Friday, December 31, 2010

Favorite Singles of 2010 - Part 2 of 2

LeAnn Rimes, "Swingin'"

How would you treat an eighties hit that's mostly loved for being cheesy and outdated to the point of being charming?  LeAnn updates it into a wild and funky jam session.  Add a fiery and energetic vocal, and it all just works like magic.

Taylor Swift, "Back to December"

Yes, it's about a boy.  But that doesn't stop "Back to December" from being one of the most emotionally hard-hitting songs of Taylor's career.  It's also one of her most personal and openly honest compositions yet, as she lays bear her faults and regrets regarding a painful breakup.  While she still harbors a desire to be reconciled to her lover, she is willing to accept the cold hard reality that there may be no going back.

Laura Bell Bundy, "Drop On By"

It's no surprise than Laura Bell Bundy has strong interpretive abilities - honed on Broadway, no less - and this single showcases such abilities at their strongest.  She delivers this longing lover's plea in a sultry whisper of a performance.  Add a genre-blending arrangement that combines country, blues, and jazz, and the result could hardly be finer.

Zac Brown Band and Alan Jackson, "As She's Walking Away"

A scene plays out in which a young man (Zac Brown) trips over himself in an attempt to converse with a woman.  An older and wiser man (Alan Jackson) then offers the encouraging advice "Don't be falling in love as she's walking away."  The interplay between the two vocalists makes it seem as if the scene is playing out right before our eyes.  The band's tight harmonies backed by fiddle and guitar only do more to make this such a broadly charming single.

Rascal Flatts, "Why Wait"

Normally, Rascal Flatts would be on the "Worst" list, but this year they were able to trade places with George Strait.  "Why Wait" is an infectious throwback to the days when Rascal Flatts could deliver a great pop-country hook like nobody else.

Randy Rogers Band, "Steal You Away"

A great hook is definitely not a bad thing.  But when an act can rise above the need for a catchy hook, and instead pull all of the weight with sincerity and great lyrics, the result is something even more special.  The Randy Rogers Band's "Steal You Away" is a shining example of that fact.

Sugarland, "Stuck Like Glue"

The term "ear candy" may sometimes be used in a derogatory manner, but Sugarland's ditty "Stuck Like Glue" is ear candy in its absolute finest form.  It could have been an embarrassing disaster in the hands of anyone less goofy than Jennifer Nettles, but she breathes enough energy and personality into it to make it ridiculously charming and infectious.  This is NOT a guilty pleasure.  I can say with no guilt at all that I love this song, and consider it one of the best and most memorable singles of 2010.

Little Big Town, "Little White Church"

Little Big Town makes a comeback thanks to their ability to take strong lyrics, add uber-cool production with funky guitar licks and hand claps, and turn it all into a killer performance like this.  Bonus points for rhyming "No more chicken and gravy" with "Ain't gonna have your baby."

Miranda Lambert, "The House That Built Me"

This is one song that did not top the charts because of the identity of the artist (In fact, Miranda previously had a rather spotty relationship with country radio).  It did not top the charts because of some pop-country hook that made the radio gods think it would have wide appeal.  Rather, this song topped the charts because it connected with people.  Though 2010 was not a stellar year for mainstream country music, the success of Miranda's "House" was one instance in which a great song and a great performance were given their deserved recognition.  Thus, "The House That Built Me" is the song has come to define Miranda Lambert's career.  In later years, when we think of country music in the year 2010, we will think of Miranda's "The House That Built Me."

Those were my favorites.  Please leave a comment below, and tell me about yours.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Favorite Singles of 2010 - Part 1 of 2

Sure, we put up with a lot of crap over the past year on country radio, but there was still some great country music made, and a small handful even found its way onto radio.  Now that we're done venting our hatred for the bad singles, it's time to celebrate the good ones.  The following is the first of two lists that look back on the greatest and most memorable singles that we heard over the past year.

There are my favorite singles of the year, listed in no particular order, and I want to hear about yours too.  Please leave a comment.

Easton Corbin, "Roll with It"

Summer songs are generally made of the same fiber, but Easton's performance of "Roll with It" exudes more than enough laid-back charm to lift it high above the competition.  While country radio was playing the heck out of "Water," "Roll with It" was a breath of fresh air.

Joey + Rory, "That's Important to Me"

The fact that country radio consistently ignores this talented duo is nothing short of criminal.  A song like "That's Important to Me" could have gone terribly wrong if not handled this well.  But instead of being a trite and meaningless cliche-pile, Joey + Rory go for naturalness and authenticity with much more personal-sounding lyrics.  "That's Important to Me" exemplifies the country sincerity that makes Joey + Rory such a lovable duo, and the soft piano and dobro make it even more of a treat.

Laura Bell Bundy, "Giddy On Up"

Yes, you read that right.  This can be a polarizing single.  Maybe you loved it; maybe you couldn't stand it.  But I can guarantee one thing:  Once you heard it, you didn't forget it.  On paper it might seem like just another typical caught-her-man-cheating song, but Laura totally sells the vocals.  Her performance is bold, sassy, spunky, and bursting with charisma and personality.  And while things like horn sections in a kiss-off country song might not float everybody's boat, it's another sign that Laura is an artist who dares to stand out from the pack.  Isn't that the kind of artistic quality we usually ask for?

Mary Chapin Carpenter, "I Put My Ring Back On"

A gently-rocking tune that sounds reminiscent of Mary Chapin Carpenter's heyday as a country radio hitmaker.  It has a positive message of persevering in a relationship, and being realistic in one's expectations, delivered through one of Mary Chapin's finest vocal performances.  Besides that, it's catchy.  If this song had been released in 1993, I'm willing to bet it would have been a huge hit.

Dierks Bentley, "Draw Me a Map"

Dierks gives a plaintive and emotional delivery of a great song.  The stripped-down bluegrass instrumentation, not to mention the angelic voice of Alison Krauss, adds further to the song's emotional impact.  The song seems even more appealing when you consider the risk that Dierks took in having this song shipped to country radio at a time when the airwaves are dominated by loudness and inanity, thus daring radio to play something different and better.

Sara Evans, "A Little Bit Stronger"

Sara's performance on this track is toned back, but at the same time layered with aching emotion. The song portrays a woman who is nursing a broken heart, but who has the strength to shake off feelings of self-pity, refusing to act as the victim. With each step she takes in pushing her ex-lover out of her mind, she gets "a little bit stronger." It's a winning blend of heartache with progressively dawning optimism.

Jerrod Niemann, "What Do You Want"

There are plenty of reasons to love this single, from the subtle pulsing production to the raw and honest lyrics.  But what really makes this single is Jerrod's vocal delivery, which is fully connected to the tortured emotions expressed in the song's lyrics, making "What Do You Want" one of the most potent releases of the year.

Taylor Swift, "Fearless"

"Fearless" perfectly captures the elation of a young romance, and this young barely-over-twenty starlet is the perfect one to deliver such a song. The breezy mandolin-laced production makes the song a joyously relaxing experience. When a song like this comes on the radio, you just sigh, lean back, close your eyes, and let it take you to a better place.

Luke Bryan, "Rain Is a Good Thing"

A big thanks to Luke Bryan for giving country radio a much-needed blast of personality with this crazy fun single.  All that fiddling would typically reel me in on its own, but quirky and clever lyrics are also a plus. (You can let the kids think that it really is just about rain)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Band Perry, "You Lie"

On The Band Perry's new single "You Lie," Kimberly Perry displays a sassy attitude that would make Jo Dee and Shania proud, backed up by an infectious country-meets-bluegrass-meet-pop arrangement that sounds rootsy and modern at the same time.

Though the song happens to share a title with a classic Reba hit, the mood and tempo could hardly be more different.  Kimberly minces no words as she confronts her lyin', cheatin' man.  "Don't bring me those big brown eyes and tell me that you're sorry," she admonishes, while also deprecating the young woman with whom he cheated.  "I bet she had a curfew," she sneers.

The song reaches a peak near the end when Kimberly's character declares that she will "drive to the big ol' muddy river, park my car in the middle of a mile-long bridge... Cry maybe just a little," and then "slip off the ring that you put on my finger, give it a big ol' fling and watch it sink down, down down.  And there it's gonna lie until the Lord comes back around."  The thumping of a barroom piano hammers home her determination to end the ill-fated romance for good.

We see a character who is vulnerable enough to let her emotions show, but who refuses to tolerate the betrayal of cheating.  The story is tied together with a competent and nuanced lead vocal, not to mention super-cool production replete with fierce fiddle and mandolin.  All in all, this is arguably The Band Perry's best single yet.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Least Favorite Singles of 2010

It's the time of year when the country blogosphere is flooded with everybody's lists of the best and worst singles of the year, and now I proudly throw mine into the mix.  I want to end this year on a positive note by writing about some of the best singles of the year... so let's get this out of the way first.

I'm not necessarily saying that these are the worst singles ever released in 2010, but these are the ones that got on my nerves the most, or that just turned out to be the biggest disappointments.  Yes, I know that many of these songs were substantial hits, but really that fact says nothing about their quality.  In most causes, it merely secures their place on this list through my being overexposed to them. 

I know that not everyone will agree with my choices.  If you disagree, you're welcome to say so, but please mind your manners.

So here we go, in no particular order:

Justin Moore, "Backwoods"

(Released in 2009, but peaked in 2010)
Imagine having a conversation with a friend who dislikes country music.  You could build the strongest possible case to convince him that country music is the best... and then you could nullify your entire argument just by playing this song.

Toby Keith, "Every Dog Has Its Day"

The metaphor is poorly executed from beginning to end, but it's the "fat dog, skinny dog..." rattle-off part that nearly drives me to self-injury.  Now that Toby's the head honcho of his own record label, there's nobody to keep him from releasing whatever godawful tripe he chooses.

Brad Paisley, "Water"

Brad Paisley is known for his clever novelty hits, but his cleverness standards have really been slipping over the past year.  With only simple and boring descriptions of scenes involving water, this has got to be one of the dullest summer songs ever heard (and that's saying a lot).  And of course, it's Paisley, so country radio played it and overplayed it until they had thoroughly beaten it into the ground.

Jason Aldean, "Crazy Town"

Who says a song about chasing stardom in Nashville couldn't be good?  Lacy J. Dalton gave us a great one with "16th Avenue," and Trisha Yearwood struck gold with "Wrong Side of Memphis."  But "Crazy Town" is done in by several fatal flaws, most notably: (1) It's clogged up with inane details and throwaway lyrics (2) Too much shouting, not enough singing.  It's obnoxious loudness with no real meaning.  The result?  Darn near unlistenable.

Rodney Atkins, "Farmer's Daughter"

The vocal is weak as ever, and the storyline is pathetically predictable. It's main purpose for even being released is just to tempt fans into buying the repackaged version of Rodney's It's America album (Thanks, Curb Records).

Darius Rucker, "Come Back Song"

Though vocally gifted, Darius hasn't found a whole lot of worthy material in the course of his country music career, and this has got to be one of his worst yet.  Yeah, pal, I sure feel for you having to sleep all alone in your king-sized bed, and pouring your coffee down the drain because 'you didn't know you needed her so.'  Sorry, but I think your "Come Back Song" just might have the opposite of its intended effect.

George Strait, "The Breath You Take"

How sad it is that a George Strait song should find a place on this list - sad, but not undeserved.  "The Breath You Take" is a misguided pairing of trite lyrics with a super-syrupy string-laden arrangement that makes it sound like a funeral dirge.  As far as King George songs go, this one is weak.  Really weak.

Reba McEntire, "Turn On the Radio"

Go ahead, Reba fans - Grab your torches and pitchforks.  Here is another critic to dares to criticize your idol for not acting her age.  Yes, it is catchy, but what really keeps me from enjoying it is the fact that it's clearly a thinly-veiled attempt at staying commercially relevant.  No, I don't want her to sing about backaches and menopause, but I do want to hear her sing material that is mature enough to be worthy of an artist of her age and talent.  She needs to quit dumbing it down.

Brad Paisley, "This Is Country Music"

Well, what do you know?  Our reigning Entertainer of the Year is this list's first repeat offender.  On his current single, a laundry list of cliches meets a dull melody and weak chorus, and everybody loses.  Instead of highlighting what makes the country genre special, Brad ends up exemplifying much of what's gone wrong with it in recent years.

Jason Aldean, "My Kinda Party"

Jason Aldean joins Brad in the two-strike club.  How one-dimensional can he get?  This dud of a single is nothing but overblown rock guitar riffs and a set of lyrics recycled from "She's Country."  "Ol' Hank" is having a fit in his grave right now.

Gretchen Wilson, "I Got Your Country Right Here"

Of course, the list of one-dimensional backwoods party anthems would never be complete without the obligatory Gretchen Wilson inclusion.  On this single, Gretchen indulges her affinity for name dropping Southern rock icons, while continuing to rehash the same tired old "Redneck Woman" concept that ceased to be interesting several comeback attempts ago.

Tim McGraw, "Felt Good On My Lips"

The lyrics are dominated by inane descriptions, and the "Oh-oh-oh"s and "Whoa-oh-oh"s only elevate the song from just plain boring to downright irritating.  The disjointed melody makes "Felt Good On My Lips" sound like two entirely different songs slapped together.  As for Tim's vocals, you can barely even hear them over all the gimmicky studio wizardry on this track.  Easily the worst single of Tim's career.

Craig Morgan, "Still a Little Chicken Left On That Bone"

Painfully stupid lyrics feebly attempting to make some sort of a point.  All I can say is "Ouch."

I've had my turn; Now it's yours.  What were your least favorite singles of 2010? 

Friday, December 24, 2010

Concert Review: Garth Brooks

Bridgestone Arena
Nashville, Tennessee
Wednesday, December 22, 2010

For the past week I had been kicking myself for neglecting to buy a ticket to one of Garth Brooks nine flood benefit concerts in Nashville (Which marked his first time performing in Nashville since 1998).  So when I found out that a friend had two Garth tickets up for grabs... I was, needless to say, one very happy country fan.

My concert buddy and I were late leaving for Nashville, due to circumstances beyond our control (Obviously I wouldn't keep Garth waiting if I could help it).  Thus, we missed the first three songs of his set.  But when Garth launched into a showstopping performance of my old favorite "Shameless," I quickly recovered from the disappointment of having missed "Papa Loved Mama."

As Garth performed his classic anthem of hope, "We Shall Be Free," the video screen displayed photos of Nashville flood workers in a tribute to the enduring spirit of Nashville.  Not long afterwards, the sound effect of crashing thunder announced that Garth was about to sing "The Thunder Rolls," and we in the crowd responded with a thunderous roar of our own.

And then it was time for the appearance of a special guest as country star Steve Wariner walked onstage with a guitar strapped on.

"Do you actually know how to play that thing?" Garth teased.

Steve responded by... smoking it.  The two pals then performed their toe-tapping hit duet "Longneck Bottle."  Garth complimented his cohort on his instrumental prowess, admitting that "I only carry the guitar to hide my gut."

But the talented Steve Wariner wasn't Garth's only special guest that night.  When Garth sang the opening lines of "In Another's Eyes," a beautiful blonde-haired woman ascended the stairs onto the stage, and a familiar voice filled the arena.  Thus began a passionate and romantic duet between Garth Brooks and his lovely wife, Trisha Yearwood.  After they had finished the song, the couple proudly announced that they had recently celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary.  A spotlight was then shone on an elderly couple in the audience who were celebrating their fifty-ninth anniversary that night.

"Anyone who's been married six or more years is a hero in our eyes," Garth quipped.

Trisha Yearwood then took the stage for a performance of two of her best-loved hits, "She's In Love with the Boy" and "How Do I Live."  The audience sang along with every word, as they had with every song in Garth's set.  To be honest, I was nearly every bit as excited about Trisha's three-song set as I was about Garth's 23-song set.

When Garth returned to the spotlight, all he had to do was play the opening guitar chords to "Friends In Low Places" to elicit a deafening cheer from the crowd.  As he was performing his signature classic, he happened to notice one fan's bright pink sign which read "Hey Garth, I drove 14 hours - How about a guitar pick?"

Garth beckoned the young woman to come down to the stage.  After she made her way down from her seat, Garth handed, not a guitar pick, but his guitar.  In a loving gesture of fan appreciation, Garth gave that thrilled young woman a souvenir to cherish forever, not to mention an awesome story to go with it.

After performing "The Dance" and "Ain't Goin' Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)," Garth concluded the show by doing his "housekeeping" - Reading the song requests written on the signs that the fans held, and then giving an acoustic performance of the desired tune.  Garth honored requests for "Learning to Live Again" and "Every Night It Rains," and then performed a cover of Dave Loggins' "Please Come to Boston."  He closed out the show with "Two Pina Coladas."

The mutual appreciation between Garth Brooks and his adoring fans was easy to see.  The audience sang along loudly to every word to every song (I think the two loudest ones were in the seats right next to me).  Garth's fans waited twelve long years to see him perform in Nashville, and after the spectacular show he put on that night, I think I can speak for all Garth fans when I say that we'll wait another twelve years if we have to!

In summary:  The show was awesome.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Alabama, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way"

February 8, 2011, will see the release of the all-star Waylon Jennings tribute album The Music Inside - A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings, Vol I.  Our first taste is a new version of Waylon's familiar classic "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," and the legendary country group known as Alabama has reunited to record the song for this tribute project.

Such tribute attempts all too often fall into one of two common pitfalls.  You have those well-intentioned covers that end up reverently being pointless re-creations of the original.  You also have those who attempt to modernize a song, or to put their own spin on it, and end up going in entirely the wrong direction, ultimately ruining it.  Alabama's version of "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" smartly avoids falling into either trap.  The intro sounds similar to the original, but the band adds their own touches with a few guitar licks and fiddle hooks.  As the track continues, the production style sounds more reminiscient of Alabama's own hits.

We see one small but meaningful personal touch in the way Randy shifts the pronouns around, saying "we" and "us" where Waylon said "me."  It may seem like such a small change, but it shows that Alabama as a group relates to the sentiments expressed in the lyrics.  It also highlights the fact that the song's message has only grown more relevant over time (save for the references to rhinestone suits).  Waylon Jennings commented on how country music had gone downhill since the death of Hank Williams, and today's country music is even further removed from the tradition instigated by such legends.

But while I will give lead singer Randy Owen props for not attempting to closely imitate Waylon's vocal nuances, his delivery does sound laid-back in comparison to Waylon's, almost to the point of sounding disinterested.  He doesn't savagely butcher the song by any means, but the track could benefit from a more forceful lead vocal.  Despite that minor shortcoming, the band still manages to deliver an overall competent and respectable take on a timeless classic.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Saturday, December 18, 2010

Darius Rucker, "This"

Call it soccer mom music.  Call it sippy cup country.  Whatever you call it, it's becoming progressively more bland and less bearable.  Lonestar first began pioneering the movement in the late nineties, and has since passed the torch on to Rodney Atkins and Darius Rucker.  The increasing prevalence of these "Family-life-is-awesome" songs is yet another reflection of country radio's aim to remain as widely-appealing and inoffensive as possible

Songs about family life are nothing new.  Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn were singing them back in the sixties and seventies.  But the important difference is that those artists sang from their own unique perspectives, and each dealt with the theme in a way that brought something new to the table.  What exactly is Darius bringing to the table here?  A melody lifted right out of the Hootie and the Blowfish songbook?  A set of lyrics that borrows the "Bless the Broken Road" concept, and swaps in stale throwaway lyrics?  Even the song's theme of domestic bliss feels like a retread of Darius's previous hit "Alright," which covered many similar bases.

The biggest frustration is that we see one of today's most distinctive country voices once again being spent on the most cheap and generic radio-chasing material.  Darius has talent, and he has a whole heck of a lot of it, but a third-rate tune like "This" doesn't come close to showcasing his awesome potential.  But by now we should be accustomed to the fact that Darius reliably settles for mediocre and radio-friendly material, so really "This" is only the latest in a long series of missed opportunities.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Friday, December 17, 2010

Sugarland, "Little Miss"

Do Kristian Bush and Jennifer Nettles see the glass as half-empty or half-full?  If their new music is any indication, they obviously see it as half-full.  Their current album The Incredible Machine is an affair devoted almost entirely to shouting anthems of self-empowerment and fighting the perils of pessimism.

Regrettably, the message is primarily delivered through vague and hollow lyrics, while bombastic power pop production and inane chants attempt to make the lyrics more profound than they actually are.  But on the current single "Little Miss," the duo scraps such nonsense in favor of lyrics that are strong enough to pull their own weight.

Jennifer Nettles tells a simple and straightforward story as she takes on the role of an encouraging companion giving a gentle and sensitive pep talk to a downhearted woman.  She refers to this woman by a variety of nicknames that serve to gradually flesh out the woman's character.  "Little Miss Be My Guest" and "Little Miss Never Rest" is one who always gives generously to others, and who puts others' needs ahead of her own.  But she has become overwhelmed by her own anxieties, and by the pressure of meeting everyone's expectations, thus becoming "Little Miss Down On Love" and "Little Miss I Give Up."

Jennifer repeatedly gives the gentle reassurance "It'll be all right again."  The song reaches a peak when Jennifer tells her "You are loved," in a way that squeezes in as much depth and meaning as three syllables can possibly carry.  We hear a gentle rise in production as the titular character undergoes a transformation into "Little Miss Brand New Start" and "Little Miss Big ol' heart beats wide open and she's ready for love."

"Little Miss" provides a welcome spark of quality on an overall crummy album.  Jennifer's storytelling voice is tender and moving.  The production is toned down and restrained, but at the same time the acoustic guitar and piano are subtly infectious.  No, it doesn't sound country at all, but this is awfully good pop music.  Ultimately, a creatively constructed concept and a deeply sincere knockout performance combine to make "Little Miss" a definite winner.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Opry Spotlight: Little Jimmy Dickens

Many of them have been performing decades longer than country's current stars have been alive.  Some of them only had a small handful of radio hits.  Quite a few have long since been forgotten by Country radio (and we all know Country radio can be very forgetful).  But there is one place where such veteran artists are continually heard and loved every week down to this day, both by an adoring live audience, and by eager radio listeners across the country.  Where?  On the stage of the very show that has come to define country music - The WSM Grand Ole Opry.

Now that we've wrapped up the Greatest Women of the Nineties countdown (and since I'm feeling to lazy to write another album review right now), why not start a new feature on the stars of the Grand Ole Opry?  And who better to start on then the Opry's oldest living member (He turns 90 years old this Sunday), and one of its defining artists, Country Music Hall of Famer Little Jimmy Dickens.  No, he's not just Brad Paisley's right-hand man in all those music videos and CMA telecasts. 

Little Jimmy Dickens grew up in a family of 13 children in Bolt, West Virginia.  He got his start performing on local radio station WOLS in the nearby city of Beckley while attending the University of West Virginia.  In 1948, he caught the ear of legendary country crooner Roy Acuff while performing on a radio station in Saginaw, Michigan.  That led to Jimmy signing a deal with Columbia Records in September after joining the Grand Ole Opry on August 1, 1948.

In his 62 years as an Opry member, Little Jimmy Dickens has become known for (in addition to his diminutive 4'11" stature) his rhinestone-studded stage costumes, down-home country humor, and humorous novelty hits such as "A-Sleepin' at the Foot of the Bed," "Take An Old Cold Tater (And Wait)," and the number-one hit "May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose," which also crossed over to the pop charts.  He has the distinction of being the first country music star to circle the globe, having traveled to Europe thirteen times, and having played for soldiers in Vietnam twice.  In 1983, Little Jimmy Dickens received country music's highest honor - being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Throughout his career, he has facilitated some of the most memorable moments both on the Grand Ole Opry stage, and in country music in general.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Album Review: Rascal Flatts - Nothing Like This

I can think of one word that just perfectly describes the new Rascal Flatts album.  To quote the great Simpsons:  "Meh."

It's not terrible, but it's not especially good or interesting either.  Nothing Like This is a perfectly safe, easily digestible, middle-of-the-road pop-country album.

The album kicks off with the current single and recent number one hit "Why Wait," which is easily the best song the album has to offer.  "Easy," a collaboration with pop star Natasha Bedingfield, is another pleasant track which sees a pair of ex-lovers attempting to conceal the feelings they still have for one another.  We find that Natasha Bedingfield and Gary LeVox harmonize surprisingly well.  After that, the album starts to plod in circles as a cluster of bland and nondistinctive love songs follow, causing me to quickly lose interest.

"Red Camaro" is arguably the most boring song on the album, sounding like a business-as-usual summer song with all the requisite references to bare feet and driving with the top down.  It brings nothing new to the table, instead using tacky "Oh-oh-oh" hooks as a crutch.  There's a good chance of it being shipped to radio next summer, as it sounds perfectly tailored to fit in with all the group's other summer hits.

To the boys' credit, they have toned down their sound in comparison to what was heard on their previous few albums.  There are very few overblown vocal theatrics on the shrill-voiced Gary LeVox's part, save for the occasional attempt at a falsetto.  Though there are a few overwrought guitar solos, the album's overall sound is cleaner and less cluttered than the overcooked power pop that Rascal Flatts once reveled in.  The problem is that the song selections all seem to run together.  While some of it is pretty good, "Why Wait" is the only one that could be considered great.

Though there are a handful of songs that are worth cherry-picking from this album, the rest one could easily do without.  It's not good.  It's not bad.  It's just a mediocre set that includes only one or two genuine standouts with the rest being dominated by throwaway album filler.  The die-hard Flatts fans might like it, but there is nothing here to convert the uninterested.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Top Ten Greatest Women of the Nineties - Bubbling Under

I recently wrapped up my countdown of the top ten greatest country women of the nineties, and boy did I have fun writing about every one of them.  But just how many women made great country music during the nineties?  Way more than ten, so it was inevitable that a few would get crowded out of the final list.  Thus, I decided to devote a special post to the great nineties ladies who didn't quite make the top ten, but who are deserving of honorable mention.

Sara Evans
When you think of great country women of the nineties, isn't good ol' Say-ra (spoken with a Southern accent) the first one who comes to mind?  She might not be, seeing as her big commercial breakthrough didn't come until after the turn of the millennium.  But Sara first surfaced in 1997, with her debut album Three Chords and the Truth, which remains the finest and strongest album of her career, and could have sparked a neotraditionalist revival movement if only Country Radio had gotten on board.  But radio gave Sara a cold shoulder, and refused to spin any of her early singles into the Top 40 (Though she later some traction at radio with the chart-topping title track to her second album No Place That Far)

The title track to Sara's debut album was a testament to the power of country music in dredging up emotions - In some cases, emotions that were there all along, but that we might try to ignore.  "Three Chords and the Truth" peaked at #44 on the Billboard country singles chart, falling short of becoming a major hit, but becoming the highest-charting single from the album.  With strikingly well-crafted lyrics and tender emotional vocal, "Three Chords" represents one of Sara's finest musical moments on record.

Suzy Bogguss
The lovely Suzy Bogguss is remembered for having a voice that, as Chet Atkins rightfully described it, "sparkles like crystal water."  Her hitmaking streak only lasted through the first three years of the nineties, but she made some of the best country music the decade had to offer.  Even after Country Radio had forgotten about her, Suzy continued recording music, experimenting with different musical styles, and performing to a loyal following.

One of her best known hits was the touching ballad, "Letting Go," which examined the perspectives and feelings of both a mother and daughter as the daughter prepared to leave home for college.

She entered the decade still performing as part of country music's favorite duo, The Judds.  But when Mama Judd was sidelined by a bout with Hepatitis C, Wynonna set out on a solo career of her own, making her mark on country music with a distinctive voice that radiated soul and spunk.  Though she already had a long list of Judd classics on her resume, Wynonna scored another four number one hits as a solo artist.  Her 5x-platinum solo debut, simply titled Wynonna, showcased stronger and more nuanced vocals than ever before.

The biggest hit of Wynonna's career was the 1992 four-week number one hit "No One Else On Earth" which has remained a radio recurrent for nearly two decades.  A funky genre-collision of an arrangement and a gritty growling vocal make this single simply unforgettable.

Tanya Tucker
Tanya first broke through in the country music mainstream as a teenager in the seventies with classic hits like "Delta Dawn" and "What's Your Mama's Name."  After enduring a career slump in the early eighties, she made an extraordinary comeback, and was still riding high in the early nineties.  In 1991, she won her first Female Vocalist of the Year award from the CMA, and gave birth to her son on the same day.  She scored two platinum albums with What Do I Do with Me and Can't Run from Yourself, the latter of which produced one of her signature songs, "Two Sparrows In a Hurricane."

"Two Sparrows" was a tender love ballad that followed a couple through all the difficulties of life, from their young puppy-love romance to decades of happy married life that followed.  The song became one of the most-awarded hit songs of her career, and the accompanying music video won an ACM award.

Jo Dee Messina
After Shania Twain's breakthrough, the road had been paved for another spunky and confident girl singer with an ear for a great pop-country hook.  Jo Dee Messina filled the role perfectly.  In 1996, Jo Dee scored two Top Ten hits right out of the gate with "Heads Carolina, Tails California" and "You're Not In Kansas Anymore."

She faltered at radio with her next two singles, but her second album I'm Alright saw her sitting comfortable at the top of the charts, producing three back-to-back number-one hits ("Bye Bye," "I'm Alright," and "Stand Beside Me"), and one number-two hit (her cover of Dottie West's "Lesson In Leavin'").  In 1999, she won the CMA Horizon Award and the ACM Top New Female Vocalist award.

LeAnn Rimes
More than a decade before the whole LeAnn Rimes/ Eddie Cibrian/ Brandi Glanville fiasco erupted, LeAnn was known for her Patsy Cline-esque vocal style and the novelty of being only thirteen years old at the time of her emergence in country music.

In 1996, this girl who wasn't even old enough to drive had her first Top Ten hit with her debut single "Blue," which is well remembered for its infectious yodel hook.  The single won a slew of industry awards, including a Grammy for Best Female Country Vocal Performance, and a CMA award for Single of the Year.  It also helped propel LeAnn's debut album of the same title to sales of six million copies.  Songwriter Bill Mack, who had originally written "Blue" for Patsy Cline (Patsy died before having the chance to record it), won the CMA award for Song of the Year.  In addition, LeAnn won a Grammy for Best New Artist and a CMA Horizon Award.

Lee Ann Womack
Besides LeAnn, there was also Lee Ann.  When Lee Ann Womack emerged in 1997 as a traditional-leaning country artist in a pop-oriented Country market, she was eagerly embraced by country fans who hungered for some classic country.  When fans first heard her debut single, "Never Again, Again," it was clear that this woman was country to the core.  Her self-titled debut album quickly reached Top 10 selling status, and eventually radio jumped on board as well.  Lee Ann scored her first major hits with her next two singles "The Fool" and "You've Got to Talk to Me."  The album went platinum, and Lee Ann was named the ACM Top New Female Vocalist in 1998.

Radio and fans continued to embrace the new voice of traditional country music when she released the follow-up album Some Things I Know.  Two of the album's singles, "A Little Past Little Rock" and "I'll Think of a Reason Later," became some of Lee Ann's best-known nineties hits, the former of which earned a Grammy nomination.

Terri Clark
Terri Clark was introduced to country music through records made by her grandparents, who were stars in the Canadian country music market.  After graduating high school, she moved to Nashville from her native Alberta, Canada, and began pursuing a music career of her own.  She cut her teeth performing in the famed Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, and eventually secured a recording contract with Mercury Records.

Her self-titled 1995 debut album went platinum, and produced three bit hit singles ("Better Things to Do," "When Boy Meets Girl," and "If I Were You"), all of which Terri co-wrote.  Her second album Just the Same was certified gold.  Throughout the decade, Terri was able to remain commercially viable by adapting to current trends, but at the same time never sacrificing her own identity as an artist.

Terri's biggest hit of the nineties, "You're Easy On the Eyes" was a fine example of the smart lyrics and knockout performance that made her such a well-loved and memorable nineties country star.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Trace Adkins, "Brown Chicken Brown Cow"

Simply put, Trace Adkins' new single is a lot less "The Rest of Mine" and a lot more "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk" and "Ala-Freakin'-Bama."  But should I criticize an Adkins novelty tune on the grounds that it's pointless and stupid?  That would be like criticizing doughnuts and honey buns for having too many calories.  But if I do find myself in the mood for some junk food, there are lots of places I'd go to before hitting this joint.

"Brown Chicken Brown Cow" is a ditty about a farming couple who head up to the barn loft and get it on in the hay.  You know, "Bow chicka bow bow"... Get it?  Now country music has never been a genre strictly sterile and sanitized.  There have been plenty of country singers who didn't hesitate to lay a good sexy song on us, whether it's Charlie Rich going "Behind Closed Doors," or Trisha Yearwood making love "Like We Never Had a Broken Heart," or even Luke Bryan telling us the real reason why "Rain Is a Good Thing."  But with cringe-inducing lines about the chicken and cow "fightin' each other for a front row seat," this animal trots right past sexy and hops the fence into T.M.I. territory.

But one of the biggest problems here is that we have a tacky pun and some PG-13 imagery pulling all the weight here.  Nothing else about this song - definitely not the heavy country-rock production and grating guitar licks - stands out as being at all clever or interesting.  There's just no redeeming quality to make this single anything but utterly atrocious.

Of course, it's 'all in good fun,' and it's 'just a fun song', and I shouldn't overthink it, and blah blah blah...  I know.  There's nothing wrong with a good harmless ditty, but "ditty" status does not make a song immune to criticism, especially when it's as poorly executed as this.  Bottom line:  I'm not criticizing it because it's junk food; I'm criticizing it because it tastes bad.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)


Josh Thompson, "Won't Be Lonely Long"

After releasing an entertaining-but-indistinctive working man's anthem and an "I'm way countrier than you" tune that reeked of pandering, Josh Thompson returns with neotraditional tale of getting over the ex.  "Won't Be Lonely Long" begins as a weepy acoustic ballad.  When Josh reaches the song's bridge, he realizes how lucky he is that his woman said goodbye "at seven o'clock on a Friday night."

Kapow.  Then we're hit with a heavy uptempo arrangement that abruptly kicks in.  Plucky steel guitar licks and a barroom piano hammer home the narrator's declaration that he "won't be lonely long," because he's headed out for a night on the town.  He and his buddies will be "singing along with those done-me-wrong drinkin' songs," and when a woman asks if he's with anyone, he'll relish his newfound freedom as he happily says "No, ma'am!"  He gets a bit snarky near the end of the song, as he triumphantly brags that there "Ain't an empty space in the parking lot/ Look how many friends I've got."

It might not be a future classic, but "Won't Be Lonely Long" earns points for being full of personality.  This shameless ditty stays true to what it is - a shameless ditty - by being simple and to-the-point without pretending to be more clever than it actually is.  But although it is simple, it's not simple to the point of being cliche.

Josh's debut single "Beer On the Table" was a pleasant introduction to a talented new artist, but he greatly disappointed with the follow-up "Way Out Here."  In the future, I hope to hear Josh recording material with more of an edge to it.  "Won't Be Lonely Long" doesn't represent a huge artistic risk on Josh's part, but it is a clear step in the right direction.

(Scores are given on a scale of 1 to 10)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Getting to Know Danielle Car

This big-voiced Detroit native has yet to commit to a record deal, but she's already been able to get some attention for her single "Walk of Shame" and her EP The Danielle Car EP, which can be heard on her MySpace page.  This talented lady recently took a few minutes to chat with me over the phone about her music, influences, and career goals.

Ben:  Would you like to start by telling a little bit about your background, and where you come from?

Danielle:  Sure, sure!  Well, I'm a first generation Italian-American on my dad's side.  I was born and raised in the Detroit area.  Music was always a part of the household.  I'm from a family of six, and food and music were like our seventh and eighth members of the family.  We always had musical instruments laying around.  We were always playing, whether it's my older sister playing "Fur Elise" on the piano, or my brother rocking out to "Crazy Train" in his room.  We always had music goin' on around the house.  Dad was more into Pavarotti and ABBA, Air Supply - Europeans love Air Supply.  My mom was more into the country stuff.  She loved her Kenny Rogers, and she loved her Glen Campbell and Elvis.  Even some of the Neil Diamond stuff - if you go back and listen t o it now, a lot of it really has sort of what would now be considered country.  Ultimately, that's what I sort of gravitated toward and ultimately identified with was sort of the country stuff.

Ben:  There aren't very many country singers from Detroit, so do you feel like having kind of a unique background for a country singer lends any special qualities to your music?

Danielle:  I think more than location country music is more about the feelings - the sort of accessibility of the lyrics - the identifiability of country.  I don't necessarily think that you need to be from Nashville to express those universal themes that country music usually has.  We have one country music station.  I've done a lot of work with them, but other than them there's not a whole heck of a lot going on country music-wise.  We've got a great local country music scene, but there's not a whole lot of outlet for it.  So I'm trying to take it big time then.  I'm trying to take it out, spread my wings around the United States, and it's working well so far.  People really have embraced country music from Detroit.  I think people are sort of curious - "What does country music from Detroit sound like?"  And then when they hear it, they're pleasantly surprised.  They like the attitude, and they like the sound, and they embrace it.

Ben:  What drew you to country music, and made you realize that was the kind of music you wanted to make?

Danielle:  Well, my mom she put on a record when I was about seven years old - this old record she had, and I just started crying when I heard it.  It just dominated my little seven-year-old mind for the rest of the day.  It was Glen Campbell's version of "It's Only Make Believe," and I just felt his aching voice and these soaring strings.  I was just amazed that this song could make me feel something so deep.  Even to this day, if you get me in the right mood, that song still makes me cry.  But it was then that I sort of knew that I wanted to embrace the tunes, and sort of write tunes that made people feel something the way that song made me feel.  So I always had an appreciation for country music, but I had a friend who was crazy about Dwight Yoakam, and sort of turned me on to him when I was in my teens.  It was all over from there.  Dwight Yoakam, 'Turn Me On, Turn Me Up, Turn Me Loose'!  Dwight Yoakam!

Ben:  Who are your main musical influences?

Danielle:  My main musical influences - I would say Dwight Yoakam for sure.  Glen Campbell, Roy Orbison, Queen.  I was very popular in grade school because I was a member of the Queen fan club. (That's sarcasm - I was a big fat nerd!) But I was in the Queen fan club, so I love Queen, Johnny Cash - those were probably the biggies.  But Dwight for sure.  Dwight was like my country music deity.  He officially has deity status in my mind.

Ben:  So I understand you do quite a bit of songwriting.

Danielle:  I do!  I do a lot of songwriting.  Some days it's very cerebral.  I'll have to sit down and force myself to write something and see what happens.  Most often it's sort of an exercise in randomness.  Sometimes the music comes first; sometimes the lyrics come first.  But the randomness is something that's always fun.

Ben:  What's a song that you wish you had had a part in writing?

Danielle:  I would say if I could have been in on the songwriting process maybe with Loretta Lynn and Jack White.  That "Portland, Oregon" song - It's such a simple tune, but they added so much to it, so it's got this really funky intro to it.  I really really love that song.  "It's Only Make Believe" - I know Conway Twitty made it famous, but if I could have been in on the Glen Campbell arrangement, that would really float my boat.

Ben:  I bet songwriting with Loretta would be fun.

Danielle:  Oh my God, I'd probably just get cotton-mouthed and start sweating, say stupid things, and embarrass myself if I ever even met Loretta, let alone writing with her.

Ben:  Of the songs that you've written and recorded, do you have any favorites?

Danielle:  My favorite is probably "Walk of Shame."  It's probably a tie with "Walk of Shame" and "Pretty Please."  With "Walk of Shame," I'm merely the narrator of a story I saw literally night after night in the club.  The steps were sort of like clockwork.  The hot chicks would come into the bar.  The dudes would provide Jager rounds and applejacks.  Then the inevitable requests for "Redneck Woman," "Before He Cheats," and "Friends In Low Places."  Then, you know, a little dirty dancing later, and they leave with their hands in each other's back pockets.  No harm, no foul, so I wrote a song about it.  It's sort of an everyday part of life.  No big deal.  Millions of Americans do it - red-blooded American country music fans know what the "Walk of Shame" is!  So that one always got a great response in the clubs. 

"Pretty Please" I think just rocks.  It's not necessarily an anthem of any kind.  It's a relatable topic about a dude cheating, and the other woman not having it, putting her foot down and saying "Go on home and see your family, 'cause I ain't gonna plead or beg down on my knees, pretty please."  So I sort of like that one.  It's just a woman recognizing her self-worth, and she's not gonna give it up to somebody who's already chosen someone else.

Ben:  Kind of like "Stay," by Sugarland?

Danielle:  No!  "Stay," oh my God, is the most depressing video.  It's the saddest song.  It'll put you in a funk!  "Pretty Please" is a little more you're in a good mood after it.  I guess thematically speaking, they're similar, but I guess style-wise, they're more different.

Ben:  Like similar themes, but a different mood to it?

Danielle:  Definitely a different mood.  I feel like "Stay" is a ridiculously unbelievably perfectly-written song.  It has a somber edge to it, even though at the end the main character, the woman, supposedly Jennifer Nettles - Who knows? - is sort of gettin' her groove back and realizing "Hey, stay with your wife, and I'll be over here with my self-esteem.  I guess thematically "Pretty Please" is the same thing, but it's just more of a fist-pumper.

Ben:  I understand the amount of attention you're receiving is pretty big for an unsigned artist.  Are there any of your career accomplishments thus far that you're especially proud of?

Danielle:  Yes!  I'm really excited to be on the Promo Only releases.  Promo Only is an industry promotional outlet where they take the hottest singles, whoever's releasing a single that month, and they put it all on one disc for promotional outlets, be it radio stations, clubs, line dance classes.  Nationwide they give out the best of the best for that month for country radio, and "Walk of Shame" is going to be on January's compilation along with, oh gosh, Alan Jackson, Darius Rucker, Sugarland, and I'm just so stoked that I'm the only unsigned artist on the entire disc!  Everybody's got a record deal but me, so I'm actively searching for one - don't get me wrong - but I think it's really fun that if you have good tunes and a good attitude and you've got all your ducks in a row, if you first spread the word, the word gets spread!  People have been taking notice, so I'm really excited about that.

Ben:  Well, that's awesome!  Congrats on that.  One question that I pretty much always ask when I interview somebody is who would be your dream duet partner?

Danielle:  Why don't you take a guess? [Laughs] I'm making you do the work now!  Judging from my answers, who do you think it is?  I know who it is.  Who do you think it is?

Ben:  Glen Campbell?

Danielle:  No, Dwight Yoakam!  Glen Campbell would be great, but it's Dwight Yoakam.  Dwight Yoakam to me is, oh my gosh, he oozes cool.  His cool quotient is exponentially above mine, so that might be difficult for collaboration purposes.  But he sweats cool; he breathes cool.  I'm convinced all of his lyrics are just the word cool, cool over again, 'cause that's all I hear.  And he's true to his sound.  He doesn't try to do anything but be himself, and just make great music, and the tightness of his jeans just makes me feel like I already know him, so I would absolutely love to collaborate with Dwight Yoakam.

Ben:  Awesome.  Yeah, Dwight was gonna be my second guess!  So are there any projects that you're working on right now?

Danielle:  I'm really excited for the EP to start sort of taking wing in January, so now I'm really promoting my song "Save Your Cookies for Me," which actually made it to Promo Only's hot list this week.  It's not gonna come out on the monthly disc, but it's on their hot list this week along with Brad Paisley and Katy Perry and Rihanna, 'cause it's like an all-genre hot list.  So I'm really promoting my Christmas song "Save Your Cookies for Me."  Pretty cool!

Ben:  Yeah, that's pretty big.  So do you have any career goals that you're hoping to attain sometime in the future?

Danielle:  Career goals?  I think it's just to be embraced enough to keep doing what I'm doing.  I want to get my music out to as many willing ears as possible, and really bring attention to the country music scene in Detroit.  I'd like to be the first female Detroit country-rock artist from the area.  There's a lot of country artists that are coming out.  Uncle Kracker is sort of trying to do the country thing.  Frankie Ballard from Battle Creek.  Josh Gracin went to my rival high school.  So there are a lot of country artists that are out here, but they're all dudes!  So I wanna add some estrogen into the mix.  That's the goal!