Category Archives: Reviews

Album Review: Courtney Marie Andrews–Honest Life

Rating: 10/10

Before I say anything, credit to trigger of Saving Country Music for bringing Courtney Marie Andrews into my life and now to my pen. There is a reason we do this–not to point out all the bad in the mainstream, but to introduce new and deserving artists to the world, to provide a platform for people seeking good music to find it. Enter Courtney Marie Andrews, a 25-year-old singer/songwriter from Phoenix, Arizona, and her latest album, Honest Life I will say two things about this record; firstly, it is not a country record, but more a folk record, with elements of country, rock, and pop mixed in, and secondly, it is the best album I have reviewed to date.

The album opens with “Rookie dreaming,” and the first lines immediately hold my attention and introduce the great songwriting that will be present throughout this entire album. “I was singing with the choir on the train. I was a traveling man, I did not yet have a name. I was a 1960s movie, I was a one-night love story, I was a you’ll never see me again.” This song features nice piano and acoustic guitar, and Courtney’s voice reminds me of an excellent cross between Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt. The style resembles Ronstadt too, with the blend of country, folk, and rock that was Linda’s signature. “Not the End” is a love song in which Andrews sings from a hotel bed where she is “dreaming up every memory” to feel closer to someone she loves. “I didn’t think it was possible to lose you again, so won’t you hold me and tell me that this is not the end.” If you didn’t hear Joni Mitchell in the opener, you certainly will here; the emotion and phrasing in Courtney’s voice is closer to Mitchell’s than anything I have heard.

“Irene” adopts a more folk/pop rock sound; here, Courtney gives advice to a woman named Irene, including “keep your grace” and “don’t go falling in love with yourself.” It is universal in that it is relatable to everyone, but also could be specific to anyone who hears it. “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” is the moment where you will recall Linda Ronstadt the most; here, a woman is “hiding out in the bathroom of this bar,” devastated that her ex is acting like they never met. She put on the dress he loved, and now she feels like a fool and can’t believe he is ignoring her–“go on, and leave with your new friends, how quickly your heart mends.” The piano and steel really stand out on this track. “Let the good One Go” is another heartbreak song, this one about a woman missing someone she apparently let go. She thinks about calling him and wonders if he thinks about her, saying, “Oh you will know, when you’ve let a good one go.” The light instrumentation on this song brings the emotion and lyrics to the forefront. “Honest Life,” the album’s title track, is another simple, acoustic song that feels very personal to Courtney. “All I’ve ever wanted is an honest life, to be the person that I really am inside, to tell you all the things that I did that night. Sometimes it just ain’t easy to live an honest life.” The songwriting is excellent on this whole album, but it may be the best here–ask me tomorrow, and I might change my mind.

The next three songs explore distance from those you love, similar to the theme introduced in “Not the End.” In “Table for One,” Courtney arrives in Ohio after a trip from Houston–the verses would suggest it might be on a tour–feeling lonely and ready to go home. “You don’t wanna be like me, this life, it ain’t free, always chained to when I leave.” This one is stripped down too and lets the lyrics and Courtney’s voice shine. “Put The Fire Out” brings back the piano and is closer to the sound of “How Quickly Your Heart Mends.” Here, Andrews sings from a plane, as she flies home to reunite with her loved ones and put her rambling life behind her. “I am ready to put the fire out. There’s a place for everything, and I think I know mine now.” This was the first one I heard from Courtney, and I’ll post it here because it should lead you to the rest of this record. “15 Highway Lines” is a similar song, but this one is focused on reuniting with the one you love after time apart;–“13 hours till I see you. Flying all around this world so you can see me too.” It really captures the love, pain, and hope unique to long-distance relationships. The album closes with “Only in my Mind,” another excellent song in which the narrator paints pictures of life with someone she loves, but these pictures are only in her mind, as the relationship has ended. It seems to be mainly her fault it is over, or at least she believes this. It’s another one that captures the emotion perfectly and closes the album brilliantly.

If you haven’t figured it out, this album is special. It isn’t strictly country; it’s a unique mix of folk, country, pop, and roc, with the perfect production for each track. It is one of those rare albums that defies and transcends genre lines and just speaks for itself. Courtney Marie Andrews has a voice you will not soon forget, recalling Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt, yet still unique. The songwriting on this album is nothing short of brilliant. It’s simple and complex at once. This album is both the poetry of Jason Isbell and the relatability of Vince Gill. It is raw and honest and real, and everyone should absolutely hear it.

Listen to Album

Album Review: William Michael Morgan–Vinyl

Rating: 8/10

William Michael Morgan gained the attention of traditionalists about a year ago, when he released “I Met a Girl,” the decidedly country, if lyrically underwhelming, arrangement of a song written by none other than country music antichrist Sam Hunt. To some, this was a mark against him immediately; to others, myself included, this proved that Morgan cared about the traditional sound of his music. In March, his EP arrived, bringing nothing ground-breaking yet filled with promise and potential.

Review: William Michael Morgan EP

We finally got a full album from Morgan Friday, and although it’s not perfect, it’s an unapologetically country record coming out of mainstream Nashville which is a victory in itself in 2016. It’s not Haggard and Jones country, but it is Strait and Jackson and Keith Whitley country, and that’s exactly what we need right now–a mainstream artist bringing a true country sound to the masses. The Jason Isbells and Turnpike Troubadours of the world won’t get airplay; William Michael Morgan’s “I Met a Girl” will hit #1 this week. Because of this, we need to root for William Michael Morgan as much as Isbell and the Troubadours. With all that in mind, I’ll get to my thoughts on Vinyl

The album opens with “People Like Me,” a decidedly country song that could have been a hit on 90;s radio. If you read this at all, you know the importance I place on openers, and this one signifies William Michael Morgan’s country approach without apology. Many artists who are releasing pretty good albums with a few terrible singles choose the said terrible singles as openers, thereby hurting the album as a whole–Zac Brown Band’s “Beautiful drug,” anyone? The premise of “People Like Me” is an ode to the working class people who didn’t go to college and live paycheck to paycheck. “Vinyl,” the title track, follows; I have mixed opinions about this one. I quite liked it on the EP; it’s a song about an old-fashioned love that is classic like vinyl. It’s not a hookup song or disrespectful by any means, but I do find the repeated use of ‘girl” to be annoying; it’s the same thing we criticize Florida Georgia line for, so I can’t let Morgan get by with lazy lyricism even if it has country instrumentation. It’s hard to form an opinion here, and I can see how people could enjoy it or hate it.

“Missing” is one of the highlights of the album; here, Morgan escapes the world for awhile to go “on a mission to be missing.” He ignores his messages and leaves the world behind, something we all should do a little more often. The instrumentation and production combine to make this a really fun and enjoyable listen. Next is the single, “I Met a Girl,”–this has grown on me considerably since its release. It’s a very basic song about, well, meeting a girl, but although the lyrics aren’t earth-shattering, there’s a sincerity about it that really stands out. “Spend it All on You” is a nice, lighthearted track about getting away with a girl to enjoy time together. This one is one of the more modern-leaning songs on the album, but modern-leaning is the key here; it is still traditional. IN fact, the whole album stays with a definite traditional sound. “Beer Drinker” came from the EP; there is not much to say about this song. Its lyrics could be considered shallow by some, as it attributes everything that gets done to the work of beer drinkers. However, as I stated in the EP review, we all love George Strait’s “Stop and Drink,” and that doesn’t come off pandering at all. It is just a fun song that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I think “Beer Drinker” is intended to be much the same.

“I Know Who he Is” is another highlight; I wish the production were a little less modern-leaning here, but the lyrics are great. The narrator is talking to the doctor about his dad, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease;

I don’t wanna hear he’s going downhill, what about thank God he’s around still? Looking right through me’s not at all the way I see him. I don’t mind at all remembering for him, he doesn’t have to get why I adore him. He doesn’t have to know me, I know who he is.

“Cheap Cologne” carries a throwback, Keith Whitley style sound that really suits Morgan. This was one of the highlights of the EP and is about a man who lies at home in bed with his bourbon while his woman is out, probably cheating–She don’t smoke cigarettes, and I don’t wear cheap cologne.” “Something to drink About” is similar to “Beer Drinker” in that it walks a fine line between safe and shallow. It just lists all the possible reasons for drinking, which again is quite like strait’s “Stop and Drink.” This could have been left off and it would have made no difference, but it doesn’t really hurt the album either. “Lonesomeville,” co-written by William Michael Morgan, is the best of the album–it’s a classic country heartbreak song that has been told thousands of times, and that’s really all I can say about it. It speaks for itself with a listen. The album closes with “Backseat driver,” which has emerged over several listens as a dark horse for my personal favorite. It’s a song about a young man leaving home while his dad gives him advice about the road ahead and tells him, “I can’t be your backseat driver anymore.” This one isn’t as traditional as some of the others, but this one is more believable from the 22-year-old Morgan, and this authenticity makes it stand out.

Overall, this is a really solid album, especially for a debut. William Michael Morgan is perfectly clear and uncompromising in his desire to make country music with a traditional sound. The lyrics are weak in places, and there are definitely some safe songs. This album has its flaws, but it also has several standouts. Most importantly, it is filled with promise for William Michael Morgan and for mainstream country in general.

Listen to Album

Album Review: David Nail–Fighter

Rating: 7/10

David Nail is one of those artists that flies under the radar a lot in Nashville, never really selling out to trends, always producing decent or solid albums–in short, he’s one of the artists out there proving pop country doesn’t always equal bad music. I’ve always been impressed with Nail and thought he had a lot of potential, particularly on his songs “The Sound of a Million Dreams” and “Turning Home.” That all shines through in his fourth album, Fighter, his best album to date and definitely what I look for in good pop country.

The album opens with “Good at Tonight,” an upbeat anthem featuring Brothers Osborne that would be a great second single choice. I am surprised by how much I enjoy this song because it’s similar to a lot of songs out there, speaking about living life to its fullest and seizing the moment. “I ain’t much for the morning but I’ve always been good at tonight.” The production makes this enjoyable–it features accordion and is something I can call pop country, as opposed to similar, overproduced straight pop songs. “Night’s on Fire,” the first single follows–this is the typical song about hooking up by a river. However, this one is not terrible, as it has really nice descriptions and focuses on the experience and the surroundings rather than just having sex. I didn’t review it when it came out because it’s just there; it’s mediocre and filler, but it does serve the purpose of proving there is a better way to portray this overdone story. “ease Your Pain” is about a man saying he can be there for a woman and well, ease her pain; I would probably enjoy this more if it didn’t compare love to a drug because I am personally sick of that metaphor. Still, it’s a solid pop country song.

The first truly amazing moment on the album is “Home.” This is a collaboration with Lori McKenna featuring excellent piano and acoustic guitar. It speaks of home in a bittersweet way, about leaving and coming back, etc. David Nail’s strength is his voice, and it really shines on songs like this. Also, this makes me look forward to Lori McKenna’s album tomorrow! Next is “Lie With Me,” a song about a man asking a woman to “lie” with him and pretend she is staying, even though he knows she is about to leave. This song could have been better, but it does suffer from some overproduction, especially in some very distracting cymbals. Next is “I Won’t Let You Go,” another excellent collaboration, this time with Vince Gill. Vince Gill is a great choice; both Vince and David Nail have strikingly strong, tenor voices, neither really traditionally country but both undeniable in talent and sincerity. This song is about the relationship between a man and his wife; “I know that this is hard to do, you loving me, me loving you, so long since we have felt brand-new, but I won’t let you go.” The production works well in this one and allows their voices to shine.

“fighter,” the album’s title track, is next. This is admiring a woman who stays beside him through struggles; it doesn’t stand out on the first listen, but it will on the second. There is also a soft fiddle on this track that really adds to it. “Babies” feels very personal to Nail and is about how he lived his life as a thrill seeker, but now “I’ve found a better kind of crazy now that I got babies.” It’s a refreshing moment of honesty that mainstream country really needs. “Got me Gone” is similar to “Night’s on Fire”–it’s not a terrible song, but it doesn’t really add anything to the album and could have been left off it. In fact, it probably does less than “night’s on Fire,” because that made a decent single choice, and this, while still being about a woman who turns him on, has really bland and boring production that probably wouldn’t serve that purpose either. “Champagne Promise” is the moment where a good song is ruined by production; this is a good pop song but is not country at all. Here, the narrator has realized that the woman will be nothing more than a “champagne promise,” a one-night stand. It’s really a pretty good song, but the production is just completely wrong. The album concludes with “Old Man’s Symphony,” an absolutely brilliant track featuring Bear and Bo Rinehart of Christian band Needtobreathe. This is an autobiographical song about David Nail’s father, a man who “plays the piano, any song you wanna hear.” Nail sings about living in his shadow and moving to Nashville, despite the whole town saying “I could never make it here if my dad never did. Guess there is a part of me that still agrees with them.” If you only pick one song to listen to from this album, please make it this one.

Overall, this is a really solid album from David Nail. His voice really stands out, and the collaborations are excellent. There are some production issues, and a couple songs could have been scrapped, but the songwriting is brilliant in some places, and at its worst, is forgettable. Even the radio-friendly filler from David Nail is better than most similar stuff from mainstream country, and the album can, for the majority, be called pop country and not straight pop. For the most part, David Nail has delivered us a nice example of good pop country music.

Listen to Album

Album Review: Sean McConnell’s Self-Titled Album

Rating: 9/10

One of the most enjoyable things about being a reviewer is the ability to introduce people to new and deserving artists. Sean McConnell’s name is not new–he has had an established name in the Texas scene for fifteen years, recording numerous albums as well as writing for better-known artists like Wade Bowen and the Randy Rogers Band. But for casual fans and many serious fans of country music, his new self-titled album will be the first encounter with Sean McConnell. I will immediately say it is not strictly country; some songs are more country than others, but the album leans more toward Americana, or perhaps the rock side of the Texas/red dirt sound. As I’ve said often, it is not the album to buy for fiddle and steel, but there is a lot to love about this album.

The album opens with “Holy Days,” an upbeat, pop rock song about the early days of the band and a girl from the past. McConnell has said much of this album is autobiographical, and this song seems to reflect that, pointing to the days when his band was starting to gain popularity. The driving production fits this song and sets the tone of the album. “Ghost Town” follows–this one is more country rock and sees McConnell visiting his old hometown, only to discover everything has changed, and the people here are all strangers. He sees everything as it once was, but it will never be the same. The lyric “I can’t tell if I wanna build a shrine or just burn it to the ground” captures the conflict in this song perfectly. “Bottom of the Sea,” a re-recording from an earlier EP, is more of the upbeat style found in the opener. the lyrics shouldn’t be overlooked, though–“the hardest part of living is knowing that you’re gonna die, trying to leave a legacy with only so much time. I don’t know about you but I’m getting sick and tired of living on the surface and in between the lines.” The lighthearted production can distract a little from the seriousness of the song at first, but after a couple listens, that starts to add to the song.

Beautiful Rose” is the first song I would call strictly country. The stripped-back production and country instrumentation work well here, as McConnell sings about how life is not always what you expect it to be–“but I’ll take the thorns for this beautiful rose.” It’s a simple, quiet moment on a mostly upbeat album. ‘Hey Mary” is a fun, lighthearted song about trying to make Mary fall in love. McConnell says she can crash at his house, and he will sleep on the floor and let her vent about the guy who made her cry. He says one day he will sing her this song and prove that he knew all along she would fall in love with him eventually. “Best We’ve Ever Been” sees a couple just spending a day together, celebrating their years together and that they are still just as much in love–“Baby, we had no idea, and I would do the same thing if we did.” It’s a simple little song that paints love as just wanting to spend time with each other.

One of the definite highlights of the album is the autobiographical “Queen of St. Mary’s Choir.” sean McConnell sings about his life as “the product of desire between the guitar kid from Hudson and the queen of St. Mary’s choir.” He embraces the characteristics he got from both his paretns, and that he became a musician. Another highlight is “Running underwater”–this one sees McConnell dealing with personal struggles and calling on Jesus to help, if indeed God is out there. The imagery in this song hit me the first time–“Oh, what a dream I had last night. I could not scream, I could not fight. And the more I pushed, and the more I pried, it got harder and harder, like running underwater.” The production and the lyrics blend perfectly here, and it is one you should just listen to. “One Acre of Land” is another very country song and another highlight. McConnell says that he doesn’t have a lot of money but “we could build a dream right where we stand on one acre of land.” It’s another one that speaks for itself with a listen. The album closes with “Babylon,” a song in which a broken relationship is compared to Babylon. This is another one like “Running Underwater,” where the songwriting paints wonderful pictures. “we’re a tattered flag where the mighty fell, we’re a rusty coin in a wishing well, we’re the only lie that you couldn’t sell, Babylon.” Sean McConnell sings this with incredible emotion, and the song builds throughout to match the intensity. It’s an excellent way to close a great album, although ten songs leaves me wishing it were a bit longer.

Overall, this is a great album. The songwriting is excellent in places, and although it isn’t the most country thing out there, it fits within Americana well. It blends styles nicely, and the production on each song works well with the lyrics. Sean McConnell said this album was somewhat personal and autobiographical, and it reflects that authenticity. This is definitely an album worth checking out!

Listen to Album

Single Review: Miranda Lambert’s “Vice”

Rating: 8/10

Well, it has been a long time, and it is good to be back. I think it appropriate that my first review in several months should be of possibly my most personally anticipated single of 2016. It is no secret to anyone who reads this how I feel about Miranda Lambert, and besides this, her next album has been especially anticipated by many following her divorce from Blake Shelton and his subsequent, obnoxiously public relationship with Gwen Stefani. None of this matters at all and should mostly be left to gossip sites, but it must be pointed out here because it will most likely have a direct effect on Lambert’s musical direction. With that in mind, we have the lead single from what will be Miranda’s sixth album, “Vice.”

“Vice” opens with a needle on vinyl and then just Miranda singing. The first thing I notice is how vulnerable she sounds. She sings about a woman who goes through different vices, including drinking and waking up in places she doesn’t know how she came to. She knows she keeps making mistakes, but she can’t seem to help it. There is an honesty in this song that country music lost years ago, and the fact it’s coming on a lead single is unbelievable. “Standing at the sink looking in the mirror, I don’t know where I am or how I got here. The only thing that I know how to find is another vice.” I can’t think of the last time I heard such raw honesty in a lead single. She wasn’t looking for radio play when she co-wrote this. As for the production, it’s not something we’ve yet heard from Miranda Lambert; it’s neither the strong country of Revolution nor the pop rock sound dominating Platinum. It’s something in between, like the raw country rock sound of Eric Church’s Mr. Misunderstood or parts of Lindi Ortega’s Faded Gloryville. It works on this song, and it is definitely a better direction than Platinum, although I still prefer the sound of Revolution. Having said that, I am interested to hear the upcoming album. Unlike the general overproduction on Platinum, “Vice” maintains something raw and real. This is a good different direction for Miranda Lambert. If “Vice” is any indication, the album could be a truly honest one and a standout in the mainstream this year.