Tag Archives: Americana

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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“It’s Always the Songs”–What we Should Learn From Steve Earle’s Recent Outbursts

Ahead of his new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, Steve Earle has not been afraid to speak his mind. IN a recent interview with The Guardian, Earle calls out, among other things, the current state of pop country and says that the mainstream is nothing but “hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people.” He also says that “the best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by women except for Chris Stapleton.” I don’t want to focus too much on this interview since that’s not originally what this article was meant to be about, but it adds new light to it and strengthens the point I was originally going to make here–Steve Earle is not afraid to be honest and share his opinion. However, the thing is, although it’s not overly common, bashing pop country is certainly not uncommon, and we’ve seen our fair share of artists do so over the past several years. The thing that makes Earle’s recent statements different comes in light of another interview, which before today had been the main focus of this piece.

IN another interview in Canada, with The Globe and Mail, when asked about Canadian songwriters, Steve Earle mentioned Colter Wall, citing him as “the best singer-songwriter I’ve come across in years.” Here’s where the interview takes an interesting turn.

I haven’t heard his new album yet, but I heard him [Colter] described as “bad Richard Buckner.”
Richard Buckner sucks. Richard Buckner is the most overrated songwriter in the history of songwriting ever. Girls liked him, because he stared at his feet. He’s a neanderthal. I know Buckner.
I’m quite fond of Buckner’s music. Particularly, The Hill (2000).
He can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag. Richard Buckner was nothing but a painfully alternative hipster’s darling. But I hate a lot of things people think are brilliant. I will not read Cormac McCarthy again. Technically, he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever come across. But I don’t think his intentions are good. I don’t think he likes us. I don’t think he likes himself. Actually, I think he likes himself just fine. That’s what’s so disgusting about it. I think he thinks the rest of us are pieces of [garbage].
Painfully alternative hipster’s darling, you say about Buckner. Can you explain that?
I don’t want to be a part of a culture that defines itself by what it hates. I can’t stand alternativism. I mean, I hate disco, but I have to admit there’s been some great art coming out of dance music.
But out of hate and alternativism comes great art. Punk rock, as a reaction to disco, for example.
Sure. But the stuff that’s great in punk rock are the songs. The songs hold up. The stuff lasts. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because of punk rock. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because it was different than hair metal. Nirvana is Nirvana because Kurt Cobain was a world-class songwriter. It’s always the songs.

First of all, I had never heard the name Richard Buckner before this interview, and let me tell you, after getting acquainted, Steve Earle is entirely correct, Richard Buckner sucks–but that’s beside the point. The point is, and it’s been strengthened today by his criticism of the mainstream, that he’s not afraid to judge the independent/Americana/alternative in the same way as what is popular. We’re all pressured by that in this independent country scene, to like everything Americana just because it’s not on the radio or isn’t considered mainstream. But let me tell you, a lot of it bores the hell out of me, and Country Exclusive was founded on a principle of honesty. When I said that, I didn’t just mean bashing the mainstream, and I get that there’s a certain problem with spending too much time unnecessarily bashing the little guy, but there’s also this elitist attitude in the Americana world that makes it seem as if you can’t criticize anything about these artists. Hell, there are albums I enjoy but have slight criticisms about in Americana, but somehow, if we say that, it’s a horrific thing. Criticism is meant to be constructive, and to share an opinion–and if the artist deems it necessary to listen, perhaps to make that artist better, but again, it’s just someone’s opinion. WE all find it easy to bash Nashville and pop country, and we all rally behind people like Steve Earle when they do the same. So why do we attack him for saying something negative about an Americana artist? I love that last point–“It’s always the songs.” Let it always stay about the songs. That goes for you mainstream fans afraid to like Jason Isbell, and for you independent/alternative/Americana fans afraid to like Chris Stapleton because he wrote some mainstream hits. Just let it be about the songs. They should, and will, speak for themselves.

Song Review: “White Man’s world” by Jason Isbell And the 400 Unit

Rating: 8.5/10

Let me first say I didn’t want to review every single from the new Jason Isbell album, so I didn’t cover “If we Were Vampires,” but that is one of the best songs of jason Isbell’s career. I wouldn’t have covered this one either, except that I feel it needs discussing, and more than a couple sentences in an album review. More than that, I see, understandably, that people are hesitant to review it because of the political backlash that could ensue. But we all pretty much knew Jason Isbell was going to get political at some point on this albu, and he released this song ahead of The Nashville Sound for a reason; he didn’t want it to be an album cut that people ignored or passed over, he wanted people to be talking about it, so I’m rising to that challenge.

Jason Isbell is quite up front in his delivery of this, speaking as the white man in a “white man’s world,” a “white man’s street,” a “white man’s town,” and “a white man’s nation.” This is what makes this song speaking out against discrimination arguably more hard-hitting; it’s not coming from a minority, it’s coming from a white man who recognizes that it’s a white man’s world and wants to change that. He looks at his daughter and notes that “thought this world could be hers one day, but her mama knew better.” He goes on to explain that “her mama wants to change that Nashville sound, but they’re never gonna let her.” It’s acknowledging both the discrimination against women in general and specifically within Nashville and country music. Isbell goes on to lament that the highway was built over a Native Ameircan burial ground–“got the bones of the red man under my feet” and then regrets that he ever turned a deaf ear to “another white man’s joke” when he looks “into a black man’s eyes.” It’s told with frankness and honesty, and the little details like that last fact, that he has been guilty of ignoring such things in the past, make the song real and regretful as opposed to just preachy. He ends the song by saying that he still carries hope, maybe because of the “fire in my little girl’s eyes.” It’s exactly the kind of song we need in 2017, and credit to Jason Isbell, a white man, for being the one to deliver it.

My slight criticisms with this song have to do with the fact it doesn’t quite stick melodically. The verses do, when he’s listing the examples I mentioned, but the chorus isn’t really grabbing me, and in that sense, it sort of reminds me of the first single, “Hope the High road,” because the melody doesn’t stand out all that much. There’s some really nice blending of country and rock instrumentation, and the fiddle solo adds a nice touch. Still, although the music is where my criticism lies, it’s the lyrics that make this song important, and it’s the lyrics that Jason Isbell wanted us to be discussing and pondering. So, overall, it’s a very nice and timely song that has me looking forward even more to Jason Isbell’s record.

Written by: Jason Isbell