Tag Archives: John Moreland

Melody: The Most Forgotten and Forsaken Element in Music

“Nobody even attempts to write a melody.”

These were some of the infamous words of Merle Haggard when he gave his opinion on modern mainstream country back in 2015. Interesting words because while you can find plenty of people harping on the lack of lyrical content and substance in the mainstream, or bitching about the encroachment of other genres and electronic beats into their beloved country music, not many people have commented on what may be the most rampant problem running through modern American music: the consistent lack of memorable and engaging melodies.

But even though we don’t mention it, this makes sense in the mainstream. Much of the stuff coming from Music Row is unimaginative and forgettable, and the lack of melody is only one small problem. So yeah, maybe we don’t criticize it often enough, but it’s not a stretch to see the undeniable lack of care for this crucial element in mainstream country.

But I’d argue it’s an even bigger problem in the world of Americana and independent music; yep, you know, that world where everything is good, and we can’t criticize anything. IN fact, I’d say that the mainstream is maybe the best place to find entertaining melodies these days–and no, that’s not saying a lot because so much mainstream music is just downright boring, but the majority of the songs we call “guilty pleasures” that come out of the mainstream stick with us because they’re catchy. They get stuck in our heads. Sure, we know the lyrics are stupid, maybe even at times misogynistic. But it’s the melody, and/or that lively, infectious instrumentation that keeps us liking the song despite how our mind tells us we should feel about it.

Conversely, how many Americana projects have you listened to that while there weren’t any flaws per se, there was also nothing memorable whatsoever? Maybe you read reviews or heard from listeners how great a record was, how awesome the songwriting was, etc., and for whatever reason just could not get into the album. That’s not to take away from the special art of songwriting, and it’s also true music is by nature subjective, but sometimes, albums are ruined just by a lack of effort and care for the melodies. Ray Wylie Hubbard’s is a shining example of this and indeed the inspiration for this post; equally, John Moreland’s latest might well have been the most boring record of the year if not for those catchy hooks and enchanting melodies that kept you coming back enough times to really unwrap the brilliance in his lyrics.

This problem of forsaking melodies is no doubt directly related to the equally alarming lack of quality vocalists in the independent scenes, which is itself a topic worthy of an entire post. We question whether to criticize such things as a singer’s vocal ability, and indeed, things like tone can’t be helped, but the technical abilities of singers can also be improved. Shows like The Voice and American Idol have gone to the other extreme, painting a picture of vocal ability as everything without taking into account an artist’s ability to draw an audience in emotionally. This emotional connection is more vital than technical skill, But singing is also more than emotive interpreting; this is what makes it different from reading poetry. it’s also nice to hear a great vocalist sing the hell out of a song; that’s one of the reasons Lauren Alaina’s sophomore album was such a joy to listen to.

When singer-songwriters are writing songs to fit their increasingly limited vocal ranges and abilities, their melodies become limited as well and often become somewhat of an afterthought. The results are often good lyrics that were turned into boring, lifeless songs. I’ve heard numerous Americana albums like this in 2017, brimming with good songwriting but completely forgettable. A singer may indeed possess that special thing that connects them with an audience and allows them to draw emotion out of every word, but does that matter if those magical words are translated into boring, forgettable music? Melody is what brings the lyrics to life and makes the songs resonate with us and get stuck in our heads. A script is only as good as the actors who make it come alive onstage, and lyrics on a page are only as thoughtful and relatable as the vocalist who interprets them for the world and the melody to which the songwriter sets them.

We praise songwriters, and we say we’re living in the age of the song, but it’s more like the age of the lyric. These independent/Americana types are often so caught up in telling a story and/or being deep and thoughtful that they forget what makes music such a unique and treasured art form. It’s good to be artistic, but that artistry shouldn’t replace accessibility. Even our greatest songwriters like Jason Isbell are guilty of this; there’s some brilliant material on his latest album, but some of it is honestly just forgettable melodically. This is not to take away from Jason Isbell as an artist or a lyricist, more to paint a picture of just how deep the problem goes and to illustrate that even the greatest songwriters and albums suffer from this phenomenon in 2017.

There is a lot of talk these days, especially in this blogging world, about what, if any, of the music coming out currently will be remembered years from now. Not ten or twenty, but say, fifty years down the road. Will we be listening to any music from today like people still listen to Hank? That’s a whole different discussion, but I’d argue that it’s not just the lack of substance keeping songs from having that timeless quality. It’s not just shallow radio singles that will be forgotten, but many of our greatest songwriters in both mainstream and independent music will suffer the same fate if they continue to treat melody as some sort of secondary element. It’s that indefinable thing that keeps us coming back to a song years later, that recalls a memory, a specific place and time, and has us singing a chorus we haven’t heard in so long but to which we still can recite the words. It’s the melodies which linger on in our minds and stir our hearts, and I hate to see it becoming so marginalized, even by otherwise great musicians and lyricists. So songwriters, please don’t forget this crucial part of your craft, or treat it as somehow secondary to your lyrics. It’s the thing that holds them together and gives them character, taking those thoughts from your head and words on a page and turning them into timeless songs that we’ll sing for years to come.

My Top 13 Songs of 2017 So Far

Editor’s Note: I wrote “my” instead of “Country Exclusive’s” for a reason; this does not necessarily reflect the views of our entire site. Also, these are not, and I repeat, not, in any order. Finally, with the exception of one song which I felt it would be idiotic to leave out, these are all from stuff we have covered in some fashion, either by a full-length review or perhaps through a feature in our “Memorable Songs from Overlooked Albums” pieces. Normally, I would restrict this to stuff one of us has actually written about, but that would leave out one song which, like I say, it would be a glaring sin not to bring up here. So take all this into consideration, and feel free to leave your own lists of songs and thoughts about these in the comments below!

Aaron Watson: “Clear Isabel”

From Vaquero
The first song to really blow my mind in 2017, this is a great and timely story about Isabel and her father, Mariano, who flee to America to escape the cartels of Mexico. Isabel ends up married to the narrator of the song, but her father is deported and later gunned down. It’s an honest and heartbreaking look at immigration, not to mention a brilliant song. Even better with the instrumental prelude, “Mariano’s Dream.”

Jaime Wyatt: “Wishing Well”

From Felony Blues
Jaime Wyatt is probably the name I’m most excited about breaking out in 2017. She has a way of singing about hardship that still manages to put a smile on your face, and this is just a stellar song that gets better every time I hear it.

Natalie Hemby: “Cairo, IL”

This one comes off Puxico, which we didn’t review in full, but it was partly responsible for the “Memorable Songs” features because this track about the lonely, forgotten river town of Cairo, Illinois, is one of the best songs of the year and should by no means be overlooked.

Jason Eady: “Barabbas”

From Jason Eady’s self-titled album
Purely from a songwriting standpoint, this has to be the cleverest thing to come out this year, telling us the story of the man freed by the crucifixion of Jesus, yet never mentioning Jesus or religion, and instead allowing the song to be a timeless track for everyone, although connecting even more deeply with those of faith.

Angaleena Presley: “Dreams Don’t Come True

From Wrangled
This just blew me away on the first listen; who’s going to tell you, especially at the beginning of their record, that look, dreams don’t come true, and don’t believe anyone who says otherwise? But it’s Angaleena Presley’s reality, and credit her for confronting it head-on to deliver us something so powerfully painful and honest.

Angaleena Presley: “Wrangled”

Also from Wrangled
Angaleena Presley has the distinction of being the only one on the list with two entries, but this song is equally deserving. From the wonderful melody to the thought-provoking lyrics about being “wrangled” by her life and husband, this song stands out just as much as “Dreams Don’t Come True.”

Brad Paisley: “Gold All Over the Ground”

From Love and War
What, a mainstream name like Brad Paisley? Yes, that’s what I said. This is Paisley’s musical adaptation of a poem composed by Johnny Cash in the 1960’s, and they don’t make love songs like this anymore. Between the poetry of Cash and the arrangement of Paisley, it has definitely earned its place among the best songs so far in 2017.

Colter Wall: “Kate McCannon

From Colter Wall’s self-titled album
There were many outstanding songs on Colter Wall’s debut record, I just picked the one that shined a tiny bit brighter than the rest.

Chris Stapleton: “Either Way”

From From a Room, Volume 1
I didn’t always think Chris Stapleton showed emotion on his new album–sometimes he just belted songs, and they lost a little of the passion. But this is one moment where he absolutely killed it, and this version might be better than the original LeeAnn Womack version.

The Steel Woods: “Straw in the Wind”

From Straw in the Wind
What a dark, ominous tale–this one comes from one of our collaborative reviews, and Brianna and I both agreed that this story of a town where strangers “disappear like straw in the wind” is a standout of the record.

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: “If we Were Vampires”

Yeah, here’s the one I didn’t review, but this is one of the best songs of Isbell’s career, and when I said they don’t make love songs like that anymore about Paisley’s, I guess Isbell proved me wrong. He mentions all the details he loves about his wife, and more than that, he makes you think of death as a gift because it allows you to be a better lover and make the moments last. What a beautiful and morbid picture of love; I’ve never been sad, happy, and scared while listening to a love song before, but that’s what Jason Isbell does here.

Kasey Chambers: “Jonestown

From Dragonfly
The standout of Chambers’ recent double album, this one deals with hardship and discrimination and tells a great story. Probably the most underrated and least known one on the list.

Trisha Yearwood: “Maggie’s Dream”

This one is from the Gentle Giants album, and like I said before when I mentioned this song, I don’t care that it’s a cover, it’s still one of the best songs of the year. Trisha Yearwood delivered a better rendition of an already great song, and she’s earned her place on this list.

Honorable Mentions

  • Jason Eady: “Black Jesus”
  • John Moreland: “Love is Not an Answer”
  • Lauren Alaina: “Same Day, Different Bottle”
  • Zac Brown Band: “All the Best”
  • Kelleigh Bannen: “Church clothes”
  • Rhiannon Giddens: “Better Get it Right the First Time”
  • Sam Outlaw: “Everyone’s Looking For Home”

Album Review: John Moreland–Big Bad Luv

Rating: 8/10

Yeah, it took me quite a long time, several listens, and a detour in between to discuss the music of Kody West and Colter Wall before I could accurately put into words how I feel about this album. And that’s due to the sheer talent of John Moreland, the fact that his lyrics are on quite another level and hard to digest, let alone put onto paper, and generally that I felt this album is very good and deserved better words, even if written later, rather than words which were forced out just after the release. It’s always good to see success and talent coming out of my home state, and Tulsa’s John Moreland definitely has the talent–and a portion of the success. But this record could, and should, be the one that brings him to a new level of success and prominence.

I’ll say first that this album isn’t really country, although you’ll hear some country touches, like the occasional steel in “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before)” or the lively harmonica in the opener, “Sallisaw Blue.” It’s not really Red Dirt or country rock either, like so much music coming out of this region. It’s closer to Americana, with lots of nice piano and acoustic guitar brightening up the record, and actually the Apple Music description sums it up well: “Heartland folk rock, warm and tough like weathered denim.” “Warm” is the perfect word to describe the melodies; Moreland’s past work has been largely dark/depressing, but there’s definitely a happier tone to this album, perhaps due to Moreland’s recent marriage and current state of mind. regardless, the melodies will stick with you, and it’s that detail which elevates this record from something on the more boring singer-songwriter side to something more relatable because those melodies will get stuck in your head, and you’ll find yourself coming back and listening. It’s an album that works its way into your heart slowly, a bit like Jason Eady’s latest record. And credit to John Moreland for giving equal attention to his melodies–many Americana/folk projects suffer from the same problem of considering melody secondary to lyrics, and thus, while maybe telling a great story, often lose that story in a forgettable melody.

And speaking of those lyrics…I already said they’re on another level, and I can’t really put into words even now the poetry of John Moreland. As I say, you come back to this album for the melodies, but the more you listen, the more new things you unravel in the words, and you start to find lyrics that could rival the genius of even Jason Isbell–yes, that’s what I said. I’ll say that “Love is Not an answer,” accompanied by some of that beautiful piano I mentioned, and the acoustic “NO Glory in Regret” stand out as fantastic pieces of songwriting, but you just have to hear them to fully appreciate them, and that’s why I struggle to put the music of Moreland to paper; my words can’t do it justice, and it loses something in trying.

So after all this praise, why am I giving this album an 8? Well, it goes back to relatability. With all that deep songwriting, sometimes it’s just not accessible/relatable. It’s still hard to rate this because some people are going to absolutely love this album and call it a genius piece of art. Other people are going to hear it and say, “It’s good, but I can’t get into it.” Still others are probably still going to see it as boring despite its charming melodies and instrumentation. This is one of those times that I can see all angles, and this 8 is the best I can come up with as both a fair critic and an honest music fan. I do think it’s an album that grows on you, and people that buy it and listen to it multiple times will get more from it than people who stream it once and say it’s not for them. It took me lots of listens to fully appreciate it, and it’s still getting better. And that, as I say, speaks to the talent of Moreland, that his work improves with time.

So, would I recommend this? If you like older rock or folk rock or Americana, absolutely. There’s a beauty in these melodies and lyrics that is special. I’m not sure your average person looking for strictly country gets into this quite as much, but this is still real and raw and rootsy, so it just depends on your musical tastes. As I say, it won’t relate to everyone because of the sheer complexity with which John Moreland writes his songs, but it’s an album worth checking out, and it keeps getting better each time you hear it.

Standout Tracks: “Love is Not an Answer,” “It Don’t Suit Me (Like Before),” “Sallisaw Blue,” “NO Glory in Regret,” “Amen, So Be It,” “lies I Chose to Believe”

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