George Strait’s 30th Release is a Testament to Golden Age Nashville Music

Honky Tonk Time Machine is a strong release for fans of classic country which will please the audience it’s made for quite well, even if it doesn’t bring new fans in.

George Strait is a country music icon from Pearsall, Texas. He released 18 albums from the start of the 1980’s through the 1990’s, all of which went platinum. In total, Strait has released 23 platinum records, placing him third all time for the most gold and platinum releases, behind only Elvis and The Beatles. He also holds the title for the most number one singles of any artist in any genre. He’s largely seen as one of the most influential country artists of all time having toured consistently for multiple years and being named as “Artist of the Decade,” for his work in the 2000’s.

The album was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and Music City’s influence bleeds through every song, particularly in the tightness of the instrumentation. Paul Franklin, an absolute legend in country and outlaw music, helms the steel guitar which shines blindingly on “Some Nights,” but decorates virtually every cut perfectly. Bluegrass icon Stuart Duncan plays violin and mandolin as well, both of which are particularly noticeable on one of the album’s lead singles, “Codigo.” As is often the case with modern records from country icons, the instrumental personnel on Honky Tonk Time Machine is absolutely stacked.

Not to be outdone, however, George Strait gives quite a few impressive vocal performances himself. On “Sometimes Love,” for example, his tight runs and thick baritone timbre are pure country and represent a sound that Strait himself pioneered. He’s even more impressive on “Old Violin,” in which he sings with quite a bit of sincerity and vulnerability about coming to grips with his age and waning status within the industry. Ultimately, George’s voice still holds up to this day thanks to his soft touch and laid back style.

The strongest point to the record is fairly multifaceted, but can be generally summed up as great songwriting. Lyrically, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but the shortcomings are mostly hidden by the fact that several of these tracks are just a blast to listen to. From the very funny concept of a song like “Two More Wishes,” to the Buffet-esque, island dwelling sound of “Blue Water,” and even the roaring blues riffs on the title track, the majority of this album is simply enjoyable.

On top of this, some of the slower, sappier songs dodge the common pitfalls of being boring or overly idealistic by leaning heavily into the very most classic cliche’s of the genre. “God And Country Music,” is heavily driven by twanging violins and an impassioned vocal performance while “The Weight of the Badge,” benefits quite a bit from a well played acoustic guitar. These tracks will likely turn off many outsiders and casual fans, but if you appreciate the works of country’s golden age, these are quite enjoyable.

Best of all, George and his team of cowriters are fantastically talented when it comes to writing hooks and choruses. The opener, “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar,” for example, will rattle around the minds of listeners for days after the first listen thanks to an extremely catchy chorus. The closer and strongest cut, “Sing One With Willie,” is hilarious and extremely listenable, brought together perfectly by the singable hook which is sung by both Strait and fellow country legend, Willie Nelson.

I do have a few gripes with the album. As I said, the lyricism leaves quite a bit to be desired on most of the tracklist. On top of this, George’s voice doesn’t sit all that well in the more bluegrass inspired tracks like “Codigo.” The worst offense however, comes in the production by longtime Nashville engineer, Chuck Ainlay, who can’t seem to keep his hands out of these tracks. Most of the mixing is relatively inoffensive but the vocal tuning makes the lead feel somewhat lifeless very often and several of the harmonies just don’t quite mesh. This can often be ignored, but tracks like “Take Me Away,” and “What Goes Up,” are nearly ruined by the production.

All told, George Strait’s 30th LP is a fun addition to his legendary catalog. It’s full of enjoyable callbacks to the sound of country’s golden age with a few interesting twists and it’s extremely well performed, despite several hiccups along the way.

Honky Tonk Time Machine is a strong release for fans of classic country which will please the audience it’s made for quite well, even if it doesn’t bring new fans in.

5/10

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

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Florida Georgia Line Hits Rock Bottom and Just Keeps Digging

May God have mercy on our souls.

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. This came to head on the album’s diamond single, “Cruise,” which officially became the most most successful country single in music history. 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 criticize the duo, and many others like them, for their abandonment of more traditionally country qualities. Instead, the modern country movement, often referred to as “stadium country,” focuses on more relatable topics of drinking and women, while incorporating elements of other popular genres in an attempt to gain crossover popularity. With their self-titled EP in 2018, I thought they’d hit rock bottom, but after hearing Can’t Say I Ain’t Country, it appears they brought a shovel.

The most noticeable new addition to the FGL tool box on this LP is the several skits, including the “Tyler Got Him a Tesla” skit which opens the album. Each of these is not only remarkably unfunny and out of place on this album, but they leave me bewildered as to why they’re even here. As best I can tell, the character of Brother Jervel seems to be an egregiously stereotypical redneck and these extended phone messages are meant to remind us all that the duo hasn’t lost their roots. Instead, they’ve made four painfully uninteresting, 50 second clips that are somehow still the best part of the record.

Another blatant weak spot comes in the melodies of nearly every track. At some points, like the closer, “Blessings,” for example, the melody is so scatterbrained and unorganized that listeners find themselves increasingly lost as it goes along. On the other hand, tracks like “Simple,” or “Colorado,” are somehow simultaneously catchy and unlistenable. In a nearly 50 minute runtime, there is not one single interesting melody to be found.

Of course, we simply have to discuss the features on this album. Jason Derulo is so out of place on “Women,” that I simply can’t believe that he was ever even in the studio with either member of FGL, but instead recorded his part with one take from his home and sent it in. HARDY’s verse on the atrociously titled “Y’all Boys,” is absolutely impossible to differentiate from the vocals we’ve heard from the central duo. Jason Aldean all but takes over “Can’t Hide Red,” and somehow it’s just as bad as the rest of the album.

This horrid set of features still acts as a merciful rest from the all out assault on the eardrums that is FGL’s lead vocals. On songs like “People Are Different,” “Told You,” and “Sittin’ Pretty,” as well as the entirety of their catalog, these two men seem to be locked in a constant battle to make the least pleasing noise that has ever oozed from a human mouth. The mix of country twang, nasal belting, and inability to correctly pronounce words, all drenched in pitch correction creates a Frankenstein’s Monster of sound that can only be called genuinely horrifying.

Shockingly, we’ve barely scratched the surface here. The production on this album just can’t be ignored. This is especially in terms of production as I’ve never, in my life, heard a drum kit that is mixed worse than the one that poisons nearly all of these tracks. The cymbals on a track like “Talk You Out of It,” are nothing but pure static. I’ve never heard this before, especially from a major label, but they just use static as a cymbal. Additionally, a track like “Small Town,” utilizes the trap drumming which I’ve previously complained about on past FGL efforts, but that I admittedly found almost relieving compared to the unlistenable attempt at organic drumming we’re given on Can’t Say I Ain’t Country.

Finally, we have to talk lyrics. The title track, “Speed of Love,” and “Y’all Boys,” should honestly be given sections of the country music hall of fame as, officially, the worst lyrics ever put to paper. The amount of talent it takes to base a song around such horrible central ideas and yet somehow underperform even those ideas is truly awe-inspiring, and to think nearly every track on the album had at least three writers.

There is one more group that I’ll mention before wrapping up. “Like You Never Had It,” and “Swerve,” find themselves here, grouped together by the simple fact that they are so remarkably unlistenable, abhorrently ill-conceived, and just generally awful that my abilities as a music critic just fall short. There is no reason why these songs should exist and they can’t be described, only experienced.

In conclusion, Can’t Say I Ain’t Country has all but broken me as a music listener. It is lyrically, melodically, instrumentally, and technically vapid, leaving no room for enjoyment. All of these complaints are multiplied by the fact that FGL is and will likely remain one of the most successful country acts on the planet.

May God have mercy on our souls.

0/10

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

Loretta Lynn Pairs with John Carter Cash For Powerful Album with Legacy Records

Wouldn’t It Be Great avoids the trappings of sentimentality, for the most part, and instead presents the image of an icon continuing to master her craft.

     Loretta Lynn is a legend at a caliber that very few ever reach. She’s been a member of the Grand ‘Ole Opry for more than 50 years, featured in the County Music Hall of Fame, won four Grammys, and even received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama in 2013. After a studio career that spans 41 albums and 55 years, Lynn is now reaching the twilight of her career and she’s doing so with grace.

   Her 2017 album, Full Circle was nominated for the Best Country Album award at the 59th Grammy awards, and having signed with Legacy Records, she doesn’t seem to be done yet. This is especially the case due to the recent resurgence of the outlaw and traditional country styles. Wouldn’t It Be Great released earlier this week and it is yet another great addition to her catalog.

   Lynn’s voice on this record is especially impressive, as she still sounds fantastic after her very long career. This is especially true on her higher, more open notes in tracks like “I’m Dying for Someone to Live For,” or the opening title track. She sings with a power and control that just doesn’t exist in modern country music.

   This is made all the more impressive by the fantastic instrumentation on this album, which is easily it’s best quality. Sam Bush’s fiddle on “Another Bridge to Burn,” is just pure bluegrass and the electric guitars on “Don’t Come Home from Drinkin’” set the perfect tone for such a classic of country music. The bedrock to all of this is, of course, Mike Bub on the upright bass who holds down every song with an active, leading bass line. This instrumentation, more so than anything else, is what sets Wouldn’t It Be Great apart form other recent releases from older country icons.

   This large band and wide pallet is masterfully helmed by John Carter Cash on production. The only son of Johnny Cash and June Carter, John is quickly becoming one of the best producers in country music with his simple but elegant style. His stereo imaging gives tracks like “Lulie Vars,” or “These ‘Ole Blues,” a very organic feel and he has a good ear for which instruments need to take center stage.

   While the album carries plenty of crooning ballads, it is at its best when its fun. Listen to songs like “Ruby’s Stool,” or my personal favorite, “Ain’t No Time to Go,” which take almost an Irish slant with the loud fiddle, mandolin swells, and excellent banjo work by Larry Perkins. These tracks are best described as foot-tappers, and they’re some of the funnest country songs of the year.

   Lyrically, the album is a bit of a mixed bag. “My Angel Mother,” is a moving and well crafted tribute and “The Big Man,” is a clinic in how to write religious music. On the other hand, “God Makes No Mistakes,” is a good example of how not to write religious music as it comes off as repetitive and answers few of the questions it poses and may be the weakest song in the track list. In addition, “Darkest Days,” one of Lynn’s oldest songs, repurposed for this project, shows it’s age a bit in it’s simple writing and rhyme scheme.

   Many of the tracks on this album are older Loretta Lynn songs which she’s re-recorded for this album, and most of them gain something from the update. If one doesn’t, it would likely be the closer, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” This is, of course, one of the most iconic songs in the country cannon, but nothing is improved by recording it again, especially since it was recorded as recent as 2012 before this.

   On the other end of the album, the opener and title track is easily the highlight of this project. Loretta’s vocal is gentle but powerful, Randy Scruggs’ acoustic guitar lays an excellent bedding, and the lyrics are very well written, dealing with a woman asking her alcoholic husband to “throw the ‘ole glass crutch away.”

   Loretta Lynn is one of the all time greats and her pairing with the John Carter Cash is more than fitting. The vocals are excellent, the instrumental pallet is broad and exciting, and Loretta Lynn commands respect in a way that few artists ever are able to.

   Wouldn’t It Be Great avoids the trappings of sentimentality, for the most part, and instead presents the image of an icon continuing to master her craft.

8/10

HEAR WOULDN’T IT BE GREAT: https://open.spotify.com/album/4Uk33jRr1FKDvYBDy8J3Xr