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

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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.

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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

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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

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