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

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Todd Snider’s New LP is a Masterclass In Folk Music

With excellent songwriting, simple production, and heartfelt performances, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 is one of the best folk albums of this decade, and a treat for fans of Snider or the larger Americana movement as a whole.

Todd Snider is an Americana singer/songwriter from Portland, Oregon.He debuted in 1994 with Songs for the Daily Planet. In total, he’s released 16 albums, not including compilations and special editions, each finding varying levels of success, particularly among Americana fans. Perhaps his best accomplishments are his two live albums, Near Truths and Hotel Rooms and The Storyteller. He’s at his best on these projects as his intimate sound isn’t interrupted by poor production and over-instrumentation. This was a problem, especially in his early years, as the apparatus just didn’t exist to find a producer who could do the Americana and folk sounds justice. Today, however, we’re experiencing a boom in the sub-genre and a multitude of producers committed to the sound. For this, his 16th album, Todd has partnered with the great John Carter Cash for his best studio effort to date, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3.

Perhaps the most surprising change of pace on this LP is the renewed focus on Todd’s acoustic guitar prowess. Tracks like the album’s highlight, “Like a Force of Nature,” and “Just Like Overnight,” the sparse production and arrangement leave nothing but space for Snider to fill with complicated and melodic folk riffs, which were played on the Martin guitar of the late Johnny Cash. He’s very rarely content with simple chords, and instead picks each note with intention and a strong ear that makes every cut infinitely better.

Much less surprising, however, is Snider’s razor sharp wit and penchant for quick, yet hilarious one-liners. On a song like “Talking Reality Television Blues,” he crafts a long winded critique of modern culture, beginning with the invention of radio and culminating in the election of a reality television star to The White House. “The Blues on Banjo,” on the other hand, feels like a random riff on the insanity of the world, not to mention acting as a comedic turn on the kind of simple, one-take recordings that brought early blues stars like Robert Johnson to fame. “A Timeless Response to Current Events,” closes the album as a hilarious, wordy talk blues number that mocks the formalities of government proceedings. None of these tracks are necessarily sharp-tongued, but they’ll make virtually all listeners laugh, and that’s the goal.

Aside from jokes, there are also a few genuinely impressive lyrical moments on this record. The opener, “Working on a Song,” perfectly captures the life a song inside the mind of a writer, including both the comical frustrations of feeling it so near to being finished and the heartfelt connection a writer feels to his craft. “The Ghost of Johnny Cash,” appears later on the record and it is at once haunting yet beautiful. Todd celebrates the icons of the genre with the tail of Loretta Lynn meeting the ghostly form of the late Johnny Cash for a dance in the rain.

Todd has a trend on this record of writing specific stories about figures in music history. “Cowboy Jack Clement’s Waltz,” tells the story of its namesake, a very important producer and friend of the late Johnny Cash, mainly cobbled together from stories told to him by John Carter Cash. “Watering Flowers in the Rain,” as its preceding explanation says, tells the story of a longtime roady for Elvis Presley and the frustration he felt at never taking the spotlight himself. These are some of the most interesting tracks on the album and they’re aided heavily by the spoken sections that lead into them.

Another strong addition to Snider’s arsenal is a fantastically well-played harmonica. It’s perhaps most notable on a track like “Framed,” but it’s an ever-present element of virtually the entire album. His ear for melody is, of course, the driving force behind the harmonica’s effectiveness, but the sharp and almost abrasive tone which is allowed to remain in the final mix without overly softening the edges.

Todd Snider said that recording this album was a result of a recurring dream in which Johnny Cash himself would wake him up from his resting place on the floor in the center of the Cash Cabin Studio, which is incidentally the site where Cash passed away. When Todd opened his eyes, Cash would point to the engineers booth and say “you’re missing it.” And so, Snider set out to make an album at the studio which would make The Man in Black Proud and I think he succeeded.

With excellent songwriting, simple production, and heartfelt performances, Cash Cabin Sessions, Vol. 3 is one of the best folk albums of this decade, and a treat for fans of Snider or the larger Americana movement as a whole.

9/10

AMAZON LINK: https://amzn.to/2UbiiiB

Thoughts on the Tragic Tale of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”

“This Land is Your Land,” may have had it’s teeth removed as a criticism of nationalism and a response to Berlin’s classic patriotic piece, but Woody Guthries spirit is that of complete devotion and reckless defense of one’s beliefs, and that spirit is inseparable from the history of music, regardless of political affiliation.

     In 2016, Budweiser announced that they would temporarily rebrand their flagship beer as “America,” with a can featuring the words “from the redwood forests, to the gulf stream waters, this land was made for you and me” on their label. They’re quoting one of the greatest songwriters to ever live, Woody Guthrie. Budweiser knows this, but what they, and most Americans, don’t know is that Guthrie would be rolling in his grave if he’d known about this usage of his writing. Why? To answer that question, we’ll need to get to know Woody Guthrie a bit better.

   Guthrie is one of the most infamous writers of all time, and the godfather of folk music. His very long list of famous fans includes Johnny Cash, Pete Seeger, Jerry Garcia, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen, and most notably, Bob Dylan. He was a skinny, scruffy-haired man who rode trains from town to town brandishing a small, black guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists,” emblazoned on the body. This was the early days of folk music, nearly a decade before the formation of classic groups like The Weavers, who were later ostracized after being accused of communist sympathies. For The Weavers, these accusations were false, but had they been made against Guthrie, they would’ve stuck.

   Woody wrote columns for a Communist magazine called The People’s World from the summer of 1939 through 1940 and became close friends with John Steinbeck, author of The Grapes of Wrath. He found a job for KFVD in California playing what was then known as “hillbilly music,” along with Maxine “Lefty Lou” Crissman on the radio. Late in 1939, however, after the outbreak of World War II and the Nonaggression Pact signed between Germany and the Soviet Union, American opinion became to shift heavily toward the patriotic, a trend that still reverberates today. Because of this, Guthrie’s Communist sympathies were seen as a liability by KFVD, who cut him loose soon after.

   Woody left California and landed in New York, sleeping on the couch of American activist and actor, Will Geer. It was here that he recorded his first LP, Dust Bowl Ballads, comprised of the protest songs he had played on the radio in California. While listening to the radio, Guthrie became annoyed by what he perceived to be an overplaying of Irving Berlin’s classic patriotic tune, “God Bless America.”

   The purpose of playing Berlin’s song was obvious. The goal was to inspire patriotism and a dedication to American ideals in response to the outbreak of the World War. This would come to be played even more often as the struggle went on and in the Cold War, the song would be used to encourage the dichotomy of America as a Christian nation as apposed to the “godless Communists” in the Soviet Union. Having been persecuted and driven across the country, away from his family still in California, for his political beliefs, Guthrie chose to double down. He did that through writing his own response to Irving Berlin in the form of his most infamous song, “This Land is Your Land.”

   To be clear, “This Land,” as it was originally titled, was not an anti-American song, far from it. It was, instead, a song meant to praise the beauties of the American land and criticize the  issues which Guthrie believed to be ruining this, namely private property laws and the US government’s disregard for the poor. There are two key verses, rarely, if ever, played today, which demonstrate this.

   “Was a high wall there that tried to stop me. A sign was painted said: Private Property, but on the back side it didn’t say nothing — This land was made for you and me.” This appears near the end of the song, which tells the story of Woody taking a long walk across the country, admiring the beauty of the land, only to have it interrupted by this wall. The final verse goes on to describe the other interruption to his walk.

   “One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple by the Relief Office I saw my people . As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if this land was made for you and me.” This verse originally ended, as did every other verse, with the line “God blessed America for me,” a more direct call to Berlin’s original track.

   Today, the song’s original protest roots have been all but lost. Guthrie passed away in 1967 at the age of 55 after suffering from Huntington’s Disease for many years, and living out the final years of his life in a psychiatric ward, having divorced his wife and left his family, including a young Arlo Guthrie, a few years prior. In 1961, he met Bob Dylan, who had privately fallen in love with Guthrie’s music and style and chosen to model his own career after Woody.

   Guthrie is one of the most iconic and controversial writers of all time, a devout Communist, and a staunch critic of the nationalism he saw developing in American media and discourse. Yet, he is often known to non-fans as the guy who wrote a patriotic folk tune that landed on the side of a Budweiser can. So, is Guthrie a failure? Absolutely not.

   While his name may not be in the mouths of everyday music fans, and his song may be misrepresented today, his style, his staunch commitment to his beliefs, and his decision to express those beliefs in his music live on today. Bob Dylan carried the torch and became a leading man in the cultural fight for civil rights, the rock and roll movement carried Guthrie’s torch to openly detest US action in Vietnam, and it still lives on in much of the politically charged rap music today.

   “This Land is Your Land,” may have had it’s teeth removed as a criticism of nationalism and a response to Berlin’s classic patriotic piece, but Woody Guthries spirit is that of complete devotion and reckless defense of one’s beliefs, and that spirit is inseparable from the history of music, regardless of political affiliation.

HEAR THIS LAND IS YOUR LANDhttps://open.spotify.com/track/7CNaYAdLyi86kofGafReiT

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.

5/10

HEAR DROWNING MAN: https://open.spotify.com/album/5TjDN2hfsgNWVtP8Ew56Xx