Zac Brown Band Releases Disappointing Seventh ALbum

The Owl features a few bright spots amid a wave a bad decisions.

Zac Brown Band is a country group from Atlanta, Georgia. They debuted in 2005 with a self released LP entitled Home Grown before signing to Atlantic and dropping their breakthrough album The Foundation in 2008. They went on to release three number one albums in 2015 with Uncaged being the strongest while tracks like “Colder Weather,” and “Goodbye In Her Eyes,” carrying them to country stardom thanks to a maximalist approach to instrumentation, strong harmonies, and a carefree style which endeared them to fans. Recently, they seem to have dipped their toes in the rabbit hole pop-country, but they’ve largely found their own path and avoided the very shallow sounds of current radio country. The Owl is the band’s seventh LP, and it sees them tackling the unique challenge of building a large discography in such a rapidly changing genre.

Certainly the album’s strongest point comes in it’s instrumentation. The band currently sports eight members and every last one of them turns in some strong moments across the LP. From the subtle violins and bass on the opener, “The Woods,” or the vintage clav and grooving acoustic guitar on “Need This,” to the soft piano on the closer, “Leaving Love Behind.” Even on weak points of the album, the tight, exciting performances from the band really elevate every track.

In addition to the tightness of the band, Zac himself brings several impressive vocal moments. His harmonies and chemistry on Brandi Carlile on “Finish What We Started,” are extremely impressive, and they elevate the cut far above the rather simple writing. Later tracks like “Already On Fire,” on the other hand, see Brown using his powerful voice to guide a listener through the more challenging, experimental instrumental.

The band as a whole is at their best on the handful of tracks which pull in strong blues influences. Cuts like “Me and the Boys in the Band,” and “Shoofly Pie,” feature roaring electric guitars, raucous drums, and surprisingly powerful vocal from Zac. The album sees the band dipping into several new styles and genres, many of which simply don’t work, but the blues influences are very well performed and need to be better fleshed out on later records.

Unfortunately, this LP falls very short on several elements. One of the most frustrating issues comes in the serious dearth of impressive lyrics across the entire album. Cuts like “God Given,” and the record’s worst track “OMW,” feature a mix of lazy and genuinely terrible lyrics with several flat out cringe-worthy moments.

Worse than this, however, is the very weak production which negatively impacts nearly every track. There are perfectly respectable tracks like “Someone I Used to Know,” which are butchered by muddy instrumentation, strange percussion, and over-production. Even a song like “The Warrior,” which is genuinely well written and features some of the strongest lyrics on the album, is totally ruined by the rampant overproduction which covers the entire record.

Overall, The Owl feels like a bit of a misstep. There are certainly moments which show new signs of life for the band and tying in further blues influences is an excellent choice, but the entirety of the project remains mired in poor production, uninspired lyricism, and strange instrumental choices.

The Owl features a few bright spots amid a wave a bad decisions.

4/10

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The Highwomen Are Here, and They’re Incredible

The Highwomen is a benchmark achievement in country music and one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.

The Highwomen are a country/americana supergroup based in Nashville, Tennessee. Their formation has been rumored since around 2016 when Amanda Shires spoke out publicly about the lack of female representation on country radio and hinted at the idea of a group of talented female musicians. In April of 2019, the group was officially announced with a lineup of Shires, grammy award winning songstress, Brandi Carlile and up and coming pop-country super star, Maren Morris. The group originally intended to leave the fourth slot open for a rotating door of guest artists, but during their performance at Loretta Lynn’s 87th birthday, grammy nominated songwriter, Natalie Hemby was announced as the fourth member. The buzz for new music was deafening and, just a few months after their official formation, they’ve dropped their self-titled debut.

Before we even touch on the performances of members themselves, we simply have to touch on the incredible instrumentation across the album, from the warbling organ on “Redesigning Women,” to Jason Isbell’s roaring guitar work on tracks like “Don’t Call Me,” and “Old Soul.” The latter is especially impressive as the song’s longer runtime is carried proudly by the intricate and well performed instrumentals.

Additionally, I’m astounded by the group’s ability and willingness to recreate the old-school style of icons like Dolly Parton or Loretta Lynn. Cuts like “My Name Can’t Be Mama,” and “Heaven Is A Honky Tonk,” feature the classic, walking bass and saloon piano of country music’s golden era, yet lyrically, the songs delve into modern, relatable storytelling in a beautiful way.

This, of course, brings us to the lyricism which is seriously breathtaking. The opening title track, which follows the narratives of women throughout history who were killed for being brave, empowered women against the wishes of their cultures.  “If She Ever Leaves Me,” is a powerful love ballad which co-writer Jason Isbell aptly called “a gay country song,” as it follows the story of a woman bragging to a man that the love of her wife is hers and hers alone. But perhaps best of all, is the heart wrenching, “Cocktail and a Song,” in which Amanda Shires recounts the last moments with her terminally ill father with such brilliance and bravery that it is genuinely hard to listen to at times.

The album’s best quality, though, comes in the excellent vocal performances of everyone involved. Brandi Carlile’s smooth alto is captivating on the closer, “Wheels of Laredo,” and Natalie Hemby’s belting leads on “My Only Child,” are especially exciting as she’s primarily known as a songwriter, while Amanda Shires’ bright soprano rings out over nearly every harmony. Maren Morris is particularly impressive for me as, going into the project, I was unsure how she’d be effected by having far less experience than the women around her. Despite this, she brings some of the best moments with a power and fearlessness that allows her to comfortably hold her own among the bonafide legends on this LP.

The women are at their best, above all, when they’re together. The harmonies on this album are some of the best I’ve heard in several years and easily the most thoughtful harmonies in mainstream music today. Tracks like “Loose Change,” and “Crowded Table,” feature full, four part harmonies in which each part carries a unique and creative melody. That just doesn’t exist in music anymore. There is so much power generated when the four of them come fully together on choruses that the results have me replaying tracks time and time again.

All in all, I have very little to complain about. The production from Dave Cobb, while perfectly competent, is a bit uninspired and not quite as crisp as it could be, and there are a handful of lyrics that come off as a bit cheesy, but the majority of the LP is nearly perfect.

The group’s tight harmonies, brilliant lyricism, and full grasp of every facet of the genre from old-school honky-tonk to modern Americana, makes for a spectacular listen. The pacing is perfect, as is the complex and talented musicianship behind them.

The Highwomen is a benchmark achievement in country music and one of the most enjoyable albums of the year.

9/10

Sheryl Crow’s Swan Song is a Bit Disappointing

Threads is an otherwise enjoyable project which is dragged down by poor pacing, weak production, and an utter lack of cohesion.

Sherryl Crow is a country singer/songwriter from Kennet, Missouri. Her seven times platinum, 1993 debut, Thursday Night Music Club rocketed to her to the very top of a country music boom which lasted throughout the 90’s and spawned the careers of fellow superstars like Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson. In contrast to her fellow 90’s country stars, however, Crow’s music toes the line between pop and country in a way which has allowed her to find success with fans across the spectrum. This success has lead to legendary status over her ten album career, and the singer has announced that her eleventh LP, Threads, will be her final release. So, is it a worthy swan song? Unfortunately, the record is a bit of a mix.

Crow is, admirably, quite ambitious on this album. Tracks like “Cross Creek Road,” and “Still the Good Old Days,” feature unique chord progressions and surprising instrumental styles which are certainly a treat on such a long LP. It doesn’t work every time as there are definitely a handful of awkward moments, but for the eleventh release in Crow’s discography, it’s extremely impressive to hear her stepping out of her comfort zone in such a daring way.

Additionally, the guitar work on this album is excellent! Much of this comes in the form of features from the likes of artists like Eric Clapton who’s solo on “Beware of Darkness,” is easily the best on the entire project. But tracks like the opener, “Prove You Wrong,” have fantastic leads played by guest guitarists like Joe Walsh and Vince Gill who, in addition to featuring on their own tracks, pop up all over the record on guitar.

Crow also dives headlong into a heavily blues-influenced sound which works far better than one would expect. “Everything is Broken,” features Jason Isbell wonderfully with an excellent guitar riff and strong vocal performance while “Border Lord,” sees the legendary Kris Kristofferson joining Crow for one of the most raucous cuts on the album.

The albums key selling point, though, is the seriously massive list of features, which covers every single one of the 17 tracks. From Mavis Staples and Bonnie Raitt’s electrifying chemistry on “Live Wire,” to Chris Stapleton’s soulful lead on “Tell Me When It’s Over,” or even Johnny Cash’s interesting, posthumous appearance on “Redemption Day,” this record is a who’s who of iconic country and Americana artists. The best of these are, without a doubt, Willie Nelson’s heartfelt vocal on “Lonely Alone,” and the absolutely fantastic harmony work from Emmylou Harris on my favorite track, “Nobody’s Perfect.”

Unfortunately, several features don’t work out quite so well. Gary Clark Jr.’s appearance on “Story of Everything,” and St. Vincent’s collaboration on “Wouldn’t Want to Be Like You,” are especially egregious, but they betray an issue which plagues the entire album: Sheryl Crow doesn’t seem to have a grasp on how to incorporate features. A great feature melds the sound of the guest artist while remaining true to the sound of the album and the main artist. This album, on the other hand, feels like a compilation of tracks by other artists which feature Sheryl Crow. Nearly every guest appearance takes over the sound and writing entirely and when the sound doesn’t fit Crow’s style, as is the case in the aforementioned cuts which are nearly rap/hip-hop tracks, Crow goes along with it anyway.

Beyond this, there are some serious issues with the production here. A Track like the aptly named “The Worst,” is a perfect example of this poor production, though this is yet another problem that runs throughout the entire runtime. The most prevalent problems come in the form of a very hissy mix and just awful percussion throughout, though the occasional annoying vocal effect as in “Flying Blind,” is thrown in for good measure.

Beyond this, the pacing can be a bit frustrating as nearly every track is roughly the same length and many of them sound extremely similar. Near the end, tracks like “Don’t,” and the closer, “For the Sake of Love,” do little to keep a listener enticed. This isn’t a massive issue as most of the tracks, on their own, aren’t necessarily boring, but when an album runs nearly 75 minutes, the nondescript cuts start to add up.

All in all, Threads is certainly enjoyable at times. The goal of the LP seems to be to celebrate Crow’s career with a large collection of impressive features and strong writing and while several tracks achieve this, many others don’t.

Threads is an otherwise enjoyable project which is dragged down by poor pacing, weak production, and an utter lack of cohesion.

Luke Combs’ Fourth EP Is Fun but Underwhelming

The Prequel is a fun listen that, while it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, does leave me excited to see where Combs will go next.

Luke Combs is a country singer/songwriter from Charlotte, North Carolina. He debuted in 2014 with a pair of self-released EPs which found some underground success and landed him a signing with Columbia Records in Nashville. His powerhouse voice and outlaw sensibilities made him a perfect fit for the rising tide of alt-country which has overtaken much of the industry and he road that wave to a very well received third EP, This One’s for You which was later expanded to become his first full length album. The expanded version went double platinum, topped the US Country chart, and Combs was named one of Sounds Like Nashville’s “Artists to Watch,” and won the CMA award for “New Artist of the Year.” To date, he’s one of the biggest artists in country music and he’s once again returning to the EP format for The Prequel.

The project opens with the raucous, twangy lead single, “Beer Never Broke My Heart.” The track is simply drenched in country twang but Combs’ strong vocal sells it with every word and the explosive instrumental helps quite a bit as well. There are a few production decisions which hold the song back from being truly fantastic, but it’s still an impressive, unapologetic opener that sets the tone extremely well.

This is followed by “Refrigerator Door,” which is a bit of a mixed back. Yet again, the twanging vocal and crashing instrumentals are pure country and the guitar solo is far more impressive than that of the opener. Additionally, the concept of using the refrigerator door as a window to larger reflection on life is quite an interesting idea, but unfortunately, most of the writing and rhyme scheme feels lazy. What’s worse, the photos that are described are fairly run of the mill and universal. It’s still a strong track, but it would’ve been much stronger if filled with well written lines and more personal details.

“Even Though I’m Leaving,” falls in the middle of the EP and once again, Luke brings a very classic country sound. Unlike the last cut, however, this track tells an interesting and heartfelt story of a father and son which feels much more personal. The more organic instruments are a welcome touch, especially with the inclusion of brighter tones like mandolins and acoustic guitars which offset the blues heavy sound thus far. All in all, it’s still a bit cheesy, but Luke sells it with a lead vocal that runs the gamut of emotions and has a genuinely vulnerable moment on the third verse.

“Lovin’ On You,” comes next and this track crosses the line just a bit for me. Combs’ accent is exaggerated to the point of being difficult to understand and the lyrics are entirely thoughtless. It’s not without its bright points as the saloon piano is a great touch and a handful of rhymes are somewhat impressive, but it just tries way too hard to lean into the country sound while lacking the storytelling and melodic writing that any great country song should have. 

“Moon Over Mexico,” closes out the project quite well. It’s a bit nondescript and doesn’t stand out amid the tracklist in any noticeable way, but it is quite well written and tells something of an interesting story. Once again, the song is plagued by a handful of strange and unnecessary production choices, mostly in terms of vocal effects, but a strong performance shines through those issues and makes for a much appreciated final track.

All in all, the EP certainly isn’t bad. For most listeners, I’d imagine the enjoyment of this project will come down to how much they enjoy country music on the whole. This is fairly well written and performed country music of the very twangy variety, but it fails to be anything more than that. Combs has the potential to be a crossover success on the level of Stapleton or Isbell later in his career, but to do that, his storytelling and lyrical chops will need to improve.

The Prequel is a fun listen that, while it doesn’t quite live up to its potential, does leave me excited to see where Combs will go next.

3/5

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Veronica Stanton Debuts With Catchy and Heartfelt EP

827 Miles is an incredibly listenable debut which has me excited to cover many more releases from Veronica Stanton.

Veronica Stanton is a country singer/songwriter from Jenkintown, PA and based in Nashville, TN. She got her start in local shows performing with a family band and learned sing and play music at home. She stepped out into more solo work in high school and began to pursue songwriting in earnest in college. After graduating, she came to Nashville and began playing the circuit of writers rounds before starting to work with producer Dan Knobler. Now, she’s released her debut EP, 827 Miles, named for the distance from her hometown to Nashville.

The project opens with the title track and immediately, much of what makes this EP special is present. Veronica’s sweet, bright vocal is easily the highlight of the cut, made all the better by some clever and well-written lyrics. Her rhyme schemes create instant earworms that demand a second listen and, thanks to nice, clean production, the her personality bubbles through every line. Songs that focus on missing home are also less prominent than they once were and it’s nice to hear the topic addressed so well once again.

“Flying,” follows and quickly, the strong instrumentation begins to shine through. Anthony DaCosta helms the electric guitar, which he did quite well on Joy Williams’ album which I covered earlier this week. His gentle touch and ear for melody are invaluable to this cut and many after. Beyond this, the verse-centric structure with a two bar chorus is unique and Stanton confidently channels shades of Dolly Parton in her soft but solid delivery. It’s yet another track which seems to demand a second listen.

“Wildflower,” falls perfectly in the middle of the five tracks and fills this position incredibly well. It’s far more lighthearted, lyrically, and the vocal melody on the chorus is nothing short of fantastic. Dan Knobler’s production is almost a sugar rush of bright guitars and a well placed organ that creates a beautifully shimmering piece of pop-country. As if this wasn’t enough, Veronica proves the legitimacy of her old school aesthetic with an awesome key change in the final third that perfectly closes out the funnest track on the project.

As “Rome,” rolls around, the organ takes the front seat, as do the drums for the first time. The changes quickly set the song apart from previous entries, but the great vocals, fun lyrics, and melodic lead guitar is no less present. In fact, the chorus may be the best of the EP and Stanton’s falsettos are an interesting touch which I wish had better utilized on each track. Overall, while “Rome,” doesn’t jump out the way earlier cuts do, it’s certainly one of the strongest of the bunch.

“Won’t Be Back Soon,” brings the project to a close and the roaring electric guitar on the intro quickly establishes the track’s irreverence. This is easily the lyrical highlight of the album as she turns the classic trope of promising a quick return to home on its head by pointing out that, for her to come back would mean failure in her dreams. The brilliant touch of storytelling is just icing on the cake of one more fantastic instrumental, complete with a rocking organ solo. “Won’t Be Back Soon,” is a perfect closer and brings the theme of the EP full circle.

Ultimately, I’m left without much to complain about. Each track is perfectly paced, well mixed, and well written. The theme is cohesive but not overbearing and Veronica’s voice is wonderfully at home in this modernized version of golden age, women’s country.

827 Miles is an incredibly listenable debut which has me excited to cover many more releases from Veronica Stanton.

5/5

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Joy Williams Gets Back to Basics with Intimate New Release

Front Porch is an intimate collection of simple, well-written folk songs which is elevated by fantastic performances and excellent writing.

Joy Williams is a folk singer/songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee. She’s best known as the feminine half of the fantastic country duo, The Civil Wars, but she’s made quite the name for herself as a solo act as well, working mostly in the contemporary Christian world. She debuted with a self-titled LP in 2001 and went on to be fairly prolific through 201 before she and her then writing partner, John Paul White, found breakout success with The Civil Wars. After the group announced an indefinite hiatus in 2012 and fully dissolved in 2014, Williams quickly returned to her solo career, reasing Venus to mixed reviews in 2015. After a longer period of silence than usual, she’s back with Front Porch, which sees Joy return to her folk roots in new and exciting ways.

The album opens with two of the best country songs I’ve heard all year in the opener, “Canary,” and the title track. Both tracks live and die by the fantastic vocal performances by Williams which decorate the entirety of this record. She finds a perfect mix of powerful, emotive singing and technically proficient executions of well written vocal melodies. Additionally, Kenneth Pattengale’s production does her a big favor by avoiding the trap of over correction and instead leaving every imperfection in place for a full picture of just how good she is.

Joy isn’t the only vocalists doing excellent work on this record, however, as Anthony DaCosta’s harmonies are fantastic. Tracks like “The Trouble with Wanting,” and the closer, “Look How Far We’ve Come,” are driven by airtight harmony lines in which DaCosta serves as a perfect counterpoint to Williams’ lead. Their voices blend remarkably well and he knows when to take a backseat and when to join her in the spotlight. No folk or bluegrass album can succeed without strong harmonies and Front Porch is no exception.

Instrumentally, the record is quite impressive as well. DaCosta and Pattengale share acoustic guitar duties and nearly every cut is the better for it. From the rhythmic backing on “When Does a Heart Move On,” to the sparse but complex lines on “Hotel St. Cecilia,” the guitar is consistently a driving force at the very front of every mix. Thanks to more great production, it’s able to set the tone of the record quite well.

The rest of the band is excellent as well. A hand full of strong mandolin and violin tracks decorate most of the album, most notably the fantastic “All I Need,” but none of them are as prominent as Russ Pahl’s pedal steel guitar. On the most country-esque cuts like “Be With You,” the steel guitar fits perfectly in the arrangement, never overpowering but consistently adding a howling melody to the already strong collection.

Perhaps the record’s best quality comes in Joy Williams’ lyricism. This is particularly true in the middle of the album with cuts like “When Creation Was Young,” and “Preacher’s Daughter.” The former is packed with powerful imagery which mirrors the powerful nature of the love it centers on. The latter is a wonderfully grounded tale of Williams’ childhood, with a heartbreaking final verse. Each and every song on this album showcases Joy’s incredible songwriting prowess and it’s a treat to hear.

Some of the arrangements are a bit of a mixed bag, specifically in terms of chord progression. While a track like the relatively simple “No Place Like You,” has such a fantastic, jazz-gospel inspired progression that it elevates the song far above what it would generally be, others like “One and Only,” make a few questionable choices which the track itself struggles to overcome in the execution. It’s the record’s only misstep, but it’s fairly noticeable when it’s at it’s worst.

Overall, I enjoyed Front Porch quite a bit. Venus was criticized for embracing modernity a bit too much and shedding much of Joy’s folk sensibilities, and while I’m a bit more partial to that record than most, it’s nice to hear her come back to her roots once again. She has a unique ability to make more traditional folk and bluegrass styles accessible to fans and non-fans alike, and it would be a shame to waste that.

Front Porch is an intimate collection of simple, well-written folk songs which is elevated by fantastic performances and excellent writing.

8/10

George Strait’s 30th Release is a Testament to Golden Age Nashville Music

Honky Tonk Time Machine is a strong release for fans of classic country which will please the audience it’s made for quite well, even if it doesn’t bring new fans in.

George Strait is a country music icon from Pearsall, Texas. He released 18 albums from the start of the 1980’s through the 1990’s, all of which went platinum. In total, Strait has released 23 platinum records, placing him third all time for the most gold and platinum releases, behind only Elvis and The Beatles. He also holds the title for the most number one singles of any artist in any genre. He’s largely seen as one of the most influential country artists of all time having toured consistently for multiple years and being named as “Artist of the Decade,” for his work in the 2000’s.

The album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and Music City’s influence bleeds through every song, particularly in the tightness of the instrumentation. Paul Franklin, an absolute legend in country and outlaw music, helms the steel guitar which shines blindingly on “Some Nights,” but decorates virtually every cut perfectly. Bluegrass icon Stuart Duncan plays violin and mandolin as well, both of which are particularly noticeable on one of the album’s lead singles, “Codigo.” As is often the case with modern records from country icons, the instrumental personnel on Honky Tonk Time Machine is absolutely stacked.

Not to be outdone, however, George Strait gives quite a few impressive vocal performances himself. On “Sometimes Love,” for example, his tight runs and thick baritone timbre are pure country and represent a sound that Strait himself pioneered. He’s even more impressive on “Old Violin,” in which he sings with quite a bit of sincerity and vulnerability about coming to grips with his age and waning status within the industry. Ultimately, George’s voice still holds up to this day thanks to his soft touch and laid back style.

The strongest point to the record is fairly multifaceted, but can be generally summed up as great songwriting. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but the shortcomings are mostly hidden by the fact that several of these tracks are just a blast to listen to. From the very funny concept of a song like “Two More Wishes,” to the Buffet-esque, island dwelling sound of “Blue Water,” and even the roaring blues riffs on the title track, the majority of this album is simply enjoyable.

On top of this, some of the slower, sappier songs dodge the common pitfalls of being boring or overly idealistic by leaning heavily into the very most classic cliche’s of the genre. “God And Country Music,” is heavily driven by twanging violins and an impassioned vocal performance while “The Weight of the Badge,” benefits quite a bit from a well played acoustic guitar. These tracks will likely turn off many outsiders and casual fans, but if you appreciate the works of country’s golden age, these are quite enjoyable.

Best of all, George and his team of cowriters are fantastically talented when it comes to writing hooks and choruses. The opener, “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” for example, will rattle around the minds of listeners for days after the first listen thanks to an extremely catchy chorus. The closer and strongest cut, “Sing One With Willie,” is hilarious and extremely listenable, brought together perfectly by the singable hook which is sung by both Strait and fellow country legend, Willie Nelson.

I do have a few gripes with the album. As I said, the lyricism leaves quite a bit to be desired on most of the tracklist. On top of this, George’s voice doesn’t sit all that well in the more bluegrass inspired tracks like “Codigo.” The worst offense however, comes in the production by longtime Nashville engineer, Chuck Ainlay, who can’t seem to keep his hands out of these tracks. Most of the mixing is relatively inoffensive but the vocal tuning makes the lead feel somewhat lifeless very often and several of the harmonies just don’t quite mesh. This can often be ignored, but tracks like “Take Me Away,” and “What Goes Up,” are nearly ruined by the production.

All told, George Strait’s 30th LP is a fun addition to his legendary catalog. It’s full of enjoyable callbacks to the sound of country’s golden age with a few interesting twists and it’s extremely well performed, despite several hiccups along the way.

Honky Tonk Time Machine is a strong release for fans of classic country which will please the audience it’s made for quite well, even if it doesn’t bring new fans in.

5/10

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