Album Review: Carly Pearce–Every Little Thing

Rating: 5/10

What, you gave this a lower rating than Kelsea Ballerini? I know that’s going to be the reaction from many here, and let me just say, Carly Pearce is definitely going for an actual blend of pop and country, as opposed to shamelessly marketing straight pop songs as country. And you know what? It literally works on half this album and fails on the other half.

We start this record with an electronic beat that dissolves into “Hide the Wine.” Carly’s trying to hide all the alcohol so she won’t be tempted by an old flame, and the lyrics are quite catchy. But this song gets somewhat ruined by production, and it’s hard to call this anything other than straight pop. You get the sense Carly Pearce is not exactly trying to go for this, but the producers wanted to make sure she opened it with something more mainstream.

And then we get “Careless” and “Every Little Thing,” and that unique, cool thing about Carly starts to shine through. It seems her country instrument of choice is the dobro, and it’s cool actually to hear it featured together with more modern, pop-leaning textures. It works very well on “Careless,” as she is telling her ex to get lost because he is just “the boy who cries love.” And “Every Little Thing,” although definitely overproduced, allows her to shine as well. I prefer the more stripped-down live version of this, and I tend to think that’s what Carly Pearce intended for the song, but still, this song remains understated enough to let her vocal talent come through. She’s a good emotive interpreter, as we’ll see several more times on this album, and Nashville should let her use this to her advantage. It’s proven it can work because “Every Little Thing” did get the on the Verge treatment, but it has also sold well and resonated with the public.

But we can’t take too many chances like the title track, and that’s evidenced by the next two selections, “Everybody Gonna Talk” and “Catch Fire.” The former is one of those ever-present “let them say what they want about our relationship” songs that never really tells us why the relationship is so taboo in the first place. This is okay for what it is, but again, it’s not showing off Carly’s strengths as a vocalist. And “Catch Fire” is one of the worst things here–it’s some sort of obnoxious hookup song, and that’s pretty much all you need to know. I have no use for this shit anymore. It was pointed out on another forum that they probably wanted Pearce to show attitude, and that’s painfully evident here, but she just sounds out of place.

Equilibrium returns with “If My Name Was Whiskey,” and once again, you can see more of Pearce’s vulnerability and vocal delivery. The song is saying that if she’d been whiskey, her ex wouldn’t have left her and would do anything to keep her. It’s a moment where the blend of modern and traditional is done very well, and you can see that if they allow Carly to take more chances and really develop her sound, her style could be unique and perhaps find favor with both mainstream and independent fans.

Then we get “Color,” another obnoxious, overly perky song, this one about love. This one is just as useless as “Catch Fire.” But again, Pearce shows more of her potential in “I Need a Ride Home.” This one is overproduced at the beginning, but eventually works, and the lyrics are clever, as it’s about needing a ride back home to her childhood, as opposed to another drunk party song.

And then the rest of the album is just sort of meh–we’ve had outstanding and horrific in equal parts, and now it settles into just okay. “Doin’ it Right” isn’t bad, and her vocals do manage to stand out some, but again, it’s too much pop, instead of the cool blend of pop and country pulled off so well on some of these songs. “Feel Somethin'” and “Honeysuckle” are just pretty unremarkable, and yes, suffer from overproduction. “You Know Where to Find Me” does capture more of Pearce’s individuality–it’s not as much of a standout as some of the others, but it does manage to separate itself and showcase Carly’s voice. And then we get “Dare Ya” for the closer, which, although I’ll give it credit for featuring more pop country instrumentation, suffers from truly stupid lyrics. This one’s essentially “Catch Fire” Part 2, except that she says she’s not going to make the first move because “I’m a lady like that.” IN a way, this is almost more obnoxious than the “attitude” on “Catch Fire.” That said, nothing past track 8 here really does anything for me significantly either way.

So, overall, this is a mixed effort. It’s literally half promising and half discouraging. You can tell that Carly Pearce made an effort to bring songs of substance to this project, and you can also see that she can blend pop and country well if given the chance. But there’s also the mark of Nashville and pop producers littered all over this record, and often, Carly’s individuality is forsaken for misguided attempts at popularity. But let her develop–“Every Little Thing” is selling well, and it’s not straight pop. It’s a pop country ballad. It’s got a dobro solo, for God’s sake. Music row needs to learn from this and let Carly Pearce become a unique, cool artist, blending the traditional and the modern. If they get out of the way, I can see a lot of potential from her, but unfortunately, it’s only allowed to blossom for half of this record.

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When it Works

When it Fails

Thirteen Observations From Last Night’s CMA Awards

So, the 51st annual CMA Awards had its moments of atrocity, but overall, there was more good than bad last night. Here are some highlights and opinions, in no particular order–the good, the bad, and the curious.

1. Sam Hunt walks away winless despite “Body Like a Back Road” breaking historic records on the charts. It pains me to type this, but logic says he should have won Single of the Year, as this is about commercial success–except the CMA stomped all over that logic by saying this moron isn’t country, and we aren’t giving him awards no matter what records he breaks with his dumb single. Also, FGL, Luke Bryan, and Thomas Rhett remain empty-handed which can only be counted as a blessing.

2. Miranda Lambert says “f you” to the entire establishment by coming out and performing “To Learn Her,” the most traditional song of her career and that we’ve seen at these award shows in recent memory. Stellar performance.

3. Carrie Underwood comes out singing “Softly and Tenderly” while images of lost country greats and Las Vegas footage play in the background. This was stellar as well, and because we’ve got this whole Carrie/Miranda thing going on, my only fear here is that Carrie’s moment will somehow make Miranda’s less noteworthy. Both should be equally recognized and appreciated.

4. Chris Stapleton’s wins, while definitely victorious for real country music, are starting to get predictable. Don’t get me wrong, he deserves them, but I don’t want to see the CMA fall into a thing where we award Stapleton as the token traditionalist like we award Miranda Lambert as the token female.

5. Brothers Osborne break into “Tulsa Time” in tribute to the great Don Williams which can only be described as badass.

6. Little Big Town actually do a stunning tribute to Glen Campbell with “Wichita Lineman.”

7. ON the flip side of this, Dierks Bentley and Rascal Flatts completely suck ass at the tribute to Troy Gentry. Look, good on the CMA for paying tribute to all these guys, but the sound quality was shit. Troy deserved better.

8. Alan Jackson, in what can only be described as a curious move, comes out singing “Chasin’ That Neon Rainbow.” Great song, made me happy, but definitely a missed opportunity to promote his current single and prove that traditional country music is still alive and well, not just a thing of the past.

9. Pink shouldn’t have been booked on this show, but her performance was more understated and country than many of the supposed country performers.

10. Old Dominion are still atrocious, Kelsea Ballerini’s “Legends” still sucks, and Maren Morris’s collaboration of “Seeing Blind” was utterly useless. I have not gotten the Maren Morris hype since “My Church.”

11. Sturgill Simpson busked outside the event in his characteristic arrogant fashion, most likely to protest the CMA attempt to keep the night from being focused on politics.

12. Garth Brooks lip synced–and did a bad job of it–as I’m sure many of you know, thereby making his win for Entertainer of the Year completely embarrassing. He did admit to it, and you can’t fault him for being sick, but this makes his win look pretty idiotic.

13. Eric Church, despite doing more for country music from the inside than most, performing 40-song sets by himself on tour, committing himself to his fans, prominently featuring women in his performances on these shows, doesn’t win anything. Look, it’s good that we’re not recognizing Sam Hunt and FGL, but not recognizing Eric Church for his efforts is wrong and frankly ridiculous.

2017 CMA Awards: Preview and Predictions

The CMA’s will air tonight at 7 PM CST on ABC. For snarky commentary, feel free to follow me on Twitter @Honest_Country

Video of the Year

“Better Man”–Little Big Town
“Blue Ain’t Your Color”–Keith Urban
“Craving You”–Thomas Rhett feat. Maren Morris
“It Ain’t my Fault”–Brothers Osborne [won]
“Vice”–Miranda Lambert
Notes: “It Ain’t my Fault” won this earlier today, and as this is the only video of the five I know anything about, I can honestly say it’s a good one, but I can’t make a fair judgment for it against the others.

Musical Event of the Year

“Craving You”–Thomas Rhett feat. Maren Morris
“Funny How Time Slips Away”–Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson [won]
“Kill a Word”–Eric Church feat. Rhiannon Giddens
“Setting the world on Fire”–Kenny Chesney and Pink
“Speak to a Girl”–Tim McGraw and Faith Hill
Notes: Make no mistake, Glen got the sympathy vote here, but hey, it kept Thomas Rhett from winning. It’s a shame they didn’t broadcast this.

Vocal Group of the Year

Little Big town
Lady antebellum
Old Dominion
Rascal Flatts
Zac Brown Band
Prediction: Little Big Town because I’m not stupid
Preference: Um, Turnpike Troubadours? Seriously, this category sucks.

Vocal Duo of the Year

Florida Georgia Line
Brothers Osborne
Maddie & Tae
Dan + Shay
Prediction: Brothers Osborne
Preference: Brothers Osborne
Notes: So, until they combine Duo and Group, both categories will inevitably be ridiculous…Maddie & Tae are great but have done nothing this year deserving of this slot. LOCash don’t deserve it either. I think Brothers Osborne have a better shot than FGL, but never discount those two from this award either.

Single of the Year

“Body Like a Back Road”–Sam Hunt
“Tin Man”–Miranda Lambert
“Better Man”–Little Big Town
“Blue Ain’t Your Color”–Keith Urban
“Dirt on my Boots”–Jon Pardi
Prediction: “Body Like a Back road”
Preference: “Better Man”
Notes: Single of the Year is supposed to be for commercial success, so logically, Sam Hunt should actually win this. Logically, he should also not be in country, so “Better Man” is another good commercial choice that would make me want to vomit much less. Also, “Dirt on my Boots” in no way deserves to be here, either for critical acclaim or commercial success.

Song of the Year

“Body Like a Back Road”–Sam Hunt, written by Zach crowell, Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne
“Better Man”–Little Big Town, written by Taylor Swift
“Blue Ain’t Your Color”–Keith Urban, written  by Clint Lagerberg, Hillary Lindsey, Steven Olsen
“Tin Man”–Miranda Lambert, written by Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert, Jon Randall
“Dirt on my Boots”–Jon Pardi, written by Rhett Akins, Jesse Frasure, Ashley Gorley
Prediction: “Tin Man” or “Better Man”
Preference: “Tin Man” by a mile
Notes: “Tin Man” deserves this, but Taylor swift wrote “Better Man” which might be reason enough for voters to select it. Single and Song of the Year should not be the exact same five; songs are supposed to be about the writing and the critical acclaim. Once again, “Dirt on my Boots” doesn’t deserve a spot here by any stretch of the imagination.

New Artist of the Year

Brett Young
Lauren Alaina
Jon Pardi
Luke Combs
Old Dominion
Prediction: Luke Combs or Jon Pardi
Preference: Luke Combs
Notes: Old Dominion are on their second horrific album, so not exactly new. Lauren Alaina, although making good music, is also on her sophomore album, though for her, there was a six-year break between releases, so she’s arguably new again. Cool to see a female here, but she won’t win. Luke Combs should win this over Pardi–look, I understand Jon Pardi is more traditional and all, but except for “Head Over Boots,” he’s released absolute shit to radio. At least Luke’s single is good. Unless Brett Young is being nominated for his newfound cure for insomnia–which, granted, his album is doing amazing things for in that field–he shouldn’t be anywhere near this award.

Album of the Year

Little Big Town–The Breaker
Chris Stapleton–From a Room, Volume 1
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit–The Nashville Sound
Miranda Lambert–The Weight of These Wings
Lady Antebellum–Heart Break
Prediction: Miranda Lambert or Jason Isbell
Preference: Miranda Lambert, but I’d be happy with Isbell and okay with Stapleton
Notes: I don’t think Jason Isbell’s nomination here was simply a token one, and I think he’s a strong candidate for this award. He’s also been named artist in residence by the Country Music Hall of Fame which shows that the industry is taking notice of him. and we saw with Stapleton’s 2015 wins that the CMA pays attention to things beyond radio play and mainstream success. But I think Stapleton and Isbell may split votes, and ultimately, Miranda Lambert will probably win. I’ll also take the unpopular stance that while this field is incredibly strong and Jason Isbell is completely deserving, Miranda Lambert’s album was actually a bit better. But when you’ve got three great albums here, it’s hard to complain if any of them walk away with this.

Female Vocalist of the Year

Kelsea Ballerini
Miranda Lambert
Maren Morris
Reba McEntire
Carrie Underwood
Prediction: Miranda, duh
Preference: Miranda Lambert
Notes: well, at least they actually found five females to fill this category. People are getting sick of Miranda winning, but this year, she actually deserves it.

Male Vocalist of the Year

Dierks Bentley
Thomas Rhett
Chris Stapleton
Eric Church
Keith Urban
Prediction: Chris Stapleton
Preference: Chris Stapleton or Eric Church
Notes: Just the fact that I’m actually predicting Chris Stapleton to win anything shows how far we’ve come in the past two years, but he should win this award. It would be nice to see Eric Church win something and get some credit for all he’s done for music of substance in the past year, but I don’t see him winning it. Ultimately, he deserves Entertainer of the Year, but that’s not going to happen either. And if we’re totally honest with ourselves, “Kill a Word” should have won the Musical Event of the Year award too. I don’t see Church winning anything, but you never know, he’s got two performance slots; if he does win anything, it will be this award.

Entertainer of the Year

Garth Brooks
Luke Bryan
Eric Church
Chris Stapleton
Keith Urban
Prediction: Garth Brooks
Preference: Eric Church
Notes: I hope justice is served for Eric Church here, but I don’t see it happening. Luke Bryan could also win, as he just released a lead single, but I think you’ll see this go to Garth again this year.

An Unapologetic Assessment of Kelsea Ballerini’s New Record

Country Rating: 0/10
Pop Rating: 6/10

The above rating discrepancy perfectly sums up what is wrong with mainstream country today–you can sing anything and have it be labeled country, never mind the definition or roots of that genre before now. Make no mistake, Kelsea Ballerini, although she did have some more pop country stuff on her debut album, has released, in Unapologetically, the most blatantly non-country thing I’ve heard in 2017 operating under that title. Thomas Rhett’s album is more country than this. Kesha’s album, though correctly labeled pop, is more country than this. This is like a complete “f you” to country music and all it stands for.

And this is arguably an even worse offense when you take into account the industry’s systematic discrimination of women, and factor in that Kelsea is not only pretty silent on the issue, but continues to take advantage of it for her own success. She was in the right place at the right time when Keith Hill made the infamous tomato statement, so she became country radio’s token female. Never mind that she’s got not one shred of country anywhere on her sophomore effort. It’s a pop record through and through, and for better or worse, mainstream country has demonstrated with alarming firmness that there are only so many slots for females, so Kelsea Ballerini becomes in a way even more polarizing than some of her male country counterparts as she mercilessly hogs one of the precious few slots to release immature pop music. When you think of all the talented and systematically overlooked women in country music, both of the more traditional and the more pop country persuasions, it’s hard not to cringe every time you hear “Dibs” or “Yeah Boy” gracing your radio dial.

But in this complicated era of country music and all things being marketed as such, some difficult situations sometimes arise. It’s easy to hate stuff like the aforementioned “Dibs” and write off Kelsea Ballerini as an immature pop princess, but what happens when she shows personal growth on her second effort? You could see glimpses of it even on her debut, though except for “Peter Pan,” her maturity wasn’t allowed to show in her singles. It doesn’t often happen, but how do you judge the music when it is so obviously mislabeled, yet it’s pretty decent music for its own genre?

In a just world, I wouldn’t be making assessments of albums so blatantly pop as this because they’d be in the correct genre, but the fact is, Ballerini called this country, and I have to call it out for not being country in the slightest. That said, music always comes first before genre lines, and Kelsea Ballerini has made a pretty decent pop album. I’m sorry she didn’t label it as such, but from now on, I’m going to review it as such, as that does more justice to Kelsea Ballerini and her music.

The most encouraging thing about this new record is Kelsea Ballerini’s obvious search for more depth and maturity. You’ve got songs like “High School,” where she sings of a guy who’s still stuck at seventeen, still driving his high school car, still calling his high school sweetheart, because he can’t grow up and move on. The girl continues to ignore his calls because she’s not looking for a relationship like this. It’s a much more realistic way of portraying high school than much of mainstream country, and Kelsea, in her twenties, is writing songs about growing up while men in their forties still sing about trucks and tailgates and cell phones like they’re still teenagers. She also shows maturity and vulnerability on “In Between,” which details all the ways she’s living in between a child and an adult; “Young enough to think I’ll live forever, old enough to know I won’t.” Again, a song like this shows a lot more self-awareness from Ballerini than we might have imagined she possessed after listening to stuff like “Yeah boy.”

She’s still exploring relationships for much of this record, just as on her debut, but again, the writing and themes go deeper. In the opener, instead of some bright, upbeat pop song, we get the dark, moody “Graveyard” that is comparing this guy to death essentially, as he takes the hearts of “hopeless, broken girls” and casually breaks them one by one, all to end up in his graveyard. It’s an interesting metaphor, and the production works well here. “Roses” is the more developed version of “Legends,” which, by the way, is slightly more bearable in the context of the album, but still remains pretty empty and shallow. “Roses” explores the same theme but compares the relationship to roses in that they are beautiful for a period but eventually die. “Miss me More,” although it suffers from some annoying production, is a pretty clever take on the aftermath of what seems to have been a controlling, abusive relationship. The narrator has lost friends and dressed differently than she would have, all for the sake of this guy, and now that it’s over, instead of missing him, she misses herself, the person she used to be. Another clever moment comes in “I Hate Love Songs,” as it makes fun of all the clichés associated with falling in love. She still loves her man, but it’s not a cliché. This song would be better if it weren’t sandwiched between two love songs, but taken on its own, it’s quite a cool piece of songwriting and one of the standouts.

There are still some major problems with this record, production being the worst. There’s some overproduced, annoying stuff going on in the chorus of “Miss me More” which serves to distract from an otherwise thoughtful track. “Machine Heart,” which is also one of the worst songs here in terms of writing, just sounds lifeless. This song really adds nothing at all to the project. “End of the World” isn’t a bad song and actually demonstrates Kelsea’s knack for melody quite well, but it’s underdeveloped lyrically, as we never really figure out why the narrator was at the end of the world in the first place. We hear that she found new love in a very dark place, but when you say things like, “gotta go through hell to get to heaven,” it leaves me wondering what hell entailed. “Unapologetically” is just forgettable, as well as being rather unfortunately placed after “I Hate Love Songs.” “Get Over Yourself” is a bit hard to decipher because it’s hard to tell whether she’s really over her ex, as the song states, or whether it’s meant to be an obvious lie, and we’re supposed to get that she’s lying to herself. I tend to go with the latter, which would make the writing better, but the writing ultimately isn’t quite clear enough, so it’s just kind of confusing. And “Legends” is still empty, bland, and boring, and absolutely the worst single to release for this and the worst way to close the album.

But there’s nothing here to make you cringe like many of Kelsea’s radio singles from her debut album. “Legends” is the worst offender here, and that’s just bland and uninteresting. It actually shows quite a bit of growth from Ballerini, and there’s definite improvement in her songwriting. There are some terrible production choices on this record, and fixing those might have even made this rise to a light 7. The parts that Kelsea Ballerini is responsible for aren’t bad at all, even if sorely mislabeled. It’s not fair to ignore the fact that this is not country in any universe, and I’ve made that perfectly clear. But it’s also unfair to overlook the improvements made by an artist, and Kelsea has shown improvement, as well as the ability to listen to her critics. A pop album through and through, but not a bad pop album by any stretch.

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Album Review: Blake Shelton Sets the Bar Ever Lower with Texoma Shore

Rating: 3/10

Okay, so Blake Shelton didn’t make a whole album about screwing on tailgates or hooking up in clubs. IN that respect, this is indeed a more mature, grown-up effort–well, for the most part, but we’ll get to the exceptions later. And in that sense, it’s better and arguably more mature than the material being released by his counterparts. So it’s his best album in a few years, right? Maybe not back to vintage, country, pre-Voice Shelton, but still better?

Not even close–in fact, as mostly a Shelton apologist who has found songs to love even on his more recent efforts, let me make this clear; what we have here in Texoma Shore is Blake Shelton’s worst, laziest, most underwhelming album to date.

The problem? It’s literally the same song for most of this; he’s happy, in love with Gwen Stefani, and bent on expressing that in the most generic, boring, cookie-cutter ways possible. “I’ll Name the Dogs” is probably the only interesting song of this bunch; indeed, it had many hopeful for this new record, and it’s quite a good song, but it’s also pretty much a rip-off of “Honeybee.” Still, that could be excused, especially if there were more originality on the other songs. I could go into more detail, but literally, I’ve explained over half the album with my description of generic/boring love songs. I’m not against love songs certainly, and I’m happy that Blake and Gwen are happy, but these are uninspired, forgettable versions of the same thing, some of which have been done better by Shelton himself. Take “Why Me,” for example. Wouldn’t you rather hear “God Gave me You?” There’s more than one way to make a bad album, and although this is more mature than say, “Body Like a Back Road,” I can’t excuse the laziness that went into this project. It seemed like his last album, If I’m Honest, was every generic breakup sentiment rolled into a record without really saying anything at all, and this one is the same thing, only now it’s every generic sentiment of newfound love. Come on Blake, you can go deeper than the surface.

And let’s not assume this album has no “Body Like a Back Road” moments either. Seriously, Blake, what the fuck is this song “Money?” This is maybe even worse than Backroad” in the sense that that song is at least somewhat catchy, I suppose. This is literally some misogynistic bullshit about being white trash and saying that this girl is money, complete with Blake being the worst example of a rapper in the history of ever. Say what you want about “Boys Round Here,” but at least that song has a melody you can remember. This is not even good at being terrible, and frankly, singlehandedly takes this album down from generic and bland to bad. And there’s also the incredibly stupid “AT the House,” which is essentially every party/hookup song ever, except that instead of being on a tailgate or in a bar, they decide to keep it at home. No self-respecting country singer should ever utter the line, “go ahead and get your freak on,” but we do find that here, thereby making this just embarrassing.

But give credit where credit is due, and this album is not without some, if few, redeeming qualities. As I said before, “I’ll Name the Dogs” isn’t bad at all for what it is, even considering it’s a rip-off. “Got the T-Shirt” is a pretty good breakup song using some nice metaphors to tell the story; Blake also delivers this quite convincingly, and the melody is good too. This one is easily the highlight of the whole thing and probably the only one I’ll return to. “Turnin’ me On” isn’t bad either, and Blake has always had a knack for these types of songs–think “Sangria,” “Lay Low,” “Who Are You When I’m Not Lookin’.” There are some cringe-worthy lyrics sprinkled in here, but the atmospheric production it’s going for is interesting, and as I say, Shelton can pull these songs off well.

“I Lived It,” the album closer, is the other one we’re all supposed to appreciate, but I’ll take the unpopular stance of not liking this song at all. I separate it from the generic crap found on the rest of the record because it’s more country-sounding and depicts examples from small-town living, presumably from his childhood in Oklahoma. I think a lot of people might like this, but for me, it fails in the context of the album because the chorus talks all about how growing up like that made him the person he is today. Okay, so if that’s true, why are you lending your voice to shit like “Money” and singing lines like “go ahead and get your freak on?” It’s like the moment where he admits he’s capable of more, and his past albums have proven that, so why not deliver?

Blake Shelton has been quite a polarizing character with traditional country fans over the past several years, especially since his stint on The Voice. He’s definitely released some bad singles, but I would argue that even on the albums where he turned further and further away from his country roots, there were always some great songs buried in there. This? Well, “Got the T-Shirt” is the best, but even that’s just pretty good. The other brighter spots are decent. There’s nothing to blow you away like a “Lonely Tonight” from his previous records. This is a disappointing, underwhelming effort from Blake Shelton, and even if it’s more mature than the stuff being put out by most of the mainstream, it represents Shelton setting the bar even lower for himself. And that’s a shame because he can make so much better music.

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