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

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Maren Morris Gives Her All on Mixed Sophomore Project

GIRLS is at times fun, at times disappointing, but at every turn frustratingly less than what it could have been.

Maren Morris is a pop-country singer from Nashville, Tennessee. She debuted with a self-titled EP in 2015 which found massive success and put Morris on the map and landed her a deal with Columbia Records. The EP was rereleased on the label with yet another wave of positive reception and kicked off a tour as a supporting act for Keith Urban. In 2016, she released her debut LP, Hero which was yet another impressive success. The album peaked at number five on the Billboard charts and netted four Grammy nominations including Best Country Album and a win for Best Country Solo Performance on “My Church.” Early this month, Maren was announced as a third member of the supergroup, The Highwomen, joining forces with Brandi Carlile and Amanda Shires with a fourth slot filled by a revolving door of women, including Sheryl Crow and Margo Price among others. With her career booming, Maren Morris’ second LP, GIRL is here, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

It’s clear from the first moment that Morris is perfectly willing to experiment on this project. The opening title track and the closer, “Shade,” are especially notable, both for their genre-bending styles and their fairly unique chord progressions. She’s certainly not reinventing the wheel, but what small risks she does take pay off thanks to a full commitment on each cut and the refreshing nature of hearing a new idea in modern, mainstream country.

Melodically, this album is extremely listenable. Tracks like “Gold Love,” or “To Hell & Back,” will be stuck in your head for days thanks to Maren’s ability to write extremely singable vocal lines. While much of the instrumental work behind her is a bit cookie cutter, Morris’ work picks up much of the slack.

This brings us to what is, by far, this records strongest quality and, at a few points, its saving grace. Maren Morris’ vocal performances are purely excellent. Even on a relatively silly song like “The Feels,” every second is believable because of her passion and energy. The same is true for “Great Ones,” later in the tracklist. Yet again, we have a song that is fairly forgettable if not for the powerful and dynamic voice leading it.

This being said, much of the record comes up mixed for me and the lyrics are one such area. Perhaps the best song on the entire project, “A Song for Everything,” is exactly what I ask for from this kind of an album. We have a unique theme, a few quirky turns of phrase, and an overall fun listen. Much of the album, however, feels somewhat lazy and rushed, with several lines coming off as cheesy and shallow.

Instrumentation, on the other hand, is almost uniformly weak across the entire runtime. Aside from the Brothers Osborne feature on “All My Favorite People,” essentially every other second of the album is completely uninventive and thoughtless. “Make Out With Me,” is likely the worst offender here as its structure seems to evoke the kinds of lush, orchestral arrangements of artists like Amanda Shires and Sturgill Simpson, the actual education just leans on a boring, shallow synth and a few cheap sounding violins.

Even worse than this is the production. Tracks like “Flavor,” and “Good Woman,” feel totally lifeless, not to mention the poorly placed effects. This is especially irritating on a song like “Common,” where strong lyrics and a fairly enjoyable Brandi Carlile feature are ruined by flat mixing and boring production.

Branching off from the production comes the record’s worst quality: the over reliance on bottled, looped drums. This is a pervasive trend across country music, largely driven by acts like Florida Georgia Line, in which a real drummer is replaced with computerized drums. The goal is to save money and modernize the sound a bit, but instead it sucks the life out nearly every track on which it’s tried and the same is true for GIRLS. “RSVP,” and “The Bones,” are especially egregious, but nearly all of this album suffers as a result of this choice.

All in all, GIRLS is a fun listen. It’s a good sophomore project for Maren Morris and she puts in quite the effort, but it’s undercut by a lack of such effort from everyone else involved.

GIRLS is at times fun, at times disappointing, but at every turn frustratingly less than what it could have been.

4/10

CLASSIX REVIEW: Tom T. Hall’s “In Search of a Song”

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.

Tom T. Hall is a country and bluegrass icon from Olive Hill, Kentucky. He debuted with two albums in 1969 and two more in 1970, all released on Mercury Records, who’m he’d work with all the way through the mid-90’s. He was known as “the Storyteller,” among fans because of his ability to weave narratives throughout each of his songs, and by the early 70’s, he was a staple in the country music world. 

He was also known for what he called “song hunting” trips, where he would travel through rural areas not unlike his small hometown. On these trips, he’d take notes and have conversations with locals in order to get a feel for the area he was visiting. Later, he’d reopen his notes and begin to write music, attempting to capture the spirit of the towns he’d just visited. This became a common practice in Hall’s music, certainly playing a role in the continually high quality of his output over his many years, but his skill as an author and story teller simply can’t be ignored. He would go on to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in late 2018, but before all of that, the year was 1971 when Tom T. Hall would release In Search of a Song. It’s the first full album to have resulted from one of his song-hunting trips and hailed as one of the best country and bluegrass records of all time, but is it all that good? Let’s discuss.

The album’s best quality comes in Hall’s lyricism, particularly when he’s telling a story. Tracks like “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” and “The Little Lady Preacher,” carry direct narratives, one of which is quite moving and the latter a bit comical. The ability to weave a storyline across verses is somewhat lost in modern country music, but Hall was one of the best to ever do it. His rhyme schemes are simple and his stories are remarkably descriptive, not to mention inthralling.

While the traditional narrative structures are interesting, he also has a talent for what I would call descriptive narrative. On tracks like my favorite on the album, “Trip to Hyden,” “A Million Miles to the City,” or “Kentucky, February 27, 1971,” Hall uses storylines to provide description of and commentary on the area he writes about. The story becomes cursory to the experience, and thanks to the fantastically visual writing, listeners are able to experience the towns and people first themselves.

In addition to these two styles, each track is decorated with Tom’s unique sense of humor. The most obvious and well known example of this comes on “Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs,” but tracks like “Ramona’s Revenge,” and “Tulsa Telephone Book,” are colored with subtle jokes and comedy throughout. His real skill as a lyricist shows in the way his humor and personality permeate every aspect of every track. Hall is always able to use himself as a sympathetic main character, or at least narrator, thanks to the many jokes and relatable thoughts he expresses throughout.

On top of all this, the instrumentation is fantastic. From the howling harmonica on “It Sure Can Get Cold in Des Moines,” to the sweet guitar on “Second Hand Flowers,” and even the surprising rock influences on “L.A. Blues,” each track is perfectly played by a talented cast of musicians, many of whom are Nashville legends in their own right and fellow members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. It’s a veritable who’s who of 70’s Nashville studio musicians and each of them does fantastic work on In Search of a Song.

Ultimately, In Search of a Song is one of the best country/bluegrass records of all time. Thanks to talented instrumentalists and an uncanny talent for lyricism, Tom T. Hall was able to craft a truly unique piece of country music that is still hailed to this day for it’s storytelling qualities.

Hall would go on to an incredible career in country music, largely aided by the success of this album, but In Search of a Song remains as a testament to an era and a style that scarcely exists today.

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