Album and Song Reviews

Sunday: “Hard Times Come Again No More” cover by Mavis Staples

I’m going to try and start a regular series here, and post a different version of this blog’s namesake song each Sunday – Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More,” from 1854. To kick things off, here’s the legendary Mavis Staples.

Toby Keith debuted a new song on Stephen Colbert. And I hated it.

Toby Keith has one of the best voices in country music, and he used to use it to crank out some pretty great songs – remember “Should’ve Been A Cowboy,” “Who’s that Man,” and “My List”?

Those days are long past. Toby Keith is a musical wreck right now, and I’m not even talking about Trigger’s July article about the failures of his restaurants and label. Just WHAT was that train wreck on Colbert’s third Late Show last night? Don’t get me wrong – I used to love Toby Keith, and I want to again. Here’s to redemption, but it won’t come from this song, and probably not from next month’s new album.

The song was “Rum is the Reason,” and it’s the third we’ve heard from Keith’s upcoming album “35 MPH Town.” It’s beach country you would expect from Jimmy Buffett or Kenny Chesney, not Toby Keith – though Buffett will appear on a different track, so maybe this signals a new direction for Keith. That could be fine, but, the tune, which Keith wrote with Scotty Emerick, just doesn’t work.  I have no idea what it’s trying to say – it’s just a mess, it’s all over the place. On the one hand, we’ve got a laid-back beach song about enjoying booze like Davy Crockett or Pancho Villa, and the chorus says “I’m having fun.” But then it also lists Stalin and Hitler as problem drinkers, and the main line of the chorus is “Rum is the reason pirates never ruled the world.” So what the hell IS this song, and WHEN am I supposed to listen to it? Is this to relax on the beach and forget my worries, or is it a cautionary tale for those times I need to get something good done but would rather drink with Hitler? (Which, just so we’re clear, is never.)

Like I said, hot mess, all over the place, no sense whatsoever. 1.5 whiskey bottles out of five. Rum is the reason I’m going to forget this song even exists.

The album’s title track is also a mess, lamenting the decline of America’s small towns. In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing, and in some ways, the song hints of a return to the Keith of old, which I would welcome – a slower song about real life, showing off Keith’s voice and deep themes. But despite setting admirable goals, it utterly fails to achieve them.

As Trigger points out, it lists symptom after symptom, without hitting the causes. And I’ll add that it’s the same list of symptoms folks have been complaining about for decades – even though crime and teen pregnancy rates are actually DOWN. We all know something is wrong and we’re scared, but instead of really digging into it and figuring things out, we just turn to the old comfortable tropes. That’s easy to do, but it’s also counter-productive and ultimately quite divisive. And this song is simply a part of that. At least the feel is country; there are no complaints about that here.  1.5 whiskey bottles out of 5.

I may not review it, but I’ll give the full album a listen on Spotify when it comes out, if for one reason and one reason only – Brandy Clark, Shane McAnally, and Bob DiPiero wrote the first track and first single, “Drunk Americans.” All hail Brandy Clark. The song was the album’s first single, and it feels like a more laid-back version of Brad Paisley’s “Alcohol.” I give it three whiskey bottles out of five, and I could definitely listen to it again. It’s a feel-good drinking song about how we can all come together for a beer, no matter what our divisions. It’s relatively shallow; there’s no real social commentary, despite a picture of Boehner and Obama drinking together in the video. But sometimes simple thoughts like that are the most important thoughts, and really, the song is fun and harmless. Which is just the way I like my drinking songs – unlike, say, oh, I don’t know, “Rum is the Reason”.

I’d love to see some more combinations of Keith’s voice with Clark and McAnally’s songwriting talent. Keith himself used to be a good songwriter and he’s still a great singer, but seems to have lost his way. Maybe they can help him find it again – but that’ll probably have to be with NEXT October’s album, not this year’s. We’ll see.

The Steep Canyon Rangers head down that road again on “Radio” – an album review

Few bands mean as much to me, emotionally and personally, as the Steep Canyon Rangers, so I was excited when the band released their ninth studio album two weeks ago. “Radio” was produced by legendary dobro player and fellow-GRAMMY winner Jerry Douglas, who also plays on the album.

You need to buy this album, if for just this one reason: Graham Sharp’s “Down That Road Again” is one of the best new songs I have heard in a long time. In fact, if you don’t count Jason Isbell’s songwriting, it might be THE best new song I’ve heard in years.

The Steep Canyon RangersThe song, with Graham on lead vocals, feels like someone who is finally standing on firm ground but hasn’t forgotten the pain of the past and uses it to warn himself against an imminent fall. The climax of the chorus particularly resonates with me – “Right now I need the kind of friend / Who won’t let me go down that road again.” I have a few friends like that, and there’s almost nothing in this life that I am more grateful for than them. (Waves at Diana and everyone else.) I also like the line “There is a man who looks just like me… If you see him ’round won’t you stop and say It’s not too late.” It reminds me of one of my favorite Isbell tunes, “Live Oak.” We all have those hollow, moments when we feel driftless and unmoored from ourselves.

Empsall and Sharp

The author and Graham Sharp

The music on “Down That Road Again” is every bit as important as the lyrics. It opens with a slow, moving intro from Douglas on steel guitar and best-in-the-business Nicky Sanders on violin (and it really is more violin than fiddle here). But what really gets you is the tight harmonies on the chorus – the slide on “Right now” takes my breath away every time. Douglas certainly deserves producer props for that, as do engineers Julian Dreyer and Clay Miller at Echo Mountain Recording. While the Steeps’ albums have always been great, like most bluegrass bands, the harmonies just don’t come across nearly as well recorded as they do live. “Radio” starts to fix that, and not just on “Down That Road Again” – though this song in particular is one of those moments that really reminds us why music exists. I’m not afraid to say it: This song makes me cry. Thank you, Graham.

Radio is certainly a good album worth a spot in your rotation. That said, aside from “Down That Road Again” and another Sharp tune, “Wasted,” I think I actually prefer both 2012’s amazing GRAMMY-winner “Nobody Knows You” and 2013’s “Tell the Ones I Love.” But don’t get me wrong! This is a good album, and I’ve listened to it half a dozen times already. Other highlights include “Blow Me Away” (embedded below), “Long Summer,” and, if you’re looking for feel-good nostalgia, the title track.

As with the other two Rounder albums, there’s one upbeat instrumental track written by mandolin player Mike Guggino (“Looking Glass”) and 11 solid bluegrass songs – seven by Graham Sharp, three by bass player Charles Humphrey (including two with frequent songwriting partner Phil Barker of Town Mountain), and one from lead singer Woody Platt and his wife Shannon Whitworth. While Woody’s distinctive smooth voice remains lead on seven songs, Graham takes lead on four (in addition to prominent harmonies), which is more than the last two. Since Graham’s voice is deeper with a bit more edge to it than Woody’s, this makes the album’s sound slightly rougher than fans might be used to.

Woody Platt and the author

Woody Platt and the author

But on the uptempo side, the Platt/Whitworth song – “Break” – was a nice surprise, as Woody didn’t write anything on the last two albums, and it features Whitworth alongside him on vocals. That said, it’s always a little chilling, and intimate in an uncomfortable way, to hear a married couple sing about breakups (I’m looking at you, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis!). But, I suppose that speaks to the strength of the couple, doesn’t it?

There’s one other new thing about “Radio.” Percussionist Mike Ashworth has been touring with the Steeps for a couple of years, but this is the first time he’s recorded with them. While I’m often a purist, I’m perfectly okay with the drums here. The Steeps may have a more traditional sound than some of the other young bluegrass bands out there right now, but Ashworth’s drums, like Woody and Graham’s vocal styles, show that the band is willing to experiment in ways that push the format without breaking it.

4 whiskey bottles out of 5 for 2015’s “Radio.” Given the strength of the last two albums, I might go with 3.5 before 4.5, but I can’t wait to head back to DC and see the band again next month, and if this were a song review instead of an album review, “Down That Road Again” would get 6 whiskey bottles out of 5. You can buy the album on the Steeps’ website.

A new song from George Strait and Asleep at the Wheel! (Some from the Avetts, too)

GeorgeStraitandRayBensonGettyImagesOn March 3, Asleep at the Wheel will put out their fourth tribute to the legendary Bob Wills. That’s pretty good news in its own right, but it gets even better: The album features the first new music from George Strait since he retired from touring last year!

The album will also feature the Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, and more. With a hat tip to Texas Monthly, here’s the Strait/Benson collaboration on “South of the Border”:

And here they are doing “The Girl I Left Behind Me” with the Avett Brothers:

You’d Never Cry Again – An Album and Concert Review: John Fullbright

It’s been 97 days since John Fullbright’s last Washington, D.C., concert, and I’m finally sitting down to write this review. In fact, he’s back in D.C. tonight at the 9:30 Club opening for Shovels & Rope – and if you’re looking for something to do, I can’t recommend him enough. His album “Songs” is one of the best of the year and the concert was amazing, so late or not, no blog would be complete without this coverage.

John Fullbright at DC's Hill Country, 06/16/14

John Fullbright at DC’s Hill Country, 06-16-14

Bottom line: The June 16 concert, held in the Hill Country bbq market basement, was phenomenal. It was just Fullbright on piano and sometimes guitar, no band. Actually, I think the real word was “captivating.” He had the audience in the palm of his hand all night.

Fullbright’s two albums have very different feels from one another, so one thing that struck me was that the D.C. concert had the vibe of the older album rather than the one it was actually promoting. 2012’s “From the Ground Up” is Oklahoma country, whereas this year’s “Songs” feels more like a singer-songwriter project – and the Hill Country show was very much a country performance. I asked him about that after the show, and he gestured around the room and said, “I mean, look at the venue!” He had a point: There was a giant Texas flag made of denim behind the stage, dozens of framed Texas Monthly covers adorning the walls, and barsigns for Shiner and Lone Star. That means that Fullbright can tailor the same setlist to whatever the environment and audience calls for – a mark of a highly adept, perceptive, and intelligent performer.

Mike Seely wrote a review last week of a Sturgill Simpson concert, held in a small Washington State city park. Given Simpson’s meteoric rise this year, Seely called the show “Sturgill Simpson’s Last Small Stage.” You might be able to say something similar about Fullbright and Hill Country. He’s on tour with Shovels & Rope – hardly the same as the Zac Brown Band but still legit – and he’s racking up the awards and high-profile appearances, even appearing on Letterman last month. Saving Country Music said “Songs” is worthy of being mentioned alongside Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, proclaiming that “John Fullbright sets the standard by which all other songwriters will be measured by in 2014.” And Lynne Margolis of American Songwriter said wrote, “Neil Young was 24 when he released After the Gold Rush. Joni Mitchell recorded Blue at 27… John Fullbright’s Songs could take its place in that same pantheon of hallowed musical masterpieces.” (When I mentioned the AS review to him after the show, I believe his words were “Fuck that noise.” Gotta love a man able to shrug off the pressure and keep focused on the music and writing that matter most!)

My favorite song was the poignant “When You’re Here.” It’s a true masterpiece, but the song that’s probably gotten the most coverage so far is the first track, “Happy” (the one he sang on Letterman), which flips a lot of country songwriting on its head. Instead of dwelling on a breakup’s sadness and using it to fuel his craft in the stereotypical ways we Americana fans selfishly demand, he says he wants to end the fight with a lover instead of winning it, simply asking, “What’s so bad about happy?” Another one that makes me pause is “She Knows” – its list of things only his lover knows about him makes a fun juxtaposition with Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me,” especially since some of Fullbright’s other melodies remind me just a little of that Charles song.

There aren’t really any anthems here, and other than the whistling on “Happy,” nothing really sticks in your head for hours on end for musical rather than lyrical reasons. But that’s not the point. The lyrics are deep and poignant and make you freeze in place, even for friends who were hearing them for the first time in a live venue. This man really knows how to capture those emotions we all feel at rare but powerful moments in our lives, and pairs the lyrics with exactly the right melodies for them – which is precisely what music should do: Take my hand so we don’t get lost // I spent the coin I used to toss// And never knew what luck would cost// Until I bet it in the end // Never claimed to soar so high// That I forgot that I could fly // If you never knew what never was // You’d never cry again

I met him after the show, and we talked a bit about the state of Nashville today and our shared love for the songwriting of Bruce Robison. Fullbright’s tone was genuine and admiring when he spoke about the Texas country singer/songwriter: “Wow. If there was any justice in this world, that guy would be famous in his own right and a millionaire several times over!” Very true, and Robison is a great influence to have. If Fullbright keeps it up, he’ll find at least the same songwriting success Robison has found with three #1 hits, and hopefully also the on-stage success that we agreed Robison – and now Fullbright – deserves.

4.5 whiskey bottles out of 5 for 2014’s “Songs.” All I can really say is, buy this album, and if Fullbright comes to your town, you should go see him.

No, just, no (Or, WHY GOD WHY?!?!?!): An Album Review – George Strait’s Live Final Concert, “The Cowboy Rides Away”

I have never been as disappointed in an album as I am the live recording of George Strait’s final tour concert, “The Cowboy Rides Away.” Not because it’s a bad album, but because it should have been so much more. George Strait is the greatest recording artist I have ever heard, BAR F*ING NONE. The concert was amazing and both he and his fans deserve so much better than this travesty. I can’t believe I’m writing a bad album review for GEORGE FRIGGING STRAIT.

One word: G*D DAMNED AUTOTUNE. Okay, that’s two words. But listen, I’m in the process of becoming an ordained minister. I am not taking the Lord’s name in vain here – I’m simply literally asking the divine to DAMN THE MONSTROSITY THAT IS OVERUSED AUTOTUNE AND THE SIN THAT IS CALLING IT MUSIC. ENOUGH ALREADY.

Don’t get me wrong. From the clips I’ve watched, George Strait’s farewell concert was exactly what it needed to be, and we all know the legendary career. There is none greater in the history of country music and if you think Hank or Cash can beat it then just shut up because I’m a Texan and what I’m doing right now is called hero worship. I wish to high heaven I could have been in Dallas in June. But this God-awful album is chalk-full of autotune, and nothing else can shine through. You can hear it on most tracks, but especially on George’s voice on “The Cowboy Rides Away” and “I Can Still Make Cheyenne,” as well as Alan Jackson’s on “Murder On Music Row.” It even dominates the gorram fiddle on “Fool Hearted Memory.”

I can see how autotune would help the voices carry across a crowded arena of 104,000 screaming fans and I wish I’d been one of them – but recorded?

No, just, no.

There’s a reason Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line did not perform at the King’s last show. At least Jason Aldean pretended to be the old Jason, not the new Jason. This was a farewell salute to REAL country music. So what the hell was autotune doing so prominently on the album, even if it was necessary at the show? You can say it’s fine music, and you might not be wrong, but that don’t make it country.

This is not George Strait’s first foray into autotone. There were those couple lines in 2001’s “Stars on the Water“. But, that was one track on one album – I can’t blame anyone for experimentation. A mark of a true professional is trying, failing, recognizing it as failing, and moving on. And that’s what George Strait did, for 13 years – so I can only blame MCA for this bullshit.

King George’s next studio album – as he’s only retired from touring, not recording, and is already back at work in the studio – can’t come soon enough to wipe this bloodstain from our ears. In the meantime, just stick with 2003’s “For the Last Time: Live from the Astrodome“.

Two whiskey bottles out of five. The songs and singers are of course four or five bottles because it’s GEORGE STRAIT, but frick this should have been done better. This was clearly a fast turnaround by major-label execs who saw big dollar signs and wanted to make a quick buck – it has nothing to do with respecting fans paying homage to the best musical career in four decades. Money over music, everything Strait’s (admittedly poorly acted) movie strained against. No, just, no.

Ah, hell. At least it included the Martina McBride duet on the old Cash favorite, “Jackson.” That was a lot of fun when I saw the show in Philadelphia, so, that’s something.

One of country’s best voices, and two great new songs – An Album Review: Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis’ “Our Year”

Our YearLess than a year after their last album, “Cheater’s Game” (one of 2013’s best), Texas country husband/wife team Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis have put out a new one, “Our Year.” Their sound is certainly more traditional, and their lyrics deeper, than anything on the radio today.

I really like this album – and I loved seeing them in concert last week at Alexandria, VA,’s Birchmere (with Dale Watson as the opener, but I’ll review both concerts in a forthcoming post). I will say that I think I liked last year’s “Cheater’s Game” a little more. It feels a little like the duo came up with 23 amazing songs and picked the 13 best for an album, but then realized the remaining 10 were still strong enough for another project. Sometimes that doesn’t turn out too well – see Springsteen’s “Magic” followed by “Working on a Dream” – but in this case, it’s not a bad thing at all. If “Cheater’s Game”‘s larger shadow were to disappear, “Our Year” would stand very well on its own.

Overall, the voices are great, and it’s a solid balance between uptempo and melancholy. The only thing that holds it back is that it’s a little softer than “Cheater’s Game” – there’s nothing adventurous here. It’s comfortable, maybe even safe. But sometimes, that’s okay. Towards the end of last week’s show in Virginia, Robison told the crowd that they’d thrown a lot of new stuff at us that night which is always risky, but we’d seemed to take it well. Yes, Bruce, we did – and there’s no need to apologize at all. It’s new stuff, but it’s good stuff.

I’ll come back to the album in a moment. First, some context. Willis has one of the absolute best voices in country music and Robison is one of the better songwriters. He penned the #1 hits “Wrapped for George Strait (I’ll write a separate post later about that song’s origin story, it was great), “Travelin’ Soldier” for the Dixie Chicks, and  “Angry All the Time” for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill (I like Robison’s rendition better – he does sad well), as well as Strait’s #6 “Desperately.” As for Willis, she had a few songs chart in the early ’90s, though unfortunately none reached the top 40s. I’m personally most familiar with 1993’s #72 “Whatever Way the Wind Blows.” My mom had a now out-of-print compilation CD of Texas country that included that song and was also my introduction to Bob Wills. When I saw recently that Willis had sung it, I thought it was a cover, until I listened again – “No, this is it!!! How was that only #72, I thought it was a huge hit????” Nope, my mom just played that album a lot. And decades later, I’m still better off for it.

Back to the album. “Our Year” is relatively stripped down yet still well-produced. The smaller, rootsier instrumental feel, more than the relatively light tough of the steel guitars or fiddles, is what makes it Texas country. Willis’ music has lost the commercial sheen it used to have, making it even better than it already was, and Robison is very down to earth, as well as a smoother tenor than you usually hear in country.

It’s a mix of covers and new originals. The first track is “Departing Louisiana” by Robison’s sister Robyn Ludwick. Thematically, it reminds me of a slower version of Mac Davis’ “Texas in My Rear View Mirror.” It’s probably my third favorite track on the album, after two Robison originals. It leads into Walter Hyatt’s “Motor City Man,” a rock-influenced but fiddle-strong peppier salute to a better life that Willis does wonders with.

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, 06-06-14

Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis at the Birchmere in Alexandria, VA, 06-06-14

Track three, “Carousel,” is a Robison original about how hard relationships are, and it’s probably the best song on the album (though “Anywhere but Here” is a close runner-up). It’s got a great melody and uses the steel guitar very effectively for a sad feel. “There comes a time the music has to stop, it’s the end of the ride… But people love a carousel, and no one is to blame.” Even though Willis’ voice is the album’s real star, this showcases Robison’s quite well.

That leads to a Willis original, “Lonely for You.” This is a really interesting one to hear a husband and wife sing together – it’s a song about missing an ex. Several of the next-up songs are similar in that regard, too — but it sounds great and it’s well written. That leads to a lover’s duet, “A Hanging On,” that’s been covered many times, but sounds great here too. Next up, before he was a legendary producer, T-Bone Burnett wrote “Shake Yourself Loose” in 1986. There’s nothing new about this sound, but the couple trade verses and their voices are perfect.

You know the next one – a cover of Tom T. Hall’s classic “Harper Valley Pta.” In concert, Robison said this was one of those pairings where the song and the voice (Willis’) seem perfect for each other. Indeed, they’ve apparently been playing it in concert long before recording it, and he’s definitely not wrong. Her vocals are great here. But I’ll also say this – it’s disturbing how much this song, a social critique, feels like it could have been written in 2014, not 1968. It can seem like there’s as much sexism and hypocrisy today as ever.

“Anywhere But Here” is another Robison original and another of the album’s highlights. The melody here is great, and Robison sure writes good choruses. This is about the fading memories of yesterdays gone by and a present that’s only getting harder. “But now it’s only stars and shadows, and heaven’s just a dream // I thought that I knew trouble, but the devil laughed at me // Any life that was worth living, any moment without fear // It’s getting harder to remember anywhere… but here.”  It’s a great pairing of lyrics and melody. Since Nashville foolishly seems intent on seeing Robison as just a songwriter, I hope a star picks this song up and slows it down just a little. I could see it being a potential melancholy hit for a voice like Gary Allan’s.

The album closes with Don Reid’s “I’ll Go to My Grave Loving You” and the title track, “This Will Be Our Year,” by Chris White. The former is a nice uptempo tune to balance out the sadder “Anywhere,” and their voices blend together beautifully on the final, title track. Both are good covers, and a very fitting closer for a husband/wife duo who are riding success high and, as anyone in the audience can see, are clearly still in love.

3.5 whiskey bottles out of 5 for “Our Year”, but I’ll admit I might be letting “Cheater’s Game” – a 4.5 – influence me too much. Maybe “Our Year” actually deserves a 4. It really is a good album and I do recommend it.

There aren’t many good YouTube clips of “Our Year” material featuring both singers – so here’s a good duet one from “Cheater’s Game”, then a solo from “Our Year.”

Sugary edges, vintage husk, and misguided love: An album review – Nikki Lane’s “All or Nothin'”

Nikki Lane AlbumI can’t help but wonder, would calling Nikki Lane “outlaw country” have ever crossed NPR or Rolling Stone‘s minds if she didn’t wear vintage western country outfits or if the album’s first track didn’t include the lines, “I’ll knock on [Ol’ Willie’s] door and ask him for a toke // Just because, hell, we’re both outlaws”?

It “outlaw” refers to a mindset, then maybe Lane, a South Carolina native, is an outlaw – but if it refers to the general sound first made famous by the 1976 album of that name, then no. This is a good album, but it is not outlaw country. Perhaps a little closer to the mark is the similarly named Baron Lane over at Twang Nation, who described the album as “Gram Parsons playing in a saloon in a Quentin Tarantino flick.” I think Parsons was twangier than Nikki Lane, but the rest fits. It’s tough to label this album — the title track is even a little bluesy — but “indie roots rock with pedal steel” might be the best description. Perhaps all that comes together as “alt-country,” maybe with “country rock” a distant second? This is why we tend to just label anything even remotely rootsy and non-mainstream as “Americana” and just get on with it!

Labels aside, I do like this album. Lane has a wonderful voice – a high alto with an original mix of singer-songwriter husk and ’50s sugar. Her voice never has a weak moment, but it’s probably showcased best in the style of “Out of My Mind” and the range and speed of “Seein’ Double”. Unfortunately, producer Dan Auerbach (of the Black Keys) used vintage equipment to record the album, so she sounds kind of muffled and echoey the whole time. That could have been a neat effect in places, but used across the whole album, I think it detracts from the overall sound – but only a little. Lane’s voice still shines through. I also like the overall instrumentation balance. It’s the perfect amount of pedal steel (I do love me some pedal steel) and even a little fiddle for an album that wants to borrow from country without sounding like it’s trying to be something it’s not.

Nikki_Lane_in_Luck_TX_2014The album’s best feature, though, is Lane’s songwriting. She wrote or co-wrote all twelve tracks, and while none are truly breakout songs on their own, several come close. Closer “Want My Heart Back” has some great lyrics and piano riffs that really capture what it feels like to be post-breakup and ready, but still unable, to move on (the reviewer writes from experience). The first track, “Right Time,” does a great job of being mischievous and naughty without getting in-your-face or trite about it. So often those songs are just hackneyed, but Lane hits the right balance. Perhaps my favorite track on the alubm is the duet with Auerbach on “Love’s on Fire,” a song about a couple deeply in love and fighting like hell to keep from drifting apart while he’s on the road, a need she understands but laments. With Lane’s voice and the song’s melancholy context, the line “Won’t you sing me to sleep tonight?” preceding the chorus has a lot of power.

More important than any individual song, however, is the picture they all come together to paint as a whole. The album opens assertive, fast, and strong with the line, “Any day or night time, it’s always the right time // It’s always the right time to do the wrong thing.” That vibe escalates with track 8, “Sleep with a Stranger” – a song that’s pretty much what the title suggests. But don’t think this is just an album about a tough woman declaring her independence, using lovers as props. Some of the songs are practically pining for a lost love, while others either profess love or, like “You Can’t Talk to Me Like That,” describe the feeling of falling in love when one doesn’t want to: “You can’t talk to me like that // It makes me wanna be your baby // I know you want me but it’s such a drag // It’s just not in a girl to act like that.”

Put it all together, and what it sounds like is a woman trying to be strong and independent but who finds that identity betrayed by her own emotions and under attack from our society’s expectations of its women, and trying to find her righteous way among it all. I’ve got a lot of very-strong women friends, and given how f*d up our society can be, I have to imagine that many of them can identify with that position. Judge for yourself it that interpretation fits with Lane’s own description of the recording process:

“My songs always paint a pretty clear picture of what’s been going on in my life, so this is one moody record. There’s lots of talk of misbehaving and moving on… During the first round of recordings, I was in an awkward mood every night I left the studio. It was hard for me to trust that Dan was right when he said I should move a verse around or add an extra chorus. He pushed to find the right feel for each track one by one, and a few months later, I found myself with a damn good record.”

3.5 whiskey bottles out of 5, and I don’t blame anyone who gives it 4. I like it more every time I listen to it, and would bump the rating up a little if the vocal recording wasn’t so muffled/fuzzy. I don’t know if it will be heavy rotation for me, but if not, it’s only because I’ve been on more of a neo-traditional country kick lately than an alt-country kick, and that’s the kind of thing that changes every four or five months anyway.

I Bought the Wrong Album, and it’s T Bone’s fault – The Secret Sisters: “Put Your Needle Down” (2014) and “Secret Sisters” (2010)

mainI saw the Secret Sisters — Laura and Lydia Rogers — live at Washington, DC’s 9:30 Club in early May, opening for Nickel Creek. I wasn’t previously familiar with them, but I loved them. Their tight-knit harmonies were great, Laura had a great stage presence between songs, and the song-writing was strong. Small wonder, since the women are originally from Muscle Shoal, AL, but their band was good, too. Everything was forceful yet light, and you could understand the lyrics — it was a great show in every regard.

My friend — a woman, for whatever the diversity of our perspectives on this is worth — and I both thoroughly enjoyed the performance of “Rattle My Bones,” so at the merch table after the concert, I asked for whichever album that was on. Turns out that was “Put Your Needle Down,” out just three weeks before.

I think I bought the wrong album.Secret Sisters In an interview with Billboard, Lydia Rogers acknowledged that this album is different from their first one, and worried that they might lose people because the duo wrote most of the songs themselves this time. Actually, I think the songwriting is very strong, and I commend the two for it. The vocals are wonderful, too. The problem is that the legendary T-Bone Burnett, the executive producer for the first album, was the hands-on producer for this second album. I hate to say it, but it sounds like virtually every other recent T-Bone Burnett album. Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the vocals, repetitive guitar rhythms, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound.

I actually like Burnett’s sound. It’s perfect for new, broader audiences, so if you don’t know who he is, you might love this album. The problem is, while he’s still doing wonders for movie and TV soundtracks, when it comes to producing albums, it feels like he’s coasting. His is an approach that would elevate almost anyone on country radio but more or less homogenizes true Americana talent. If you’re going to homogenize, do it this way, absolutely – but why homogenize if you don’t have to?

Burnett was also the executive producer, but not the producer, for the Secret Sisters’ eponymous 2010 first album — and it felt like a Burnett album would feel if he let a Bakersfield sound dominate his own. I love it. More importantly, the hands-on producer for that earlier album was David Cobb, who was also behind Jason Isbell’s “Southeastern” (the best album of 2013), both of Sturgill Simpson’s amazing projects (the second-best albums of both 2013 and of 2014 so far), and a lot of work for Jamey Johnson and Shooter Jennings. Additionally, Country Hall of Fame pianist Pig Robbins and Waylon Jennings alum Robby Turner, both of whom joined Cobb on Sturgill’s debut album, played on the Sisters’ first album. Together, the three helped the Secret Sisters sound like a modernized, edgier, Patsy Cline if Patsy Cline were a soprano with a close-harmony backup. And while the sisters might claim they see that album as one of standards, their original “Tennessee Me” was absolutely great. Give that 2010 album even more confidence and turn its Bakersfield sound to alt-country, and that’s what I saw and loved last month in DC.

I wish 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down” gave me a similar feeling. But honestly, for a majority of the tracks, swap out their tight harmonies for a solo male voice and you’ve got actor Jeff Bridges’ eponymous, Burnett-produced 2011 album. Which I did like, just as I like this one — it’s just that neither are anything special. Again, the T Bone Burnett sound: Loud bass, some minor keys, slide notes held way too long, too much echo on the lead vocals, etc., all to produce a haunting, gloomy sound. Sometimes that really works, creating a great balance by swinging back and forth with a ’50s feel on “Good Luck, Good Night, Good Bye” — my favorite song after the driving “Rattle My Bones” I bought it for. Unfortunately, it comes on strong even when it’s not warranted, too. Nowhere is this more true than the second track, “Luka,” especially on the outro.

And that’s all Burnett, not the Sisters themselves. They’re good singers and good songwriters. Great songwriters, really – Bob Dylan even allowed them to finish a song he’d started 30 years ago but never finished, “Dirty Lie.” And take the self-defense, strong-woman murder story of “Luka,” or these lyrics from “Bad Habit,” co-written with Brandi Carlisle: “I’ve got a bad habit, one that I’ve been trying to keep… I can’t break this bad habit, ’cause this habit’s breakin’ me.” So I like this new album. I really do. The songwriting is tight and diverse and the harmonies even tighter, with that Everly Brothers comparison everyone made in 2010 especially shining through again on “Lonely Island.” But it feels like it could be just so much more, especially after seeing them live.

Three whiskey bottles out of five for 2014’s “Put Your Needle Down,” and up it four if you dig both alt-country and the 1950s yet despite those tastes have somehow never heard or tired of T. Bone Burnett.

Four out of five whiskey bottles for 2010’s debut, “Secret Sisters.” I really like the mix of their modern vocals with traditional instrumentation on that one. I hear a lot of Bakersfield here and I absolutely love it.

And albums aside, if they’re performing near you, I certainly recommend going. Buy your ticket now and have a great night. Burnett might be too focused on his other projects, but the Secret Sisters themselves are a great duo.

An album that truly deserves the 2,926-word review: Sturgill Simpson’s “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”

(If you must, you can skip to my actual rating and summary at the end of this post, but whatever you do, buy this album – buy it now. And remember, it’s independently produced, so you’re not giving your money to a rich fat label.)

Yesterday, two weeks after his second solo, independent album debuted at #11 on the Billboard country charts, a Rolling Stone Country headline asked, “Is Sturgill Simpson Country Music’s Savior?

I wouldn’t use the word savior. Country radio could use a savior, but there’s lots good in country music that doesn’t need saving. That said, I did write last week that what country needs is not a new George Strait but a new Willie Nelson, and that maybe Sturgill would fill that role. That is, someone who can unite the many roots subgenres, create a movement, and eventually push it into the mainstream.

Trigger over at Saving Country Music, who does call for a “savior,” throws some cool water on all that for now. He loves Simpson – his 2013 co-artist of the year – as much as I do, but cautions against the danger of high expectations:

In the long run, for an artist like Sturgill to reach the CMA level, a lot of specific watermarks must be reached, and it’s imperative on his fans, and Sturgill himself, not to set unrealistic expectations that can end up deflating the positive momentum he’s created… Sturgill Simpson is purely country. This means hypothetically that the sky is the limit, unlike with Americana. But the CMA, and especially the ACM are set up to promote the country music industry… Sturgill Simpson isn’t part of that industry.

L-rR Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the writer, Nathan Empsall, in November 2013.

L-R Drew Ball of the Riverbreaks, Sturgill Simpson, and the writer, Nathan Empsall, in November 2013.

Fair enough. All that said, in every interview Sturgill gives, he seems to be filled with humility and focused more on his own identity, mission, and family than on professional success. “I’m not pursuing a mainstream career,” he told Billboard, “so I feel that I have the freedom to make the kind of records I want to. That’s a good feeling.” To CMT: “I could go back to the railroad. I liked that job.” And to NPR, “To be cliché and incredibly trite about it, I wanna make art… There was a big part of me that wondered maybe if this would be the end of my career. But you can’t worry about those things… A commercial path isn’t something I’m at all interested in pursuing.” And pretty definitively to Rolling Stone:

A lot of journalists, it feels like they want to lure me into being the poster boy, and talk shit about modern country, and I just don’t have anything to really offer there. Because, fortunately, I’ve never pursued that side of the industry, which means I never had the opportunity to be screwed over or have any of these horror stories that you hear about. So for me to sit and talk about that stuff would be insulting to people who have, and extremely naïve… I don’t know where I fit in, but I do know that when I figure it out, it ain’t going to be because somebody else did it for me.

Ok, ok. Let’s give the man some respect, and turn to the music itself.

An Album Review: Metamodern Sounds in Country Music

This is not one of the greatest country albums of ALL time, but it is one of the greatest country albums in a long time.

Sturgill’s previous album, HighMetamodern Sounds in Country Music Top Mountain, had an outlaw sound and a big focus on heartache and life’s struggles. Metamodern is no repeat. It generally keeps a similar sound despite a new band, but the lyrical heartache is mostly replaced with… well, with just about everything else, from black coffee to Buddha and reptile aliens, all of it driving at a bigger point about using love and compassion to get through life.

Sturgill says the album’s biggest influences were 80% his past experiences but also “The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and an essay that Emerson wrote called Nature… and then another book by Dr. Rick Strassman called The Spirit Molecule.” Or as he told NPR, it’s his “hobbyist interests… [in] the disguise of a traditional modern country record.” The liner notes also thank Stephen Hawking, Aldous Huxley, and Carl Sagan, and I think that last one’s especially cool because my birthday gift to myself this year was Sagan’s original “Cosmos” on DVD.

And yet, it stays country the whole time, both in its sound – traditional country – and its message, one of love and finding your way in the world. Astrophysics aside, Sturgill, who’s expecting his first child, says the album’s main point is really just the saving power of love for one another – and it shows. “Anytime I ever have met someone that was very angry or full of negativity, nine times out of ten if you really take a good look at that person’s life, there’s probably not a whole lot of love going on there.” Damn straight.

Before going track by track, I will say this: With Metamodern, Sturgill Simpson manages to simultaneously experiment AND keep sight of his roots. Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Jerrod Niemann, and the stations that play them should take notes. Bro-country, EDM, and pop stars like Church defend their music by saying stuff like, “If we’re making the same music as Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Hank Williams, why not just listen to that? They didn’t do the music before them, they completely changed.” Well, no, the outlaws didn’t COMPLETELY change – they were experimental, yes, but they kept to their roots. The whole point was to remind Nashville of steel guitars, fiddles, and personal stories, and push back against the era’s poppy homogenization. The problem with the music Church and his crowd are creating is that they “experiment” by merging genres, completely losing sight of their roots.

Sturgill shows them all how country experimentation is done. Let’s take it track by track.

1. Turtles All The Way Down

Metamodern’s opening track has gotten a lot of attention, and for good reason. How many other country songs can you think of that are named for Hindu theology or a Stephen Hawking quote? “Turtles All the Way Down” has the most interesting blend of metaphysical, cosmic, and psychadelic lyrics you may ever hear in country music, with the bottom line that for all the fancy religious theories out there, simple love is the most powerful. The first words on the album are “I’ve seen Jesus play with flames in a lake of fire,” and soon after comes the now-famous line “There’s a gateway in our minds that leads somewhere out there far beyond this plane // where reptile alien made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain.”

But really, this song isn’t about cosmology, and it’s not about space aliens, either. That line is just a spacey way of talking about relief, about having our pain taken away. And what is that takes it away? “Marijuana, LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT, they all changed the way I see // But love’s the only thing that ever saved my life.”

I actually don’t appreciate the swipes Sturgill takes at faith. Yes, belief and religion have caused a lot of pain an destruction, there’s no doubt about that. But let’s not mix up Christ for the Christians – faith can also be the source of the very love Sturgill sings about and encourages us to seek. Like retired Episcopal Bishop Gene Robinson, known to most for being the gay bishop but he’s much more than that, says, “Show me the God you don’t believe in – I probably don’t believe in him either.” In fact, when no other person is around to love us, God’s love is still there. And that’s all I’ll say about that, because the underlying message of love is still spot-on.

2. Life of Sin, 3. Living the Dream

Track two, “Life of Sin,” pats us on the back for getting through Turtles. It’s much more what you’d expect from a stereotypical old country album, singing about how his songs come from a heartbreak and drinking himself silly. Next up is “Living the Dream,” the album’s first single. This one’s a bit more convuluted in its metaphysical meaning. I could pontificate but it would sound more like disagreement then reflection if I put it in writing – which is to say, I did put it in writing, but cut it in the editing. Better to just quote the NPR interview again: “I’m learning the less I talk about it, the more opportunity I leave for people to form their own interpretation. ”

4. Voices, 5. Long White Line

“Voices” might have the most poetic lyrics on the whole album. Sturgill writes about the voices pressing in on him, how they’re singing about society’s depression – “the rivers are crying but the oceans cannot speak.” He wishes they’d go away but they never will, and it’s not a sign of the end times because they’ve always been there. Yeah, this sounds like something an Appalachian man would know and should write. Next is “Long White Line,” which like Life of Sin after Turtles, pulls it back to traditional country themes, allowing us to towel off after such a deep dive – his girl’s gone, so he’s hitting the open road. The guitar’s rhythm is something right out of a Cash or Willie album, too.

6. The Promise

The album’s back half then begins with a cover of  When In Rome’s “The Promise” from 1988, which starts as the slowest love song of either of Sturgill’s albums, but opens up to a little bit of very effective and appropriate Waylon-esque wailing toward the end. The lyrics, some of the very few that aren’t original, are a beautiful promise to always be there, to be supportive. I don’t care for new wave music but in Sturgill’s style, I see that I love this song. I will offer a slight negative note about the instrumentation though – the mellotron is just a little too sappy. The lyrics really hold their own on this one with the way Sturgill sings them, no need to try and make it more romantic.

7. A Little Light

On “A Little Light,” Sturgill’s vocals are more reminiscent of Randy Travis’s Gospel stint or even George Jones than of the usual Waylon comparisons. It has the feel of a a Gospel song, but the lyrics are a bit broader than just Christianity. Sturgill sings about walking the road to Heaven, but says all you need to get there isn’t a compass or a map but a little light inside you. It’s about love and light within, and I dig it.

8. Just Let Go

I love the first line of “Just Let Go”: “Woke up today and decided to kill my ego // It ain’t ever done me no good no how.” And this line, oh this line: “You have to let go so the soul can fall.” It’s true, like pastor and author Rob Bell says, if your hands are too full of the good, there’s no room left for the great, you gotta set it down. And the uplifting melody and high notes really fit the words. I might have toned down the slide guitar though – oddly enough, it reminded me a little too much of the Finding Forrester soundtrack, which I dig, but in a very different way. That music is more searching, whereas the overarching feeling here is almost like taking a divine bath in God’s refreshing and hydrating light, feeling the relief and love it brings.

9. It Ain’t All Flowers

Then we get to “It Ain’t All Flowers,” and this is where I go, “What the F***?” Lyrically, like so much else, it’s great. It’s about searching the corners of one’s own mind to figure stuff out. Sturgill alternates between howling and almost growling. It works well. But then they play the song backwards, and it switches from dark, psychedelic country — but still country — to something more urban, almost funk with a spooky edge.

I don’t like it, because it’s not me. And that’s completely okay, because this one isn’t supposed to be me. It’s supposed to be Sturgill. If you want to respect a song about plumbing the depths of one’s own mind, then you have to let the writer go wherever that takes him or you’re a hypocrite. And like Sturgill told NPR, this one “stands to represent my own introspective journey I’ve taken over the last few years.” I also like part of his goal here – the means were cool regardless of the ends: “Dave [Cobb, producer and engineer] had the idea: Instead of bringing in synthesizers, why don’t we just attempt to try to recreate some of [popular modern electronica] sounds using analog equipment? Which sounded amazingly fun and challenging, so we were all for it.”

10. Panbowl

We close with the hidden “bonus” tenth track, “Panbowl.” For the third time, Sturgill tells us, “Wow, alright, took you down a pretty weird path there, didn’t I? Here, let’s have a rest together.” It’s acoustic country influenced by his previous bluegrass career. It’s also a more relaxing song, opening with happy guitar chords. The subject is nostalgia for his Kentucky childhood, and love for his family. That kind of specific love and the stories that back it up are a natural conclusion to the rest of the album’s lyrics, and the acoustic sound helps balance things out. It really is the perfect end to the album.

No matter how weird this album gets, and even without a fiddle, it’s still a country album. This is an album with slide guitars about life, and what else is true country music ever about, really? Whether it’s complex, twisted, and psychological or just simple and emotional, laying your soul bare is still laying your soul bare. Pain is pain and the need for love is the same, no matter how it was we came to see it.

And this is why I say that Sturgill might, just might, be our next Willie Nelson. Metamodern’s foundational sound is what traditional and outlaw country fans look for. It’s experimental and electric enough that Americana and alt-country fans can dig it. Throw in just a few more lighter notes or acoustic sound on even just one track, and you may not appeal to the Lumineers’ indie folk crowd but it won’t keep them away anymore, either. We’ll see what fans do with Sturgill’s stuff over the next few years, but he certainly has the right kind of appeal to be the Willie-esque uniter that roots music needs to punch back against hick-hop.

I’d worry that saying stuff like that puts too much pressure on Sturgill from fans, except for two reasons. First, his last album said, “Life ain’t fair and the world is mean.” Second, maybe he’s not our Willie Nelson. Maybe he’s our Jackie Robinson – like Branch Rickey saw in Robinson, you’re not necessarily the best at the game, but you’re the best at taking the pressure. Like Sturgill told Billboard, “If it’s all good and it’s smoke being blown up your ass, and you start investing faith in it all, that’s a good way for you to set yourself up for a long hard fall. We’re just trying to keep moving forward.”

The Takeaway

4.5 whiskey bottles out of 5. I actually originally gave it five out of five for the first 8 hours this post was up, and should probably just leave it there, but something is holding me back. Objectively, this is a much better record than High Top Mountain, which I gave a 5. It’s absolutely a work of creative genius. And like I say, except for “It Ain’t All Flowers” (which I still respect), I love the sound. Sturgill hits the perfect spot of balancing experimentation with his roots. It’s also a big break from the subject material of his first album, showing great range and talent. Making this took a lot of bravery.

But personally, I prefer HTM, just out of personal taste, and feel like my ratings should reflect that. I also feel like something is dampening the sound. Trigger at Saving Country Music said it’s the recording hiss. Maybe. I think it also needs just a little more acoustic instrumentation, maybe some light fiddle, to open up the sound a bit – perhaps in place of the mellotron on The Promise. Not much, just a touch.

Finally, it’s exhausting. The tricks, the nuances, the metaphysics – it really makes you pause and think. You just can’t be neutral about this stuff. In fact, it reminds me a teeny bit of the debut of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Today the Fifth is seen as an innovative masterpiece, but at the time, there was so much new in it that Beethoven’s audience was just confused. I dig this album, and its message of love is spot-on, but it wipes me out – as any country exploration of the soul should.

So yeah, 4.5, maybe even all 5, whiskey bottles out of 5, but also with the hangover that that much whiskey brings.

Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, like Sturgill’s previous record, was recorded in Nashville and produced by Dave Cobb. Except for Cobb, though, the band is all new: Laur Joamets on guitar, Kevin Black on bass, Miles Miller on percussion & backing vocals, Mike Webb on keyboards & mellotron, and Cobb on classical guitar & percussion.