Album Review — Cody Jinks’ ‘The Wanting’

When Cody Jinks made the surprising announcement he’s releasing not just one new album, but two instead I was a bit concerned. Usually when an artist releases a double album or albums close to each other, it’s likely that the same amount of high quality isn’t maintained throughout. In other words, the artist stretches themselves too thin. But after listening to both albums, I can say that isn’t the case for Jinks. The Wanting is just as good as After The Fire.

The album’s title track essentially picks up right where After The Fire leaves off, as Jinks sings of his wanting to be with his family more and wishing that this wanting was enough. But it never is. What I love about the placement of this track as the opener is not only does it continue on from the last album, but it also perfectly leads into the major theme of this album, which is about the various internalized emotions experienced by Jinks when around family, friends, fans and on the stage. Tennessee Jet is a nice addition on backing vocals too.

“Same Kind of Crazy as Me” has quickly become one of the best songs I think Jinks has delivered so far in his career. Much like fan favorite “Hippies and Cowboys,” it’s a motto song from Jinks: it’s about who he is and what he stands for, while striving for a better world. I particularly enjoy this verse: “There’s more colors than red and blue, To paint the elephant in the room/We piss and moan about that and this, There’s always another ass to kiss.” It’s clever and catchy wordplay, along with delivering a message. I also enjoy the instrumentation on this song, with it’s thumping drums and twangy, melodic guitar play. In a fairer music world, this song would be a hit.

“Never Alone Always Lonely” looks inside the anxious minds of introverts like Jinks. This song shows just how much Jinks continues to grow as a songwriter, as he keenly shows a knack for breaking down his inner psyche and presenting it in a way that’s relatable and understanding. It’s an easier said than done skill that many artists wish they possessed. “Never alone always lonely/easy to find seldom seen” is a brilliant hook too, a credit to Jinks’ wife Rebecca for coming up with the second part of the line.

Jinks mentioned in his press release that The Wanting has moments and influences from rock and roll and “Whiskey” is one of those moments. And it’s great! The faded, echoing electric guitar is groovy and sticks with you, complimented well with some eerie steel guitar. This song makes me want a full-blown southern rock album from Jinks because he could release a great one if he’s inclined to do so. “Where Even Angels Fear to Fly” sees Jinks looking back on who he was and the hell he’s been through to get to where he’s at now. But it was these mistakes and experiences that helped get him to the better place he is now. It’s your classic reformed sinner wisdom song. It’s a solid track.

“Which One I Feed” refers to the two-headed wolf on the cover of the album: the sinister, black wolf side and the peaceful, white wolf side. Both live within him and dictate who he is, showing the duality that really lives within us all. I love the album art and this song just enhances it. The song would feel appropriate in an action thriller, as it has a larger than life, cinematic feel with it’s ominous backing chorus and the distant feeling of Jinks’ vocals. “A Bite of Something Sweet” is about striving for the lighter, happy side of life and getting away from the cloud. The heavy pedal steel guitar in this sounds great and fits the lyrics well.

“The Plea” is the one song between Jinks’ two new albums that doesn’t really do much for me and that’s because it’s a theme that’s already been covered so much between both albums and I’m really growing tired of it by the time I reach this song. This should have been left on the cutting room floor. “It Don’t Rain in California” is a solid, albeit unspectacular song. I feel like I’ve heard so many songs utilize California in songs about relationships and the sunny/rainy dichotomy. It’s still an enjoyable song and I do like how Jinks plays with reverb in various moments in it, as it’s a bit of a different side from him.

“Wounded Mind” is another cinematic feeling song, with its heavy emphasis on the steel guitar and pounding drums in the background. The song is about the brave face Jinks puts on when he goes on stage and is around fans, hiding the anxiety bubbling below the surface. It’s an understandable notion, although I have to say it feels like a bit of a humblebrag when he says he isn’t that special. Every artist, no matter how shy and introverted, has a bit of an ego that tells them otherwise. Other than this minor quibble, it’s a fascinating look into Jinks’ mind when he’s performing.

“Ramble” is a piano-driven ballad about keeping on keeping on. Once again, I like a new wrinkle from Jinks, this time a piano. Now he’s had songs with piano before, but not arranged so soft and slowly. It fits his voice well and I would like to hear more songs with this type of arrangement from him. “The Raven and The Dove” closes the album and it’s a great one. It’s another song that plays on the duality within us all, but what makes this song great is its singalong quality, toe-tapping melody, the scratchy guitar and the hints of western-flavored piano. It makes for quite the infectious track and ends the album on a real high note.

Cody Jinks delivers two high-quality albums within a week of each other, as The Wanting is an album full of deep introspection and some fun moments too. I would put it just ahead of After The Fire as the better of the dual releases. I applaud Jinks for (the most part) consistently keeping the same level of quality across both releases (along with not falling into the trap of a double album). It’s not easy and it shows why he’s considered by many to be amongst the best in country music today.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Cody Jinks’ ‘After The Fire’

Cody Jinks has quickly established himself as one of the most prominent and interesting country artists in the indie scene the last few years. His last album Lifers though was his first on a label and perhaps his last, as the marketing push for his surprise two album release has heavily pushed the fact that he’s independent again and in no need of a label’s help. It’s an important thing to remember with the two albums, as it seems to be the driving force and passion behind several songs. The first album After The Fire in particular seems to really be driven by this theme, one of two major points of inspiration behind this album. Quick note: I decided to cover each separately, as I feel they’re both distinct enough that they need to be covered separately.

The album’s title track states the above-mentioned theme right up front: Jinks is tired and seeking relief after what was apparently a harrowing experience with a label. He’s also angry about the situation, as the cover art on this album suggests with the particular gesture the burnt campfire suggests. Most importantly he’s embracing his wife Rebecca Jinks’ love and support, who is the other major inspiration behind several songs on After The Fire. She’s the cold drink of water for him in a fiery world, which is a great metaphor and visual. He’s telling you right up front what this album is about.

“Ain’t a Train” deals with the neuroticism of anxiety and worry, always wondering when the next shoe drops. But the song offers a hint of optimism too, wondering if the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t a train. Not only are the lyrics incredibly descriptive and show insight into this type of thinking, but the song itself is infectious and catchy, with the groovy drums and a tasty injection of fiddle in the bridge to give it that extra kick. “Yesterday Again” is about wanting to make up for lost time and Jinks wanting to make amends for not always being there for his wife. The lingering pedal steel guitar gives the song a perfect sense of wondering, dread and guilt Jinks feels towards his wife.

“Tell’em What It’s Like” sees Jinks pleading to his wife to tell everybody what it’s really like to live with him and the turmoil caused by him being on the road and the mental baggage he brings when he is home. It’s an incredibly real look into the lives of musicians and the pain they deal with, dismissing the glamorous life many fans envision. Jinks’ earnest honesty about his flaws on this song and the rest of this album really shines through and resonates with you as you listen. It’s both respectable and makes for great country music. “Think Like You Think” is about his wife questioning his reckless lifestyle and thinking. I think the previous song did a better job at covering this topic, but this song is still another solid look into the complicated relationship at times between Jinks and his wife. If there’s one criticism that stood out to me on this album, it’s that this topic can wear thin depending on your mood and number of listens.

“William and Wanda” is a fantastic song about Jinks’ grandpa reuniting with his grandma. It’s excellent storytelling with all the details and emotion needed to make this song light up in your head. But I must also point out that I had zero clue what this song was about until I looked it up because I was completely stumped. The lyrics are fantastic once you realize the context, but without the context I was completely lost and couldn’t figure out this was his grandparents, nor this conversation was taking place in heaven. It’s a minor gripe with an otherwise great song that I highly recommend you listen to if you haven’t done so.

“One Good Decision” is the most fun track on the album, a rowdy honky tonk jam about avoiding infidelity. The twangy telecaster is honey to the ears and makes the songs an instant toe-tapper. The drum play on this song is great too, reminding me a lot of the excellent drum play throughout Lifers. While many complain about the compression on this song, I think it sounds good and fits, giving it almost a live feel. This song also breaks up the seriousness throughout this album, while also still relevant to those songs too. “Dreamed with One” shows the softer side of Jinks, as it’s a sweet love ballad showing how deep his affection runs for this wife. It’s one of my favorites on this album because of the heartfelt, genuine nature of Jinks shining through his vocal performance.

“Someone to You” further enforces his love towards his wife, as Jinks avows he would rather be a somebody to her than a somebody to the rest of the world. In other words, their love is more important than any amount of fame and fortune. It’s a bit of a cliché, but with the context of the rest of the album, you know it’s not just words. And that is what separates artists from performers. “Tonedeaf Boogie” is a catchy, jazzy instrumental track to close the album. It’s a bold choice that I really like, as it was a common tactic used by many country artists back in the day that I wouldn’t mind being revived. It allows the band to stretch out and show off their skills, as they deserve a lot of credit for the quality on this album.

After The Fire is a great album about the trials and tribulations of life on the road and navigating the hurdles of marriage. Jinks takes a refreshingly truthful approach to topics that on most albums from country artists feel worn and lacking sincerity. The production compliments the lyrics quite well too. I think Cody Jinks and After The Fire prove his claim that no label is needed for him.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Michaela Anne’s ‘Desert Dove’

Michaela Anne is an artist I’ve always seen a lot of promise in, but she had to yet fully show it for an entire album. Well that changes on her newest album Desert Dove, as she’s seemed to find the sound that suits her best. Opening track “By Our Design” features some gorgeous and sweeping strings that gives the song a relaxing, yet cinematic feel. It sets the tone for the album, as the sound on this album wavers between cinematic and 90s country, back when the genre never forgot to include a good melody. This album has good melody in spades, a credit to the great work of producers Sam Outlaw and Kelly Winrich. Most importantly it fits Anne’s voice and style to a T.

“One Heart” is about falling too fast and too hard for someone. But yet the one falling so hard doesn’t care as the one being fallen for says they’re moving too fast. I particularly enjoy how the song starts out slow and soft, but then picks up in intensity as the two protagonists of the song question the other’s passion in the relationship. The lyrics and melody match each other and each help tell the story equally. “I’m Not the Fire” feels like it was plucked right from the impressive catalog of breezy 90s country love songs that you heard on the radio. The lyrics are clever with it’s flame metaphors and they’re easy to pick up too. It’s such a playful and fun love song, there’s no good reason why this shouldn’t be a hit. But the radio has given up on quality music.

“Child of the Wind” sees Anne recalling her childhood of having to move from town to town, never settling long enough to never be more than a temporary friend. But rather than look at this negatively, Anne embraces this lifestyle that goes and comes with the wind. Again the lyrics and sound make you feel what the song is about. This song makes you feel like you’re in the backseat of that car with Anne traveling on the highway looking up at the sky. That’s when you know you’re listening to a damn good song. “Tattered, Torn and Blue (And Crazy)” is a southwestern flavored song about always ending up alone with a broken heart, never feeling like you can love and trust someone. It’s an achingly great heartbreak song.

The album’s title track is about examining the relationship of a “lady of the night” and the cowboy she’s with, wondering how they truly feel about each other. The song attempts to view the complexity of each other’s emotions towards each other in this relationship, wondering how lonely each feel. I feel Anne does a pretty good job looking beyond the obvious in the situation and exploring the nuance of what each person truly wants in the situation.

“Run Away with Me” feels like a long lost Shania Twain or LeAnn Rimes song. Again it’s the soft breeziness and accessibility of the lyrics that make this song so easy to fall in love with like many others on this album. Perhaps it’s this song’s West Coast feel (and really the album as a whole) that lends to what makes it so infectious, as West Coast country feels like it gets drowned out by Nashville and Texas. “Two Fools” is that classic country love ballad about two people falling in love who don’t want to admit it. Anne really hits the high notes in this well, showcasing the wanting and resisting emotions of the two lovers in the song. I hate making yet another 90s country comparison, but Anne really sounds like Alison Krauss on this song and that’s a great thing of course.

“If I Wanted Your Opinion” is about a woman standing up for herself against a man who doesn’t want to see her for her, but rather a “porcelain doll.” I really enjoy the message and the way Anne delivers it, but it doesn’t feel like it fits the rest of the album’s theme. It feels like it was forced into the album and it would have been better off as a standalone single.

“Somebody New” is about a woman feeling guilty for falling in love with someone else and breaking her current-now-former man’s heart. Now this song I have to applaud for all of the little details Anne writes, like how the song opens with “I’m drinking day old coffee and watching the clouds roll in.” That’s an excellent detail and perfectly puts you in the mindset of a guilty and sad person. This song is also appealingly smooth, making it another song I would call yacht country.

“Be Easy” closes out the album and is a stripped-down song about trying to quiet your mind and find peace. It was a great call by Anne to make this track acoustic and let the raw emotion of the lyrics do the heavy lifting. This is a song for those who beat themselves up too much and it’s also an appropriate closer to an album that compares various characters and ends up back at Anne looking into herself.

Michaela Anne delivers an amazing album in Desert Dove. It’s full of smooth and breezy songs that only take a couple of listens to truly enjoy. This feels like Anne’s breakout moment, as she finds the sound and themes she needed to truly show her full potential and prove herself as an artist that should be on your radar if you love country music.

Grade: 9/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eEAJPIrxhCI

Album Review — The Highwomen’s ‘The Highwomen’

The Highwomen are country music’s newest supergroup comprised of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris. With the group’s aim to shine a brighter light on women in country music, along with the undeniable amount of talent the group exudes, their self-titled debut is an album that’s been on my radar for a while. The title track opens, which plays on the same template The Highwaymen had used for their self-titled song back in the 80s. On paper this sounds hokey and contrived. But this song is anything but that. It’s fantastic, as it tells the story of various women throughout history and how they suffered untimely fates. I especially love the surprise appearance from Yola, who sings the story of a freedom rider. Hemby sounds great on her verse too. This is how you open an album!

“Redesigning Women” is another amazing song from the group. It’s a song that promotes all types of women and what makes them great. The lyrics are clever, relatable, catchy and meaningful. The harmonizing, especially in the bridge, is that powerful moment that drives the song home. It’s no hyperbole when I say this song is perfect. “Loose Change” has the misfortune of following it, but it’s no slouch either. It’s a great song about a woman feeling used and under-appreciated in a bad relationship. She likens herself as loose change to him and I love the visual this creates, as it perfectly conveys to you the emotions she’s feeling. Again, it’s clever and relatable songwriting from this group.

“Crowded Table” is a down-home country song that’s impossible to listen to without coming away feeling warm and happy. The song is about family and bring everyone together around the table. The harmonies on this song are excellent, showing the chemistry and cohesiveness of these four artists. Kudos to producer Dave Cobb for building the ideal sound around the harmonies too (warm, powerful and not letting the production overpower it). “My Name Can’t Be Mama” is a fun singalong about women choosing not to be a mom, at least for today. I enjoy all the vocal performances on the song, but I particularly enjoy Morris’ performance, as this style of song really fits her voice.

“If She Ever Leaves Me” is classic country storytelling with a modern twist. Written and primarily performed by Carlile, it’s about a woman watching a man eye a woman on the dance floor, only for him to be informed that she belongs to her. While she may one day leave her, it certainly won’t be for him, as the punchy hook reminds you. Carlile’s passionate vocal performance on this is stunning, especially as she hits the high notes. It’s without a doubt a highlight on an album full of them. “Old Soul” is another great vocal performance from Morris and I enjoy the soaring, clean sound of the song. But man does it drag for far too long. You could easily cut three minutes from this and it would still get the point of the song across. Less is more in this case, especially with a well-worn topic.

“Don’t Call Me” is a fun ditty about telling a man to piss off. I enjoyed this the first few listens, but it just doesn’t have the same effect with repeated listens, as the lyrics on this song are decidedly less clever than other moments on the album trying for this effect. “My Only Child” is an ode to children who grow up without brothers and sisters. I’m impressed alone for just covering a rarely covered topic, but then the group also covers it with tact and grace. The song does a great job focusing on the love shared between the child, parent and the special bond between them, really forming a connection with the listener, even if you can’t relate to the lyrics.

“Heaven Is a Honky Tonk” is a feel-good singalong about the legends of country music passing on to heaven, which the group imagines to be like a honkytonk. It’s a fun song, especially when the group hits the high notes. “Cocktail and a Song” is a real tear jerker and is Amanda Shires shining moment on the album. Shires wrote the song about her terminally ill father, as the song is from the point of view of a daughter watching her father slowly die. It’s a beautifully tragic song and Shires delivers it with such powerful emotion, as you can feel the crushing ache and pain every second she sings. It’s the best she’s ever written.

The album closes with “Wheels of Laredo,” which is my least favorite track on the record. The reason I don’t like it is the songwriting is so boring and outdated and relies on scenery tropes that are overused in country music. If the themes and images were presented more livelier, I could get into it. And I know for sure I didn’t like this song when I didn’t like the Tanya Tucker version either. On an album full of fresh songwriting, it’s a shame it ends with a song on the other end of the spectrum.

At it’s brightest The Highwomen’s self-titled debut album screams album of the year (and maybe one of the best of the decade). But unfortunately, they can’t quite keep this up for the whole album. It’s still a great album though and definitely worth your time if you’re into country music at all. I hope this is the first of many great albums from The Highwomen, as the world needs to hear more.

Grade: 8/10

Album Artists, Single Artists & Why Both Need to Ditch The Old Rules

Everybody likes to talk about the genre divides in music today and how this places creative restrictions on artists, but to me there’s an even greater divide and it’s causing a much greater restriction on music creators: artists who focus on albums and artists who focus on singles.

Artists who focus on albums are usually independent/independent-minded artists (with occasional exceptions in the mainstream like Adele, Chris Stapleton, Beyoncé, etc.) that don’t get radio attention or rack up a lot of streams. Albums are meant to draw people to live shows, where they make their money. Typically their fans are more hardcore music listeners. Think artists like Kacey Musgraves, Cody Jinks, Carly Rae Jepsen and Freddie Gibbs.

Artists who focus on singles are usually mainstream/mainstream-aspirant artists that have had radio/mainstream success and/or do really well on streaming platforms. In other words they’re really popular. While they also make most of their money off live shows and hope to lure fans with big singles to them, they make a good chunk of change off the singles sales and streams too. Typically their fans are more casual music listeners. Think artists like Drake, Luke Bryan, Shawn Mendes and Post Malone.

(And yes not everyone will fit exactly into one of these two groups. But for most music listeners, if you think about your listening habits, you know you mostly fall into one of these two groups most of the time.)

This wasn’t always like this in music. It used to be purely singles driven. It wasn’t until the 1960s with artists like Bob Dylan, The Beatles and The Beach Boys started to take their albums seriously front to back that it prompted a wide-spread attitude change towards the concept of albums. It was standard practice up until this point to put out an album with a few singles and then literally put filler in the rest. Listen to early albums from The Beatles and The Beach Boys, as even they engaged in it. But then they put out legendary records like Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and everybody decided to put out serious albums, at least for a little while.

Through the 70s and 80s this died down and more artists started to focus back towards singles, while there were still plenty who focused on albums too. But both still pushed albums equally. Then we get to the 90s and early 2000s, where album and music sales reached their absolute peak. Also known as when you had to drive to Walmart and pay $20 for a CD and you only knew two songs on it, praying that you didn’t just flush $20 down the drain (often times you did). Then along came Napster and the Internet and then everything in music changes. It became much friendlier towards fans, as we could now listen to music before buying and led to the streaming-driven music world we have today.

I give this little history lesson to demonstrate how the more things change, the more they stay the same. But also how some things haven’t changed, yet should. I’m referring to the fact that album artists are still being forced to release singles and singles artists are still being forced to release albums. It’s a huge hinderance on creativity. Why is the music industry forcing these artists to fit a square peg into a round hole?

On one side you have album artists like Sturgill Simpson, who don’t give a shit about singles because they know they’re not going to get enough attention from them to generate the amount of sales and streams needed to justify it, yet they’re forced to do the standard single release plus album announcement, followed by a month or more of PR and other unnecessary bullshit before finally dropping the album. All while the album has been ready for release for months.

On the other side you have single artists like Drake and Post Malone, who really don’t give a shit about albums because they know their bread and butter is made by releasing catchy singles that net huge airplay and streams. But yet they’re still forced to release so many hit singles before announcing an album that’s like 20 songs long that they know is just a lot of filler, but the label knows they can exploit this for streaming and chart purposes. Oh and they still do the whole PR thing for a month or so and talk about how they really “care” about the album before finally releasing it.

In both scenarios, the artists and their fans are being screwed over by having to follow this archaic and traditional method of releasing music. Why aren’t labels adapting around these artists and their fans?

Album artists should announce their albums on a Monday and then release it that Friday. Or just drop it. There’s no need for all the waiting around and picking out singles to release when they ultimately don’t matter. Single artists should just release singles when they’re ready and after releasing so many, just put them on a playlist and call it an era instead of forcing them to release albums they don’t even want to make.

I know why this traditional method is still used and it’s because it’s how many people who work at labels justify why they have a job. But really the continual use of this method just proves why their jobs aren’t needed. Many in marketing don’t want to wake up and realize that 2/3 of today’s marketing is by the end user/customer. This is why I advocate for more artists to go independent, but I digress.

Many album artists have been beating a similar drum for years, but not so much single artists. Fortunately that might finally be changing for the latter, as in country music Rascal Flatts and Blake Shelton have both said in interviews recently that they’re now just releasing singles instead of albums. I applaud both of them for acknowledging the type of artists they are and serving themselves and their fans the way they should.

There are many artists unhappy with the way they’re being compensated for their music and the first step that needs to be taken in them seizing more control of this is acknowledging and changing how music is distributed. Not only this, but it could also create a fairer playing field when it comes to crowning what’s popular. Right now we have a chart system in place that heavily leans towards rewarding singles artists and streaming, while ignoring album artists and those with fanbases that prefer buying physical albums. I find this funny because labels know this, otherwise why would UMG keep Kacey Musgraves and RCA sign Freddie Gibbs and Tyler Childers? It’s because their album sales demonstrates a strong and consistent fan base, which in turn translates to steady concert sales.

The third thing this traditional release method is doing is creating unfair expectations and judgement of artists. It leads to dismissal of album artists for releasing a lead single that is only a small part of the greater picture they’re trying to show you, while single artists are getting slammed for releasing bad albums they don’t even want to make because at the end of the day they just want to release catchy hits.

No matter what side you fall on, neither are right or wrong. But both are being screwed over by the system. I know we could just keep going along with the current system (just ignoring the albums of single artists and patiently waiting for the album artists to release a record), but when there’s a better way of doing things staring you in the face, why ignore it?