Tag Archives: Americana

Album Review: Travis Meadows–First Cigarette

Rating: 8/10

Travis Meadows adds his name to the growing list of professional songwriters who are gaining a name for themselves and finding more success with their own material. As for songs written by Meadows, try “Knives of New Orleans” by Eric Church, “Riser” by Dierks Bentley, and “What We Ain’t Got” by Jake Owen. These should be enough to get your attention and keep his third album, First Cigarette, firmly on your radar.

I’ve spent a lot of time in 2017 criticizing various independent/Americana singers for their vocals. It doesn’t matter if you can write a good song if you can’t remain on pitch and/or sing with any emotion. But there’s another side to this too, and that’s understanding your tone as a singer and writing and performing songs to suit you. Travis Meadows brings a weathered, unpolished quality to his singing, and no, he’s not the greatest vocalist in that sense, but he is a fine interpreter, able to capture perfectly all the raw emotion on this record. Plus, he can indeed stay on pitch, so that’s just a bonus…but I digress. His tone may not be for everyone, but he utilizes it well here, allowing it to become a feature rather than a flaw.

And his tone actually suits the material here very well, speaking also to his talent as a songwriter, his ability to write according to his vocal strengths. The rough edges in his voice only serve to elevate this particular record because it’s a self-reflective album, sometimes looking back on the past and other times hopeful for the future, at once wistful and content. “Sideways” sets the mood perfectly, opening the album with the hard-hitting statement: “If I could buy myself a conscience that wasn’t broken, Mend every fence I drove my hard head through. Re-lock all the doors I wish I’d never opened, unlearn the things I wish I never Knew.” Meadows thinks back with nostalgia on his youth on “McDowell road” and “Pray for Jungleland,” and looks forward to making life better for his son on “Travelin’ Bone.” (And by the way, “Pray for Jungleland” is actually a good example of how a song about remembering some girl in tight jeans in your car can actually convey a real emotion and tell a real story.) He’s leaning on friends to help him through hard times on “Better Boat” and seems restless on “Hungry,” but he’s perfectly happy with his life on “Guy Like Me.” It all appears to come together on the title track, as he has learned to appreciate the little things in life, like that feeling of the first cigarette in the morning. He also states that he’s “a little more content with who I am than who I was,” which seems to be the thesis of this whole thing.

The production is another thing I’ve harped on many times in 2017, and yet this record manages to get it exactly right. Travis Meadows said that can be attributed to his producers, Jeremy Spillman and Jay Joyce, wanting it to sound like Travis would sound live in a bar. And it does sound rather organic and unpolished like that, very real and raw and fitting for this journey. Also, every song flows straight into the next, with little instrumental interludes to connect the tracks, so you take this trip right along with Travis. It’s a small detail, but it really adds a lot to this album and the sentiments being conveyed here. It makes this not an album of different songs about finding contentment with who you are and where you’ve been, but rather a single experience, a process that is being carried out throughout the record.

The album needed some brighter moments to lighten the mood and in turn make the serious, reflective stuff stand out all the more, and we get that in several places. It doesn’t quite work on “Underdogs,” as this one is kind of generic and doesn’t really say much when you get right down to it. There are a thousand songs out there like this, and while it will probably really excite live crowds, it doesn’t exactly add much to the project. It doesn’t necessarily take away much either, but lighter moments are pulled off better with “Guy Like Me” and “Long Live Cool.” The former has the personal detail which “Underdogs” lacks, seeing Travis content and happy with his life and circumstances. The latter is a nice, catchy ode to rock ‘n’ roll. This one features some lively harmonica and some nice electric guitar. This one fits well within the album context despite it being lighthearted because it carries that nostalgia so often explored on this record.

First Cigarette is getting slightly underappreciated, and I honestly can’t understand why. Travis Meadows isn’t the greatest vocalist in the world, but the roughness in his voice only adds to this record. The production is some of the best I’ve heard this year, and there’s enough sonic variety to keep it from being sleepy. The writing is nice too, and there’s a thematic structure to this album as well, not something we see on many records these days. Not a concept record, but definitely one continuous journey that finds its conclusion in the title track. It’s not a perfect album, but it’s a damn good one and is not to be overlooked in the frenzy of year-end lists. Highly recommend giving this a listen.

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Reflecting On: Micky and the Motorcars – Hearts From Above

Since I have previously talked about Reckless Kelly in a Random Reflections article, it was only a matter of time until I discussed their younger brothers’ band, Micky and the Motorcars. The bands share a similar sound as far as their more rock leanings, but I’d argue that the two are different from one another. There’s Micky Braun himself, whose voice is a bit rougher than Willy Braun’s. Also, Gary Braun takes lead vocals on some songs, and on this album, they incorporated some very well-done accordion. For another thing, Micky and the Motorcars use more steel guitar in their music, making them have a country sound. Hearts From Above is my favorite album by Micky and the Motorcars, which is the reason this is the one being discussed.

Release Date: July 29, 2014

Style: Red Dirt, Rock Country

People Who Might Like this Album: Fans of Reckless Kelly, people who like their country with a bit of a rock edge

Standout Tracks: “Long Road To Nowhere”, “Destined To Fall”, “Fall Apart”, “My Girl Now”, “From Where the Sun Now Stands”

I like all of the songs on this album. However, there are twelve tracks, so I will just talk about the ones that stick out the most to me. “Long Road to Nowhere” is an interesting song, because it features the accordion I mentioned above. It’s a song about a man who regrets the end of his relationship. I love how he compares his life without her with the metaphor, “It’s a long road to nowhere, with a million miles to go, I reach for you”.

“Destined to Fall” tells the story of two people who came from broken families who were destined to fall in love with one another. The woman’s father left their family, and her mother had men in and out of their lives. As for the man in the song and whose perspective the lyrics are from, he came from a wealthy family and went to a boarding school. He broke the school’s rules, but his parents didn’t care. They just let him do whatever he wanted, so that they wouldn’t have to think about him. When he met the woman discussed in the song, they fell in love, despite their differences. I love the fiddle on this song, and how the imagery and characters are so well-developed in just a few minutes.

“Fall Apart” is another excellently drawn character portrait. This song tells of a girl who is rich and has no problems, and she just wants to escape it. She wants to have something to lose and to feel deep emotions that mean something. “She just wants to fall apart, just so she can feel it”, says the chorus. This song features some harmonica, and it works really well to set it apart. I just love how this track talks of someone who has no problems, but who wishes they had some.

“My Girl Now” is another love song. I really like the tempo and instrumentation of this one. The man in the song pleads with the woman he loves to give him a chance. If she does, he will do what he can to make her happy, and to erase the pain of her past relationships. By the end of the second verse, he’s got the girl and her life is getting better.

Finally, there’s “Where the Sun Now Stands”. It’s one of the two songs sung by Gary Braun. This is a sad song, as the lyrics detail what happened to the Nez Perce Native Americans in the nineteenth century. After a bloody war, they were promised to be returned to their homes if they would surrender. However, upon doing so, they learned that yet again, they had been lied to. The fact that these things really happened make the song that much more poignant.

If you have not heard any music by Micky and the Motorcars, I recommend checking this out. If you like Reckless Kelly, you should have no problem liking these guys. This album is a great place to start, plus it has a lot of faster and mid-tempo songs full of well-drawn characters and important topics. It has a great mix of happy and sad songs, too, and I think it is the best showcase of this band’s work.

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Album Review: The Secret Sisters–You Don’t Own me Anymore

Rating: 7.5/10

It’s no secret that traditional-sounding country has little, and female representation has even less, place in the mainstream today, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the vintage, traditional Secret Sisters lost their major label deal and struggled to get by despite their incredible talent. It’s also been pointed out recently that the mainstream has a noticeable lack of female producers, and it’s not as if there are a ton of them in the independent/Americana world either, so it seems fitting that the Sisters’ latest record, aptly entitled You Don’t Own me Anymore and very much an album of empowerment and freedom from control, would be produced by Brandi Carlile. And for the most part, it’s a great showcase of the Sisters’ vintage sound and undeniable talent.

I use the word “vintage” more than “traditional” because this record harkens back very much to the earliest days in country, and it’s like something you can imagine your grandmother playing and loving. It’s not necessarily reflected in the themes, like the timeless Colter Wall debut, but in the sound and overall mood of the record. It’s a simple album, not relying too much on production to tell these stories but instead playing to the strengths of Laura and Lydia Rogers and allowing their vocals to be the highlight. And indeed, the sisters’ incredible harmonies shine forth as the greatest asset to this whole thing. It’s the dissonance in the beautiful “Carry Me” that adds to the raw emotion, and it’s the reimagining of “Kathy’s song” with harmony that ultimately makes it stand out here despite it being a cover. Although the opener, “Tennessee River runs Low,” is not one of my personal favorites, there’s no denying the fact that it’s a vocal masterpiece, showing off all kinds of crazy chords and harmonies and just being generally impressive.

The songwriting is another strength of this record. It’s definitely an album of empowerment, as embodied in the title track and the mournful “To All the Girls Who Cry,” featuring some nice piano and those excellent harmonies. Sometimes it seems directed at a controlling lover, like in the more upbeat “He’s Fine” or in the painfully honest “The Damage.” It’s probably also referring to their struggles in the music business, and the powerful thing is that even though the record is called You Don’t Own me Anymore, this person and/or entity that once owned them has obviously left an incredible, even irreparable mark. It’s a triumphant title, but it’s not a happy album; in fact, except for occasional fun breaks like the ode to Alabama entitled “King Cotton,” it’s a melancholy, sorrowful affair. But still, it brings comfort and healing in a way that only these types of albums, borne of struggle and filled with empathy, can. A song like “To All the Girls Who Cry” only works when you understand that they’ve done their fair share of crying themselves, and that sense of empathy permeating this record is what makes it so relatable.

It’s no secret that this album is great from a technical and critical standpoint, so why the 7.5 rating? Well, as a music fan, it honestly could have used some more energy, particularly in the back half. Sometimes the reliance on the vocal ability of the secret Sisters goes a bit too far. The vintage sound renders some of these tracks almost classical in nature; in fact, one of the best examples of that is the previously mentioned and lyrically beautiful “To All the Girls Who Cry.” As I said, it’s an album that played to the strengths of Laura and Lydia Rogers–credit to Brandi Carlile for that–and it’s quite simple. That’s both the best quality and the thing that ultimately holds it back slightly. Their talent is obvious throughout, but it’s stuff like “Carry Me,” “King Cotton,” and “He’s Fine” that will hold up better because their harmonies are simpler. Having said that, this record is one that grows on you with time, and as you start to dig further than the outstanding harmonies and really absorb the lyrics, you begin to uncover more of the underlying genius in the album. So, it’s a 7.5 for now, but that rating will probably increase with time.

Beautifully sung, painfully honest album. It may not be for everyone because of its vintage nature and a slight lack of energy, but it’s certainly worth your time, and after a few listens, you might just find it working its way into your heart like I did.

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Collaborative Review: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit–The Nashville Sound

Jason Isbell is a fascinating, thought-provoking songwriter, and this is exactly the type of album that should, and does, stir conversation and differing perspectives. It seems like every person I’ve talked to who’s listened to this and every review or opinion I’ve read has added something different to my own thoughts. So it seemed like the perfect record for Brianna and I to collaborate on and share our thoughts in conversational form.

Conversation

Megan: I think we have to start out by making the point that this really didn’t turn out to be a political record.
Brianna: I was pretty afraid it would be, given the title of “White Man’s World.”
Megan: “White Man’s World” is really about as political as it ever gets. I already talked about that song, but I think it was a great message and better coming from a white man. And I think it’ll be more effective on this album that really isn’t too political otherwise.
Brianna: I think that was more effective too, but I have to agree with Trigger from Saving Country Music–we should all stop labeling each other and just be people. But yes, the song was very well done, and I liked it. It was very intense musically, and I liked the theme. It’s a very political time, and he did well with that song and the message he expressed about privilege.
Megan: Yes, I think the “stop labeling each other” bit was sort of what Jason was going for with “Hope the High Road.” I know that’s one place we disagree here; you enjoyed that song, but I think it has some mixed signals. Like that’s the message, but then he has the line, “there can’t be more of them than us.”
Brianna: I do think that line complicates things. I like the energy of the song, though.
Megan: You said something to me the other day about this record that fascinated me, so I think you should share it, and that was that this is a very restless album. So please, elaborate on that.
Brianna: Well, you have songs like “Anxiety.” I think that one best shows it. He’s very emotional and unsure; he’s anxious. I just think that theme gets played out a lot over the album. I mean, he’s wondering if he’s the only one who feels empathy on “Last of my Kind.” He’s wondering how the world will be for his daughter once she’s grown. I think it’s all very emotionally restless.
Megan: Yes, I think you’re right. I’d also say that restlessness comes out in sound. You have folk and rock and country, and I think he called this The Nashville Sound for a reason, because it’s almost like it can’t settle on anything.
Brianna: I’d have to agree with you on that. I mean, of course I like that it’s quite varied, but it just fits in very well with the whole restless theme. Adding to all that the many influences in Nashville, and I think you may have something there with the name.
Megan: At first, I didn’t like the hard, rocking “Cumberland Gap” sandwiched between “Last of my Kind” and “Tupelo,” both softer, more acoustic songs, but after you pointed out the restlessness, I realized that’s what connects them. The characters in those first three songs are all unhappy in the world they’re living in, and the difference is just that the guy in “Cumberland Gap” explodes about it, lol. By the way, “Last of my Kind” is a killer song. It hit me hard in a personal way. One of the best songs I’ve heard this year.
Brianna: OH, now that’s a great point. It makes total sense now that you pointed it out. And I also loved “Last of my Kind.” There’s a moment where he talks about an old man being ignored by everyone but him–that moment was just so poignant.
Megan: What hit me most was that first verse, him not being happy in the city and people not dancing like him, all “clapping on the one and the three.” Actually, I just thought all the first five tracks were brilliant.
Brianna: I like that verse too, but something about the old man being ignored by everyone just got me. The first half is definitely the best for me too. After that, I start to have some issues. “Anxiety” is a really good song, and we’ve talked about how emotionally restless it is. I like that. However, the production is really messy, and it didn’t work for me. I also have pretty big issues with the production of “Chaos and clothes.” There are some layered vocals in that song that really distract me and keep me from digging deeper into the song. “Molotov” is one I’m still trying to figure out, and if you have any kind of insight into that one, I’m all ears.
Megan: “Chaos and Clothes” is awful. I don’t care how deep the lyrics are, or how artsy and cool it’s meant to be, that layering of the vocal track renders it unlistenable. Jason Isbell can make, or at least agree to, better production decisions than that. That’s what makes it even worse, he’s just better than that. “Anxiety” has really grown on me, and I do agree that he didn’t need the angry production behind him to help with the song. I’m struck enough by lines like “I’m out here living in a fantasy” and “I can’t enjoy a goddamn thing” on their own,” so the production takes it down a little. I feel like he was trying to be vulnerable, and it would have been better stripped back. I’m really enjoying “Molotov” after a few listens. Nice, nostalgic love song. It sort of pales in comparison to the genius that is “If we Were Vampires,” but it’s still a great song.
Brianna: Again, I completely agree with you about “Chaos and Clothes.” It’s weird and distracting, and it doesn’t sound great. I’m glad you figured “Molotov” out. Also, nothing will beat “If we Were Vampires” this year. I’ts impossible. I mean, it’s all about mortality, and the fact that because we have it, everything means so much more. I love that song.
Megan: It’s incredible. I think the closer will be a bit underrated, but “Something to Love” is a fine piece of writing too.
Brianna: OH, you have to appreciate “Something to Love.” From my perspective, it’s all about his daughter, and how he hopes she finds something that makes her happy despite the world’s darkness. I really like the song.
Megan: I agree, closes out the restless album with some hope. All in all, after some listens, strong 8 for me. The first half and the closer are stellar, with a couple of other good songs. It’s one of those rare times I actually wish the album had been longer, because on say, a 12-song project, this might be an 8.5 or even possibly a 9, but “Chaos and Clothes” and, for me, “Hope the High Road,” bring it down too much.
Brianna: I agree with you, I have to give it an 8 as well. I was thinking 7.5 at first–I know, unpopular opinion–but honestly? “If we Were Vampires,” “Last of my Kind,” and “White Man’s World” are fantastic. Add to that the fact that I really like all the rest aside from “Anxiety” and “Chaos and Clothes,” and I like 80% of the album…so 8 it is! I too think there was a bit too much filler and/or weird production choices to bring this album up to an 8.5 or 9. All in all, this is a solid album for me, but I still say Southeastern and Something More Than Free are better albums.
Megan: I like the songs of Southeastern, but it’s too dark for me as a fan. I love Something More Than Free, and I think this, in places, is stronger. That got a 9 from me here, and it was more consistent, but honestly, I’ll play this more. This is the Jason Isbell record I’ve connected to and enjoyed most overall.

Collective Rating: 8/10

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Album Review: Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters (self-titled)

Rating: 7/10

All right, so I’m not overly familiar with The Honeycutters, and some people in this situation like to take a little time before such a release to listen to past albums and perhaps familiarize themselves more with a band or artist, but for me, I enjoy just staying ignorant and getting to know the artist through the new record. I know a few Honeycutters songs, but I’ve never listened to one of their albums, and for me, this is an opportunity to see if the new album can make me a fan. They’ve changed themselves to Amanda Anne Platt & the Honeycutters–and kept the Honeycutters part simply for less confusion–but that’s just simply long to write, so I’ll stick with just the Honeycutters mostly.

So after listening, yes, I’m definitely enjoying this group, and Amanda Anne Platt is a fine vocalist and wordsmith. There are some great songs here too, which I’ll get to, but first, I do have one giant criticism of the album as a whole, and I usually don’t like to start reviews off negatively, but this has to be said. This entire album is going to sound better in October. It’s got fall/winter vibes, and it’s just not a record I want to pull out in June and listen to. The opener, “Birthday song,” even mentions the fall, and it just puts you in that frame of mind, and you never leave. It’s mid-tempo all the way through too, so there’s never really any upbeat, summery atmosphere, and I just can’t help but wonder why on earth they released this album right at the beginning of summer. It would probably rate higher than a 7 in October, and hell, it will probably be one of the albums that grows on me throughout the year. So please, I encourage you, if this album bores you or puts you in a somber mood, pull it out again in October.

That said, even though I can’t really listen to this record as a whole right now, there are some really standout songs. There is a moment in the heart of the album where you have three incredible songs in a row in “Eden,” “The Guitar Case,” and “Learning How to Love Him.” I keep replaying these three. “Eden” tells of the hardships of a family living in the heartland of Indiana; the woman has lost her job and is struggling to get by each day with her kids. It’s unclear whether she is divorced or widowed. The hook here is astounding–I say, please, let me back inside the garden. I won’t eat anything that’s fallen from that goddamned tree.” It’s not where I thought this was going, and it’s interesting because it alludes to the fact that original sin brought all this on, or at least that this character thinks so. “The Guitar Case” seems to be autobiographical and describes Amanda Platt’s struggles as a singer–“You can do what you love, or you can go to hell.” The melody in this one is also really nice and adds to the song, along with some nice piano, which I should mention is an instrument used pretty liberally by this group and which I enjoy. Brianna pointed out recently that it’s not used enough in country, and she’s 100% right. Then there’s “Learning How to Love Him,” which was written for Platt’s friend about her struggles to love her husband all the years they were married; now suddenly he’s terminal, and she finally understands what love truly means, and nothing else matters. If you listen to these three, particularly right in a row, and don’t come away with respect for the songwriting of Amanda Platt, I’d be shocked.

There are a couple of other nice moments too, like in the love songs “Rare Thing” and “What We’ve Got.” The latter sees Platt confronting her selfish past and finally being glad that she can appreciate love instead of wanting everyone to want her; it’s quite a mature, honest way to present a love song, calling herself “ugly and unkind.” “The Good Guys” is another good one trying to convince a man to do the right thing and buy the woman he loves a ring and start a life together. There’s more piano here, and once again, the melody really enhances the song. Actually, a lot of the songs are quite good on their own, it’s just that they run together in album form. As I said before, there needs to be more of a variety in tempo, and there’s also some unnecessary, frankly boring filler on this thirteen-track record. “Diamond in the Rough” is the best example of a track they could have just left off.

Overall, this is a nice, pleasant listen. Amanda Anne Platt is a pretty great singer, which isn’t always the case in Americana music, and she does a great job bringing out the emotion in tracks like “Learning How to Love Him” and “Eden.” There are some really well-written songs too, and the instrumentation and melodies work well with the songs. There’s some filler, but the main problem is just that it’s a fall album. IN October, I might give this an 8.5, but it’s just too mid-tempo and sleepy right now in June. So, I recommend checking it out, listening to some songs, and then coming back to the album in say, four or five months.

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