Tag Archives: Americana

Album Review: Brandi Carlile–By the Way, I Forgive You

Rating: 8/10

I would like to forgive Pastor Tim.
I forgive you for deciding not to baptize me when I was a teenager for being gay.
It was not so much that you wouldn’t or couldn’t do it because of the tenets put in place by the baptist rules and traditions, but because you waited until all my family and friends were present and waiting in the pews for the ceremony.
I don’t believe you did it to humiliate me – I think you struggled with the decision and simply ran out of time… I think you probably still do struggle with it.
I’d like you to know that I still love you and that I understand we’re all on a journey together, trying our best to walk through the world with honor and dignity – but what I want you to know most of all is that you did not damage my faith. Not in god, not in humanity and not in myself.
The experience inspired me to help other gay kids and my spiritual LGBTQ brothers and sisters come to terms with the disappointments they’ve endured on the rugged road to peace and acceptance. I think you’d appreciate that process.
You’ve helped far more people than you’ve hurt and you helped me too.
Thank you 

These words came from Brandi Carlile as part of the promotion ahead of this release, as she encouraged fans to share their own stories of forgiveness. Sometimes, background information is irrelevant when discussing an album, but with this record, it’s important to understand Brandi’s empathy for people, her ability to put herself in the place of others, and her search for forgiveness, no matter how hard it might be. These songs seemingly don’t have much to do with one another on the surface, but her ability to understand and empathize with others connects these tracks and explains the title of this record perfectly.

Unwrapping this album takes time, and taking in all that Brandi Carlile has to say here can be quite honestly daunting at first. I say sometimes that a record is an easy listen; this release is anything but easy to listen to, as there’s not really a moment of levity or relief on the entire project, except for perhaps “The Mother.” That said, it’s certainly a record that will make you feel something, one that will be relatable to people in many difficult situations, and one that carries much hope and understanding within it.

The greatest asset here is Brandi herself. It’s her ability to command her voice, her intensity and power on songs like “The Joke,” and the way every note seems to come from a place of pure passion. Sometimes, that passion comes because the songs are personal; I mentioned “The Mother,” and this one is the closest thing to a light moment, as she’s thankful for her daughter Evangeline. Still, even here, there’s some underlying pain, as she mentions the sacrifices she’s made and remarks that the world has been against them. She also adds a touch of personal pain and experience to “The Joke,” as she reaches out to kids who don’t fit normal stereotypes, letting them know that in the end, the joke will be on the ones who laughed at them.

Perhaps even more valuable than her personal experience, though, is the unique ability of Brandi Carlile to put herself in another’s place and make you feel all of their pain and suffering with her voice and lyrics. She sings about addiction on “Sugartooth,” weaving a tale of a man who fights the battle all his life only to commit suicide. She reminds us, “no point now to judge him in vain. If you haven’t been there, you don’t know the pain.” It’s a startling reminder that maybe, under different circumstances, that could have been any of us. She wrote a song here called “Fulton County Jane Doe” specifically to remind people thinking about committing suicide that they were once loved, that they were called something sweet by someone once which means something more than Fulton County Jane. She wants all these downtrodden people to know she thinks of them and prays for them. We all could learn from her compassion.

Forgiveness, like the album’s title would suggest, does serve to tie these tracks together and give the record a cohesive feel. The opener, “Every Time I Hear That Song,” sees Carlile letting go of an forgiving an ex, indeed thanking her for bringing Brandi to this point in her life. She’s displaying that empathy again, as she can put herself in her ex’s shoes and understand that leaving Brandi was hard for this woman as well. “Whatever you Do” arrives in the middle of the record with another story of love, this one implying that she loves this person so much that it’s actually affecting her life and dreams. For most of the song, this one is just simply Brandi Carlile and her acoustic guitar, allowing the depth of the lyrics to shine, as well as that commanding presence in her voice. The album closes with a return to love and forgiveness, tying the whole thing together with a moving piano ballad called “Party of One.” Here, Carlile is sitting alone in a restaurant after a fight with her lover. She’s not ready to leave the relationship, simply wanting some time alone. By the end of the song, she’s going home to be with her lover because in the end, no argument is worth giving up that love. She’ll forgive and work through this because she knows that this love means more than anything which came between them. It’s a really powerful way to close the album, and the string section comes in at the end to add to the intensity of the song and the message.

All that said, this is not a perfect album. The highs are incredibly high, but there are some lows. “Hold out Your Hand” just doesn’t work on any level, most notably the vocals, as instead of commanding the song in her usual way, Brandi just seems to be shouting over everything on this track. It comes off more like a lot of noise than a wall of sound, which is what I think they were going for here. “Harder to Forgive” fits in with the themes running through the album, but it’s the ninth track of ten, and it doesn’t really say anything as profound as the other songs before it. The others paint the pictures through compelling stories and relatable characters, whereas this song’s message is almost too transparent. We’ve already heard this done much better. “Fulton County Jane doe” also could have gone a little deeper; the foundation is great, but it’s a little underdeveloped lyrically, particularly in the verses, and unlike a lot of the other songs here, it’s also not that interesting melodically.

Overall, though, this is a solid record. For those of you who like to get caught up in the rating, this is one that I debated quite a lot because I can see this album either growing on me with time as the depth of the material continues to impact me, or getting a bit older after awhile because of the sheer intensity of this project. Consider this a tiny, light 8 for now, with a lot of room to change. For those of you more concerned with finding good music, there are some incredible songs here, and Brandi Carlile is certainly a forced to be reckoned with vocally. This may not be the record for everyone, but it’s certainly a good one.

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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: 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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