Tag Archives: country pop

Album Review: Sara Evans — Words

Rating: 6.5/10

This has proven to be one of the more difficult albums I’ve ever covered here. It’s an album full of great songs–a couple of throwaway tracks that surely didn’t need to be here, but mostly, these are great songs. But lump them all into an album, and the result is a project that runs together, particularly in the back half. The individual songs are greater than the sum of their parts, and this makes it hard to judge.

Words feels highly stereotypical in the fact that it features fourteen female songwriters, a fact which was made much of ahead of this release, and that twelve of these fourteen songs are about love in some form–new love, relationships ending, or the aftermath and rebuilding process afterword. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, and most of the songs are good or at least decent, but it’s the sameness in them which hurts the album as a whole and which only further reinforces the all too familiar stereotype that women only sing and write about love. Again, that’s not bad as it relates to Sara Evans; if Sara wants to sing about love for the majority of this record, then more power to her, but if you’re going to go for similar themes, you have to go for variety in production, and other than a couple exceptions, there’s not much variety in this area either. add in a couple of songs about something else, and the true greatness in some of these tracks would have only shone more brightly.

But let’s talk about the songs themselves for a moment because a few do manage to separate themselves from the bunch anyway and stand out as very nice additions to Sara Evans’ discography. The front of the record is the strongest, featuring the more country-leaning opener, “Long Way Down” and the country pop “All the Love You Left Me,” both very nice heartbreak songs. The former takes a more upbeat attitude and features fun instrumentation while the latter sees Sara in a more vulnerable position and showcases one of her best vocal performances here. “Diving in Deep” is probably a little too cheesy for some, but it works well for me; it’s the first of the new love variety and is just catchy as all hell. “Marquee Sign,” at this point on the album, is definitely the weakest, but it seems like an outlier, and four songs in, this record really holds a lot of promise.

Then we get easily the two worst songs of the bunch, “Like the way You Love Me” and “Rain and Fire.” “Like the Way You Love Me” is just a generic piece of filler about how she finally found someone better than all the assholes she’s been with, and “Rain and Fire” is a really obnoxious track about this guy who is supposedly having problems with his girlfriend, and Sara, who just met him tonight–think every bro country song we’ve ever criticized for this–is basically telling him to leave this girl and that she’d be better for him. Honestly, I don’t know why people haven’t made a bigger deal of this because lyrically, it’s like the female, albeit more well-written and decidedly more catchy, version of “Break up with Him.” Yeah, not a fan of this song.

The rest is just sort of mediocre. Here’s where the album runs together and where if there were some breaks in the material, the back half could have been much better. “Make Room at the Bottom” is the most memorable one on this half; this is a simple heartbreak song previously done by Ashley Monroe, and Sara Evans offers a fine version too. “Night Light” is admittedly nothing special lyrically, but the melody is just really beautiful, and I find myself coming back to this one simply for the sound of it. “I Need a River” does provide a break in the material, and it’s also more country-sounding, so you would think I would love it, but it’s just sort of decent for me. I do appreciate its message about getting back to the simpler things in life and the much-needed diversion from love songs. The other break comes in “Letting You Go,” a personal song about watching her son grow up, but honestly, the reference to her song “Born to Fly” here just ruins this song for me. It feels too calculated. “I Don’t trust Myself” features some truly cool verses, as one thing leads to another in Sara’s effort to avoid thinking about an ex, but the chorus just repeats the title line, so it feels anticlimactic. Evans gives a great vocal performance on “I want You,” but again, it’s underdeveloped lyrically. The title track is a decent heartbreak song, but by the eleventh track, I’ve already heard this quite enough, and other songs have done it so much better. All these songs, though, with the exception of “Letting You Go,” would have had more potential if they weren’t lumped together, and indeed do sound better on their own.

Overall, the only really bad songs here are “Like the Way You Love Me,” “Rain and Fire,” and “Letting You Go.” And many people will like the last one, it’s just ruined for me. There are a lot of really great songs here, and if there had been more variety, they would have stood out more. There are some that manage to stand out anyway, particularly near the front of the record. But the songs are better than the album as a whole, and although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this record, I’d certainly check out the songs and maybe pick out a few. I don’t normally recommend cherry-picking–that’s reserved for Memorable Songs–but this album is the perfect example of a group of songs that will sound better in playlists than all together.

Good songs, mediocre album.

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Album Review: Lauren Alaina–Road Less Traveled

Rating: 7.5/10

Of all the albums I missed covering at the beginning of the year, this one has bothered me the most. I finally did feature Lauren Alaina when her current single “Doin’ Fine” was released, and a host of behind-the-scenes factors kept me from talking about her before that, when “Road Less Traveled,” this album’s title track and first single, hit #1 on Billboard Country Airplay basically out of nowhere (although admittedly with help from On the Verge). I tried to satisfy myself with that because it just seemed too late to give her an album review, but now that I’ve finally got time–plus the inability to write anything new–I’m taking the opportunity to do what I should have done months ago and feature Lauren Alaina’s second album, Road Less Traveled.

So why the urgency to cover this, especially given the rating? Because it’s an example of good pop country, something being done right in the mainstream, and though Lauren’s gotten her fair share of praise for this album, she’s also received a lot of unfair criticism for it from people who dismiss it as too pop. That assessment in and of itself is fair; some of this is straight pop, about half, and the country-leaning half is pop-flavored, but Lauren Alaina’s not RaeLynn or Kelsea Ballerini either, churning out meaningless pop music and then labeling it country, and I think too many have dismissed her as such. IN fact, I’d argue that she’s exactly the kind of artist we should be supporting in the mainstream even if her music may not be your personal taste.

Why? Because Lauren Alaina did something very few mainstream artists–pop, country, or otherwise, can claim–she made a very personal record. Not only that, much of it is personal to her in a way that will relate to the very demographic the mainstream tries to target, and rather than release fluffy Disney material, she’s trying to say something. Sure, the style is pop country, or perhaps in her case country pop would be more accurate, but this album is an example of good songwriting eclipsing concerns of style. In the current single and album opener, Lauren Alaina tells of her parents’ divorce, even saying in the first line of the whole record, “Daddy got sober, Mama got his best friend.” “Pretty” might not work if sung by another artist, but when you know that Alaina herself had an eating disorder, lines like “all the other girls are thinner, so you skip another dinner” ring with authenticity and empathy rather than patronization. “Three,” which also fits in the more country pop half and features some nice piano, is achingly honest about Lauren’s struggles to get onto country radio, saying that she spent “six years of missing home” for only three minutes of airplay. And I haven’t even mentioned the pretty much universally accepted standout, “Same Day Different Bottle,” the beautifully sung story of her father’s alcoholism. Incidentally, this one is also the most country and showcases some really nice steel guitar.

And let’s not overlook the fact that Lauren Alaina is an incredible vocalist. True, singing talent is not everything, and as someone who knows her fair share about music, I’ll be the first to tell you that. Too many times, we see people who no doubt have amazing voices win some singing competition and then fade into obscurity partly due to the fact they’re just spectacularly clueless about everything else relating to the business of music and being a musician. It also takes far more than vocal ability to be a great singer; you have to convey emotion and connect with your listeners, and that will go a lot further toward sustaining your career than a ridiculous range and all the fancy runs in the world. But equally, there’s another side to this, where more than half the Americana albums I’ve heard in 2017 have featured a singer that was merely adequate, sometimes flat-out off-key. One specific album comes to mind that featured absolutely great instrumentation and production, lots of good songwriting, nice melodies–and sung by anyone else, I’d have reviewed it and loved it, but I couldn’t get past the voice. And tone is not something any singer can help, so it’s what you do with it that matters most, like Rod Melancon with Southern Gothic and Robyn Ludwick on This Tall to ride, but if you can’t sing on key, I can’t take your music seriously. Anyway, all that semi-tangent aside, I then turn on Lauren Alaina’s record, and I hear not just good, but excellent, stellar, ridiculous vocal quality on tracks like the heartbreak song “Painting Pillows” and the previously mentioned “Three,” coupled with that ability to be subtle and pull out emotion like in “Think Outside the Boy,” (which features mandolin, look, more country), and I just breathe a sigh of relief.

Sure, there’s some stuff on this album I could do without, and yes, it’s all on the pop part of the record. “Holding the Other” comes to mind first because it’s just such a fluffy and pointless love song thrown in on an otherwise empowering album. Placing it between “Same Day different Bottle” and “Pretty” only made its shallow nature stick out more. “Next Boyfriend” is catchy, and the hook is pretty clever, but it doesn’t work for me as much because the cadence and rhythm isn’t flattering to Lauren’s incredible vocal ability. The same is true in “Queen of Hearts,” which also suffers massively from overproduction and from parts of it sounding nearly identical melodically to Carrie Underwood’s “Undo It.” still, there’s some of the more pop tracks here that work just fine and prove it can be done right. “My Kinda People” is the best candidate to explain this, exhibiting some pretty deceivingly intelligent lines despite it being a lightweight song. “Road Less Traveled” probably shouldn’t have gotten a #1 at country radio, and I get the criticisms with it because the lyrics do have some inconsistency, but she just sings the hell out of it, and I enjoy it. Plus, it sort of fits the album theme–well, that’s the album title, so naturally–of being yourself, but it’s expressed in a more lighthearted way than some of the more serious stuff. “Crashin’ the Boys’ Club” also works for me, but it’s one that I’m not going to try to defend because it’s just going to be a song you either love or hate upon listening.

I’m not expecting to change anyone’s mind about Lauren Alaina here. Hell, it’s been six months since this came out, so most of you, if not all of you, have an opinion anyway. She’s not going to be for everyone, certainly not for strict traditionalists. But she’s the kind of artist, and this is exactly the sort of record, that we need to be successful in 2017. This album has something to say, and it speaks to that ever narrow demographic so desperately courted by country’s mainstream in a way that’s both real and understanding. I once read, on a comment on something somewhere, that pop country is good when it takes good pop and good country and mixes them, and that that’s what’s wrong with the majority of today’s stuff. Well, this is good pop and good country, and Lauren Alaina does a pretty nice job of blending them together. One of the mainstream’s best albums in 2017 so far.

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The Country

The Pop