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

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

Advertisements

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

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

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