Category Archives: Album Reviews

Lady Antebellum is Primed for Stardom

Lady Antebellum – “Lady Antebellum” (2008 Capital Nashville)

It’d be very easy to dismiss Lady Antebellum as Capitol Nashville’s attempt at capturing the same audience that Sugarland has managed to capture for Mercury.  In a sense they are similar.  Both groups are songwriting collectives, both groups got their start in Georgia, and both groups scored big debut singles.  But that’s where the similarities end.  Aside from Lady A (as they call themselves) being two dudes and one girl instead of the other way around, the trio alternates vocals between Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott.  The group also has a deep pedigree in the music business.  Kelley is the brother of successful pop singer Charles Kelley while Hillary is the daughter of Grammy winning vocalist Linda Davis.  The third member of the group is lead guitarist Dave Haywood, Charles Kelley’s long-time friend.

After forming in 2006, the trio quickly attracted a following and signed with Capital Nashville in 2007.  By the end of 2007, they had released their debut single “Love Don’t Live Here.” Currently just outside of the Top 10 at country radio, the single has succeeded at planting the seed of anticipation for the trio’s self-titled debut album.  The production has a ‘just-enough’ glossy sound backing up Kelley’s soulful lead vocal while the remaining members of Lady Antebellum showcase that this trio has been listening to the singer-songwriting super group records of the 1970s.  “Lookin’ For A Good Time”  finds Kelley singing lead vocals for the verses while Hillary Scott takes the leads on the chorus.  It’s a catchy, feel-good, story about ‘not promising anything more than one night.’

All We’d Ever Need” finds Scott and Kelley trading verses of a lyrically strong contemporary country song tailor-made for a show-stopping moment in concert.  This is a song Tim and Faith or Garth and Trisha would’ve loved to have cut.  It was the very first song that Scott/Kelley and guitarist Dave Haywood wrote together and after hearing it, I can see why they had reason to form a group.   Scott takes the lead on “Long Gone” and it makes sense since it’s a song she wrote prior to creating Lady Antebellum with Haywood and Kelley.  While Kelley has a rich baritone ‘soulful’ voice, Scott’s own voice reminds me at times of Natalie Maines and of course her own mother. 

Teaming up with superstar songwriter Tom Douglas, Lady Antebellum wrote “I Run To You” and despite the recycled song title, the song may just be the best track on the record.  Hitting some nice falsetto notes Kelley and Scott take turns about singing all the ways one can run away from something and then by the chorus, they run away from pressures of life back to the security of love.  A little optimistic? Maybe.  But the driving pop/rock melody backing up the words is what really sells the song.  It’s a hit.  “Love’s Lookin’ Good On You” and “Slow Down Sister” both have fun, drive with the windows down melodies that fit summer radio playlists like a glove.  They’re not deep but they’re entertaining.  In what seems to be a time-tested country music tradition, Lady A ends their record with a philosophical, uplifting story song in “One Day You Will.”  It’s another ‘event’ song for the trio and one that could do very well on radio if chosen as a single. 

With big hooks, glossy pop-ish production from veteran Paul Worley and songwriter Victoria Shaw (“The River” by Garth Brooks), and strong songwriting, Lady Antebellum’s self-titled debut gives a label a lot to work with. Add in their comely looks and what we’ve got here is a package that is fully developed and ripe for country stardom. So while the trio is similar to Sugarland, they have more than enough artistic merit, and vocal power, to stand on their own as a real threat to knock Rascal Flatts off of its perch as the best contemporary country group.

Lady Antebellum 

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Johnny Reid – “Kicking Stones”

Kicking Stones (Open Road/Universal Canada) 

Johnny Reid (Open Road Recordings/Universal Canada) 

5

Canada has released some of the most interesting country music in the last few years.  However, unless you live there or near the border, you’ve most likely not heard much of it.  One of the most dynamic and versatile artists to appear recently is Johnny Reid.  Originally from Scotland, Reid began stoking the fires of a country music career a decade ago.  After being in Nashville a few years, Reid signed to Canada’s Open Road Recordings.  His first album, “Born To Roll” brought him big star success and even found one hit “You Still Owe Me” get recorded by Canadian band Emerson Drive (it is a recent hit in the States for them as well) and Ty Herndon.   Reid’s sophomore release, “Kicking Stones” has been in rotation in my ipod and stereo for many weeks now and is as good as any album from the states. 

Fans of T. Graham Brown and Joe Cocker should really enjoy the soul/country/rock style employed by Reid.  Even with mandolins and fiddles propelling “Out Of The Blue,”  There’s a distinctly worldly flare to a song that chronicles unexpected happiness.  From the na-na-na-na’s to the pan flutes, there’s a distinct ‘international’ flare to a song that has lyrics that discuss unexpected happiness.  “Love Sweet Love” features a horn section that at times recalls Memphis and other times Motown.  It’s not ‘traditional country’ in any sense but Reid sings the hell out of the song. 

There is often a misconception about a man with deep, whiskey-scarred vocals not being able to sing with range.  Like Joe Cocker, Johnny shows on the beautiful and simple ballad “Thank You.”  Primed to be a wedding anthem, the song has a vibe that’s not unlike “You Raised Me Up.”  It soars and only a real singer with good range can sing a track like this.  Only two songs on the record weren’t co-written by Reid and one of them is his cover of the early 80’s Tom Jones hit “Darlin’.”  Johnny Reid simply knocks the song out of the park.  In fact, it’s a re-defining remake. 

Collin Raye previously recored “What I Did For Love” and where his version came off as ‘busy,’ Reid’s version is rough-around-the edges but with smooth flourishes courtesy of producer/co-writer Brent Maher.  The instrumental breakdown, missing from the Raye version, is simply beautiful with soaring fiddles and accordion and mandolin.   It’s a nicely, done ballad sung with conviction.  Speaking of singing with conviction, Johnny Reid simply knocks the album ending title track out of the park.  “Kicking Stones” is an autobiographical song that chronicles Reid’s life.  The melody features acoustic guitars, b-3, an orchestra and the topper being beautiful bag pipes.  Johnny Reid is a distinctive vocalist who, unlike Cocker and T. Graham Brown, writes most of his material.  “Kicking Stones” is a record from a distinctive artist that deserves to be a star in the USA. 

Early 2008 Country Album Round-up

 Since it’s nearly impossible to give every album released an in-depth report, I have decided to present my thoughts on a few of the recently released records with a grade.  At the very least, these mini-reviews aren’t Maxim-like ‘educated-guesses.’  I’ve actually listened to them. 

Allison Moorer

Allison Moorer – Mockingbird

(New Line Records)

2.5

I have been a fan of Allison Moorer’s since her first appearance in “The Horse Whisperer” years ago.  The idea of her doing a cover record was a good one.  However, I don’t think she should’ve left it with just female songwriter/artists.  While a unique take, the whole album leaves me wanting more.  Take her spin on Joni Mitchell‘s classic “Both Sides Now.”  That song was brilliantly re-worked by Mitchell herself so Allison had a lot to live up to and she simply didn’t do it.  “Ring of Fire” is reworked here but it sounds too weird to my ears.   A couple songs are given brilliant arrangements and one of them is “Dancing Barefoot.” 

Dolly

Dolly Parton – Backwoods Barbie

(Dolly Records)

3

Dolly Parton hasn’t released a mainstream country record in almost two decades.  She’s dabbled in bluegrass and gospel and even tossed out a patriotic record for fans to devour.  While critically acclaimed, the bluegrass records didn’t set the charts on fire so Dolly decided to return to what she knows.  Perhaps one of country music’s greatest songwriters, Dolly also sings quite well for someone who’s 62 years old. She could actually teach some of the new female artists a thing or to.  The record starts off with the criminally ignored “Better Get To Livin’.”   I would’t have expected Fine Young Cannibals‘ “Drive Me Crazy” to be a good choice for a country song but Dolly makes the song work with her charming persona.  It’s still not very ‘country’ as some other tracks are on “Barbie” though.  Dolly shows her roots on the stone country title track and current radio single “Jesus & Gravity” is the most mainstream song on the record and if it cannot get Dolly back on the airwaves as a solo artist, nothing can.

Doug Stone

Doug Stone “My Turn”

(Progression Music Group)

two

It might seem like it’s been a cat’s lifetime since Doug Stone has been in the public eye but his “My Turn” record proves that he’s still hard at work.  Released in late 2007 (but given a digital release in ’08), the album shows that Doug still has the goods as a vocalist.  The biggest problem for Doug is his love for anonymous ballads that derailed his career in the late 1990s.  Aside from “Don’t Tell Mama,” a cautionary drinking and driving song, there are no “I’d be Better off (In A Pine Box)” tracks to be found here.  Only more of the “More Love” types of songs.  This is a record only the loyalist of his fans will enjoy. 

 Trent Willmon

Trent Willmon – Broken In

(Compadre Records/Music World Records)

3

He released two albums on the Columbia label before parent Sony merged with BMG.  Since Willmon barely sold anything, the Texan rancher was part of the corporate artist purge (along with Rodney Crowell and Jon Randall).   Compadre Records signed him up and released a fine ballad “There Is A God” that got lost at country radio.  The title track is the new single and its finding more of an audience.  The problem with the record seems to be that Willmon doesn’t know rather to ditch Nashville for Texas or Texas for Nashville.  It’s a quandary that was present on his first two records as well.  Still, Trent does have a strong voice, writes well and has a few tracks worth seeking out.  “Cold Beer and A Fishing Pole” is as country as they come while the Brett James/Ashley Monroe penned “The Truth” has potential to be a big hit at country radio. 

durrance12.jpg 

Eric Durrance – I Lost It All (EP)

(Wind-up Records)

two

There’s no denying the fact that Eric Durrance has vocal and writing talent.  What I don’t understand is why Wind-up, a label new to the Nashville ‘game,’ would release this digital EP now.  It seems to be under-produced. While this is usually good for a demo, it doesn’t work as the first major release for the artist and label in the genre.  The title track follows the same path as Emerson Drive‘s “Moments” does and it packs as strong of an emotional impact to boot. While I actually love the acoustic nature of the song, I expected a full band to back up Durrance after the first verse.  It’s a problem that plagues the whole effort.  “Wait ‘Til I Get There” was a recent free iTunes “Discovery Download” and with the right production touches, it’s a smash hit.    The closing track, “And Then Some,” which I first heard on songwriter Dan Demay’s own record, closes out the EP with a similarly themed song as the title track. My basic problem with the EP is that country music isn’t exclusively ‘acoustic.’

Tift Merritt (Fantasy Records) 

Tift Merritt – Another Country

(Fantasy Records)

4.5

I fell in love with Tift Merritt the first time I heard her major label debut “Bramble Rose.”  After the acoustic soul “Tambourine,” Tift was unceremoniously dropped by Lost Highway Records and in between that time Tift moved to France and, despite not knowing the language, began to thrive again artistically.  The results are present on “Another Country.”  The title track absolutely sparkles while “My Heart Is Free” rocks and recalls her last record.  There’s something about that crystal clear voice that just hits me hard.  There really isn’t a bad track on “Another Country,” including the album closing French track “Mille Tendressess.”

Jim Lauderdale (Yep Roc)

Jim Lauderdale – Honey Songs

(Yep Roc Records)

4.5

Jim Lauderdale is probably known to most country music fans as the writer of many country songs (for example, George Strait‘s “We Really Shouldn’t Be Doing This“)  but there are more fans out there who know of Jim’s Grammy winning stint as a bluegrass performer (with and without Ralph Stanley).  On “Honey Songs” the prolific artist returns to his roots-rock/country hybrid that he’s been playing since his mid-1990’s days as a Warner Brothers artist.  Featuring a short 10 tracks, “Honey Songs” is the work of a man who’s making music for the sake of making music.  “Honey Suckle Honey Pie” kicks off the record with a rollicking’ melody that recalls Dwight Yoakam while “It’s Finally Sinking In” sits right next to the stone country tracks “Hittin’ It Hard” and “Borrow Some Summertime.” The latter of which wouldn’t be outta place on a Strait or Alan Jackson record. 

Those of you keeping record at home may notice that I haven’t covered the two most recent releases.  That’s because both Alan Jackson‘s “Good Time Ashton Shepherd‘s “Sounds So Good” will both be features here in seperate, longer reviews.  

Truth in Advertising?

Chris Cagle - My Life’s Been A Country Song (C) 2008 Capital Records.  Used With Permission.

Chris Cagle – “My Life’s Been A Country Song”

Capital Records (2008)

3

 Chris Cagle has stated that his career goal is to have teenage fans crank up his music much in the same way he did with AC/DC.  When I heard the “Anywhere But Here” CD in 2005, I immediately felt that he could fill a similar void in country music: just plain ole party music.  He even started out that way with the song “My Love Goes On and On and On…” and later “Chicks Dig It.” The song on “Anywhere But Here” that grabbed me was “Hey Y’all.”  It was a groovy little song yet somehow the label didn’t release it and instead chose to release ballad after ballad to radio.  So with his own statement and my own feelings about where Cagle could turn out to be a huge star in country music, instead of a ‘b’ or ‘c’ level artist, does he manage to do it with his new release, “My Life’s Been A Country Song?” 

In a word, no.

However you slice it, “My Life Is A Country Song” isn’t gonna showcase Cagle as the country version of AC/DC.  There are a couple of songs that do come close.  One of them is “It’s Good To Be Back.”  I first heard this song on the little watched “American Band” music contest.  Former Warner Brothers recording artist Sixwire sang the song, which members Andy Childs andSteve Mandilewrote, and the judges on the show said it was radio ready.  And I didn’t doubt that then and I don’t doubt it now.  The song is a radio smash.  No matter who sings it.  Cagle sings the fast-paced lyrics quite well and it is a song that reminds me of his old songs. 

As good as the song is, the rest of the album slides into mid-tempo ‘love and loss’ songs or lite heartland rock.  Cagle is an engaging vocalist and, for the first time in his career, has recorded a record where he didn’t write one of the songs.  The lead-off single, “What Kind of Gone,”  is a good example of Cagle’s career so far.  It’s also a perfect example of what is wrong with country music these days.  The song’s lyrics find Cagle wondering aloud about all the ways that “gone” can be interpreted.  He then wonders if it’s a ‘whiskey’ or ‘a couple of beers’ night at the bar.  The song itself is catchy, performed well and produced just as we expect country music to be produced (it’s the best Cagle’s sounded, no doubt because he changed producers) but how many of these kinds of songs does country radio need to play.  It just rides the fence and doesn’t pick any kind of side.  That’s what’s wrong.  I generally like Craig Wiseman‘s songs but his “No Love Songs” I just don’t get (even if the hook is pretty good).  The spoken verses are just too much for me. 

With a title like “I Don’t Wanna Live” you’d expect Cagle to be singing a stone-country song but what instead comes out of the speakers is a Keith Urban-like track.  The lyrics of the song, written by Brett James and Blair Daly, are fine but they really could’ve benefited with a few fiddles and steel guitars in addition to the tuned up Telecasters and drum loops.  It’s a middle of the road “I want you back” kind of song that doesn’t help lead any credence to Cagle’s hopes of getting those teens to listen to the record.  “Keep Me From Loving You” DOES manage to prominently feature fiddles and the steel guitar is mixed in the background somewhere and that, along with well placed b-3 and harmony vocals manages to recall the 90s era of country music.  It’s a nice diversion from the other tracks.  

Rhett Akins co-wrote “Little Sundress” and the song is a fun little summer song.  If “Good To Be Back” isn’t released as a single for the summer, then Capital Nashville better release this track.  The southern rock melody isn’t bad and the fiddle backed vocal helps set a fun mood.  Also, since it is an Akins song, the song doesn’t head towards Rascal Flatts territory.  Again with the title of “My Life’s Been A Country Song,” I expected at least noticeable fiddles and maybe a touch of steel guitars and, fortunately, Cagle and Scott Hendricks deliver.  As far as the lyrics go, Cagle should’ve done what Garth often does and added or changed a verse of the song (without taking credit) to fit his own crazy life, because he did go through some “country song” moments.  Still, as it is, the song is a strong, radio-ready song that bridges the gap of older country songs and modern country songs. 

In the end Chris Cagle has made a decent enough mainstream country record that has four or five single-worthy songs.  The “filler” tracks, however, are not any better than his own self-written tracks.  But I guess if his and the label’s goal was to get him back on radio then this album truly is truth in advertising, even if it often is exactly what is wrong with country radio. 

The Worst Album From 2008?

Laura Bryna - “Trying To Be Me”

 Laura Bryna

Trying To Be Me (Equity Music Group)

half

Equity Records has found great success with Little Big Town and marginal success with Carolina Rain and label co-owner Clint Black.  But they’ve failed to find much of any success with any of their other artists.   They’ve released multiple singles on former ‘big’ acts like Carolyn Dawn Johnson and Mark Wills, yet when it came time to release a new album from their stable of artists, the label chose to release Laura Bryna‘s “Trying To Be Me.” 

What were they thinking?

“Life Is Good”  starts off the record and despite being produced by a well-known producer, the song just sounds like it’s a demo that was shipped to get a label deal.  Bryna’s vocals get processed up the wazoo while the whole affair just sounds tinny, particularly the fiddles and mandolins.  Talk about bad first impressions.  “Maybe She Fell” cribs the melody of Sons of the Desert‘s “Whatever Comes First” to back a lyric that deals with domestic abuse.  The song is just a Martina B-side.   “Make A Wish” not only has the same name as a previously released single by Cancer survivor Kevin Sharp but it also cribs the same theme.  Where Sharp came off as sincere, Bryna’s song comes off as overwrought and unnecessary.  I have no doubt that Laura’s inspiration was in the right place, but the song could’ve been much better.   “Room 228” is a 3 minute bag of story-song cliche’s while a winning melody cannot save “According To The Radio” due to Bryna’s husky, Heidi Neufield-lite vocals (there’s no rasp to this Maryland native’s vocals).  The lyrics once again rival ‘grrl-pwr’ of Martina McBride.  Ugh.

And therein lies the problem with “Trying To Be Me.”  Laura really isn’t trying to be herself.  Aside from looking pretty on the album cover (and I’d argue that one too), Laura really doesn’t do anything remotely noteworthy.  She’s an average singer with average to below average songs.  I don’t see where this album has any true market or future.  It is a candidate for the worst release of 2008. 

Musical Observations and Opinions from a Free-Thinking Roughneck or a Cash Grab?

Trace Adkins

Trace Adkins – American Man: Greatest Hits Volume, II (Capital Nashville) 

 3.5

It seems like many established artist find themselves releasing ‘Greatest Hits’ collections when the Holiday season rolls around but when Trace Adkins American Man: Greatest Hits, Volume II” was announced as an upcoming release I was stunned.  It seems like almost yesterday that Adkins and his label Capitol Nashville released “Greatest Hits: Volume One.”  And, in music terms, the album was.  It was barely four  years and three album releases ago.  Those three albums, 2003’s “Comin’ On Strong,” 2005’s “Songs About Me,” and 2006’s “Dangerous Man,” served up 9 hits, of which two or three were ‘only’ Top 20 hits.  So, it didn’t make sense and neither did Trace’s excuse for releasing “American Man;” ‘A pressing career opportuntity. ‘

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Garth Fills a Void With The Ultimate Hits

Ultimate Hits

 Garth Brooks  – “The Ulitmate Hits” (Pearl Records)

5

For about 10 years Garth Brooks was an undeniable force. He went to places few, if any, country music artists went before. He topped the Billboard album charts, he had songs cross-over without remixes; he sold out concert after concerts. Even if ‘traditionalists’ didn’t much like his brand of post-(Merle)Haggard country mixed with a heavy dose of 70’s pop/rock, Brooks brought country music into the mainstream in a way it has yet to leave. Sure, it’s not pop but the genre certainly still has a firm grip on Garth’s style. Garth ‘pioneered’ it and artists like Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney continue to do remarkably well with it. So, with that said, the ‘retired’ Garth Brooks has returned with his first career-spanning greatest hits package. The phrase “career-spanning” is an apt description because, ever the marketing juggernaut, Garth has re-released all of his previous releases in various incarnations about a dozen times. However, his lone retrospective, “The Hits” was a limited-release of 10 million albums that were sold between 1994 and 1997 or so. Garth even buried the ‘masters’ of that record underneath his Hollywood walk-of-fame star to ensure that his label at the time, Capital Records, wouldn’t continue to repackage his stuff. Continue reading