Album Review — HARDY’s ‘HIXTAPE, Vol. 1’

HARDY (real name Michael Hardy) has been writing a lot of songs for some of the biggest names in mainstream country in the the last few years and now he’s stepping into the spotlight himself with what is essentially his debut album, HIXTAPE, Vol. 1. It features several collaborations from various country artists (17!) and is based off the successful mixtape format popularized by hip-hop. And I have to say I did not expect to review this album at all. Even more surprising: I did not expect to enjoy this as much as I did.

Lead song and single “Boy from the South” features Cole Swindell and Dustin Lynch. It’s an okay track about your typical guy from the south. Swindell’s part I enjoy, but not so much Lynch’s part. Other than the John Boy and Billy Big Show shout out and the funny line about writing “We Want Bama” on the windshield (which you shouldn’t write if you’re a fan of a southern team not named Clemson, Georgia or LSU), the lyrics are pretty average for me.

“He Went to Jared” is my favorite song on the album. Featuring Morgan Wallen, the song is about a working man getting dumped by his woman for a rich man. I love the simple storytelling and hooks used and Wallen’s unique voice is the perfect choice for this song. Also am I the only one who gets a chuckle out of the line “I’m just sittin’ here with a beer and my jeans tucked”? It’s such a random ass observation, but it fits so well.

“Redneck Tendencies” is a modern day, redneck version of “Mama Tried” and sees HARDY calling on ’90s country staples Trace Adkins and Joe Diffie. Both are great features on this fun little singalong. “Nothin’ Out Here” features Thomas Rhett and is your standard “don’t overlook small town” songs that doesn’t have anything new to say about the subject nor is it catchy. It’s ironic that the two singles of this album are the ones I skip when listening to this album.

“My Kinda Livin'” is about taking pleasure in country living. HARDY is joined by Hunter Phelps and Jameson Rodgers and I have to say I’m not too familiar with Phelps and Rodgers. But the three sound pretty good together and they fit this easygoing song well. The crickets chirping in the background throughout are a nice touch, as they compliment this tone too. Unlike “Nothin’ Out Here,” “No Place like Hometown” is a small town song I can get behind. The sentiment resonates with me, Keith Urban’s solo vocals sound good and I really enjoy the harmonies of HARDY, Urban and Hillary Lindsey in the latter half of the track.

Mitchell Tenpenny and Jon Langston join in on “Something a Lil’ Stronger” and I have to admit this was the song I was expecting to hate the most because I have not been a fan of Tenpenny up to this point. But I have to give props where it’s due: he sounds great on this song and so does Langston. The both fit this singalong about always wanting to move on to something stronger and better, whether it be a drink or a woman. The simple and catchy observational tone reminds me a lot of another song I like, Jon Pardi’s “What I Can’t Put Down.” This is definitely a highlight of the album and Tenpenny should consider working with HARDY more.

The underrated Tracy Lawrence knocks it out of the park on “What They Make Backroads for.” Jake Owen sounds pretty good too. These are both artists who just know how to approach these simple country songs that aren’t trying to be anything more than fun singalongs. These may seem like shallow observations, but there’s not much more to say when it comes to these type of songs: you listen to them and they either work or they don’t, and this one works. “Turn You Down” is that fun rocker, Friday night anthem that this album needed. It’s another great feature from Morgan Wallen and Zakk Wylde is awesome at delivering the rollicking guitar licks that make you want to bang your head. Also I love the depiction of Wylde on the cover of the album, which is one of the most memorable albums covers I’ve seen this year.

After an album of fun songs, the album closes with a more serious song in “One Beer,” which is nice to see. It’s about how one beer turns into a hook-up, which turns into an unexpected pregnancy, then a unexpected marriage and family. It’s a real story that happens in small towns every day across America, so I praise the storytelling of the lyrics. Devin Dawson and Lauren Alaina are the guest artists, but I really don’t feel their presence like other guest artists on the album. Nevertheless, they all three sound good harmonizing together.

Readers familiar with my reviews might be shocked to see I enjoy HARDY’s HIXTAPE, Vol. 1, but that’s because you’re not listening to this album for what it’s trying to be: a fun album full of catchy, mindless songs that are easy to turn on and immediately get into. And this album does this well. HARDY isn’t trying to make you think, he just wants you to have a good time and I do when listening to his mixtape.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review — Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Dedicated’

I never thought Carly Rae Jepsen could top the brilliance of Emotion, but somehow she does with Dedicated. She kicks it off right with “Julien,” a lustful and fun track about pining for someone you love. Oh and it’s quite catchy, but you can say that about pretty much every track on this album. I also enjoy the buildup of the synth in the bridge into the final part of the song, as it gives it that swelling effect that really punches the song home.

“No Drug Like Me” elevates itself above other songs about comparing love to drugs with its electronic influenced production and the emotion which Jepsen delivers it in. “Now That I Found You” is one of my favorite songs ever from Jepsen. The chorus is instantly catchy and maybe one of the most lip syncable songs I’ve heard in recent memory. And it’s just flat out a blast, as it’s impossible to not want to move to it as you’re listening. And then Jepsen follows this with an even better song in “Want You in My Room.” It’s the most overtly sexual song Jepsen has done, where she describes all the places she wants to have sex in her house. The Daft Punk-esque vocoders in the chorus are the perfect finishing touch along with the intertwining horns to cap it off. You cannot craft a better pop song than this, as it can hold its weight against any of the best pop songs.

“Everything He Needs” is a plea of assurance that the person you love needs you as much as you need them. It almost borderlines on obsessive, as Jepsen exudes all the ways he satisfies her in the bridge, with her voice getting creepier with each detail. But it fits perfectly with the theme of the album and the bouncy sound makes this song blow by (in a good way, of course).

“Happy Not Knowing” perfectly describes that feeling we’ve all felt when we pine for someone and imagine being with them, but you haven’t had the guts to tell them yet and you’re fine with it because you’re enjoying the excitement of the anticipation. It’s a testament to Jepsen’s songwriting ability to be able to capture such a complicated feeling so well. “I’ll Be Your Girl” makes you want to tear up the dance floor and bust out your best moves. The frenetic urgency of the song is so infectious and wraps itself right around you. And of course it wouldn’t be a Jepsen album without some timely saxophones that leave you wanting more.

Once again Jepsen does a great job of capturing a feeling on “Too Much.” This time she accurately describes the feeling of rushing thoughts and being overwhelmed with overthinking. In an album full of bangers this song is a nice cool down that allows for some introspection and builds on the overarching theme of the album. “The Sound” is my least favorite on the album, as it feels like it never reaches a crescendo moment. But it’s still a really enjoyable song, which speaks to the incredible strength of this album.

Just like “Want You in My Room”, “Automatically in Love” utilizes it’s electronic driven sound perfectly and gives a punch to every syllable uttered. The chorus especially pops over this sound and the smooth vocal delivery from Jepsen. “Feels Right” is a great blend of drums, piano, horns and claps and is perhaps the most underrated production moment on the album.

“Right Words Wrong Time” is another all-time best song from Carly Rae Jepsen. The mid-tempo sound that slowly builds, along with the exasperated delivery from Jepsen combine to make one of the most satisfying peaks you’ll ever hear in a song. Maybe it’s just me, but I just love how the song closes with a greater intensity. The final track “Real Love” sees Jepsen putting aside all of the sides of love explored on the album and comes to the sobering conclusion that she just wants real love after chasing it for so long. It’s a moment of honesty and clarity, with the album ending in Jepsen appropriately quietly crying out for love.

Carly Rae Jepsen further proves with Dedicated that she just gets pop music: the over-the-top production, the overwhelming emotions, the catchy hooks, exciting themes and everything in-between. While hyperbole is rampant throughout this review, I can seriously tell you that Dedicated may just be one of the albums of this past decade for me.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Cody Johnson’s ‘Ain’t Nothin’ to It’

I’m pretty sure I said somewhere before that a major label would be wise to pick up Cody Johnson and lo and behold it finally happened. So after years of selling an impressive amount of albums and tickets as an independent artist, Cody Johnson makes his major label debut with Ain’t Nothin’ to It. The album title track opens and it’s about a father giving his son advice on how to navigate marriage and life. It’s a solid track with some heartfelt lyrics, but at times it gets a bit cliché for my taste. “Noise” is your standard country love song that if you heard it playing you’ll listen to it, but you don’t really seek it out. It does nothing particularly well nor right. “Fenceposts” is a bit saccharine and too predictable for my taste. It’s about a young couple starting out and their grand plans in life and if the song bothered to go beyond a surface level of substance I could maybe get into it, but it plays super safe.

“Understand Why” is one of my favorites on the album and that’s because I enjoy the lyrical imagery of a man hiding out in a hotel on the dark side of the moon to get over his heartbreak. Like he’s so over the relationship that he’s on the moon, which gives you a pretty good idea how much is heart was broken. I also enjoy the country rock flavor of the song, mashing together fiddles and electric guitars. I hate “Long Haired Country Boy” and for two big reasons. The writer of the song is Charlie Daniels and the song is about not about wanting to be judged for his appearances and to be allowed to be himself. You contrast this with some of the stuff he has said recently and it’s quite hypocritical. You’d think he would follow his own advice. I can’t help but think about that when hearing this song. The other reason is any song that knocks going to college and glorifying the townie who barely passed high school just insults my intelligence and pisses me off.

“Nothin’ On You” sees Cody Johnson trying his hand at a Stapleton-style song and it’s not half-bad. I never really pictured Johnson doing a soulful country song like this, but he pulls it off for the most part. His voice is strong enough to carry the weight of the lyrics, which aren’t spectacular, but they make for a good enough love ballad. “Honky Tonk Mood” is a really fun track that I can imagine you can gleam from the title what it’s about. It’s not trying to be anymore than a dancing country song and it does this quite well. “Monday Morning Merle” is about a man trying to get over his heartache, but always ending up right back to listening to Merle Haggard on a sad and lonely Monday morning. It’s another highlight on the album, as it does a great job utilizing it’s various artist references without feeling too heavy handed or cliché. It’s a pretty good heartbreak song.

“Y’all People” is a song dedicated to “CoJo Nation,” yet Johnson didn’t write it. Makes perfect sense to not write a song that you’ve specifically dedicated to your fans. Sure. Also this song is bland as hell. I don’t really have anything to say about “Where Cowboys Are King.” It’s a song on this album I guess. Lead single “On My Way to You” reminds me a lot of the great songs on Johnson’s previous album. It works really well for Johnson and that’s because you can feel he relates to what he’s singing. There’s a genuineness behind it, so it gives the song the heart it needs to connect with you.

“Doubt Me Now” is a “piss off to the haters” song and I have no problem with these kind of chip on your shoulder songs. But this song doesn’t meet the grade for me in that regard because it doesn’t have enough anger or intensity. Instead it comes off as petty whining and the line where he actually sings LOL spelled out makes me cringe. The final song on the album is “Dear Rodeo,” which is the only song written by Johnson on the album. So it makes sense it’s the most personal, as Johnson expresses his emotions over being retired from the rodeo due to a career-ending injury. He was forced to let go of something he loved, yet he’s never really let it go. It’s excellent songwriting, as Johnson lays out all the details and gives you a great look into his psyche on the subject.

While there are several good moments on the album, there’s enough bad and lackluster moments that it weighs down Ain’t Nothin’ to It and prevents me from calling it a good album. While Johnson has never been known as an amazing songwriter, I know from his previous albums he’s capable of doing better.

Grade: 5/10

Album Review — Mike and the Moonpies’ ‘Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold’

I’m going to be quite blunt with you because the context is important: I was not a fan of any of Mike and the Moonpies’ albums up to this point. On paper this is a band that should appeal to me, but every time I listened to one of their previous two albums I would listen to it a few times and then have zero desire to go back and listen to it again. Their music lacked something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. But on their newest album Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, the band finds that something because this is an album I’ve had on repeat since it’s surprise release.

Opening track “Cheap Silver” right away showcases the new sound of Mike and the Moonpies, as they went to Abbey Road Studios in London, England and recorded this album with the London Symphony Orchestra. Talk about a curve ball from a country band, especially from Texas. And man does it work. It’s silky smooth sound put to the lyrics that put you in mind of a dim lit, smoky bar are a perfect pair. As a fan of yacht rock, I’ve always wondered what yacht country would sound like and I think this is it. I love it and I want more!

“You Look Good in Neon” keeps the album sailing in the yacht country direction. It’s a song about a one-night love on the dance floor, where alcohol and neon lights make a man fall for a woman that if he was sober and in regular lights he wouldn’t even tell his friends about. It’s a great song, as all the little details do a great job of painting the scene in your head and I particularly like the wordplay and delivery of the line “This is your last chance/To prove me right and do me wrong.”

“Danger” is not only my favorite track on the album, but perhaps the best song the band has ever recorded. I really enjoy the storytelling in this song, as a father tells his son of his life and passes down the lessons he’s learned to help his son. There’s some great messages in it too about never giving up and fighting for something more. Most importantly it feels like it comes from a place of genuineness and sincerity and I can immediately feel this when listening to it. You can’t really fake a song like this one and get away with it.

“Young in Love” is one of the classiest sounding country songs I’ve heard in recent memory. I don’t know about you, but when I hear this song I picture a well-dressed crooner on a stage in a packed ballroom full of couples in formal wear slow dancing. That’s how classy this song feels to me. “Miss Fortune” features more fantastically smooth sounds from the band, as that 70s, Laurel Canyon sound really shines through. I really hope this sound is something the band doesn’t lose going forward because they pull it off so well.

“If You Want a Fool Around” is another excellently written song about a man reaching out to the woman he foolishly broke up with and he never got over, who has moved on and fell in love with someone else. The biggest strength of this song is of course the chorus, which is the double meaning of “if you want a fool around.” It refers both to himself, the fool who left her, and it’s also inviting her to cheat with him, despite her being happy and in love, which also makes him a fool. It’s brilliant and clever songwriting.

“Fast as Lightning” is a fun driving song that best showcases the usual sound of Mike and the Moonpies and the London Symphony Orchestra. After the moments of hard-hitting songwriting on this album, I enjoy lighter, breezier tracks like this one to mix it up. The final track “London Homesick Blues” is a fitting conclusion to the album, as the band does a great job covering this excellent Gary P. Nunn song. You can’t really go wrong with a song from him and this fits the overarching theme of the album perfectly.

Mike and the Moonpies deliver something special with Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold. It’s fantastic in both sound and songwriting. The group clearly left their comfort zone. It honors the tried and true, while delivering something that feels new too. This is a band for me that went from releasing two albums I couldn’t get into at all to releasing an album that I can’t find a single fault in. If you haven’t done so yet, go listen to this album.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review – George Strait’s ‘Honky Tonk Time Machine’

George Strait is one of the greatest country artists of all-time and few would dispute his king of country music title. He proved it years ago. But sometimes even a king can miss. With his newest album Honky Tonk Time Machine, it’s a big miss for me. In fact, I find it an absolute chore to get through most of this album. The album starts off well with “Every Little Honky Tonk Bar.” It’s a bar anthem for the working class, everyday men and women looking to tie one off after a long week. Throughout the years he’s consistently knocked these songs out of the park and this one is no different, as it’s his bread and butter to perfectly capture the feeling of this familiar theme.

“Two More Wishes” is an enjoyable tune about Strait likening his bottle of alcohol to a genie in a bottle, using it to make the woman of his dreams appear. I love the casual, easy-going nature of the song, as it works because it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I enjoy the stripped-down sound of “Some Nights” and the lyrics really capture the feeling of existential dread in the wake of a hard breakup. Just like bar anthems, Strait knocks out heartbreak ballads in his sleep. After this song, the album unfortunately takes a big dive in quality. I can’t stand “God and Country Music” and for two big reasons: 1) The preachy, saccharine and sanctimonious nature of the lyrics. 2) A child singing. I know it was a big deal for Strait to have his grandson on the song, but I just can’t stand the sound of children singing. It’s like nails on a chalk board for me.

“Blue Water” would be a great song about finding a break from the troubles of life in an ocean if it was a minute shorter. That’s because the hook gets annoyingly repetitive after like two minutes. I can only listen to “blueeeeee waterrrr” so many times before I want to rip my ears out. “Sometimes Love” is a song on this album and that’s all I have say about that. “Codigo” is an ad poorly disguised as a song. If Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan cut a song about their own brand of liquor, people would be screaming for the death penalty for them. But Strait is apparently immune from being criticized for this. Well I’ll say it: this is corporate, huckster, shilling, horseshit and Strait should be ashamed for cutting such a song.

I want to like “Old Violin” and I respect Strait for addressing mortality and his life. But I’ve heard Willie Nelson release at least five songs in the last few years address this same topic, where the songwriting absolutely runs circles around the lyrics of “Old Violin.” Sorry George, but Willie set the bar and you didn’t meet it with this song. “Take Me Away” is boring and forgettable. “The Weight of the Badge” is predictable and as a result it fails to make an emotional connection with me. I feel like this song spends too much time telling me how hard it is to be a police officer and how admirable they are instead of showing it through strong storytelling and letting me come to this conclusion on my own. It’s like taking a camel to water: don’t drag me to it, lead me to it.

The album’s title track is trying to be an upbeat and raucous bar anthem that makes you want to move your feet, but it fails to do so, and I put this on the weak and at times weird lyrics. These lyrics in particular stand out: “He’s gonna make damn sure the jukebox don’t rock/And the record’s gonna be the only thing that bops/He’s an old-school cold longneck DJ/And look at him now, here comes them old green snakes.” What? I feel like the songwriters just threw a bunch of words together, made sure to sprinkle in a couple common words people will only hear and then hope nobody actually reads the whole lines. This isn’t different from a lot of the ridiculous tripe populating the top of the country charts.

“What Goes Up” is a reminder of why I don’t like most overtly Christian songs: they’re boring. The lyrics sound like they’re directly quoting from the Bible or a church sermon instead of taking a story and then relating it back to spirituality/religion and how it plays a role in the emotions/story. A great example of this is Vince Gill’s “Go Rest High on that Mountain.” The final track on the album, “Sing One with Willie”, is a fun song and it’s great to hear two legends finally do a song together. But after a few listens I’ve had my fill of the song. It’s a shame they couldn’t have collaborated on a song with more substance instead of a novelty track. That’s really the story of this album: I expected more.

I’m sure George Strait will bounce back on the next one, as this is a rare blip on the radar for an all-time great. But still it’s hard for me to label Honky Tonk Time Machine as anything but a big disappointment and a large step down from his previous album Cold Beer Conversation.

Grade: 3/10