Album Review: First Aid Kit–Ruins

Rating: 8/10

I recently called Caitlyn Smith’s debut a benchmark of vocal ability–and this latest record by Swedish sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg, known collectively as First aid Kit, might just be the benchmark of harmony, and how to express lyrics already so potent in even deeper ways with just the right chords and dissonance. Similar to the Secret Sisters, these siblings have an uncanny ability to bring out that forgotten element of music and make harmony one of the key factors of their musical expression. Melody and vocal ability are not the only musical elements being thrown out the window in the age of the song, and duos like these are necessary to help remind us of the dying art and great importance of harmony.

So take all the harmonic nuances and chilling chords of a Secret Sisters record, but add much more variation in style. The Secret Sister’s’ latest record was minimalist, allowing their vocals and harmony to be the main focus. First Aid Kit’s approach is to showcase their incredible singing with backdrops of folk/Americana, (“Fireworks,” “Ruins,”) pop, (“Rebel Heart,” “It’s a Shame,”) and stone cold country (“Postcard.”) IN this way, the production is varied and interesting and only serves to elevate the sister’s talent and prove they can excel at more than one style. It’s also what might hold them at arm’s length from traditionalists and more mainstream fans alike, but rather than their sound feeling like it can’t make up its mind, it feels defined. Far more than many, First aid Kit have, for the most part, a distinct handle on how best to produce a particular song to let that song live up to its full potential and resonate with its listeners.

Then we add to all of this all the complex and heightened emotions of a breakup record, triggered by Klara’s own recent split, and this record gets a touch of the same restlessness and self-discovery which marked Lilly Hiatt’s latest album, Trinity Lane. Similar to that record, this First aid Kit release largely captures a moment in time and all the various emotions sparked by that moment. There’s a sense of loss on some songs, regret on others, and a thread of hope running through the entire album that connects the whole thing and makes it cohesive, regardless of the varying styles and moods.

It’s hard to single out individual songs from this project because the whole thing tells its own story and takes a complete journey, contributing more as a finished product than as the sum of separate songs. Certainly the most country offering here is the charming, shuffling “Postcard,” which makes great use of the piano, an instrument I’d have liked to have found more on this album after hearing its effect on this song. It’s hard to question the ever-building five-minute opener, “Rebel Heart,” either, although this one does decidedly lean more towards the folk pop side of things. There’s vulnerability on “Fireworks,” reflection on “My Wild Sweet Love,” and forward-thinking resolve on “It’s a Shame.” It all works together and serves a purpose, and really, for the first eight tracks of this ten-track journey, there is no measurable misstep.

It does end on a bit of a whimper, however, at least compared to the extremely high bar the sisters set for themselves earlier, especially across the first half of this record. “Hem of her Dress” is the glaring exception to their smart production choices, bursting forth into some sort of loud, boisterous, almost mariachi ending that completely takes away from the thoughtful lyrics of the song and does not match with the acoustic feel at the beginning. The closer, on the other hand, called “Nothing Has to be True,” is very smart sonically but doesn’t carry as much weight lyrically as some of the other material here. Maybe it’s just the standards to which I’m holding this talented group, but it definitely seems like First Aid Kit end this record at a decidedly lower point than the one at which it started. That’s not to take away too much from a great album, but honestly, halfway through this release, I thought we might be looking at the first 10/10 of the year.

And that’s mostly what you should take away from this review, that a good portion of this album is not just good or even great; rather, a good portion of this album is flawless. The production is interesting and tasteful, the writing is smart both melodically and lyrically, and the harmonies are stellar. I mentioned that some people might not get this group, people on both sides of the divide, but perhaps a better way to view First Aid Kit is that they’ve got something to offer everyone, and all of it is quality music of substance. For this listener, a lot of it happens to work, but if your tastes are stricter, maybe you’ll gravitate solely toward the more traditional “Postcard” or the more modern “Rebel Heart.” Whatever your natural inclination, I encourage you to give these sisters and this album a listen; talent and good music cross all genre lines.

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January Playlist on Spotify and Apple Music

One of the resolutions of Country Exclusive this year was to incorporate more playlists, and the goal is to release a short one each month, provided there’s enough good music that month which deserves to be highlighted. Some of this is stuff we’ve already reviewed, some of it will be reviewed shortly, and some of it is just good stuff we heard in January. So if you haven’t gotten a chance to check out Caitlyn Smith, Meghan Patrick, or Laura Benitez and the Heartache yet, here’s a good opportunity to sample their music. Also included are some songs from First Aid Kit’s great new record, a highlight of January from Anderson East called “Cabinet door” which may go on to be one of the best songs of the year, and a tune from some guys you’ve never heard of but soon will, known as The Lost Brothers. Thanks as always to Zack for providing this on Spotify.

Apple Music users, you can now follow me there @countryexclusive for this and updates of all our future playlists which will be added there, as well as the Saving Country Music Top 25 playlist for which I’ve recently become the Apple maker. For January’s playlist:
Click Here

For Spotify:

Album Review: Mike and the Moonpies–Steak Night at the Prairie Rose

Rating: 7.5/10

If you’re looking for something new and fresh in the Texas scene, I invite you to get acquainted with Mike and the Moonpies and their latest record, Steak Night at the Prairie Rose. This is not going to blow you away with especially well-crafted lyrics or wow you with some groundbreaking sound; rather, it’s just a solid collection of fun, upbeat country tunes. But sometimes, that’s all you really need. It can make writing a review difficult because there isn’t much to say, but it makes the listening easy, and even welcome after digesting some deeper albums.

You’ll find a couple moments of greater depth on this album, however. The title track and album highlight is a great little narrative and ode to his father, centered around a place called The Prairie Rose where they shared drinks and listened to bands while he was growing up. Pick this one if you only single out one track from the record. “Beaches of Biloxi” straddles the line between light and serious as it details the unfortunate loss of all the narrator’s money at a casino in Mississippi. It’s delivered in a somewhat offhanded way, but a closer look at the lyrics reveals that he’s losing his savings and quite probably his wife due to the gambling. This one is another standout. “The Last Time” and “The Worst Thing,” though neither are really album standouts, also dig for something more serious on this otherwise lighthearted affair.

But it’s the fun songs that really bring out the personality on this album and from this band. We’ve got an opener here solely about some guy on their road crew, complete with plenty of great traditional instrumentation. Actually, I’ll go ahead and insert that the lively, most definitely country instrumentation throughout this record is one of its greatest strengths and makes for an engaging, energetic listen. I’ll give Mike and the Moonpies this: after a 2017 filled with many mid-tempo, boring Americana affairs, they’ve started off 2018 right with the vibrancy and spirit on this album. The organ seems to be a favorite instrument of this group, and I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone else utilize it quite as much in recent memory. The closer, “We’re Gone,” sees the band on the road again, traveling from town to town and spending all their money as soon as they make it at each show. There’s the almost ridiculous “Might be Wrong,” a song which would have come off as a completely self-absorbed moment of arrogance had the narrator not hit on this girl outrageously throughout the verses and then declared in the chorus that perhaps he’s spectacularly wrong, and maybe she doesn’t want him after all. There’s “Things Ain’t Like They Used to Be,” taking a message that certainly can relate to a lot of people and adding specificity and humor. And you can’t help but smile at “Getting High at Home”–the title here should be self-explanatory.

There honestly isn’t much else to say about this record. This will be my shortest album review to date, but it’s an album that isn’t conducive to extensive analysis and critical thought. Fans of traditional Texas country, or Texas country that blends in a little rock, you’ll enjoy this. It may not blow you away, but it’s just a solid, upbeat record that proves you don’t have to be serious or deep or thought-provoking all the time in the independent scenes while simultaneously making a case that you can make fun music with smarter lyrics than much of the stuff released in the mainstream. More can be gleaned about this project from listening to it than from reading my words. So go listen, it’s definitely an album worth checking out.

Fun little record, a nice breath of fresh air that should put a smile on your face.

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Album Review: Caitlyn Smith–Starfire

Rating: 7.5/10

Let’s establish two things about this album before we go any further. One, it is not country, and Apple’s label of “singer-songwriter” is only slightly more appropriate, as basically it’s pop, or perhaps folk pop. Two, it’s not claiming to be anything other than itself, and maybe that’s why, even though it comes from Nashville, and Smith has written songs for country artists, we should just treat this as a musical endeavor, independent of genre. It would be different if Caitlyn Smith were marketing this as country, or if her brand of pop were even remotely radio-friendly, or if she weren’t anything but herself on this record. But she’s being authentic, and for some, it might take a couple listens to get that, or at least it did for this listener. But if you take Caitlyn for Caitlyn, and you value quality music, you’ll enjoy and appreciate this effort.

So what is it about this flavor of pop music that makes it so different from radio-friendly material? certainly the title track, with its catchy lyrics and rising chorus, would be a pop radio hit in a different world, but even this has more substance than 90% of what you’ll find on either modern pop or country radio. But even more than the substance, it’s the organic and intimate nature of most of the album which sets it apart. “East side Restaurant,” a heartbreak song in which the narrator makes the other side of town seem as far away as if her ex were across the ocean, only works because the production isn’t overdone, and you feel as if you’re sitting there with Caitlyn in the restaurant. “Scenes From a Corner Booth at Closing Time on a Tuesday” carries that same intangible, almost live feel, so that it’s as though you’re sitting in the bar in another booth , observing the same people described in the song. And “Cheap Date” wouldn’t be half as good if it didn’t sound so intimate, speaking of forsaking a date night on the town for a romantic night at home. The warm piano here really adds a nice touch to this track as well.

And not enough can be said about Caitlyn Smith as a vocalist. It’s not just her insane range and power, shown off on the aforementioned “East side Restaurant” and “Tacoma,” but also the incredible depth of feeling in songs like “House of Cards.” She can slay a fun, sultry song like “Contact High,” and then blow you away with her vulnerability on “This Town is Killing Me.” It should be noted that this one is the most country and is the one you should start with if you’re a strict traditionalist. Here, Caitlyn tells us in heartbreaking detail the struggles she has gone through and continues to experience on a daily basis just to make it in Nashville. She sings, with such conviction that it’s impossible not to sympathize with every word, “I wanted it so bad, and now I just wanna go home.” And oh yeah, then there’s the range and power, and moments like on “Tacoma” where Caitlyn nails the key change a cappella by holding out a ridiculous note with such raw intensity that you can’t help but be impressed. It’s rare to find such a wonderful technical singer who can also convey so much emotion, and I know I’ve made much of this, but independent artists, take note. This album is the benchmark of vocal ability among all albums I’ve reviewed on this site to date, and the one which shatters all arguments for good writing eclipsing a superior voice. I can tell you now that this same record, with the same songwriting, and even the same intimate sound, left in the hands of a less competent vocalist, would be mediocre at best and absolutely boring at worst.

That’s not to say that there aren’t some boring moments on the album as it is, and sometimes, it seems like Caitlyn and/or her team were going to the other extreme, showing off her voice in lieu of strong songwriting. The first two songs on the album are unfortunately two of its weakest tracks lyrically, and this is part of the reason that it took me awhile to warm up to this record. Then you get to “Starfire,” and it all comes together, blending that amazing voice with better melodies and smarter lyrics. After that, there’s not really a bad moment at all, except for “Don’t Give up on my Love,” a pretty forgettable track in the middle of the album.

The great part of this record, though, is that all those strong songs just keep getting stronger. This album has already grown on me significantly and will continue to do so. There’s always something new to uncover in the lyrics or a moment to be awed by vocally. The terrible part of this record? Caitlyn’s heartbroken line in “This town is Killing Me,” as she whispers, “Nashville, you win. Your steel guitars and broken hearts have done me in.” Nashville, you embrace plenty of things that aren’t stone cold country, and yet here you are, overlooking the ridiculous crossover talent of Caitlyn Smith. Is it because she’s female, or because her songs have substance and character? Is it because even though she’s singing pop music, she’s being 100% herself, and you know you can’t manipulate her into some sort of Music Row tool? Or is it just that you haven’t embraced talent in so long, you have no idea what to do with it when it’s right in front of you? Whatever the case, Caitlyn Smith and her talent deserve better. She deserves more than obscurity and songs that, in her words, “Never see the light.” I hope she will break out with this album, as she rightfully should.

As noted, traditionalists may be opposed to this record because of personal taste, but I encourage you, if you can get past genre lines and recognize talent and good music for what they are, please check this album and artist out.

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Album Review – Laura Benitez and the Heartache – With All its Thorns

Rating: 8/10

It’s no surprise to anyone who reads my reviews on Country Exclusive that I love traditional country music. If an artist currently makes authentic country with lots of steel—and said artist has a voice I appreciate—I’m a pretty easy sell. If you feel the same way as I do about music that fits these requirements, you need to check out Laura Benitez and the Heartache.

When you press play on the first song on this album, you know what you’re in for right away. There’s well-done instrumentation with lots of steel guitar, some nice and mostly upbeat rhythms, and even the occasional accordion. I was immediately interested in what kind of work Laura Benitez would create.

If the instrumentation is what caught my interest first, it was the lyrics that made me stay. The thing about this album is, there are a few songs where one line tells the whole story. “Ghost Ship” uses the line “I don’t know where you are” to help tell the tale of someone who has lost a loved one in a fire, and cannot locate that person afterword. “In Red” uses the lyrics “I should have married you in red” to act as a well-done omen. Upon a couple’s marriage, the new bride spills wine on her dress and jokingly says “I should have married you in red”. By the end of the song, the marriage isn’t going well at all, and she kills her husband. Then, there are songs that take words and twist them around. “The Fool I Am Right Now” is a honky tonk song about a woman who has been the fool who has maxed out her credit cards. She’s been the fool who didn’t take care of her car. However, she’d rather be the fool she is right now, which is a fool in love. “Why Does it Matter” details a woman saying it doesn’t matter if her man doesn’t love her, she’ll still do the same things she always does. It doesn’t matter to her if he has any feelings for her anymore. “But if it doesn’t matter,” she sings, “why does it matter so much?”

The rest of the songs are just as good. The first song, “Something Better Than a Broken Heart” revolves around a woman who thought she’d get something better than a broken heart. Her dreams of a home and love were all proven wrong when her partner left her. One of my favorites is the next track, “Easier Things to Do”. She sings about how it would be easier to not play music and to not love the man she loves, but she still does. “Our Remember Whens” is an awesome honky tonk song about a woman who’s just met someone. She’s excited for them to get to all of their memories. She looks forward to looking back into the past with her partner, sharing jokes and good times together.

“Whiskey Makes Me Love You” is an upbeat song, but it essentially says that alcohol makes her love the person she’s with, even though she already loves them a lot. “Almost The Right One(Casi Mi Cielo” is a sad song about a woman who thought she found the perfect man for her, the one she’d be with forever. As it turned out, he was almost the right one, painfully ending things when it could easily have turned into forever. “Secrets” details a couple where both the man and woman are cheating on their spouse. They justify it with “secrets are better than lies”. “Nora Went Down the Mountain” details the story of a woman who had been happily married, until one day when she just left home with no warning. This song is probably the most forgettable on the whole album, in my opinion. That’s saying a lot, though, since I like it well enough.

In case you couldn’t tell, I really liked this album. Laura Benitez brings a nice flair to this music with her voice, and the fact that she’s a Spanish speaker. I love the inclusion of the accordion, all of the steel guitar, and the cleverness of the lyrics. All in all, this is one of my new favorite discoveries of 2018 so far!

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The Most Destructive Criticism is Indifference