Tuesday, 8 April 2014

ACM Awards: Recap

Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line practise for their ACM Awards performance.
They came back! Beloved Academy of Country Music Awards hosts Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan joined forces as Bluke to oversee one of the best shows so far. I live-tweeted the annual Las Vegas event from my chilly southern Manitoba home, and thoroughly enjoyed the high-profile celebration of trendy and timeless country music artists across the genre.

Bryan and Shelton opened things up with a couple semi-funny jokes and some awkward moments of silence after The Band Perry started the show with a rock-and-roll performance of Chainsaw that left dressed-up audience members with confetti in their hair. "If you don't like live music, then you need to go down the block and see Britney Spears," quipped Shelton on one of his better lines.

Unfortunately, that ultimately put salt in wound of the most controversial performance, when Rascal Flatts lead singer Gary LeVox got busted doing a bad lip-syncing job of Rewind. Viewers were all over the group on Twitter. It later came out that LeVox had simply lost his voice and didn't want to cancel. It was the right call, but even though it was only a day after, the explanation came too late. I think the lesson here is that social media has no patience.

People started complaining on Twitter after the cameras cut to Taylor Swift swaying to Darius Rucker's delivery of Wagon Wheel. Seriously, what's the problem with dancing?

The highlight of the night was most definitely Bluke's impersonation of Daft Punk. The two co-hosts dressed up in the mysterious duo's signature helmets and tuxedos and came on-stage to Get Lucky  before pulling off their helmets and startling viewers. Brilliant, just brilliant.

Besides all the hype and hoopla, though, there actually was really great music. This time it was Brad Paisley crashing parties, as he performed his new feel-good single River Bank from a packed local outdoor pool. Florida Georgia Line wowed viewers at home with a Luke Bryan duet – there were live bikers jumping ramps over fireworks behind them. I saw one Twitter user posted that the drummer must have been praying for no mess-ups, as that could have meant a tread mark on the face. Hunter Hayes seemed to be fighting a cold or something while singing Invisible, but still gave an inspiring performance for an inspiring song.

And of course, George Strait takes home Entertainer of the Year. I think that made everyone happy. There were a few Twitter feuds going on between nominees' fans beforehand, but when Strait won, everyone respected it and calmed down. Congrats on a long, outstanding career!

Make sure to check out more highlights at acmawards.com, and if you watched, let me know below what your favourite part of the show was!

Photo courtesy of acmcountry.com.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Album Review: HIGH NOON

Jerrod Niemann seems to be one of those artists who initially broke through the national country music scene, then dropped out while retaining a niche section of the market. His 2010 single Lover, Lover was a number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but since then, he only broke the top ten once – that is, until High Noon. His 2012 album failed to gain much momentum, but the debut single from his latest is already up to number four.

Drink to That All Night is the kind of crossover that has been racking up country airplay in recent years. The catchy tune starts with a little bit of rap in the verses, then launches into a rising pre-chorus and pounding chorus. "Everybody knows it gonna be one of those..." I love the bridge, too – the flaring hip-hop offbeats make this song completely original in the country world.

But while the single drew me in, I was disappointed that most of the other songs failed to live up to it. The opening track Space is just meh. "I just need a little space/An opening hiding place."

Buzz Back Girl doesn't have much to differentiate it from countless other comparisons between love and alcohol, and some of the lyrics are cliche. "You don't even know what you're doin' to me."

On the bright side, though, Come On, Come On is fun and laid-back. I especially like the line, "Mix the city life with some country style." Instead of building tension for an effect, this song is completely relaxed and inviting, and I think that works well.

Lucky #7 is a little self-degrading, but very well-crafted lyrically. "I look in your eyes and my only question is how did a seven wind up with an 11?" This song is personal yet lighthearted, and reminds me of Lee Brice's huge hit A Woman Like You.

Donkey is really one of the gems on this album. The lyrics become a bit suggestive by verse two, but the premise is a guy going to the bar riding, well...a donkey! You might think the outrageous scenario causes the song to lose its realism, but it actually doesn't. The rap/rock combination is awesome, too. "George Jones took a John Deere tractor/Hope my donkey gets there faster." Lol.

The hip-hop musical combinations and effects on this album are standout calibre. You really notice them in Beach Baby and later in a duet with Colt Ford titled She's Fine. The latter starts off with a keyboard-only verse, but breaks into a crooning chorus. The tune is so unconventional, but showcases Niemann's range and works as a rap song too. "You can't buy that kind of pretty/They don't grow them like that in the city."

On second thought, High Noon is completely one-of-a-kind, and I like it. However, I don't think it holds enough mainstream appeal to be wildly successful. The production values and vocals are killer, but too many of the songs are weak.

Country Luke's Rating: 7/10

Photo courtesy of facebook.com/JerrodNiemann.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Album Review: 10,000 TOWNS

Besides Zac Brown Band, there really aren't a lot of high-profile bands in country music. Some might have called Eli Young Band a one-hit wonder after their 2011 single Crazy Girl, but they followed up with another number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in Even If It Breaks Your Heart.

The album 10,000 Towns is best described as twangy country with pop vocals. Lead singer Mike Eli has a distinctly soft, high voice – very different from the more in-your-face, at times raw vocals of the most popular artists like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton. Personally, I think that's what gives the band such a solid niche.

If you listen to country radio, you will have surely heard the album's number three single Drunk Last Night. The lyrics are ambiguous, but Eli basically sings about being tipsy, calling up a girl, and expressing his feelings for her. "It's off my chest but never off my mind." As the theme suggests, the lyrics are more rambling than a chronological story, but you can still feel the emotion behind every word. Eli's vocal control allows him to really play with the mood and build up to the chorus.

Surprisingly, the title track is probably my favourite overall. I love the reference to "redneck hip-hop" too! This could be a huge country anthem this summer, and encapsulates the culture of rural communities from a teenage perspective. "Sneakin' a six pack kiss at a red light/Circlin' up out back behind that Texaco." My only complaint is that the chorus is long. Still, the instrumentation and fast-punching vocals give it excellent radio potential.

Dust is the band's current single, although it's just starting to break into mainstream radio. It's a third-person runaway's song about a girl leaving a relationship gone sour. The imagery in this story is great: "She's got the pedal to the floor in a hand-me-down Ford." The melody is catchy, but the overall vibe doesn't really move me.

It's hard to pick just a few songs to analyze, because they are all unique from each other. Kudos for the accordion in the intro of Let's Do Something Tonight. Just a songwriting nitpick: The chorus goes, "Let's do something tonight we'll be talkin' about in the morning." Since the song is a one-on-one conversation from a man to a woman, wouldn't it have more impact to use "they'll" instead of "we'll"?

Your Last Broken Heart is totally feel-good and is a good change-up from the poor-me breakup songs some artists never break away from. The punchline is clever and simple: "Your last broken heart was your last broken heart." And honestly, the rest of the lyrics would be good enough to stand alone without it.

Just Add Moonlight is very similar to Randy Houser's Runnin' Outta Moonlight, but I'm glad Eli Young Band didn't scrap it from its album. This list song is overly idealistic, but well-crafted. "Kisses are sweeter and the world seems right/With that big yellow ball shining in her eyes."

I could see Eli Young Band eventually taking over from Rascal Flatts as the next pop-country male group in a few years. I wouldn't say 10,000 Towns is the most memorable album I have ever heard, but there are some standout songs.

Country Luke's Rating: 7.5/10

Photo courtesy of facebook.com/eliyoungband

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Bro-Country And Same-Old Songs

Okay, this one almost made me laugh out loud...literally. And while it's a funny sketch, artist/writer David Horsey actually makes some insightful arguments about the state of my favourite genre.

In Are bro-mantic songs taking over country music?, Horsey takes a shot at the number of male artists performing "interchangeable songs" about girls, alcohol, and pickup trucks. He adds, "Most of the lyrics could have been written by the same guy on the same night at the same wild party." Ouch. Is Horsey right?

He goes on to explain that many country songs are predictable – essentially lists of these common elements. Horsey also writes that the formula is based on "the allure of reckless freedom" and has been successfully applied to other genres over the decades.

Here's my take: Horsey makes some strong points, but isn't completely right, either. I can tell you from personal experience that writing a party country song is far more complicated than throwing redneck buzzwords into a pot and hoping the soup turns out okay. The author isn't giving songwriters the credit they deserve.

On the other hand, if you listen to country at all, you know that many of the songs are nearly identical in the theme department. And yes, occasionally the lyrics can be shallower than a backyard kiddie pool. Everything depends on what the listener wants to hear. People don't want every song to have deep literary meaning – they just want to feel a little better about driving to work in the morning, or about letting loose on a Friday night. Stick with what sells.

It is accurate, as Horsey points out, that there are comparatively very few female artists being played on mainstream country radio. I've heard it suggested the reason is that females want to hear male singers (and vice-versa), and that most country listeners happen to be female. But Horsey suggests guys are in fact switching over to country for these "bro-mantic songs."

Ultimately, money talks. If the fans are buying music from male artists and not from female artists, we can't shake our fists at the industry and cry foul. At the consumer level, we're making the decision. That said, there is an unreal amount of female talent in country music today, and it is a shame we sometimes fail to recognize it. On the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart today, there is a total of one solo female artist (Miranda Lambert) and two duos/groups that include female singers. That seems skewed.

Despite these thought-provoking critiques, country is as hot as ever right now – and it's hard to argue with that.

Photo courtesy of latimes.com.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Album Review: SLOW ME DOWN

It's what they call a buried lead in journalism. Sara Evans's new album Slow Me Down contains some great songs, but most of them happen to be at the end. There's a reason she is a legend – her voice and vocal control are absolutely outstanding. And even with six-year and three-year gaps between her most recent releases, this record sounds fresh.

The title track and first single is currently sitting at number 28 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. It's definitely the most pop-sounding, but doesn't stand out as a hit. The string-instrument backing is complex and full – however, the lyrics don't carry enough weight. "If there's something you still need to say, you need to say it now/Hurry up and slow me down." It's an attempt to be clever that feels forced.

Four of the first five songs are heartbreakers, which appears to simply be poor organization. Put My Heart Down is definitely worth listening to, though, and offers a bouncy, upbeat mood in spite of the theme. "If you really loved me/You'd put my heart down."

Can't Stop Loving You is a well-written duet with Isaac Slade that has very compelling opening-lines. "I try to crush it like the ashes of a cigarette/I try to smother out the embers, but I just can't quit." Of course, Evans is referring to a love-addiction. The soaring chorus and raspy harmonies will give you goosebumps.

But if I had to pick the track with the most feeling, I'd choose If I Run. It sounds totally traditional, but the heavy bass guitar adds an element of rock. Evans sings on-top of her own vocals for an emotional call-and-reply about true romantic dedication. "If I run, baby will you chase me? Be the one who wants to save me?" They're simple lyrics, but come across as extremely heartfelt.

Sweet Spot has a dark-feeling hook and intro, but ends up being a bubbly ode to a love that does work out (finally!). "Every word, every song, every single thought/All I'm thinkin' about is you." The strange chords remind me a little of Kacey Musgraves's Dandelion.

Gotta Have You has a suspiciously-quiet first verse that bursts into a huge chorus. "Tell me, tell me, where would I be? Without you, baby, I'm not me." I hope Evans puts this one to radio – it's upbeat, with great musical-contrast and strong lyrics.

This album is real country if it ever existed. And no, it's not at all old-fashioned. Evans manages to take the best components of her traditional sound and supplement them with modern songs and instruments. My only criticism is that You Never Know sound almost identical to Carrie Underwood's Two Black Cadillacs.

Country Luke's Rating: 7/10

Photo courtesy of saraevans.com.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Album Review: I'M A FIRE

It's surprising David Nail isn't a bigger name in Nashville. I mean, I had hardly heard of the guy, but know his 2011 single Let It Rain (a number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart) quite well. And I'm a Fire is already his third full-length release.

The album doesn't feel as exclusively-country as some of the others I've reviewed lately. There are bits of folk and rock mixed in, creating a unique audio-mood.

Whatever She's Got charted all the way up to number two, and while the melody is catchy-but-forgettable, the lyrics are well-crafted. "Cause she got the blue-jeans painted on tight/That everybody wants on a Saturday night."

The full chorus of Burnin' Bed stands in stark contrast to the acoustic verses and does a good job of evoking emotion from the listener. "Here in your arms my heart can't get you out of my head." The lyrics match the melody, moving from disconnected, jarring phrases to complete, overflowing thoughts.

I was going to write When They're Gone sounds like something from Little Big Town...when I realized they actually do sing the backup vocals! Anyway, this song is a rootsy redneck-anthem about the good ol' days of being young. "Some things aren't meant to last forever/But it don't mean you forget 'em when they're gone." It's a clever twist that adds a lot of punch.

Kiss You Tonight is another example of how Nail's effortless singing-style can have a big impact. It's almost a list-song, as he takes us through everything he's been missing about this girl, then concludes: "Everything will be all right if I can kiss you tonight." He sounds desperate, which makes the listener feel along.

I think The Secret is supposed to be profound – there's a funeral, an unplanned baby, and another guy. But even after reading the lyrics, I can't figure out what the story is. Nail may have missed the mark here if other people are as confused as I am. It's all so vague!

Easy Love is a refreshing break from some of the deeper songs. Here Nail sings with more of a pop vibe than a country one – think Keith Urban without the heavy guitars. "Your long brown hair flying 'round to the beat/Just like we were 17."

The title track stands a good chance of being the next radio single, and I think the definitive percussion holds potential. I might be way off, but it seems a little reminiscent of Mumford & Sons.

Galveston is a historical-fiction masterpiece and a musical departure from the rest of the album. Of course, Lee Ann Womack's flawless vocals don't hurt, either.

Some final comments: The backup female vocals on I'm a Fire are simply outstanding, and they don't blend in like in most contemporary country albums. While Nail does risk losing the spotlight every now-and-then, they just sound beautiful together.

The only major downside is the simplicity of the intros. Many are empty and sound alike. All in all, though, a really strong album.

Country Luke's Rating: 7.5/10

Photo courtesy www.facebook.com/DavidNail

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Album Review: RISER

I have to admit I didn't have high expectations when I started listening to the new Dierks Bentley album. Same-old, same-old, I thought. Wrong.

A couple songs into Riser, I realized there was something truly special about this album. In fact, it's becoming one of my favourites.

I Hold On was the first radio single, and a good one at that – peaking at number ten on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart (so far). Bentley sings about holding on to the good things in life – rusted trucks, old guitars, and most importantly, relationships. "I hold on to the things I believe in/My faith, your love, our freedom."

As a whole, the album doesn't feel like it was recorded to generate maximum airplay. Frankly, many of the songs are too long or slow. But you can't deny the quality of the work. Bentley takes his time to communicate the precise emotion he wants the listener to feel.

Bourbon In Kentucky is a heartbreaker opening track but has an uncharacteristic uplifting vibe. "There ain't enough bourbon in Kentucky for me to forget you." It sets the course for the rest of the songs on the album, which share the intricate yet overpoweringly-twangy instrumentation.

Pretty Girls is lyrically-shallow but catchy because of the unique minor chord pattern. "Chasing a buzz drinking cold Bud Light/Watching pretty girls drinking tall boys."

Here On Earth reminds me of what Luke Bryan tried to do with Drink a Beer. The singer has clearly been impacted by a personal loss and is looking for answers. "There's not a stone in my heart I've left unturned/Not a piece of my soul that I ain't searched." After wrestling with some tough questions, Bentley concludes he will simply never know the answers on this side of heaven.

Drunk On a Plane is one of the most original country songs I've heard in a while. The premise is wedding plans gone south and the man stuck with a honeymoon trip-for-two to Cancun. So, he tries to forget. "Buying drinks for everybody but the pilot/It's a party." It's brilliant songwriting too, but perhaps not the best messaging.

I usually get irritated with songs about the singer's career, but I had never heard one so good as Damn These Dreams. Even in the way Bentley sings, you can tell this is all-reality and no-show. He discusses being torn between music and his family and how touring keeps him constantly away from home. "Damn these dreams/Playing my heart just like a guitar string/Pull me away from you and everything I really need." Profound.

The only way I can really describe Riser is full and well-rounded. Bentley doesn't pull off anything crazy, but impressively, there are no weak tunes. Most artists cannot claim that about their albums; then again, Dierks Bentley is not most artists.