In the city of Nashville, there are hundreds of independent bands and artists working their asses off to make it to the top and land that lucrative label deal that will allow them to do what they love for a living and make money while doing it. Jeff Estes, the frontman, guitarist and chief songwriter of the Down Home Band believes they are “the hardest working, most dedicated band” in the city. The seeds of this band began on an open mic night in Nashville and it’s been a whirlwind ever since for the group. Down Home Band is made up of Estes, Matt Jaggers (lead guitarist/vocalist), Stephen Hopkins (bass/vocals) and Griffin Criste (drummer). They describe the sound of their music as a blending of blues, alt country, folk rock and Americana (they refer to is as “American Rock”). They just released a new single “Black Snake” and I have to say it’s a pretty apt description.
“Black Snake” is a rollicking and rocking song that draws on several genres’ influences. The electric guitars roar throughout, especially in the final three minutes of the song. The arrangement feels very Allman Brothers-esqué, which is a good thing. The opening minute you can definitely hear the Americana/folk rock sound, which sets up the rocking part of the song well. It was wise to bring the sound down then rise back up after the minute mark to really set up the meat of the song. As for the theme of the song, it’s a little hard to find at first. The crux of the song revolves around the main line “they are the shepherd, you are the sheep, I am the wolf.” I’m sure the band has a certain theme in mind here, but I really think it’s open enough that it could be interpreted in multiple ways by the listener. It could be comparing a man, who doesn’t have the best intentions (the wolf) with a woman he’s after (the sheep) with the people convincing her not to go with him (the shepherd). Some may not like such a loose theme, but I think it works here.
The Down Home Band are certainly a talented group and their hard work shows in “Black Snake.” It’s a southern rock type jam that I think many listeners can appreciate and enjoy listening to. The rough edges of the song give it good character and the instrumentation is just flat-out great. Even though I enjoy the rough edges, I think the sound could use just a touch of polish and could be honed in just a little to make it even more appealing. So while I don’t think Down Home Band reaches their full potential on this song, I think they have all the tools to stand out and be a great band. “Black Snake” is definitely worth checking out and I think the band’s “hardest working” moniker is backed up on this single.
The Colorado music scene has certainly been busy this year, well at least for this site. I feel like I’ve reviewed a lot of different artists from the scene and today I take a look at another: Denver-based bad Fox Street. They were voted Denver’s “Best Traditional Rock Band” at the 2013 Westword Music Showcase and have played at several venues across Colorado. Now while they received an award for best traditional rock band, I think it’s unfair to put them under this one genre and I think Fox Street would agree. They not only play rock music, but country, soul and blues. It’s a blending of genres in the band’s sound. This is certainly the case with their latest single “Our Garden,” which is off their upcoming album Authentic Western Style (due out July 28).
The song begins with the sound of an acoustic guitar and drums. It’s then accompanied by the faint sound of an organ, which lurks throughout the whole song. I know I mention the harmonica and fiddle being underutilized in country music, but I would also add the organ to the list. Gospel is a big part of country music and more artists need to embrace it for songs, especially slower ballads. So good on Fox Street for incorporating this underused instrument. The steel guitar shows up in the chorus and then later in the bridge a horns section shows up. This song has everything instrumentation-wise and I love it. The song itself is well-written as it’s sung from the perspective of a man who has lost the love of his life and is pleading for her to take him back. He admits he has faults and it isn’t easy being with him sometimes, but he wants her to stay with him right in their garden. The garden represents their life together and he doesn’t want to lose it. The songwriting is solid and cohesive.
This is the first time I’ve listened to Fox Street and I have to say I’m impressed with the artistry on display in “Our Garden.” The instrumentation is varied and brilliantly arranged. It’s perfectly placed throughout the album, so kudos to the producer of this song. The vocals are sultry and soulful, expressing the grief and pain of heartache quite well. The lyrics for the most part are spot on, doing a great job of telling the story of and setting the scene of heartbreak. Fox Street has a nice reputation in the Colorado scene for a reason and “Our Garden” is proof of it.
Even though Randy Houser has been making music for nearly seven years, it wasn’t until his third album, How Country Feels, that Houser found a place in the upper tier of country acts. That album produced four straight top five singles for Randy Houser, with two number one songs in “How County Feels” and “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight.” Needless to say, cashing in on bro-country helped reignite Houser’s career, and he doesn’t appear to be hopping off that train anytime soon. Randy Houser’s new single, “We Went,” is your everyday, typical bro-country anthem.
What makes Randy Houser stand out from other solo male acts is the mere fact that he has a powerful, booming voice. Houser’s previous single, “Like a Cowboy,” is an excellent showcase of his vocal capabilities, and that isn’t lost in “We Went.” Houser’s producers know his voice is the main selling point for his songs, and they give Randy some moments to show off his pipes. However, a good vocal performance isn’t enough to cover for the tired, clichéd lyrics that plague the song.
When you summarize and take the song on the surface level, it’s actually kind of funny how many similarities there are to Luke Bryan’s new single, “Kick the Dust Up.” It’s a boring night in small town so Houser and his lady want to go out to the corn to make their own excitement. The similarities don’t stop there, just read these lyrics from the opening verse: “Foot on the gas, ready and throwing up a little dust like a pick up truck does in the mud.” I don’t think it’s coincidental that there’s an ode to dust being
kicked thrown up. Also, his lady is turning him on, and Randy Houser is oh-so descriptive in that area. “Nobody knows how to get me going quite like you do when you do the things you do.” That couldn’t be any more vague or stupid. Toss in some lines about fogging up windows in place no one else knows and la-di-da, you have a country song in 2015.
There’s a small reference to being on the run from the cops in an attempt to give this song a little edge, but the focus of the song is without a doubt the 2015 checklist to ensure radio play. The production of the song is quick with the verses and choruses running together without any room to breathe until after the bridge. The quick succession sort of fits with the heavy guitars and “edginess” of the lyrics, but it doesn’t work. Also, don’t forget how a steel guitar is randomly placed in the solo to remind you this isn’t a pop rock song. The production is just all over the place. If it’s any consolation, How Country Feels is an album with some pleasant deep cuts among the bro-country singles released to radio. I think one can reasonably assume that Houser’s upcoming album should provide a similar variety. “We Went” is a shallow offer of bro-country from Randy Houser.
Oh Jake, I had such high hopes for this new single. I thought you did too, as you said in numerous interviews that you would like to start putting out deeper material and not be known as the “Beachin'” guy. Owen backed this up on his last single, “What We Ain’t Got,” which I thought was the best single he has ever released. As anyone who has followed the The Current Pulse of Mainstream Country Music on the site knows though, it didn’t perform that well on radio at all. It peaked in the high teens before going recurrent. It didn’t even get close to touching the success “Beachin'” attained last summer. This worried me that Owen would back off on his promise to produce better music, but I was still hopeful about his new single “Real Life.” You look at the cover for it above and Owen has toned his look back. The title of the song sounds promising and there’s not a hint of the beach.
So does it live up to expectations? Does Owen live up to his promise? The answer is sadly no to both. I think Owen really tried to go for something more here, but there’s one big achilles heel to this song that hurts it and has hurt Owen before: spoken word. It annoyed me on “Days of Gold” and “Beachin'” and once again it’s annoying on “Real Life.” Some country artists can pull it off, but Owen just can’t do it. His voice is not emotive nor dynamic enough to make it sound good. He has a good voice, yet he wastes it on spoken word songs like this one. The theme isn’t bad either, as it’s about everyday life in the real world and some of the aspects of it. I really don’t have a problem with the lyrics of the song and I thought the songwriters did a well enough job to avoid the pitfalls of clichés (songwriters: Shane McAnally, Ashley Gorley, Ross Copperman and Josh Osborne). The song could’ve been good if Owen had just sang it and didn’t do spoken word.
The other glaring issue with “Real Life” is the production, instrumentation and arrangement. I’m just going to say it: this sounds like a Smash Mouth song (with a small tinge of country). It felt like I was back listening to pop radio in the 90s. You could interlude this song with Smash Mouth’s “All Star” and they would blend together seamlessly. For a country song, this is never a good thing. Really this isn’t good for a pop song in 2015 either, as this sound is so outdated and cheesy. It was left in the 90s where it belonged for a reason. If Owen wanted to draw on a sound from the 90s, why not 90s country? If you take away the spoken word and give this song a 90s country arrangement, it would possibly be a great song. Instead this is just an embarrassing song and I wouldn’t want to be caught in public listening to it.
I still believe Owen’s next album will have some good country music on it and will be an upgrade over Days of Gold. However, this single doesn’t do anything to inspire people to give him a chance. This is the type of song that makes some people put their nose up at Owen and refuse to listen to his music. “Real Life” is a laughable song and only hurts the reputation of Jake Owen more. Some Owen fans may argue this is an upgrade over a lot of songs at country radio right now and they would be right. But is that saying much? The bar right now at country radio is at its lowest ever and it doesn’t take much to stand out amongst the sea of trash floating around on country radio. I hope Owen gives us something more next time, but for now I recommend avoiding “Real Life.”