The Tree of Forgiveness Review

     For anyone who’s following my social media in the past few months, my excitement for this project should come as no surprise, and one should, therefore, know that I plan to explore this record in further detail than many of my reviews, so for those who are short on time, let me sum it up quickly. The Tree of Forgiveness is, without a doubt, the best record I’ve heard so far this year. Now, let’s dive in to why.

   When the world first heard about the Outlaw Country legend’s plans to release a brand new album this year, his first collection of completely new music in thirteen years, all were curious as to what angle he’d take. At first, some feared that this may be some kind of commentary on modern politics or any number of other possibilities which may be labeled collectively as “the worst.” Many also entertained the concept that this could be a dark, brooding goodbye to the world of music, a la late Johnny Cash, as Prine is nearing an age which would make this appropriate. Instead, listeners got a treat which no one could’ve guessed: Just one more entry into Prine’s already fabulous catalog.

   The record’s opener, “Knockin’ on Your Screen Door,” sets aside all anticipation of seriousness with the bouncy guitar lead played by Prine himself. With the addition of a simple rhythm,  impressive mandolin and electric guitar work from the band, and a classic bluegrass harmony, John is back, and it’s a blast.

   This style continues through the next tracks, “I Have Met My Love Today,” accompanied by an erratic, but effect hand-clap rhythm and a measured, female harmony vocal layered of Prine’s, and “Egg and Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone,)” which, despite what the length of the title may suggest, is yet another enjoyable romp, accented by John’s still excellent guitar picking and an energetic back up vocalist.

   It isn’t until “Summer’s End,” that we are treated with any type of sincerity. The track is a somber contemplation on the loneliness of an empty home and the inability to bare the pain any longer.  Here, we start to get a hint of a what a talented artist Prine is, as he, seemingly understanding the effectiveness of his aged and somewhat broken voice, uses his vocal parts to tug at heartstrings in a way that only he can.

   “Caravan of Fools,” closes out the first half on an interesting note, using a minor key and thought provoking chord progression to build an air of mystery about the track. In the end, the change is welcome and effective, showing John’s range and writing ability in a new light.

   “Lonesome Friends of Science,” despite an irritating, science fiction sound effect on the intro, forms into an excellent opener for the albums second act. The organ work in the background is a particularly inspired decision, presumably made by producer, Dave Cobb, whom we will touch on later. The lyrics simply praise his modest life, all based on the premise that he does not mind of the world ends any day now, because he doesn’t live there, he lives in Tennessee only.

   “No Ordinary Blues,” features even more guitar picking and organ, as we begin to see a pattern for the instrumentation. Prine’s vocals sound very well produced on this track, better than anywhere else on the project.

   “Boundless Love” can be somewhat forgettable, but this may be mostly because of its placement between a couple of the best tracks on the album, but if this is truly what one would call the “worst track,” that is a complement to the unimpeachable quality of this record. This song is also one of the first to heavily introduce the concept of God into the lyrical cannon so to speak of The Tree of Forgiveness.

   What follows is an excellent candidate for the best song in the entire track-listing. While the lyrics are a bit repetitive, the three part harmonies on the chorus and the violin work to catapult an already great song into the heart of every bluegrass fan within earshot.

   “When I get to Heaven,” closes out the experience with heart, excitement, and John Prine’s infectious happiness. There’s even a Kazoo! It’s the closest Prine comes to contemplating the issues of old age and death, but even this, he does with joy and talent.

   The key to The Tree of Forgiveness is that every piece of the puzzle fits perfectly.

   The record is paced very well, short tracks leaving listeners still fulfilled and only one song, “Lonesome Friends of Science,” clocking in over four minutes.

   Prine’s guitar work is, as expected, wonderful. However, the rest of the instrumentalists keep up admirably, and the organ work throughout the project is particularly inspired. All of this is handled well by Country music production extraordinaire: Dave Cobb.

   John’s vocal work on Tree is tender and emotional, and really serves as the highlight of this effort, alongside some really fantastic lyrics. Tracks like my personal favorite, “Summer’s End” seamlessly blend reminiscence with wit in a way that only John Prine can, and has since his  self-titled, debut LP in 1971.

   In a world of Stapletons, Simpsons, and Isbells taking time to honor the country music of old, it is beyond refreshing to hear one of the all time greats come back to remind us all why he deserves our honor.





Kacey Musgraves Wows with Fourth LP

Golden Hour isn’t a masterpiece of lyricism, nor is it an intimate dive into the emotional complexities of life. Golden Hour is the sound of a very young, very talented artist developing a sound which has a lot of promise.

     I first came across Kacey Musgraves when I stumbled onto a live video in which she performs her song, “Burn One With John Prine,” while on stage with the man himself. It was a touching video, and fun to watch a member of my generation show the appropriate respect to those who came before. Upon a few repeat listens, however, I was struck by Musgraves’ lyrical ability and hypnotic vocal talent. While I hold a special place in my ears and heart for the outlaw movement in modern country music, and have spent hours enjoying the vast library of the movement’s holy trinity: Isbell, Simpson, and Stapleton, I’ll be the first to point out the apparent lack of diversity and depth in the outlaw catalog.

   Each of the outlaw trinity are nearing forty, and while they are prolific, the three of them alone are unable to saturate the radio stations well enough to cause a substantial shift in the tide, which trends toward the shallows of “pop-country” acts like the much maligned Florida Georgia Line. With all this in mind, one can imagine what a welcome sight Musgraves might be to a fan of the outlaw movement. An extremely talented young woman with a haunting voice, both in her singing and her writing. I went into Golden Hours with high hopes, and I was pleasantly impressed with what I found.

   Lyrically, Musgraves doesn’t claim any knowledge beyond her age, but instead speaks to an emotional map of teenage life. Interestingly, she avoids focusing too heavily on the tropes associated with teen singer/songwriters, namely breakups and wide eyed inspirational messages. To put it, perhaps more bluntly, she doesn’t overestimate the importance of her teenage emotions, but celebrates the smallness of herself. This is summed up well in the introductory track, “Slow Burn,” which sees Kacey celebrating the smallness of her life, and the enjoyment of her own unimportance.

   Other lyrical themes include her love for her family, her penchant for bad decisions, and her enjoyment of marijuana and psychedelics, a topic which is becoming more popular in country music thanks to hits from the likes of Simpson and Stapleton.

   The album is not without its faults, however. Tracks like “Love is a Wild Thing” and “Happy & Sad” verge on Hallmark-esque lyricism, and one could do with a few more vocal highlighting moments, which Musgraves does seem to be capable of.

   Perhaps the most persistent issue on this record is the uninventive production which undercuts every possibly great moment on this project. Producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian seemingly saw a pretty, young singer/songwriter and simply hit copy and paste on the settings for early Taylor Swift records. This effectively robs the project of any intimate moments, which may work for radio play, but can leave listeners of the entire LP wanting.

   The worst of the production offense can be heard on the drum tracks, which range from relatively inoffensive to horribly distracting. “High Horse,” particularly, is an interesting song which is essentially ruined by annoying drum work.

   But there is something endearing about this album. There is a palpable honesty in every line, an audible happiness in every song, and an obvious admiration Country’s history.

   Golden Hour isn’t a masterpiece of lyricism, nor is it an intimate dive into the emotional complexities of life. Golden Hour is the sound of a very young, very talented artist developing a sound which has a lot of promise.