Eric Church Turns in Imperfect but Listenable LP

Put simply, Desperate Man gives something to enjoy on every track, and yet leaves much to be desired just as often.

     Eric Church is a country/americana artist from Nashville, TN. He debuted in the late 2000’s with two modestly successful releases on Capitol Records before signing with EMI and dropping 2011’s Chief. The album rode the success of its lead single, “Drink In My Hand,” and went triple platinum, establishing Church as a major player in Nashville’s radio country scene. He followed up with two more LP’s in 2014 and 2015, each of which went platinum and rode singles like “Springsteen,” “Give Me Back My Hometown,” and most recently, “Record Year.”

   Church, especially the version of him presented by EMI, is known for a certain outlaw flare, a more traditional country twang in his vocal, and heavily rock inspired instrumentation. While he is, by no means, a member of the growing outsider movement in country music, he is certainly a more radio friendly form of what people like Stapleton, Isbell, and Simpson are doing. He has tended to position himself against the grain in a few safe ways, but for the most part he is one of the higher quality members of the modern Nashville stable. His recent comment in criticism of the NRA, inspired by his being present at the deadly massacre in Las Vegas in 2017, was easily the most controversy he’s faced in the industry thus far, and they left me curious as to what we’d hear from him next. Well, Desperate Man is here, and it is a mixed bag in just about every way imaginable. We’ll start with the good.

   Church’s vocals on this album are very good. His twang fits very well in most of these tracks and he walks the line between county and blues in an interesting way. Tracks like “Higher Wire,,” and the closer, “Drowning Man,” benefit from this quite a bit and his upper register is surprisingly well executed.

   The instrumentation is also excellent here, perhaps the record’s best quality. The acoustic guitar on “Some Of It,” and the extremely creative opening to “Heart Like a Wheel,” stand out as a few especially exciting moments, and the title track even features a latin percussion section, but Drowning Man is really adorned with excellent instrumental work throughout.

   Eric Church’s ability to write earworm hooks is also here in spades, as it has been on previous projects. The chorus for “Jukebox and a Bar,” is perfectly hummable and the prechorus to the album’s best track, “Hangin’ Around,” is absolutely one of the best hooks of the year. Additionally, “Hippie Radio,” has a fun way of incorporating classic rock phrases into its chorus and will leave you singing along for days to come.

   Even the lyricism is well done here, mainly coming from the mind of Church himself as well as a few friends and collaborators. “The Snake,” for example, opens the record with an enigmatic story over the atmospheric, blue guitar and “Monsters,” is genuinely interesting, playing with the ideas of “killing a monster,” by turning on the light or checking under the bed. These are very nice touches which aren’t expected on a mainstream country album these days.

   For all of these reasons, Desperate Man can hardly be called unenjoyable. However, there are a few deep seeded issues which run through the heart of this album, many of them owing to unfinished ideas.

   There are some horrendous production decisions, most notably the vocal effect on “Solid,” which butchers an otherwise fun cut. The worst offensive, though, is this albums constant tendency to open tracks with the seeds for sprawling, interesting instrumentals before cutting them short in favor of traditional, 16 bar structure. “The Snake,” opens with a long, contemplative guitar riff before being tossed into a rhythmic cage for the song’s duration, “Heart Like A Wheel” features a unique, minor progression which resolves to a more traditional key before Church starts singing, and this happens far more than it should across the entire rest of this project. Plenty of modern country artists, Sturgill Simpson being perhaps the best known, toy with creative and even orchestral introductions, but when this is done, it needs to be further developed throughout the song. Instead, Church teases with a fun idea and expects credit for four bars of it.

   Eric Church isn’t the best artist in country today by any means, but he’s certainly one of the better voices receiving mainstream radio play. On top this, he’s still showing clear signs of growth, now seven releases into his career. Desperate Man is a huge improvement on its predecessor, but there’s still a lot of work to be done, which I worry may hindered by his need to keep his work accessible to larger crowds.

   Put simply, Desperate Man gives something to enjoy on every track, and yet leaves much to be desired just as often.




Loretta Lynn Pairs with John Carter Cash For Powerful Album with Legacy Records

Wouldn’t It Be Great avoids the trappings of sentimentality, for the most part, and instead presents the image of an icon continuing to master her craft.

     Loretta Lynn is a legend at a caliber that very few ever reach. She’s been a member of the Grand ‘Ole Opry for more than 50 years, featured in the County Music Hall of Fame, won four Grammys, and even received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2013. After a studio career that spans 41 albums and 55 years, Lynn is now reaching the twilight of her career and she’s doing so with grace.

   Her 2017 album, Full Circle was nominated for the Best Country Album award at the 59th Grammy awards, and having signed with Legacy Records, she doesn’t seem to be done yet. This is especially the case due to the recent resurgence of the outlaw and traditional country styles. Wouldn’t It Be Great released earlier this week and it is yet another great addition to her catalog.

   Lynn’s voice on this record is especially impressive, as she still sounds fantastic after her very long career. This is especially true on her higher, more open notes in tracks like “I’m Dying for Someone to Live For,” or the opening title track. She sings with a power and control that just doesn’t exist in modern country music.

   This is made all the more impressive by the fantastic instrumentation on this album, which is easily it’s best quality. Sam Bush’s fiddle on “Another Bridge to Burn,” is just pure bluegrass and the electric guitars on “Don’t Come Home from Drinkin’” set the perfect tone for such a classic of country music. The bedrock to all of this is, of course, Mike Bub on the upright bass who holds down every song with an active, leading bass line. This instrumentation, more so than anything else, is what sets Wouldn’t It Be Great apart form other recent releases from older country icons.

   This large band and wide pallet is masterfully helmed by John Carter Cash on production. The only son of Johnny Cash and June Carter, John is quickly becoming one of the best producers in country music with his simple but elegant style. His stereo imaging gives tracks like “Lulie Vars,” or “These ‘Ole Blues,” a very organic feel and he has a good ear for which instruments need to take center stage.

   While the album carries plenty of crooning ballads, it is at its best when its fun. Listen to songs like “Ruby’s Stool,” or my personal favorite, “Ain’t No Time to Go,” which take almost an Irish slant with the loud fiddle, mandolin swells, and excellent banjo work by Larry Perkins. These tracks are best described as foot-tappers, and they’re some of the funnest country songs of the year.

   Lyrically, the album is a bit of a mixed bag. “My Angel Mother,” is a moving and well crafted tribute and “The Big Man,” is a clinic in how to write religious music. On the other hand, “God Makes No Mistakes,” is a good example of how not to write religious music as it comes off as repetitive and answers few of the questions it poses and may be the weakest song in the track list. In addition, “Darkest Days,” one of Lynn’s oldest songs, repurposed for this project, shows it’s age a bit in it’s simple writing and rhyme scheme.

   Many of the tracks on this album are older Loretta Lynn songs which she’s re-recorded for this album, and most of them gain something from the update. If one doesn’t, it would likely be the closer, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” This is, of course, one of the most iconic songs in the country cannon, but nothing is improved by recording it again, especially since it was recorded as recent as 2012 before this.

   On the other end of the album, the opener and title track is easily the highlight of this project. Loretta’s vocal is gentle but powerful, Randy Scruggs’ acoustic guitar lays an excellent bedding, and the lyrics are very well written, dealing with a woman asking her alcoholic husband to “throw the ‘ole glass crutch away.”

   Loretta Lynn is one of the all time greats and her pairing with the John Carter Cash is more than fitting. The vocals are excellent, the instrumental pallet is broad and exciting, and Loretta Lynn commands respect in a way that few artists ever are able to.

   Wouldn’t It Be Great avoids the trappings of sentimentality, for the most part, and instead presents the image of an icon continuing to master her craft.



The Mountain Goats Return to the EP Game with Hex of Infinite Binding

Hex of Infinite Binding is fun, unique, and most importantly, infinitely listenable.

     The Mountain Goats are an folk rock four piece from Claremont, CA. They’re infamous for their sharp wit, quirky lyricism, and ever evolving sound and while they’ve never really found massive commercial success, the group has been able build quite a devoted fanbase which is willing to dive headlong into every wacky sonic and conceptual twist and turn they take. They’ve released 16 full length LP’s, not to mention multiple EP’s, singles, and cassette-only releases over their 27 year career. With all this in mind, and after reading the message written along with this release in which frontman, John Darnielle commits himself once again to what he calls “the general spiritual realm of the EP,” I sat down to take in their newest EP, Hex of Infinite Binding, excited, but with an open mind.

   The project opens with “Song for Ted Sallis,” a simple, Ben Folds-esque tune which is carried by what seems to be a bassoon, played masterfully by Matt Douglas. The lyrics tell the story of Theodore Sallis, an obscure Marvel Comics character perhaps slightly better known as Man-Thing. John Darnielle’s iconic vocal is as geeky and endearing as ever, though it could do with a few harmonies, and the “no skin like the skin you woke up in” refrain is catchy and effective.

   “Almost Every Door,” follows and is, without a doubt, the best track on the EP. The woodwinds on this song, even more so than it’s predecessor, are written and performed expertly. The heartfelt ballad has a distinctly medieval tone, and the dancing piano which adorns the gaps in the string and woodwind leads adds infinite atmosphere to an already unique experience.

   Turning up the tempo a bit and featuring the only true drum kit on the whole project, “Hospital Reaction Shot,” is based on a press conference given by Mickey Deans in 1969, informing the press of the death of his then wife, Judy Garland. While the instrumentation is relatively tame here, Darnielle’s lyrics take center stage with a stark mix of wit and tragic beauty.  Lines like “There’s no kingdom, there’s no road,” and the “Gone down where the Goblins go,” refrain are genuine and moving, and thanks to excellent delivery and a few well placed backing vocals, this is yet another great track.

   We close with “Tucson Frog,” a basic, up-beat tune which is anchored by a driving acoustic guitar and a scarce but present violin. This is a relatively underwhelming finish, though it features a very fun chord progression and quite a bit of passion in the poorly recorded guitar chords. It’s an interesting end to a solid project.

   Of course, this EP is not perfect, as so few are, but I’m interested in what it may represent. If John Darnielle and the rest of The Mountain Goats are serious about returning to the EP spirit, I am more than happy to settle in for a long series of manic, experimental folk-rock collections like this one.

   Hex of Infinite Binding is fun, unique, and most importantly, infinitely listenable.



Carrie Underwood Joins Capitol Nashville for Flawed but Fun Sixth Release

With her sixth release, Carrie Underwood reminds us all that through hits and misses, she’s still one of the most talented artists in the stadium country scene.

     Carrie Underwood is one of the most successful women in all of modern country music. She made her name as a contestant and eventual winner of the 2004 season of American Idol. 2004 was a different time in many ways, one of which being that an American Idol winner was able to instantly exemplify the name of the show, and Underwood was no exception.

   Her debut album, Some Hearts went eight times platinum followed by slowly diminishing but consistently impressive numbers on subsequent releases over her now six album run. Singles like “Jesus Take the Wheel,” “Before He Cheats,” “Cowboy Casanova,” and “Undo It,” were all number one hits and quickly established Carrie as a chart topping star, a powerhouse vocalist, and a leader in the stadium country movement which would quickly overtake the genre during her decade-long career. Following a commercially disappointing but critically impressive outing in Storyteller and a surprising move to Capitol Records, Cry Pretty was slotted for a mid-September release, and it’s quite impressive.

   It seems most reasonable to start with the obvious, Underwood’s vocals are exception on this album. The opener and title track is perhaps the best example of this, but this is also quite apparent on tracks like “Low,” and “Spinning Bottles.” Many fans come to a Carrie Underwood project specifically to hear excellent vocal work, and those fans will not be disappointed here. Her control and confidence on simpler and sweeter passages grants all the more power to her belting voice through dynamics.

   Also lending to the dynamic range of this album is the instrumental work. Cry Pretty was recorded with Capitol Nashville and Underwood is one of their most bankable stars, which means that she was likely given an extensive budget, and it shows in the instrumentation more so than anywhere else. The steel and electric guitars in “Ghosts on the Stereo,” make it my favorite track on the record, and the vintage guitar on “Southbound,” fits the track well. Even the piano on “Spinning Bottles,” is simple and effective. Every track is packed with any instrument that could add anything, a few only popping up for a few moments, well mixed and played. This is the water mark of a decent budget.

   On the flip side of the same coin, the album is entirely too reliant on synth/steel guitar mix which has begun to pervade all radio country. Intimate songs like “The Bullet,” are poisoned by this, but it’s especially irritating on upbeat moments like “End Up With You,” “Backsliding,” and the chunkily named “That Song That We Used To Make Love To.” Compared to the successful, organic tracks that fill the bulk of this project, these songs feel fake and overproduced.

   However, the weakest aspect of this album, by far, is the lyrics. This very likely isn’t Underwood’s fault, and it’s relatively inoffensive on the less meaningful tracks, but there are a few attempts at heartfelt messaging which border on unlistenable. Namely, “The Bullet,” and “Love Wins.”

   The former tells the story of a young man killed by gun violence and the subsequent inability of his family to cope with his loss. Carefully tap dancing away from anything resembling political messaging, Carrie instead resorts to sad, single lined truisms and cliche’s. The lyrics are so general and hollow that any attempt to connect with an audience simply falls flat and it feels, instead like a heartless, broad stroke form of storytelling.

   The latter focusses, again, on a hot button political issue of the day, this time the devision which is beginning to worsen in the US, and again Carrie refuses to make any bold, concrete statements. I, of course, don’t look to Carrie Underwood for complex, sociopolitical commentary, but when she touches on these topics while refusing to say anything meaningful, it feels like she’s cashing in on hot topics without saying anything. “Love Wins,” was the lead single from Cry Pretty and I fear it may have turned off many otherwise serious listeners to what was, overall, and enjoyable experience.

   Cry Pretty doesn’t reinvent the wheel, and I don’t think anyone expected it to. In many ways, it follows the classic build of an album from a radio-heavy artist: a few big singles carrying a long list of tracks which try to sound a lot like those singles. This is what we get from Kelly Clarkson, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, and basically any other artist who finds their primary success on country radio, but in this case, Underwood very obviously cares about anything she puts her name on, and therefore gives her all, even to tracks which will only be heard by dedicated fans.

   With her sixth release, Carrie Underwood reminds us all that through hits and misses, she’s still one of the most talented artists in the stadium country scene.



Florida Georgia Line Drops Soulless, Self-Titled EP

There is a lot of great country music being made at present by several very talented artists, but this EP isn’t that.

     Florida Georgia Line is a Pop/Country duo from Nashville, Tennessee. They debuted on Republic Records in 2012 with Here’s to the Good Times. The double platinum LP attempted to meld elements of radio and stadium country with a few very basic qualities of rap and hip-hop. From here, they would release two more studio records-Anything Goes in 2014 and Dig Your Roots in 2016-each going platinum.

   Despite what their success may imply, FGL is a bit of a polarizing act in the country music scene. The success which artists like Chris Stapleton and Jason Isbell have found by calling back to a simpler, more raw form of country music has created something of a backlash against the bulk of modern country. A growing movement of purists and critics attack the duo, and many others like them, for their abandonment of more traditionally country qualities like organic instrumentation, thoughtful lyricism, and emotive vocal performances. Instead, the modern country movement, often referred to as “stadium country,” focuses are more relatable topics like drinking and women, while incorporating elements of other popular genre’s in an attempt to gain crossover success. FGL is far from the first act to do this and many of the purist criticisms tend to be a bit idealistic, but to some extent the group does present a particularly egregious form of this departure from tradition. The detractors of Florida Georgia Line continue to grow louder and if you count yourself, as I do, among their numbers, this EP will do little to change your mind.

   The project opens with promising with the first five seconds of “Simple.” The genuine acoustic guitar and whistling lead is somewhat promising, if a bit behind the times. After only a single progression, however, Tylar Hubbard’s nasally voice cuts through delivering a mad libs of cheesy compliments and gimmicky turns of phrase. There’s little to note after this. The track is boring and remarkably predictable from start to finish, with a relatively inoffensive track made unlistenable by vocal performances and lyricism that sound like an outsider creating a parody of a country song.

   Following the opener, we’re given easily the best track on the EP, “Colorado,” which I may even tentatively call bearable, though I think my opinion on this may change after the inevitable three month period in which this track will smother every radio within earshot. The vocals are no better here, and this time their backed by atrocious trap drums. However, a few of the lyrics could be generously called clever.

   Sadly, the track that follows may just dethrone Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do,” as the most horrific song of the year. “Talk You Out of It,” sounds like a computer program wrote a country song. There isn’t one line, melody, or idea in this entire three minutes which is even remotely interesting and very few songs feel like as much of a waste of time as this one.

   The closer and lead single for the upcoming LP is “Sittin’ Pretty.” Again, little of note, aside from a few cringe-worthy lyrics and yet another underwhelming vocal performance. FGL attempts something of a rap on the verses here and it’s about as good as it sounds. Just a forgettable final chapter in a boring EP.

   A small part of me warned that I shouldn’t even listen to this EP, and now a much larger part of me wishes I never had. Yet again, Florida Georgia Line provides absolutely nothing of substance, and fills time with predictable, formulaic pop-country. I thank the merciful lord above that this EP was fairly light on “rapping,” but there is still plenty to dislike and virtually no saving grace.

   There is a lot of great country music being made at present by several very talented artists, but this EP isn’t that.



Amanda Shires Wows Critics and Fans Alike With To the Sunset

To the Sunset is the most pleasant surprise of 2018 so far!

     Amanda Shires is a Nashville-based singer/songwriter and violin extraordinaire. She’s worked with the likes of The Texas Playboy’s, Thrift Store Cowboys, Todd Snider, John Prine, and of course her husband of five years, Jason Isbell. Her solo career, to date, includes six LP’s, beginning with 2005’s mostly instrumental, Being Brave and culminating, thus far, in her latest release, To The Sunset. Her music is generally characterized as Americana, flavored with elements of more strait forward country and folk. Her vocals are often likened to Dolly Parton or EmmyLou Harris, and she, like her husband, draws listeners in primarily with excellent and vivid lyricism.

   Album wise, her earlier work is certainly impressive, but lacks a certain coherence. Tracks like “Harmless,” and “My Love (The Storm)” are highlights, but none of those albums seem to be tied together. Instead, virtually every track from her previous five records is interchangeable with one another, and she lacks a true album integrity. This changes, however, with her latest release. From the psychedelic cover art to the expanded instrumentation pallet, from the progressive production to the visual lyricism, To The Sunset feels like something wholly unique in Amanda’s career.

   The first big change is the much stronger rock influence which permeates throughout the entire track listing. “Take on the Dark,” uses roaring electric guitars and a driving bass line while “Eve’s Daughter” draws on the proud tradition of southern rock to create an extremely danceable track which stands as one of the brightest moments on the entire project.

   Amanda also builds shimmering pop tunes like “Leave it Alone,” and “Swimmer,” through the use of a constant tempo held on a high hat, spacey violin work, and a set of electronic, hip-hop drums which, against all odds, actually blend very well and add a lot to the mix. This is a sound that Shires does very well and I almost wish that it was revisited a few more times on this project.

   Its her lyricism, however, that is the true highlight. She writes with confidence and strength, while infusing a small shot of sweetness and feminine energy into every line. “Wasn’t I Paying Attention,” is particularly impressive, as Amanda tells the story of a man leaving his wife at home to commit a particularly brutal form of suicide in his car, and yet she writes with such skill and care that even this story is infinitely listenable. “White Feather,” is fantastic as well, examining themes of weakness, religion, and fear of the other.

   All of this is helmed well by the production talent of Dave Cobb. Something of a legend in the new wave of country music, Cobb has worked with the likes of Jason Isbell, The Drive-By Truckers, Sturgill Simpson, and Chris Stapleton, to name a few. He’s certainly known for having made a few questionable creative decisions in a couple of his mixes, but here, as with the vast majority of his discography, Cobb’s work is inspired. The vocal layering on “Charms,” for example is able to simultaneously reference bluegrass roots and look forward to a spacier, more progressive form of country music, and his ability to constantly build and layer culminates in some truly fabulous songs that embrace maximalist aesthetic of record tightly.

   The best track on the whole album is, without a doubt, the opener, “Parking Lot Pirouette.” Here, Shires is in top form. Her vocals are powerful and commanding, her lyrics are visual and romanticized, the orchestral instrumentation is mesmerizing, and Cobb balances all of this with skill and moderation. It’s genuinely one of the best singles I’ve heard all year.

   It’s hard to find much to complain about with this album. In addition to the successes I’ve already named, the pacing is just about perfect, Amanda’s vocal melodies are remarkably singable, and even “Mirror, Mirror,” which is objectively the least impressive track on the album, has its moments, and one could foresee a time when it would perfectly fit exactly what the ears are craving.

   With To the Sunset, Amanda Shires has established herself as one of the most versatile and unique voices within the new country movement, not to mention vastly surpassing the quality of any of her already very respectable previous solo releases. To the Sunset is the most pleasant surprise of 2018 so far!


Willie Pleases Yet Again With 67th Studio Album of 60 Year Career

     One of the greatest songwriters to ever live, and a certified icon of Country Music, Willie Nelson is certainly a man in need of no introduction. His career began with 1962’s And Then I Wrote, and Nelson would go on to release 67 studio albums, and find himself featured in some capacity on a total of 161 albums (yes, you read those numbers correctly.) In short, the man has few moments of his life doing anything aside from making music through his nearly 60 year career.

   Of course, this discography is populated by a plethora of hit songs. “Crazy,” “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Always on My Mind,” and “On the Road Again,” comprise just a tiny collection of the man’s hits over the year, leaving him in a league of his own, with few contemporaries, save maybe Cash, Dylan, or McCartney. He’s often credited as the father of Outlaw Country, a title which he bares with much pride, and which he addresses on the opening, title track.

   Calling himself “the last man standing,” before namedropping his many friends in the outlaw movement whom he has managed to outlive. Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings are mentioned by name in this song, which is notable as something of a reference to Willies many collaborations with both men. Even in songs with somewhat weighty topics, however, Nelson maintains levity with his infamous wit and writing skill.

   Songs like “Bad Breath” and “Heaven is Closed” make light of Willie’s old age and the passing of his friends as well, with the latter track containing lyrics like “Heaven’s closed and Hell’s overcrowded, so I think I’ll just stay where I am.”

Willie’s 1962 Debut Album

   Additionally, tracks like “Don’t Tell Noah” and “Ready to Roar” continue the trend of quotable, comedic lyrics, focusing on Willie being crazy for his entire life and his desire to have a good time on a Friday night, respectively.

   He even touches, briefly, on today’s political climate with “Me & You,” though he remains mostly lighthearted, without taking much of a strong side. In the end, the track may be my least favorite on the album, as Willie fails to say much, and though he creates yet another fun instrumental, this is the only set of lyrics which feel like a hindrance to the song they are in.

   The tone isn’t solely jovial, however. “I’ll Try To Do Better Next Time,” and my favorite song on the record, “Something You Get Through,” take more somber, classic country tones and focus on themes of regret and loss. The latter, especially, sees a long string of moving lyrics which deal quite wisely with the loss of love.

   Beyond the wide range of topics and lyrical muscles with Nelson flexes on nearly every track, the album is highlighted by excellent instrumentation, simple production, and a short runtime of just over half an hour, which will leave nearly everyone begging for more. The band is, of course, lead by Willie himself and his iconic, acoustic guitar. Behind him, though, is his long time harmonica player, Mickey Raphael giving yet another commanding performance in a discography which sees him credited on nearly 300 albums. The drum and bass work, while relatively uneventful, round out an excellent outing by Nelson’s band, and provide yet another piece of the puzzle when it comes to the great album.

   The highlight is, of course, Willie’s voice. While age may have robbed him of some smoothness and power, it has not stolen away his infamous tone and delivery. Nelson is cool, sharp, and energetic throughout, providing avid fans and passing enjoyers alike, yet another chance to marvel at one of most unique voices in history.

   Yet another great project from one of the all-time greats is in the books, and I find myself quite pleased. To say “he’s still got it,” may imply a bit more surprise than is actually present. Instead let me say, He’s always had it, and he always will.