag,” which is cool enough to feature a clarinet. ON slower stuff like “Acre of Shells” and especially “Crack in Your Windshield,” there are extra little production details that frankly, a lot of other people just don’t pay attention to which make these songs come alive and separate Scouten from so many other songwriters. Much credit goes to her producer Andre Wahl for bringing out the best in her and in these songs. There’s even “Bang Bang,” which is rocking, or maybe rockabilly, since it’s still really throwback, which comes after “Acre of Shells” to be fun and bright and just plain refreshing. Who knew that in 2017, you could actually get some personality on a record like this? That’s no disrespect to any record I’ve reviewed here, more so a comment to the ones I’ve heard but couldn’t get into because despite good writing, they lacked something. There have also been some I’ve enjoyed immensely that still could have benefited from a fun moment like “Bang Bang” or “Paul,” which comes later on this album and sees Sarah Jane scouten cheerfully explaining that she can’t be tied down, or more accurately, “the more you try to make me good, the more that I’ll do bad.” I’ts just so refreshing to see her embracing this less serious side of herself, and equally to see the variety in production and mood on this album.

This is not a perfect album, but it gets so many things right that other projects, especially in 2017, have lacked. The songwriting is not necessarily great throughout, although in some places it’s very strong, and on “Acre of Shells,” it’s absolutely fantastic. But the variety and the production and really, the care that was put into this album by both Sarah Jane Scouten and her producer should be commended.

Cool artist. Nice, pleasant little record.

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Album Review: American Grandstand by Rhonda Vincent & Daryle Singletary

Rating: 7/10

Yeah, I don’t usually talk about cover albums, especially when the album in question features covers so obvious as some of the ones here, like “Golden Ring” and “Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man.” But July is slow, and it gives me time to listen to this, and this album proves there are exceptions to everything.

Rhonda Vincent and Daryle singletary are a notable exception in this case, somehow managing to take timeless songs and make them sound fresh. It speaks to the quality of their individual voices, as well as to the way they blend together flawlessly and manage to convey emotion so well that they can breathe new life into songs which are almost tired by now. A couple of the songs on this record still sound a little superfluous or obligatory, even if the actual singing is good, but “After the Fire is Gone” is one of the best covers here, closely followed by “Above and Beyond” and “One.” These three covers open the album with its strongest moment and promptly erase any misgivings you might have had about another covers project. I’ll go right ahead and establish my classic country ignorance yet again by saying “After the Fire is Gone” is one I’d never heard before, and I have to say, after getting acquainted, I think I prefer this version.

And let’s not overlook the fact that these are actually duets, not new versions with backing vocals or versions where one person sings the lead, and the other has a token line or two. These are real, old-fashioned duets; it actually takes both of them to make these songs work, and each brings a valuable contribution to every track. They enhance each other vocally, as good duet partners should. They feed off one another like iron sharpens iron. Their harmonies are stellar. Appreciate that actual duets, not the kind with a few lines by a secondary performer, are incredibly hard to pull off. The male/female duet brings in a whole set of other problems, as you have to find a key that is flattering to both voices. Appreciate all that for a second, and then realize we’ve got a whole album of them here. I appreciate Jason Eady and Courtney Patton’s Something Together album–in fact, you’ll find that got a higher rating here than this, and it’s been criminally underrated and unnoticed–but my biggest criticism for it was that some songs felt less like duets and more like acoustic versions with backing vocals. That’s probably just due to the fact that they couldn’t agree on a flattering key for fourteen songs without relegating one of them strictly to harmony sometimes. But that’s never the case here, not even on one song, and musically, that’s pretty amazing.

The covers are cool, but I don’t think they’ll all hold up. Some of them, like the aforementioned “Louisiana Woman Mississippi Man,” just feel a little too obvious, as though Vincent and Singletary felt like there was some sort of unwritten rule that they couldn’t make a duets album without including certain songs. That’s mostly the reason for the 7; I just feel like even though this is cool now, a good portion of it will wear off once you do get past their incredible singing. I mean, it may take awhile to actually get past said singing, but when this happens, it’s the lesser-known covers, and more than these, the originals, that will last. Appreciate this for a second too–take all of that I said about arranging a duet, and then imagine the difficulty involved in writing them. But we do have several originals here, like the title track and “As We Kiss Our World Goodbye.” These serve to add a sense of legitimacy to the album and will make it outlast the novelty factor.

This is not some earth-shattering release that will change your world, but it is a very country album full of great songs and sung by an outstanding pair of voices. But what makes it special is the chemistry in those voices, and the fact that this record keeps up that long-standing and proud tradition of country duets. And duet partners–George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway, and in more recent days, Garth and Trisha, Vince and Reba. More recent than that? Think of Blake and Miranda, or even Tim and Faith for pop country. The point is, that tradition has survived throughout country’s history, and no, it’s not the same thing as Maren Morris selling herself out to blend into Thomas Rhett’s “Craving You” for three lines to score a #1 hit. This is a great showcase of real country duets, just another one of many traditions being forsaken by the mainstream. So it’s a great thing to get a record like this in 2017, to see that the country duet is still very much alive and well, and here’s to hoping that it’s not the last from these two excellent duet partners.

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Single Review: Sara Evans’ “Marquee” Sign”

Rating: 6/10

Sara Evans–yet another name to be added to the list of artists who produced a string of quality music, both traditional and more pop-leaning, and then unceremoniously got spit out by the Nashville machine when they perceived that her usefulness to them had expired. Music Row has just as big a problem with casting its older artists aside as it does with fostering its female talent, so since Sara’s got both strikes against her, it’s no surprise that this release is an independent one. But she spent nearly twenty hears on a major label, so she had a great run, and often label independence can bring an artist like this freedom to make the kind of music they want to make and be a positive step creatively.

But it’s clear from listening to “Marquee sign,” one of the pre-released tracks from Sara’s upcoming album Words, due out Friday, (7/21), that Evans has absolutely no idea what to do with her newfound independence.

It’s not that this offering is a bad song; in fact, under the production and process, it’s a pretty good one. Lyrically, it’s got some nice metaphors, and although the idea of wishing there had been a sign to let you know an ex was going to be trouble is a little simplistic, there’s some good imagery in the verses that carries the idea in a more subtle way. Lines like “I wish you were a pack of cigarettes ’cause you would have come with a warning before I let you steal my breath” display a more imaginative way of conveying the same ideas. It’s certainly a relatable theme, and Sara Evans gives a technically great vocal performance as always.

But it’s the way that that technically great performance is robbed of the emotion by the overproduction, rendering her almost lifeless in places and too happy for the song’s material in others, that ultimately makes this song an uneven listen. The chorus particularly emphasizes that lifeless quality–it’s catchy, sure, but you don’t connect with anything she is supposedly feeling here at all. You have cheerful echoes of “lit up like a marquee sign” in the background after the last chorus belying the premise that this is actually a heartbreak song. Sara Evans has always done some more pop-leaning stuff, and done it in a good way, so it’s not the style itself here that doesn’t work, it’s the overproduction and the way it can’t really settle on a specific style. It leans sometimes toward pop country, other moments to pop rock, and then there are times it goes almost bluesy, like in the outro. It just seems very unsure of itself, and that probably speaks to Sara Evans’ current state of mind.

There’s a good song underneath, and this reminds me painfully of the first song by a promising new artist who hasn’t quite developed their sound. You see promise and potential, but the problems are also front and center. But you root for the artist because they’re still developing, and you know that time can iron out the rough spots and make them shine, if only they don’t succumb to the pressures of the spotlight and the whims of a label. The problem with Sara Evans is that she’s already been on that label for nearly twenty years, and now she’s left alone to try to find her own sound. Some artists find independence a blessing and embrace the creative freedom they’ve always wanted, but others struggle to adapt, and it would seem, at least from this song, that Sara Evans is in the latter category. But just like a new artist with a debut album, we can’t judge too much off one single, so we wait for Words and hope it will see Sara Evans taking more of a definite direction with her music.

Written by: Sara Evans, Jimmy Robbins, Heather Morgan