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.

1/5

HEAR FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE:  https://open.spotify.com/album/7gRkSSpLMUqlCbCvZIC4hT

Advertisements

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!

8/10

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-2
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.

7/10

HEAR THE ALBUM: https://open.spotify.com/album/59kwBSCOkQiV6L6tUxkNjU

YOUTUBE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBwsRdX_pEA

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.

8/10

HEAR THE ALBUM – https://open.spotify.com/album/13UwfQZqne7ZQIkUZsAPLg

LATEST VIDEO – https://youtu.be/kBwsRdX_pEA

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.

6/10