Album Review — Justin Moses’ ‘Fall Like Rain’

Bluegrass is a genre I admittedly had trouble appreciating when I was younger. I’ve always respected the genre, but it was something that was hard for me to sit down and truly enjoy. In the earlier days of the blog I covered some bluegrass and writing a review was like pulling teeth from me. Even before that I was exposed to bluegrass from my grandpa. Maybe that’s why when Sturgill Simpson mentioned having a similar experience with his own grandfather that it allowed me to connect to this two volumes of Cuttin’ Grass even more. So admittedly these albums finally made me wake up and appreciate bluegrass a lot more and I’ve been slowly diving into the genre since the release of Simpson’s first volume.

When I was searching for upcoming bluegrass releases, Justin Moses’ album caught my eye and I gave a listen to some of the pre-release singles. The sound immediately caught my ear. Keep in mind I didn’t even know until I dove into Fall Like Rain that he’s the husband of bluegrass star and mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull, who blew me away with her work on Simpson’s bluegrass albums and her own album 25 Trips released last year was quite impressive too (definitely worth your time if you haven’t heard it). Moses’ work though is quite talented in his own right, as he delivers a really good record in Fall Like Rain.

The title track kicks off the album and it should be noted it’s an Eric Clapton cover from his Pilgrim album. Moses does a great job making it his own and re-contextualizing it within bluegrass, as the aching pain of heartbreak that permeates in the lyrics suits the bluegrass sound well. Hull joins Moses on “Taxland” for a captivating instrumental that shows off both of their impressive picking abilities. It’s so much fun and the energy of it is amazing. When I hear a song that jams this hard it only makes me miss live music even more, as I imagine this song would be even more fun to hear in-person.

Prominent bluegrass artist Dan Tyminski joins Moses on “Between the Lightning and the Thunder.” Even if you don’t listen to bluegrass, Tyminski’s voice is quite distinctive, as he’s been featured in some major hits in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Avicci’s “Hey Brother.” With that in mind I was surprised at the restrained nature of Tyminski’s vocal performance. It’s a solid track, but as someone used to Tyminski’s vocals being more prominent this caught me off guard. Not to mention the theme of the song centering around the clashing of lightning and thunder would be seem to call for a more powerful sound to reflect this.

“Walking to Lebanon” has an appropriately Middle Eastern-inspired sound to open the album, which really catches my ear. The songwriting is just as distinctive, as Moses tells the story of a young girl who lives amongst violence and chaos in a Middle East country and is forced to walk across the desert to Lebanon with her sister to escape the bombings that have ravaged her home. It’s a tragic story with a small sense of hope that peace can be found for the young girl. I also appreciate the line from Moses when he sings “It’s hard on us all, but it’s meaner for some,” contextualizing the difference of a tough life in a first-world country versus a tough life in a third-world country. For me it’s a small reminder that somebody somewhere is experiencing something that I will likely never have to go through and I should both take solace in this and sympathize with those who are struggling.

Moses gets a chance to show off his own picking chops in a solo capacity on tracks “Wise & Born” and “Watershed.” As I said in my review of Tyler Childers’ Long Violent History, the key to great instrumental music over the course of an album is variety and conveying mood within the listener as they listen to it. And Moses does this quite well on Fall Like Rain. There’s a distinct character to each track, as “Wise & Born” feels like you’re taking an exciting ride along the countryside and “Watershed” has a soaring, flying feel about it that captures my attention.

Bluegrass legend Del McCoury joins Moses on “My Baby’s Gone.” The impressive picking of Moses combined with the high-pitched twang of McCoury make for a sweet combination on this heartbreak song. I particularly enjoy McCoury’s closing vocals on the track as he hits the highest notes of the song, as it leaves a lasting impression. It also shows the blues of bluegrass and it’s influences on the genre (hence why I liked Moses’ pick of a Clapton cover too). By the way the guest features on this album are great and Moses delivers one more when Shawn Lane of Blue Highway joins him on “Looking for a Place.” I had never heard Lane sing before this, but his voice really stands out with it’s distinctive softness. It also makes for great harmonizing with Moses on the chorus and adds to the breezy melody that envelopes the song.

“U.F.O.” and “Locust Hill” close out the album in a strong way. The former is a quiet observation of the climb we all experience in life, but remaining hopeful that we can one day find the “streets paved with gold.” It works not only in a biblical context, but also striving to find that inner peace in life too. This song underscores the subtle theme throughout the album of acknowledging the rough spots we all experience, but still finding the strength and hope to overcome them and reach the heights we aspire to in our lives. It’s quite the uplifting message to take away from this album. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the tight instrumentals too. The small break before the instrumental reprise at the end of “U.F.O.” is a nice touch. It also provides a good contrast to the fast-picking of “Locust Hill,” as Moses leaves the listener with a real shot of energy and allows all the players on the record to really stretch their legs, which is a standard in the world of bluegrass. The collaborative nature of the genre is without question a shining aspect.

Justin Moses really delivers a fun and memorable listen with his first full-length bluegrass record Fall Like Rain. Almost all of the features are utilized well and there’s plenty of catchy melodies throughout. And unsurprisingly the picking by all the players on this project is top-notch. I would liken this album to warm comfort food for me: it’s not the flashiest nor the most distinctive. But it’s something I can come back to again and again because it’s just so solid and reliable all-around.

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Album Review — Willie Jones’ ‘Right Now’

Fusion country is a term I’ve used for years to describe successfully fusing country music with another genre or genres of music. It’s a fascinating sub-genre that I at one point tried to make an entire blog about. Pulling off fusion country is not easy and requires a knowledge and grasp of multiple genres. And it’s not a well liked sub-genre because you have the likes of Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett and hick hop doing it all wrong. I won’t even get into all the issues of it, as it deserves a whole other post. But basically thanks to the likes of these artists, fusion country doesn’t really even get a chance due to the negative associations around it. 

Enter new country artist Willie Jones, who is taking on fusion country. I’ve been following Jones for a couple years (since my Fusion Country project), although I didn’t realize I had known him even longer, as I remember when he tried out on X-Factor singing Josh Turner’s “Your Man.” So my familiarity of Jones ran deeper than I realized. His first couple singles intrigued me enough that I’ve been quietly waiting for a full project. And after listening to his debut album Right Now, I can say he he not only meets my expectations and hopes, but surpasses them too. This album is full of great country music, both fun and deep lyricism, and is a refreshing example of fusion country done right. 

“Country Soul” is a great introduction to both the album and Jones himself. Jones immediately tells the listener who he is and what genre he is: he’s country, but he’s also hip hop, rock, R&B and soul because they all make up him and his music. It’s extremely catchy and easy to sing-along with. I especially enjoy the verse where he shouts out an artist from each genre he enjoys. As someone who is constantly listening to and dipping in and out of multiple genres, I can immediately connect with the sentiment of the song.

The breezy “Back Porch” celebrates the small pleasure of kicking back and relaxing on the porch. It’s a fun track and I appreciate it because I enjoy just sitting outside and doing nothing in the summer too. In a world where everybody is glued to their phones and having to be doing something, it’s nice to do just “nothing” by sitting outside. Jones’ lead single “Bachelorettes on Broadway” was his first track to gain significant attention and I can understand why. The beat is incredibly bouncy and catches your ear with the heavy, thumping drum machine and quick guitar strums. The topic is not as interesting unfortunately, even though I will say Jones does a good job of describing the groups of bachelorette parties all around Nashville.

“Down for It” is basically Jones’ take on boyfriend country, as the song is about a man vowing to always be there for his woman. It’s not a bad take, but it’s definitely held back from the repetitiveness of the lyrics. In between the repetitive lyrics there are a few heartfelt gems and I wish these were more emphasized in the chorus. One thing I will say that I noticed right away about Jones and the songwriters he uses on this album is the usual faces that write all the songs you hear on country radio aren’t to be found, so the lyrics aren’t the same cliché words and phrases employed. That is a big plus. But I hope on the next album there aren’t any songs like this that fall into the same cliché ideas of those same old songwriters, as Jones proves many times on this album he and his songwriters don’t need to play the same old game to stand out and make great music.

“American Dream” more than proves this, as it’s an instant standout. Jones explains that he grew up listening to all the patriotic country songs we all have heard in country music. But none directly spoke to his experience as a black man living in America, so he rectifies this with this song. He excellently explains and shows his complicated relationship as being a proud American in a country that routinely punishes black folks through continual systemic racism ingrained throughout society. The bridge and spoken word are particularly powerful moments that blow me away. The music video for this song gives even greater context and better illustrates Jones’ great storytelling and message. If country music was truly free and equal, this would be a hit.

The album’s title track is a great contrast to the more serious moments on the album, as the song reminds you of the importance of taking a break and enjoying the company of good friends and a cold drink. There’s always work to be done, but it’s always good to have a mental health break to balance out the stresses of life. Because we all need a moment to just put the world on pause and enjoy the moment in front of us. Also the “Bombay and lemonade” hook is incredibly catchy. Regardless of your own feelings on this album, the hooks on this are undeniably great.

Speaking of Jones’ knack for hooks, “Trainwreck” is the best example of this. The song is fueled by a twangy, upbeat banjo riff and drum machines, giving it a happy feel. But the lyrics are quite sad, as Jones exclaims bewilderment and jadedness after getting his heart unexpectedly broken. One of the things I’m really impressed by with the songwriting is something subtle: referencing checking his ex’s Instagram after the breakup. So many country heartbreak songs (especially traditional) still pretend it’s 1850 and everybody rides their horse down to the honky tonk and cries into their beer. It’s so inaccurate and dated, even if you want to argue it fits the aesthetic of what one expects in a country song. But what Jones describes in this song for the aftermath of a breakup is much more accurate and modern. It baffles me at times how so many modern country lyrics fail to reflect the here and now.

“Drank Too Much” is about a man finding enough courage in the bottom of several bottles of alcohol to get the woman he thought was out of his league. While promoting over-consumption of alcohol isn’t cool, on the other hand it has a good message of not being afraid to take a chance. And sometimes you need a little encouragement to find that voice, so I can appreciate this.

The album closes really strong with two songs Jones wrote solely himself and both are great. “Whole Lotta Love” may be a bit corny to some ears, but this is the type of cheesy love song I can get behind. The song’s emphasis on the importance of having a big heart and commitment over expensive things and money is the kind of songwriting I’m a sucker for. Not to mention once again Jones’ songwriting does a fantastic job including modern references familiar to young listeners that many in the genre are unable and unaware of to incorporate in their songs. He has a clear finger on the pulse and culture of the moment, so it comes off as genuine when he references Gucci (take note of this, Zac Brown).

“Actions” is about asking for someone in the relationship to back up their words and go beyond just telling someone you love them. It’s a simple, but deep message that goes beyond just a relationship. While it’s easy to tell someone you support them, it’s more important that you show it through action. And I couldn’t think of a better closing message for the listener when listening to this album.

Right Now is a really good debut from Willie Jones and while certainly not a perfect album, it without a doubt shows he’s a great and highly talented artist that belongs in country music. His ability to fuse together country with multiple genres and styles should not be taken lightly and with time he’s only going to get better. If you like a little hip hop, soul or rock with your country, Willie Jones and Right Now are well worth your time.

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Album Review — Aaron Watson’s ‘American Soul’

Aaron Watson is an easy artist to root for: he’s an underdog, self-funded, independent artist who is making an honest push to become a more mainstream, household name. He managed to make “Outta Style” into a minor hit. I came across him with his album The Underdog and was later impressed with his album Vaquero he released four years ago and while the later is a bit bloated, it still holds up as a solid and enjoyable album. Both albums are the kind of breezy and melodic country music you can both appreciate and see having wider appeal too. That’s a tough balancing act to pull off. Very few artists managed to strike a balance between high quality and appeal. And from what I see, Watson seems like a very nice and likable person.

With all that being said, he’s lost me since the release of Red Bandana. It’s a corny and contrived album that annoyed me from the very first listen. I never got a chance to properly review this album, but it was one of my least favorite releases of 2019. The opening song “Ghost of Guy Clark” sees Watson seemingly anointing himself as a torchbearer of Clark, which is so condescending and dishonest. I mean he does this and then he puts a song like “Country Radio” on the album later, something Guy Clark wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot writing pen and is a blatant attempt at radio attention. Clark was a songwriter’s songwriter and Watson is trying to be modern-day Brad Paisley, which isn’t a bad thing at all. But it’s nowhere near Clark. The whole record just feels so fake and tries so hard to be something it isn’t. So my hope with Watson’s new album American Soul is that it would be more like the other two albums.

Unfortunately it’s mostly more of Red Bandana. Watson tries to simultaneously be deep and radio-friendly, which again doesn’t jive together. Opener “Silverado Saturday Night” sounds like Watson is angling hard for a spot in a Chevy commercial. This song checkmarks every single cliché you can think of in a country song and is essentially bro country. No amount of fiddles and traditional country production can cover up for this lazy songwriting. If this song wasn’t so blatant with the clichés and took a more subtle approach I would find greater appreciation. “Boots” does a better job in this regard: it’s your standard country love song, but it doesn’t hit you over the head with tropes. It has a nice hook, melody and this is more in line with what I like to hear from Watson. I can say the same of “Whisper My Name.” The song centers around reflecting on how so much has changed since a couple has fallen in love, but they still have that same fire of love towards one another. It utilizes it’s imagery well and the fiddles mash up with the electric guitars to create a catchy rhythm.

“Best Friend” is the kind of overly sappy songwriting that makes me gag. Even worse it promotes the weirdly obsessive pet ownership culture that pervades nowadays (the term “fur baby” makes me cringe). This song is definitely not for me. “Long Live Cowboys” is the standard generic country song that fetishizes a cowboy culture that never existed (the stuff you see in those Hollywood movies that are based on the false stories of Wyatt Earp). These types of songs usually appeal to the “look how country I am crowd.” They typically like to dress up in cowboy boots and hats at country concerts. Watson once again tries to see how many country tropes he can jam into a song on “Stay.” This is cheap radio bait where I’m once again supposed to overlook it because it has a fiddle.

The album’s title track might as well be a post-9/11 Toby Keith, ‘Murica song. It would fit in nicely right next to his patriotic schlock. What’s frustrating is Watson did a much, much better version of this with “They Don’t Make Em Like They Used To.” This song has the emotional sincerity and songwriting depth of a Made in China, American flag t-shirt sold in Walmart. Also I think it’s much more American to hate the Cowboys and Yankees rather than to cheer for them. Watson does thankfully manage to deliver one more quality song on this album in “Out of My Misery.” It’s easily the best on the album, as the song intimately details the crushing heartbreak of a man pleading to his woman to show him mercy and come back for one night of love before leaving him for good. Watson does a great job of showing the desperation of the man and how much this breakup is hurting him. This is the kind of songwriting that made me a fan of Watson in the first place.

“Touchdown Town” is a hackneyed celebration of Friday night high school football that happens in every small town across the nation. As someone who comes from one of these towns, I understand the appealing escapism of high school football and understand why it’s glorified in songs. But it makes me cringe when I hear and see it celebrated so much too because it’s often at the expense of things that should matter. Not to mention the toxic underside of high school football culture is never addressed in these songs: the cover up of sexual assaults, illegal gambling, jock culture often leading to bullying culture and the long-term effects of head injuries sustained from playing the sport. And I can appreciate the sentiment of seeing your father as a hero on closing song “Dog Tags.” The same can be said of the brave men and women who serve this country. They’re absolutely more deserving of being seen as heroes rather than movie stars. But once again these rah rah patriotic country songs are beaten like a dead horse. It feels less like genuine appreciation and more like further exploitation of patriotic imagery in the cheapest way to form a connection with the listener.

Aaron Watson’s American Soul offers little substance and depth. Instead it’s just several cheap, plastic attempts at it. I know this is a pretty harsh review, but I’m not going to hold back my criticisms when Watson’s shown many times before he’s capable of doing much better. While getting radio play is something every artist wants, it should not come at the expense of quality and at this point it clearly is for Watson. I hope Watson delivers something better on his next album, as I would rather be cheering for him instead of jeering him.

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Album Review — Paul McCartney’s ‘McCartney III’

Sir Paul McCartney is without question one of the greatest songwriters of all-time. The songs John Lennon and McCartney wrote influenced every artist that came after them. I should mention McCartney is also my favorite Beatle, as his excellent storytelling and ear for beautiful melodies is what in my mind makes him the best of The Fab Four. His strong solo career after The Beatles only reinforces this in my mind (although Harrison has the best solo album of the four with All Things Must Pass). And the fact that he’s still making music at 78 years old after all he’s accomplished makes me marvel. So anytime Paul McCartney makes music, I’m going to appreciate it, regardless of it’s quality.

If you’ve listened to his previous McCartney albums, you know he likes to get a little weird on these albums. McCartney served as his debut album and it was largely panned by the critics because it was just so odd and different from The Beatles (with the exception being “Maybe I’m Amazed”). But with time people have come to realize how groundbreaking this album was, as it was basically the first indie pop album and it went sharply against the grain of the “wall of sound” that was becoming popular. It was unheard of before this for an artist to do everything on the album by themselves (his wife Linda of course played a big part in that album too) and it’s what distinguishes this series of albums for McCartney. McCartney II pushed the envelope by embracing synthesizers, as this was right before synths became a big trend in pop music in the 80s. So I was expecting something different with McCartney III in tradition with the previous two albums. And he delivers something different.

McCartney said he made this album simply out of boredom during “Rockdown” (his cheeky dad joke on the term lockdown) and while the rawness of this one-man effort shines through, the thorough fullness of the songs makes this feel like something that was more carefully orchestrated. In other words, McCartney can screw around and make a better album than most people can spending years trying to craft a record. I shouldn’t be surprised after laying out above while he’s one of the best. McCartney really surprises me, as he experiments even more than I thought he would on this album and for the most part he pulls off his creative rolls of the dice really well. It’s not amongst his best work (the bar is pretty damn high), but I think it’s a step up over Egypt Station and I would put it amongst his top five best solo albums.

My attention is immediately grabbed with opening track “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” an upbeat, jangly and acoustic-driven melody. It’s got a richly hypnotic feel, as McCartney cryptically asks if you miss him, a reference I’m sure to isolation during quarantine. A really simple track, but quite effective. Also I think he’s the first person I’ve ever heard playing the recorder and I’m not reaching to plug my ears, as it strangely fits the feel of the song. It’s an ideal opening track, as I’m immediately intrigued and want to hear more.

“Find My Way” is an optimistic ode to always being there for someone, even in these anxious, uncertain times. I would point to this song as another example of why I appreciate McCartney so much as a songwriter: he can write excellent happy songs. One of my biggest pet peeves with critics and more critical music fans is the incorrect notion that only dark songs can be considered deep, high-level songwriting. The idea that sadness is a required ingredient in a “serious” song is absolute trite. Sad songs have become just as predictable as the naively optimistic music that populates playlists and radio. I prefer a happy medium in-between. So McCartney’s tendency to be more “groundedly” optimistic and happy in his songs naturally draws me to his songwriting.  “Women and Wives” is an even better example of this. It’s about being determined and always striving to move forward in life, even when the “laughter turns to sorrow” and that it’s important to pass along what you know to the next generation to help in their own path in life. The moody piano really fits the lyrics too, as it feels like the soundtrack to taking a great journey (quite apt for a song about life).

“Pretty Boys” appears to be McCartney’s sarcastic commentary on the plastic faces you see in television and magazines. He muses there’s a lot to look at, but not much substance. This is probably my least favorite song on the album, as the musings are a bit amusing, but not as interesting as other songs on the album. The alliteratively titled “Lavatory Lil” makes me recall to mind “Polythene Pam” with it’s name choice. And I don’t who this is about, but she pissed off McCartney. He warns throughout the song of a “harlot” strung out on pills and sleeping around. It’s basically a diss track and a fun one to singalong with. The aggressive and punchy guitars are also appropriate on this smack-talking track.

The meandering and dream-like trance of “Deep Deep Feeling” is a real highlight, as McCartney gets real experimental and plays around. He really lets the song breathe and wander around, kind of a like a lost trip through a maze as the lyrics explore the tugging of emotions of someone in love. McCartney’s aged voice lends well to the mystical atmosphere created by the production too. This part of the album is where McCartney really hits his stride, as “Slidin'” is a fun, heavy rocker. McCartney again plays into psychedelic sounds, appropriate as this song seems to be about being high and having an out-of-body experience. The crunchy guitars are the key to this song, as they’re infectious to the ears.

“The Kiss of Venus” is a stripped-down love song about being captivated by your partner’s kiss. When it comes to these more saccharine McCartney songs, it’s hit and miss for most listeners, including myself. You either love it for it’s innocent sweetness (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Got To Get You Into My Life”) or as John Lennon once said, it’s “granny shit” (“When I’m Sixty-Four” and “Wild Honey Pie” for me). Fortunately this falls more into the former for me. The harpsichord is also a nice touch in the bridge. “Seize The Day” is about discovering an optimistic way of thinking after having love open your eyes. As McCartney wisely laments, you’ll wish you had a better attitude when bad times arrive. It’s another well written message about striving for optimism.

“Deep Down” is very much in the same vein as “Deep Deep Feeling.” It’s a long and mesmerizing track that takes it’s time. The drums and horns give it a commanding, catchy melody and the lingering mellotron chews up the scenery in a good way. I enjoy how McCartney experiments with his voice throughout, changing his tone and octave. He’s not really sure where to settle, but it works in a strange way that’s hard to put my finger on. Of course if you’ve listened to outtakes on the various albums of The Beatles, you know McCartney has always been a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to his vocals (really his music in general) and he likes to play around with them.

McCartney does a quick reprise of “Winter Bird” before giving way to “When Winter Comes,” which has an interesting backstory. McCartney originally recorded it in 1997 during the sessions for his album Flaming Pie with longtime Beatles producer George Martin. He decided to give it new life on this album rather than burying it as a B-side on the deluxe version of Flaming Pie. I applaud this choice because it’s a great song. It’s got a smooth, easy-going melody as McCartney muses of the surroundings of his farm. I particularly enjoy the lyrics about planting trees so someone may enjoy their shade one day and fixing a fence so some foxes won’t make the chickens and lambs uncomfortable. They perfectly fit the theme of this album of always striving to give back to the world around you, even through small gestures to some animals to poking around your farm.

McCartney III is a wonderfully solid album from Paul McCartney and while it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those who enjoy the songwriting of McCartney will find plenty to enjoy. This album also continues the fun weirdness of the McCartney albums, as this fits right in with it’s predecessors. I would put this amongst my top 20 albums of 2020 and hopefully this is not the last album we get from the legendary McCartney. Because he clearly still has a lot of creativity left in the tank.

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The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 9 — Taylor Swift, wrapping up 2020 releases & more!

This edition of The Endless Music Odyssey is a bit shorter than previous editions, as I wrap up the rest of the 2020 releases I wanted to cover (with one big exception, which will be covered in a full review soon). So after one more review, I’ll begin to listen to and review new releases in 2021 (I haven’t listened to an album released this year yet as of this writing). This could also be dubbed the “Worth a Listen” edition, as every album I review in it falls under the category.

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Worth a Listen

Taylor Swift — evermore

I had a lot to say about folklore and a lot of it positive. With evermore, I don’t have much to say and a lot of it a simple “meh” from me. The album starts out pretty strong for me: “willow” is catchy and grabs my attention, “champagne problems” is an interesting song about how things fall apart and “gold rush” has a lush, soaring production I can appreciate. And the best song on the album for me is “no body, no crime,” an excellently written murder ballad with a great feature from HAIM. It’s mysterious, intriguing and I hope it’s a huge hit.

But unfortunately the rest of this album does nothing for me. Ultimately the folky, alternative-influenced brand of pop runs thin for Swift. Now admittedly part of what probably hurts my perception of this album is hearing folklore and reviewing it not too long ago. So this does make me a bit more susceptible of fatigue on this sound and themes. But there’s also just not a lot different from folklore for me to get excited about evermore. The production choices feel a bit safer on this album too. Who knows maybe with time I’ll find more to appreciate about this album, but for now it’s just not a record that moves the needle much for me.

The Wild Feathers — Medium Rarities 

The Wild Feathers are a heartland/70s rock-inspired group that I’m surprised doesn’t get more buzz. They have a style and sound that is breezy and easy to like. Nevertheless if you enjoy this style of music they’re well worth your time. On their latest release Medium Rarities, they join the 1,000 mile-long list of bands who released a cover album in 2020. This album covers a variety of different eras of rock and it’s all in all pretty solid. There’s not a single bad track, but there’s nothing mind-blowing either. While the cover albums were enjoyable in 2020 for a while, I hope this trend stops in 2021. I know bands are bored right now with no touring and they’re trying to keep generating attention so they don’t get lost in the endless jungle of music in today’s world, but I’m beyond over cover albums at this point and I would rather hear more live albums instead.

Jack Harlow — That’s What They All Say

I honestly didn’t plan to pay this album any attention until I saw Sturgill Simpson give it a shoutout on Instagram. Any time an artist I enjoy recommends an artist I’ve never heard of, I’ll usually give it a look because I’ve found several great artists this way. Jack Harlow immediately became intriguing when I read that his influences are old school country like Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson and 90s/2000s hip hop like A Tribe Called Quest and Kanye (his early material, not the garbage he’s recently released). The music is not quite as intriguing though.

It’s definitely got a catchy, melodic vibe, which is apparently what Harlow says he goes for in his music. So mission accomplished. However, it’s not catchy and melodic enough to make me want to revisit it. There’s a few songs that are like his hit “Whats Poppin.” “Tyler Herro,” “Faces of My City” and “Luv is Dro” are pretty catchy and something I certainly wouldn’t skip if I heard on a playlist. But that leads me to this album’s biggest flaw: it’s too safe. It takes no chances and is the definition of playlist fodder. There’s also an abnormally large amount of references to Harlow’s high school days and classmates, which I guess isn’t shocking for someone a few years removed from graduating high school. But it doesn’t make for very interesting lyrics and certainly isn’t an interesting topic for people any older than him listening.

With age I think Harlow will get much better as he gains maturity and goes through more life experiences. He shows hints of introspection and deeper thinking at moments on this album, especially when he addresses the opportunity and privilege gap between himself and his black friends he grew up with in Kentucky (“Baxter Avenue”). So while this album is not good enough that I would seek it out to listen to in my free time, it’s not bad either where you would avoid listening to it. It’s an agreeable, pop-y hip hop album from a young artist with potential.

Black Thought — Streams of Thought, Vol. 3: Cane and Abel

Black Thought is undoubtedly one of the best MCs and lyricists in hip-hop. But it hasn’t quite necessarily translated to a great front-t0-back, full solo project. In his first two volumes of his Streams of Thought series the rapping was excellent as you would expect, but the music itself wasn’t necessarily the most engaging and interesting. It admittedly lacked some flash and they were too short to really get hooked. So on the surface for the third volume, Black Thought appears to directly address both of these: it’s a full album with major label support now, so it allowed him to bring in some heavy-hitting, big names as features. Unfortunately this album goes too far in the flash direction and loses too much substance.

There are some great songs on this album that show Black Thought at his full potential and utilize some excellent features (“Good Morning” with Pusha T and Killer Mike and “Steak Um” with ScHoolboy Q). “Thought vs Everybody” is a prime example of Black Thought bringing his best to the table in terms of his strengths. But the rest of this album has a very disjointed, watered-down feel in an attempt to have greater universal appeal. In the process Black Thought strips away what makes his music appealing in the first place. One of this album’s biggest flaws is multiple Portugal. The Man features, as each one feels so out of place. If Black Thought wanted to bring a more indie pop flavor to his music, there are a plethora of better options that would have been better fits with his style. Portugal. The Man has unfortunately in recent years has come to exemplify the definition of generic indie pop music. See how this isn’t a good fit with deeply lyrical-based hip hop?

It’s worth checking this album out, as there are some good things to enjoy about it. But it’s certainly not an album as a whole worth revisiting and if anything repeat listens makes one frustrated that this album couldn’t avoid such obvious pitfalls.

Avoid It

None