Tag Archives: mainstream country

Album Review: Midland–On the Rocks

Rating: 7/10

Look, Midland are full of shit. I know it, you know it, and Midland sure as hell know it, and they should drop the bullshit about how they’re this bar band from Texas. But they aren’t going to, and we can either spend time hung up on that, or actually focus on the music. I can understand the criticisms, but look, there are a lot of artists I don’t like or respect personally that make fine music. You wonder why I don’t have a picture accompanying this review? Well, think about this: I don’t look at the outfits. Yes, I’ve seen the stories, but it’s easier for me to assess the music on its own merit. Many of you, and understandably so, judge a lot about an album or artist simply by the cover, something I didn’t honestly take into fair account until the John Moreland record. At that point, I saw as many comments on the cover as on the album. I see remarks all the time on the image of the artist, usually derogatory ones on mainstream artists peppered all over SCM threads, just to be blunt. Anyway, at that time, after I became curious at the scrutiny the Moreland cover had received, we started adding captions here for many of our covers, to give blind readers that advantage of being able to discern things from the cover art. Indeed, sometimes these captions have given me insight into my reviews. When you see the Steel Woods cover with a farmer biting into an apple staring into a hurricane and then hear “The Secret,” it’s all the more intense. Liz Rose’s cover adds more to that album too. But here, with Midland, I want you all to take your focus off that for a moment and just think about the quality of the music. I know this is ridiculous, and that you’ve seen plenty of pictures of them and their cover from other outlets, but try to understand the point I’m making here.

So we put this record on, all extraneous bullshit stripped away, and I’ll be damned, it’s traditional. Maybe not the second coming of Haggard, but I’d say 90’s country. NO electronic drumbeats, plenty of steel and fiddle, yeah, you know, those things we used to take for granted in country music. And this came out of Big Machine. I didn’t know it was possible in 2017. I didn’t know there were still people left in Nashville who could play actual instruments for an entire thirteen-song album. And you want to talk about songwriting by committee? Yeah, I’m not a fan of that either, but isn’t it refreshing to see people like Shane McAnally actually lending their names and talents to something resembling country music? You know, the guy that put Sam Hunt on the map?

And that’s not to say this album is going to be the best thing I’ve heard all year, not by any stretch. The best word for it is consistent. It’s solid all the way through, and it took a few listens to sink in. At first, it was pretty unremarkable to me. A couple listens in, this would have probably gotten a 6 from me. There are a couple life-on-the-road songs here like “Electric Rodeo” and especially “Check Cashin’ Country” that just seem fake–no, not because Midland haven’t traveled all over Texas, just because they’re a young band, and they don’t have the experience anyway. These songs just seem clichéd, and actually, that’s the biggest problem with this whole record. The songwriting by committee thing is most evident in this respect because you don’t get personal details from Midland; it’s great that the style is traditional country, but much like Alex Williams’ latest, this often feels like an interpretation of style instead of anything resembling personal expression. It’s a debut, and just as with Alex, I think we can forgive that for Midland. It’s the clichés that held this back for me at first, but equally, the songs are better as a whole than those on the Williams album, so it’s a 7, but a hesitant 7.

I said the songs are better, and it’s true–this album just won me over after awhile. It’s hard to hear “Make a Little” and not smile, both at the country instrumentation and the catchy melody. There’s “More Than a Fever,” which reminds me of something George Strait might have recorded later in his career. There’s “Somewhere on the Wind,” which manages to pull off the road-weariness thing pretty well. Clever details and hooks in songs like “At Least You Cried” and “Out of Sight” elevate these tracks as well. As I say, it’s not groundbreaking material, and there’s not a whole lot I can write about it, but it’s very solid.

I wish Midland had never lied about their background because a lot of people, myself included, would have never given a shit where they came from. But you know what? In a way, I get it too because from the shit storm I’ve seen on Twitter this week, I daresay there are some narrow-minded people who would have never given this band a chance even if they had been honest. It’s that narrow-mindedness that I hate in the independent/Americana/Texas scenes. And if you deny its existence, I present Sam Outlaw, his name and his previous occupation in advertising, as Exhibit A. How many people don’t give him a chance because of either or both of these things? It’s no excuse for Midland’s lies, and I think that’s done more harm than good, but in a way, I understand it. I’m sorry they didn’t let the music speak for itself, but we as music listeners can do just that, and that is how I for one choose to approach Midland. And if you do give this a chance, you’ll find some pretty good country music.

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Album Review: Alex Williams–Better Than Myself

Rating: 7/10

Why are we surprised that Alex Williams got to release this album on Big Machine? Because it’s traditional country? Because he’s virtually unknown? Because Scott Borchetta’s label is also home to Florida Georgia Line and Thomas Rhett?

Well, we shouldn’t be all that surprised. Thrilled, maybe, but not surprised. Scott Borchetta may be a lot of things, but stupid is not one of them. He signed Taylor Swift, an online sensation, with the hope that he could market to teenage girls in country, and you can’t argue with the results even if your opinion of Swift isn’t great. He signed FGL when it became clear bro country would take off. He molded Thomas Rhett to take advantage of the R&B craze taking over the country airwaves. When it became apparent that people were having second thoughts and misgivings about bro country, he signed Maddie & Tae and helped them get a #1 protest song. He signed Midland to take advantage of the cry for more traditional acts, and now he’s done arguably the most predictable, Scott Borchetta-like thing he could do in response to the growth of Americana: sign someone completely unknown with an image to match. He’s not going to go so far as to approach someone like say, Cody Jinks, though–for one, Jinks would never agree, and secondly, that would make too much sense. NO, he’s gone with the completely unknown, out of left field Alex Williams, and then when people won’t listen to Alex because they’re trying to make some sort of hipster statement and boycott the mainstream, it’s going to look like bro country, R&B, and whatever Sam Hunt is doing are truly still the best and most popular options.

So don’t buy into that plan and avoid Alex Williams just because he’s on Big Machine. Give the music a fair shake because if we all turn our backs on principle, he and others like him won’t be given a chance to succeed, and they’ll keep churning out more Thomas Rhetts.

Does that mean this Alex Williams debut is a groundbreaking piece of pure country excellence? No, not by a long stretch, but it’s got a lot of potential, and let’s remember, it’s a debut record. So with all that said, I’d like to talk about Alex Williams and his music now as opposed to the label on the back of this album.

I mentioned potential, and this record is brimming with it. Alex Williams definitely has a great, throwback country sound and style that also adds more contemporary elements. He’s got a great voice to match, and you’ll truly find country all over this record. He sounds sincere, and it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to be anything other than himself.

Unfortunately, Better Than Myself is sort of an ironic title because unlike the assertion on the title track that his songs are better than himself, the songs are not necessarily as good as Alex here. Taken on their own, they’re actually all quite good or at least decent, but they start to run together in a similar fashion to Sara Evans’ latest album because the material is too similar. There’s a lot of drinking and getting stoned on this album, and sometimes it’s like he’s just writing about drinking and such for the sake of it. In other words, it feels more like an interpretation of style, or in this case subject matter, rather than honest reflection by Williams himself. It’s difficult to say because he truly does always sound sincere and engaged, but I think it’s a fault of the fact that this is his debut record, and he’s playing it a little safe. As I say, the songs are mostly fine on their own, but Alex Williams needs to balance them with a little more depth.

But we all used to be more forgiving of artists’ debut efforts, and Alex Williams shouldn’t be an exception. It’s hard not to hear a song like “Few short Miles,” a personal track about Bobby, a mentor of Williams who died of cancer, and not want to root for this guy. This is easily the strongest track here, and you can see that if he’s given a chance, Alex could develop into a really bright spot in the mainstream. And a lot of the drinking songs are fine on their own, the record just needs some variety and perhaps a little more personality. You hear cool lyrics sprinkled throughout the record, like in “Strange Days” and “Old Tattoo.” “Last Cross” is also a fine song, closing the album with some reflection about the hard living mentioned here as he prepares to meet a lover at “the last cross left to bear.”

Ultimately, this record’s not going to change your life or anything, and it’s definitely got some tired and even cliché themes, but it’s also quite a promising debut from Alex Williams. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and I enjoy that. The material is too similar, and there’s not quite enough Alex pouring out of it, but the lighthearted attitude with which this album is delivered is actually really refreshing to me. It may also help that it’s a fun, uncomplicated album that I listened to in the midst of all the turmoil going on in our world right now. I wasn’t really looking for depth when i heard this, so I probably heard it at the right time, and that may admittedly account for why I seem to be enjoying this a little more than some others talking about this album.

I don’t know if we’d all be talking about it if it hadn’t come from Big Machine, though, and that’s both a good and a bad thing. It’s good for the obvious reason that it’s pretty incredible to see an album like this get released on a major label, even premiered on NPR and such, but it’s bad because too many people are prejudging it. It’s not going to blow you away, but this is a guy we should all be able to get behind. There’s a lot of room for development, but these days, an artist doesn’t always get that time to develop, and I fear that this will be largely ignored due to people’s refusal to listen to it. Recognize this for what it is, a positive step for the mainstream.

I hope Alex Williams gets to record more albums, and that next time, I won’t be giving him such a mixed review. I hope he can develop his sound and become one of the shining lights in mainstream country, and I’m sorry he doesn’t quite do that with this record. But it’s his debut, and we all have to start somewhere. The flaws are right up front on this album, but the potential is too, and it’s up to us to make sure he gets enough time to truly live up to that potential. Not the album that’s going to “save” country music, but it’s a decent, fun record. Give it a chance.

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Album Review: Eli Young Band–Fingerprints

Rating: 6/10

So, walking a line between being a reviewer/critic and being a fan is not easy, and it’s something I’ve always tried to balance. I’ve always tried to separate my favorite stuff from stuff that might be the “technical” best, but I’ve also never been afraid to admit being a fan of something or of a particular artist. At the end of the day, I am both, and there are times that call for both–when I reviewed John Moreland, I had to be a critic and acknowledge the greatness in the songwriting even if it might not be relatable to everyone, and when I reviewed the latest Zac Brown Band album, I wrote as a fan who had mixed feelings about their return to their roots. With the Eli Young Band, I think it is right to write as an unashamed Eli Young Band fan, a fan who did like their early Texas sound better but was admittedly happy with them right up until the God-awful Turn it On EP. I was just hoping they’d get back to themselves with this release and stop chasing trends–and they said openly that they went into this record responding to songs that fans resonated with the most, so credit to them for that. So now, as a fan, did this album resonate with me and take the band back to their sound that I grew to love?

Well, it did in places. IN fact, overall, I think the Eli Young Band went in completely the right direction with this, and it’s probably that benefit of the doubt that makes this a 6 rather than a 5 because honestly, of these eleven tracks, I enjoy five of them and could do without six. But there’s nothing inherently awful in the other six, it’s just that they’re bland and mediocre, and Eli Young Band is capable of releasing better. It’s the strength in the promising half that outshines the mediocrity in the rest, and that’s what I want to focus on.

So, the album starts out strong with “Saltwater Gospel” and “Fingerprints.” Admittedly, I was not a “Saltwater Gospel” apologist when I first heard it, but I’ll freely acknowledge I was wrong; the message here is more clever than I gave it credit for, pointing out that you can be close to God on the beach or out in nature without going to church. I really have no idea why I objected to this before because this is pretty much my entire philosophy on the subject, but I’m here for it now. “Fingerprints” is a sex song, more specifically a sex song between two people in a troubled relationship or perhaps exes, that can’t let go; it’s the writing and more so the production in this that make it stand out. There’s something intense about the production that just adds to this and makes it really interesting. And then, well, basically there’s almost nothing noteworthy for eight tracks. I make no exaggeration here when I say that the first time I listened to this album, it was late at night, and I nearly fell asleep here–and the only reason I didn’t was the wonderful “Skin and Bones” breaking up the boredom here. This is a very nice love song; the woman is literally a part of him, “she’s in my skin and bones.” There’s some very nuanced and thoughtful writing in this as well; it’s impressive. I can’t stress enough that when these songs are good, they’re pretty awesome. So anyway, then it’s back to bland and sleepy for awhile until we get to the last two, “God Love the Rain” and “The Days I Feel Alone.” The former is another sex song, this time of the tender variety, detailing a night spent waiting out a storm. The chorus here cleverly uses “she” to talk about both the woman and the rain to say things like “she’ll heal your heart, feed your soul, cover you, and make you grow, bring you back to life, and wash away the pain. God love the rain.” Carolyn Dawn Johnson is featured here–yes, I didn’t know she was still around either, what a cool thing to discover–and she adds something special to it. Normally, I prefer duets to feature both artists more–well, to be fair, this is not credited as a duet–but the gentle harmony she brings to this track says more than giving her a verse. “The Days I Feel Alone” deals with life on the road and the pressures of the distance in relationships; this one is another highlight and is said to be a personal one for Mike Eli. I do probably have some bias toward this because I can relate to a good chunk of it, but it’s one I enjoyed.

Now, let’s talk about all those sleepy tracks for a moment. I said I gave this a 6 because there’s nothing downright awful there, just bland. “Old Songs” was going for a nice, nostalgic feel, and “Never Again” was going for another “Fingerprints,” but it ended up being a more pop-infused and less interestingly written version. “Once” was going for a nice theme too, saying that a man can only make some mistakes one time before he loses the woman. There are glimpses of potential even on these bland tracks, and while I still stand by my earlier comment that the Eli Young Band is capable of much better–indeed, there’s much better on this record–they’re certainly headed in the right direction.

This record is both a disappointment and a relief to me as an Eli Young Band fan. It’s disappointing because it’s not a triumphant return to their early days, and in that respect, it reminds me 100% of ZBB’s album. However, it’s a relief because the Eli Young Band strayed arguably much farther off their path than ZBB, and I’ll just be brutally honest here and say I had little hope of them returning. So it’s nice to see some good, and even great songs here, and it’s cool to see them listening to their fans and trying to go back to something with more substance. I won’t lie and say they succeeded throughout the record, but this is significant progress for the Eli Young Band, and there are some standout moments here too that have me hopeful for their future.

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Album Review: Brad Paisley Gets Back to Himself on Love and War

Rating: 7.5/10

I won’t waste your time with a lot of introduction to this because you all know Brad Paisley, and most likely you’ve already formed an opinion. I’ve heard a lot of different takes on this album, but the one that sums it up the best is whatever your previous opinion of Brad was, this record’s not going to change it. So if you think he’s just that guy who did “Whiskey Lullaby” and maybe some other great songs early in his career and then killed his legacy with joke songs, I suggest you stop reading this review. If you’re like me, and you think he is one of the mainstream’s best, and maybe you were disappointed in the direction he went after This is Country Music, I’m happy to say what we get on Love and War is mostly a nice return to form for Brad Paisley.

There are sixteen songs on this album, and the main problem is not necessarily terrible songs, it’s just that there is too much filler–Josh of Country Perspective would have called it “wallpaper.” The unfortunate thing about it is that most of the wallpaper comes on the front half, and for that reason, as well as the fact that there’s just so much here, I’ll get to the highlights first.

Without a doubt, the shining moment on Love and War is “Gold All Over the Ground,” a poem written by Johnny Cash in the 1960’s that Brad Paisley lovingly set to music and performed excellently. My words can’t do justice to the poetry of Johnny Cash, and this one is the one you should make it a point to hear. It flows effortlessly into “Dying to See Her,” another great love song featuring Bill Anderson and telling the story of a man who has been going downhill since his wife died; the doctors can’t figure out why, but he is literally “dying to see her.” Together, these two songs make an outstanding moment on the record. These two are sandwiched between two collaborations with yes, Timbaland–I said it on Twitter, but I’ll say it again, if you have a problem listening to Paisley’s record because of Timbaland, this is unfortunate and, frankly, stupid. “Grey Goose Chase,” in fact, is one of the best songs; it’s fun and slightly bluegrass-inspired and sees the narrator going on the “grey goose chase” to drink away an ex. The other Timbaland contribution, “Solar Power Girl,” isn’t as strong, but that’s not due to Timbaland, it’s due to the lyrics. It’s about a girl who is escaping a bad home life which is compared to darkness and rain for college and a new, bright world where she can be a “solar power girl.” This one isn’t a highlight, but it’s not bad, and either way, Timbaland being a part of this album in no way brings it down…but I digress.

The title track is another strong collaboration, this time with John Fogerty, about our soldiers and how little the country does for them when they return home. It’s something that needs to be addressed, and too often in country, it’s simply patriotic songs and odes to fallen troops. This is a reality that shouldn’t be overlooked. There’s also a collaboration with Mick Jagger, the fun, upbeat “Drive of Shame” that details the embarrassing morning after a night in Vegas.

Speaking of fun songs, Brad Paisley is certainly known for them, for better or worse, and I have to say, “Selfie#theinternetisforever” is definitely better. I am biased because I have serious issues with social media and the people glued to their phones and taking selfies of everything, but this song is just great. Another humorous moment that works is “One Beer Can,” where Brad tells the hapless story of Bobby, who cleaned up everything after a party while his parents were away–but still got grounded because he left one beer can behind the couch.

Now, as I mentioned, there’s some wallpaper/filler and some songs that could have just been left off without effect. “Heaven South” is not the worst album opener of 2017, but it’s definitely the most unfortunate–it’s checklist-ish and boring even if it’s harmless and inoffensive. I’m still not getting onboard with “Today,” the lead single–honestly, it’s just too underdeveloped and too sappy. It’s very generic and yeah, it’s not bad, but on a sixteen-song album I could do without it. Brad attempts to be sexy in “Go to Bed early” and, to a lesser extent, in “Contact High,” and for me, that just fails, so neither of these songs do anything for me. I will say “Contact High” does feature some very nice guitar play by Paisley, as does a lot of this record, which was somewhat lacking on his last couple albums, so that’s another nice return to himself. The biggest problem is that every song I just mentioned is on the front half of the album, so it is just a little unfortunate.

There’s one track on the back half that admittedly I just hate, and I can’t be completely unbiased about it. This is “The Devil is Alive and Well.” Now, for any of you who read Country Music Minds, you all know Leon does what he would call “philosophical rambling” on quite a frequent basis, and he is a lot better at it than I am. Anyway, he summed up nicely why I hate it in his review of this, and if you want a more concise, eloquent explanation, I suggest you read that. but basically, the song mentions all the evil in the world and the chorus states that whether or not we believe in heaven and hell, “I bet we can agree that the devil is alive and well.” The message itself is good, but it isn’t executed well; it explains the evil, and later says that “god is love” but doesn’t really do much to talk about God doing his part to combat evil. I don’t want to ramble on about this because it’s a completely personal reason and difference of philosophy that makes me hate this song, but honesty comes first here at Country exclusive, and that was my immediate reaction to the song and remains my opinion after several listens.

Overall, I’m glad to see that Brad Paisley is back to being Brad Paisley. Take that as you will; this record won’t change your mind about him, but if you were hesitant to buy this because his last two records were somewhat disappointing, rest assured that he’s back to doing what he does best which is just being himself. And if you were hesitant to buy this because of Timbaland, just stop.

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Single Review: Runaway June’s “Wild West”

Rating: 9/10

For those who haven’t yet met Runaway June, I invite and encourage you to check out their debut single “Lipstick,” which unfortunately didn’t perform well on the airplay charts but could have probably been a breakout hit for them a few years ago. Now the group, composed of Naomi Cooke, Jennifer Wayne, and Hannah Mulholland, are back with their second single, “Wild West,” and once again, they are bringing something different and promising to the mainstream.

“Wild West” is a nice love song where the woman invites her lover to “steal my heart like Jesse James” and, in a self-described tip of the hat to Jennifer’s grandfather, “come in guns blazing just like old John Wayne.” It’s the type of song a lot of people will be able to relate to, with a nice western theme that so many enjoy. Still, there’s some deceivingly deep imagery and metaphors in the lyrics too; “keep me by your side all night, hold me tight like a pearl-handle .45, and just let me be the whiskey on your breath, love me like the wild, wild, wild West.” There’s something understated in these lyrics that really brings out the romance in this song in a way that a lot of modern mainstream songs can’t get right–it’s either lost in a ridiculous barrage of pickup lines (any bro country anthem you want to insert), or encapsulated in some sort of needy, clingy, creepy sentiment (Brett Young, “Sleep Without You.”) There’s a subtlety in this that says more than the directness in many of today’s songs, yet it’s still quite relatable and somewhat radio friendly-ish.

The (friendly-ish” is not just because of “Lipstick’s” failure and the fact that Runaway June consists of three females, but also because of the instrumentation. For those of you who don’t know, and have been introduced to country by “Body Like a Back Road,” those things you’re hearing–that’s a fiddle, and that’s a steel guitar. This is still modern-sounding and in say, 2005, even 2009, it might have done really well on radio. Hopefully it can manage to somehow do that in 2017, or at least sell well enough to get their album released. I am really excited about this group, and a debut album from them cannot come soon enough. For now, go listen to “Wild West.”

Written By: Jennifer Wayne, Justin Lantz, Billy Montana

Note: at the time I wrote this, this was on Apple Music but not Spotify, it may be changed now.