Album Review — Wade Bowen’s ‘Twelve Twenty-Five’

Every year modern artists will release their interpretations of classic Christmas songs, whether via singles or even an entire album. And maybe they’ll even sprinkle in a few originals if you’re lucky. But the problem is most of them don’t stand out in any way. You’ll listen to it once, say “that’s neat” and then go right back to listening to the same old songs you always listen to around the holidays. Occasionally though someone will actually release something worthy of earning a spot in your Christmas songs rotation and this year that’s Wade Bowen’s new Christmas album Twelve Twenty-Five. I had a great feeling about the Texas country artist’s first Christmas album when it was announced, and it went beyond even my own expectations.

Bowen opens with his rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and he knocks his performance out of the park. It’s infectious, fun and gets the Christmas energy on this album kicked off perfectly. And I’m happy the production doesn’t go over the top like it usually does when other artists cover this song. “O Holy Night” is next and this is admittedly one of my favorite religious Christmas songs. That’s because I feel it truly captures the joy and meaning of Christmas through the Christian lens and Bowen’s performance truly does justice to it, which isn’t surprise considering he released a great gospel album.

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is next and I can tell that Bruce Springsteen’s version of the song influences Bowen’s own version. It’s got a more rocking feeling rather than the classical approach many take and even banters in the song like Springsteen. But Bowen pulls it off so much better than Bruce because he doesn’t over sing it (stay tuned for further elaboration on why I hate the Boss’s take on the song), and the guitars and pianos don’t blast the listener. Less can be more. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” showcases why I enjoy Bowen in more stripped-down songs. His voice just fits these piano ballads and the song also properly captures the feeling I look for in the covering of this song: mostly somber, but with bits of optimism and hope.

Bowen’s son Brock joins him on “Holly Jolly Christmas” and I must admit I usually hate children singing. But I actually enjoy this performance because it’s endearing, and Bowen goes full dad in the bridge of the song. It’s hilarious while also avoiding being corny and feeling forced. It feels real and as the listener I can appreciate and enjoy this. When I think of “Please Come Home for Christmas” the first version I think of is The Eagles’ version, as I believe it to be the best. And while I don’t think Bowen’s version tops it, it’s still pretty damn good, as he captures the yearning and wanting needed in his vocal performance.

Bowen is joined by another one of his sons, Bruce, on the Irving Berlin classic “White Christmas.” This performance is much different than the other one, as both take this song more seriously and Bruce sounds pretty good. Their harmonies sound great too. You can tell the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, as he may one day follow his father’s footsteps. It’s a heartfelt and enjoyable performance from the father and son duo.

I have to say I was surprised to see Wade Bowen cover the Mariah Carey classic “What I Want for Christmas is You,” as the song’s high popularity and sterling reputation amongst critics and listeners alike makes it a challenging song for other artists to tackle. Not to mention it requires some serious pipes to pull off. But he does a fantastic job! It’s a different take that I think is worthy of being in anybody’s Christmas playlist. Again, if you’re like me and you get sick of Christmas songs going a little too far with production at times these more minimally produced Christmas songs are a fresh change of pace. If you don’t want to spend time with this whole album, this is one of a few songs that should absolutely be heard.

“Til The Season Comes Round Again” is great to hear covered, as this song is a classic that often gets overlooked. It’s a warm blanket next to the fire type song that Bowen along with the soulful feature of Sean McConnell cover really well. The addition of McConnell harmonizing with Bowen is really the cherry on top to make it a memorable performance. Dolly Parton’s “Once Upon a Christmas” is covered next and I will never complain about a Dolly song showing up. While this is one of the my less favorite takes on the album (it has the unenviable task of living up to Dolly and Kenny Rogers), it’s still solid and I like the Texas influences that are incorporated into the song.

The great Cody Canada joins Bowen for a rendition of Merle Haggard’s brilliant “If We Make It Through December.” I remember growing up I found this song to be kind of depressing and it is, but it’s also important that this unpleasant and for some people, really real look at the other side of Christmas be presented. It shows that Christmas doesn’t always go like it does in the movies and that reality and what you want don’t always align. In other words, why we love country music: it’s real.

Bowen goes to the other end of the spectrum with his cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” And for some this might be sacrilegious to say, but I find Bowen’s cover to be better than the original by George Michael. The reason is 1) I hate the excessive synth on the original and 2) Bowen’s more stripped-down version allows the great lyrics to shine. Both these points play into each other, as the synths and overall cheesy feeling of the original really takes away from the quality of the lyrics that tell the complicated story of love lost around the holidays. This was easily an immediate standout on this album. Appropriate, the album closes with “Silent Night.” It’s just a natural closing song for a Christmas album and Bowen delivers a stirring and soulful rendition of this Christmas staple.

Twelve Twenty-Five is a modern Christmas album done right and I applaud Wade Bowen for accomplishing something that surprisingly so many modern artists screw up. Bowen takes classic songs and instead of trying to add some “twist” to make it stand out, instead just delivers them through his own voice with a country flavor while respecting the original takes on them. And don’t dismiss this as just a great country Christmas album. This is a great Christmas album against any genre.

Grade: 9 candy canes out of 10

Album Review — Luke Combs’ ‘What You See Is What You Get’

It’s hard to believe it was just over two years ago that Luke Combs made his entrance into the greater country music scene with his smash single “Hurricane” and now today is undeniably the biggest star in the genre. While I don’t see Combs as one of the best voices or songwriters in the genre, I understand (and enjoy) his appeal and see why he’s had such a meteoric rise: he has a humble, “aw shucks,” good ole boy persona who is undeniably country and even “paid his dues,” building up an impressive grassroots fan base as an indie artist before signing onto a major label. And I only see his star continuing to rise.

Combs made a pretty solid debut with his first album This One’s For You, adding even more quality songs on his deluxe version of the album. So I was eager to see if he could top his debut effort with his sophomore album What You See Is What You Get. Unfortunately he doesn’t and right away before even listening to the album, seeing the track list at 17 songs struck me as a red flag. In today’s streaming world, it’s easy to see this as a label decision to stuff the album to milk streaming numbers (hip hop is especially infamous for this tactic). I also rarely find that albums of this length are able to maintain a high level of quality throughout, as almost all of these albums have filler stuffed in the middle. Before I touch on this more though, the album starts off pretty good.

Opening song and lead single “Beer Never Broke My Heart” is a solid and catchy country rocker. It’s well-treaded territory in country music: an ode to beer over girls that break your heart. Combs of course pulls this off thanks to having the persona I described above. It’s his “secret sauce” and why he’s risen in popularity above everyone else in country music. “Refrigerator Door” is a song about the sentimentality of all the pictures and magnets that adorn a refrigerator door and the nostalgia it generates within Combs seeing them. Again a solid song, it doesn’t blow me away. It’s a little predictable, but it also feels heartfelt.

“Even Though I’m Leaving” is very much along this same sentiment. You know right away somebody is dying in this song by the end of it, in this case the father. In comparison to other songs in this same vein, it’s not as meaningful and well written as Eric Church’s “Monsters,” but it’s also not so on the nose and cut and paste as Scotty McCreery’s “Five More Minutes.” Still despite the predictable nature, I really enjoy the song, as it truly does tug at the heartstrings and resonates with the listener. “Lovin’ On You” is a fun and simple song that works because of Combs’ enthusiastic delivery. I feel like it’s one of the more overlooked songs on the album, but it shouldn’t because it’s actually one of the better ones.

“Moon over Mexico” is Combs’ take on a beach song and it’s just okay. The song is just a bit too sleepy for my tastes, as it just doesn’t really convey a beach feeling to me. And it’s kind of an overall awkward fit with Combs. “1, 2 Many” sees Combs joined by the legendary Brooks & Dunn and I fell in love with this song instantly. It not only fits Combs well, but bringing on one of the all-time great party country acts in Brooks & Dunn elevates this song from pretty good to memorably great. The energy of this song is infectious, the lyrics are catchy and the harmonies of the three at the end is the mighty exclamation point needed to cap this song off.

Unfortunately this is followed by easily the worst song on the album, “Blue Collar Boys.” I’m so sick of these songs about redneck boys versus city boys and preaching superiority over the other. It’s such a tiring, predictable and pretentious theme that even Combs with his endearing persona can’t pull it off. To all country artists out there thinking about doing these songs: Please stop! “New Every Day” is a song about learning from mistakes and breakups and becoming a better person as a result. It’s a great message and the instrumentation does a good job creating a reflective feeling to match the lyrics.

Remember what I said at the beginning of the review about long albums almost inevitably having forgettable filler? Well “Reasons” fits this description to a T. It’s bland and forgettable. “Every Little Bit Helps” is carried by Combs’ energetic delivery. It’s your standard, getting over you heartbreak country song, but Combs’ secret sauce comes through for him again. “Dear Today” allows the listener to hear Combs in a more stripped down environment and it sounds great. The only problem is it feels like a logical concluding track to an album, but instead it’s #11 out of #17 on this album. Cull this album down to 12 tracks and have this song as the closer and it’s without a doubt better than his first album.

The album’s title track is an anthem about Combs himself: who he is, what he stands for and how he doesn’t portray himself to be anything other than what he is. It feels like a genuine and honest declaration from Combs, which is refreshing because so many artists fail to pull off these type of songs because they tend to mischaracterize themselves. But Combs actually describes himself in the same way myself and I’m sure many others see him as through his music.

“Does To Me” was a song I was really looking forward to hearing thanks to the Eric Church feature, but after thoroughly listening to it I’m underwhelmed. I expected so much more out of this collaboration. The song is about finding more meaning in the little things in life than what other people do, but it just doesn’t do anything memorable with the subject matter. On top of it Church’s feature feels like a wasted opportunity, as he barely shows up for a few lines that I won’t even remember (Church also covered this topic better with “Some of It,” making this song worse). I would have rather heard both of them 50/50 on a song they wrote together, but I feel like the label forced Combs into pushing this album out too quickly that prevented this from happening.

“Angels Workin’ Overtime” has an enjoyable “honky tonk” vibe, but the premise/hook of the song makes me gag with how cliché and unoriginal it is. It’s like one of those throw pillows that says “Bless This Mess” or the stick figure family you see on the back of a car. It’s just so basic and empty! So I’m sure it will be a smash hit. The same came be said for “All Over Again.” It’s a song that blatantly placates the label with it’s pop country sound and it’s generic, “Hurricane”-like lyrics. Again this will probably be a hit, much to my chagrin when there’s so many other great songs on the album.

At least the album closes with two great love songs in “Nothing Like You” and “Better Together.” The former song’s subdued nature allows Combs’ passion to shine through in the lyrics, while the latter utilizes the piano well and once again allows Combs’ vocal performance carry the song. But once again I have to question the track placements: Why put two quite similar songs back-to-back to close the album? It just cheapens the impact of both songs on the listener. Again I really enjoy both songs, but they shouldn’t be right next to each other on the album.

While Luke Combs doesn’t deliver a bad album in What You See Is What You Get, I can’t help but overall feeling like this album is a missed opportunity for Combs to deliver something great. If this album was a more reasonable length and if the fluff and bad songs were cut, this album could have easily been one of the top ten country albums you’ll hear this year. So while I wouldn’t call this album a sophomore slump, it’s certainly no slam dunk either.

Grade: 6/10

A Quick Note!

Hi all! Thank you for stopping by and reading! I just wanted to drop a quick note about the lack of posts. I’ve been absolutely swamped with real work, so this has prevented me from writing here. Hopefully I can be back ASAP! There’s a few reviews I’m itching to write! But I just wanted to let you know what’s happening. At the latest I’ll return with new posts after Thanksgiving. Thanks for the patience!

Josh

Album Review — Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’

What can I say about Kanye West that you haven’t heard from somebody else already? There isn’t, so let’s just cut to the chase: his newest album Jesus Is King. With this new album Kanye goes gospel and has said that he’s done with secular music and he’s not swearing in it either (there is zero cussing in this album). Yeah I’m sure this will stick, just like when he dropped Yhandi like he said he would last year. Nevertheless, let’s roll with it. Jesus Is King opens with “Every Hour,” which prominently features the Sunday Service Choir. It’s a passionate and uplifting performance from the group and while as a standalone song it doesn’t really work, it does work great as an album opener. So Kanye does establish the right mood for a gospel album.

“Selah” is Kanye’s fiery proclamation of being a born-again Christian and him giving himself over to Christ. And this is great for Kanye. But as for the song: it feels like it never really leaves first gear. It has an epic opening with the pounding drums and the Sunday Service Choir singing “hallelujah” in the background. It truly makes the song feel like something big. But nothing big ever really comes. The bars range from decent to mediocre and puzzling (I have no clue what he means when he raps “Everybody wanted Yhandi/Then Jesus Christ did the laundry”). It’s basically a half-finished song, which is a common theme on this album.

This continues on “Follow God.” I love the sampling of “Can You Lose By Following God” by Whole Truth, continuing Kanye’s excellent knack at picking samples. The beat is catchy, as well as Kanye’s flow. But the lyrics go nowhere, as it’s just Kanye rapping about talking with his dad and then really nothing after it. “Closed on Sunday” may be Kanye’s most cringe-inducing track of all-time, as the writing reaches an all-time low for him: “You my Chick-Fil-A/You’re my number one with the lemonade.” This is Luke Bryan-level rapping bad. Not to mention the production is weak and too minimalist. And why is he weirdly shouting out Chick-Fil-A at the end? Any other restaurant and I would say Kanye was being paid to say it, but I don’t think Chick-Fil-A needs any advertising to convince people to eat there. It’s delicious and it sells itself!

“On God” is another short song, but this one actually feels finished. But the lyrics are so contradicting. On one hand, West is rapping about being so thankful for God and then on the other he reiterates being the best artist of all-time, complains about how much he pays in taxes and then tries to justify why he charges so much money for his merchandise (for $150 you too can have a Kanye/Jesus sweater!). In the words of his dad on “Follow God,” that ain’t Christ-like. Hence why so many people like myself are 100% skeptical of the “new Kanye.” Thankfully it finally gets better on “Everything He Needs.” Ty Dolla $ign is smooth as silk on the hook, as he usually is on features. The harmonies of West, Ty and Ant Clemons sound great and give the song an appropriate uplifting feel to a song about being thankful for everything you have. It’s a solid and complete track, which is an accomplishment on this album.

Clemons has another great feature on “Water,” as he sounds better over West’s production than West himself. The same can be said of the choir. But West’s bars are lazy and short and he doesn’t even feel necessary on the song. So you’re left with a good hook, production and an unbaked overall concept. Again. “God Is” is one of the best songs on the album and shows Kanye at his best. It’s a genuinely inspiring gospel song where Kanye brings a lot of passion with his vocals. If he could have brought this level of energy and focus over the entire album, it would have been excellent just like this song. And it once again is a great sampling choice, this time “God Is” by James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir.

“Hands On” is a rambling and quite frankly boring song where Kanye has the most basic and monotone flow. And the song goes on and on with Kanye rapping about being judged by Christians and asking for prayers. I’m not really sure Kanye was going with this song, but with what have it goes nowhere. It’s beating a dead horse, but this is what happens when you rush projects.

“Use This Gospel” is another big highlight on the album and that’s a big thanks to the excellent features. First is the reunion of Clipse, as both Pusha T and his brother No Malice kill their verses. It’s great to hear this duo together on a song again, especially No Malice, who left behind music to become a preacher and is the perfect feature for the album. Then Kenny G of all people comes at the end of the song and blows you away with a satisfyingly smooth saxophone solo. Again, when Kanye is focused it’s incredible how he can bring together several different elements and make them sound amazing.

Of course the album doesn’t end on this great note, but instead a mediocre interlude (calling it a song feels insulting) in “Jesus is Lord.” It’s completely pointless, but if you’ve listened to multiple Kanye projects and the rest of this album, you’re not surprised.

Kanye West’s Jesus Is King shows glimpses of being a great album. But ultimately Kanye didn’t spend enough time and focus on it to bring it together. So you’re left with several unfinished songs, ideas and largely great production that is wasted. There are enough good to great songs and moments on the album that make it worth checking out. But there’s also plenty of down moments that balances this album to overall being just bland and okay.

Grade: 5/10

Album Review — Miranda Lambert’s ‘Wildcard’

It’s been a lengthy break since Miranda Lambert released The Weight of These Wings and a lot has changed for her. But now she’s back with her new album Wildcard. One thing that immediately stands out about this album is the production, as it’s something I feel that is important to address up front. On her last album the production was headed up by Frank Liddell, while this time Jay Joyce takes over producer duties. Joyce’s production is something I’ve had my fair share of criticism for in the past, but lately I’ve largely enjoyed his work. Well you can put me back off the wagon because the production on this album is a mess.

It’s apparent right away with opening track “White Trash.” It’s a clunky mishmash of country, rock and pop, not quite deciding what it wants to be. Lambert’s voice sounds too clean and almost robotic. It becomes a running theme for a large part of this album: on paper this sounds interesting and good, but the execution and presentation is completely lacking and at times downright bad. This falls on Joyce. To make matters worse for this song the lyrics sounds like mediocre leftovers from a Gretchen Wilson album. It’s a been there, done a lot better type song.

“Mess with My Head” elicits pretty much the same criticisms. The lyrics are subpar and not interesting. Lambert’s voice is once again overproduced. It’s a shame because there’s elements I really enjoy in this song: the heavy reverb and the crunchy guitars in the bridge followed by the weird effects done to the steel guitar. “It All Comes out in the Wash” is Lambert’s kitschy side and this grinds my gears quickly. The laundry imagery evoked in the lyrics isn’t clever nor catchy. This reminds me a lot of “Little Red Wagon,” another song from Lambert I don’t like.

“Settling Down” features more mediocre production. It’s another song that just can’t decide on it’s sound and it feels like it’s just bouncing all over the place. It’s about Lambert trying to figure out where she stands in her relationship and unfortunately nothing of interest is offered in this questioning. It’s just a lot of clichés one goes through when having doubts in a relationship. I’m not really sure what “Holy Water” is about to be honest with you. Maybe salvation, yet the church is selling snake oil? I don’t really understand what this song is going for and if you have a clue feel free to enlighten me in the comments. And I’m not trying to be cynical here, but I just flat out don’t understand what it’s about.

Maren Morris joins Lambert on “Way Too Pretty for Prison” and it’s a song about women contemplating murdering their husbands for cheating on them. But they insist they won’t since they’re too pretty for prison. I’m of two minds with this song: On one hand I like the tongue in cheek nature and the funny lines (fifteen women having to share a bathroom and the “waxing situation”). I think Morris is a great feature choice too. But on the other hand I’m burnt out on these type of songs becoming hits for like a decade (mostly from Carrie Underwood, who usually went ahead with killing the man in the song). I wouldn’t mind this topic being retired for a while.

Now I know up to this point I’ve spent a lot of time tearing this album apart, but fortunately this album mostly takes a turn for the better in the second half, starting with “Locomotive.” It’s a really fun and playful love song about Lambert’s husband loving her, regardless of her reckless lifestyle at times. The rocking guitars and the bluesy harmonica, along with Lambert’s rapid delivery in the chorus make this an instantly catchy head nodder. “Bluebird” is about Lambert keeping her head up and using the hurdles of life being thrown at her as motivation. It’s a really well written message song and I enjoy the shimmery strings that are interluded throughout the song. It shows that when the production is properly executed on this album, it really lands well.

“How Dare You Love” is a bit saccharine for my taste and this is coming from someone who’s a sucker for sappy love songs. From the weak metaphors to the lacking hook, this song just sort of passes over me. “Fire Escape” is a love song that features some obvious influence in it’s sound from 80s rock ballads. That’s a good thing, as I really enjoy the rocking side of Lambert when it’s not overdone. The song has an almost smokey feel about it, which is appropriate for a song that frequently references fire.

The next two songs showcase Miranda Lambert at her worst and best respectively. “Pretty Bitchin'” is pretty terrible. What’s the woman version of bro country? Because this is it. The lyrics are extremely lazy, objectify looks and at times are just straight up filler and non-sensical. “Yeah life’s pretty weird, life’s pretty great/Life’s pretty good if you live it/1, 2, 3 Mississippi/Sitting pretty, damn pretty.” This is just complete bullshit. I expect better from Lambert. But then she delivers better with “Tequila Does.” In fact, it’s my favorite song on the album. It’s a catchy and clever song about Lambert’s love affair with cold drinks being stronger than any romantic relationship. I love the western influenced, yet funky sound, making it easily danceable. “All hat, no cattle” is also one of my favorite quips I’ve heard from Lambert.

“Track Record” is another classic rock influenced sounding song that Joyce nails. It reminds me of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” with it’s synth-y feel. The lyrics I dare say are even better, as Lambert candidly addresses her “checkered” track record with love and relationships, as she embraces who she is. This genuine honesty makes for a great song and why a lot of her last album really connected with a lot of people. Closing song “Dark Bars” is another great one. Lambert pours her heart out as she pours one out in a dark bar. The amount of detail of the bar and the mood hanging over it really immerses you in the setting and allows you to put yourself in Lambert’s shoes. It’s an enjoyably dark song that ends the album with a bang.

Wildcard basically lives up to it’s name, as it’s all over the place in terms of quality and style. The first half of this album is bad, while the second half is largely good. The production is very hit and miss, even though I can appreciate the attempted risks from Miranda Lambert and producer Jay Joyce. Overall the album is also too long and could have easily been culled down to ten tracks. It would have definitely helped the overall quality because when you weigh the good and bad against each other on this album, you’re ultimately left with a middle-of-the-road effort from Lambert.

Grade: 5/10