Album Review — Ashley McBryde’s ‘Never Will’

Ashley McBryde’s major label debut album Girl Going Nowhere was truly one of the most underrated albums of 2018. Unfortunately it was released at a bad time, as Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour released on the same day along with several other high-profile releases at the time. So it felt like that album and McBryde never got the proper attention and respect. But one thing I definitely took away from that great album was one day McBryde would release an album of the year level record. Well I didn’t think it would happen so soon, but that’s pleasantly the case with her follow-up album Never Will.

The album greets you with heartland rock guitars on “Hang In There Girl.” And I’m so glad she leans more into this sound on the album, as it fits her like a glove. The opening song is an anthem for young girls stuck in small towns with big dreams, telling them to hang on through the hard times until they reach their goals one day. It’s an uplifting and very real message that I imagine will resonate with so many young girls across the midwest of America. Lead single “One Night Standards” shows the excellent storytelling abilities of McBryde, as she vividly tells the story of a one-night stand involving a married man. It’s brutally honest about the nature of the situation, painting both of the people in the story in an appropriately not positive light. It also details the justification of the action’s of the woman in the situation, which is flimsy. But that’s how it’s supposed to be, as the line is blurred between who she’s really trying to convince: him or herself.

“Shut Up Sheila” is an interesting song about a family going through the difficulty of watching a woman’s grandmother dying, only for a “friend” named Sheila to be butting in with unnecessary comments. The overall theme centers around pushing back against judgmental people and standing up for doing things your way. And while I love this message, what really makes this song stand out is the sound. Jay Joyce centers it around a spacey, echoing sound that gives it an ominous feel before giving away to roaring guitars that really put an exclamation point on the song. “First Thing I Reach For” is classic country gold in every way, from it’s steel guitar-driven sound to the timeless theme of overindulging in vices. I particularly enjoy the line, “Another night of bad decisions/There’s one still laying in my bed/The bastard in me wishes/That he’d woke up first and left.” It’s both humorous and memorable.

“Voodoo Doll” has quickly become a favorite for me and for two reasons. One because I love the way it’s written and the amount of intricate details given to a woman being made to feel like a voodoo doll watching her man cheat on her. Two because the production matches the dramatic, whiplash feel of the lyrics with McBryde delivering the type of fiery vocal performance that once again makes me thrilled that there are more rock influences on this album. The guitars absolutely roar, I love the little mandolin interludes and it’s an absolute blast to sing along with the chorus. “Sparrow” is on the other end of the spectrum, a soft and somber song about the cold realities a musician experiences traveling on the road. While McBryde acknowledges the exhilaration of realizing a dream, it also comes with missing your loved ones. Once again I applaud McBryde for both her honesty and genuine heart that shines through in the lyrics.

“Martha Divine” is another rock-driven track, this time a cheating/murder ballad interestingly told from the perspective of the daughter witnessing her father in the middle of misdeed. Fueled by infectious and thumping drums that get the heart pounding, the daughter vows to hunt down and kill the mistress, Martha Divine. Which by the way the name is clever and appropriate in itself, playing on the Aramic meaning of Martha, which is mistress, and divine, which means relating to God (the daughter in this case seeing her interference as a god-like act). And yes the daughter is flawed for only going after the father, but the daughter is going to naturally have an emotional blindspot for the father. The song also wisely avoids endearing us towards these violent actions, but rather gives a neutral window look in.

McBryde goes back to classic country storytelling on “Velvet Red.” It’s about a forbidden love affair between a poor maker of wine and the mayor’s only daughter, resulting in a daughter who would be nicknamed after the very wine her unknown father made. Not only is this storytelling on point, but I love the surprise reveal at the end that the daughter is telling the story of her parents conceiving her. I don’t mind the filter the vocals are being put through either, as it doesn’t hurt the song. “Stone” is the most emotional moment on the album, as a woman comes to grips with the death of her father and realizing how similar they were, despite their rocky relationship. The song doesn’t shy from the complicated nature of the feelings involved and that’s why I enjoy the storytelling of McBryde. It feels real and truly resonates with the listener as a result.

The album’s title track is pure heartland rock, with it’s “Dancing in the Dark”-like guitars perfectly texturing this never-give-up anthem. It’s autobiographical, as McBryde recalls all of the doubters along her journey and how she never gave into this negativity. Personally I really connect with the lyrics, so it’s easily my favorite on the album. Also if McBryde wants to make a straight-up rock album, I’m totally down for it because she just gets the ethos of classic rock. McBryde makes a quirky and fun choice to close the album with “Styrofoam.” Unlike anything she’s ever released before, it’s bouncy, light-hearted track about her love of styrofoam cups and features her doing spoken word through like half of it. And I thought I would dislike it, but I love it. Usually these type of gimmicky songs grind my gears, but I enjoy the history lesson at the beginning and it serves as a nice dose of casual fun to balance out the serious moments on the album. Because as I’ve said before, we don’t need to be serious all the time.

Ashley McBryde delivers exactly what I had hoped for and then beyond with Never Will. She leans heavily into her natural heartland rock sound and combines it with traditional country to create an album I will remember for a long time. The songwriting is brilliant and varied, running the gauntlet of emotions and most importantly I think Ashley McBryde delivers a flawless presentation of flawed characters. They’re never framed as likable, but real and as they are, which can be hard to get behind as a listener. But just like Sturgill Simpson’s SOUND & FURY, it can be understandable to not want to listen to music about such real and flawed characters, songs where there are no heroes even. For me though this is the music that is truly intriguing and has a lasting impact.

That is why I believe this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020 and maybe the best country album of the year.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

Dua Lipa hasn’t really been on my radar up until this point. Her debut self-titled album didn’t catch my attention. But the lead single for her second album did get my attention and I’ve quietly been hopeful about it. After listening to her second album Future Nostalgia quite thoroughly, I’m beyond hopeful. I’m ecstatic, as this is the kind of pop music that excites me with it’s bold sounds that pay homage to the past while sounding quite fresh and modern.

The album’s title track leads off, greeting with an ominous “future” echoed in the background that frequently interplays throughout the song. Fueled by an infectious electro-pop sound that gives a glimpse of what’s to come in the album, the song feels like Dua Lipa reintroducing herself to everybody, as she proclaims in the chorus: “I know you’re dying trying to figure me out/My name’s on the tip of your tongue, keep running your mouth/You want the recipe but can’t handle my sound.” The synth part in the bridge by Jeff Bhasker really gives it a cool sound to close out on too.

The album’s lead single and what brought this album to my attention, “Don’t Start Now,” is about a woman coming to realize she’s a better and stronger person for getting over her breakup with her ex. She realized how toxic he was and has slammed the door shut on the relationship. It’s a fist-pumping anthem that excellently utilizes various violins to create a classy, yet spacey sound. And of course it did what a lead single should do. “Cool” is about losing yourself to love and seeing something more beyond sexual chemistry. This song screams summer anthem and not just because it references the season, but more than anything the overall vibe puts me in mind of driving down a beach highway at night with the streetlights lit up with it’s smooth, futuristic sounds.

“Physical” is a straight-up banger that hooked me from the first moment I heard it. The combination of tight bass, plenty of synthesizers and well utilized drums creates a frenetic, disco meets sci-fi sound that makes it impossible not to want to dance to. And Lipa delivers a vocal performance with the kind of ferocious charisma that will have you easily singing along. This song has every element I want in a pop song: fun hooks, infectious sound and great vocals. “Levitating” is another exciting love song with good hooks. This song definitely has more disco influences and dare I say some 90s pop influences too. The talk box is beautifully utilized, as it gives the chorus more gravitas.

“Pretty Please” is about missing your love and finding instant relief once you’re in their arms. Once again I have to praise the production aspects, as a groovy, slightly understated bass line drives the rhythm of the song and what I love about it is how it shows you don’t have to have a “wall of sound” to create a big feel. Too many pop artists try to shove so many instruments into their sound to create an “epic” sound, but I’m glad to see Ian Kirkpatrick and Juan Ariza recognized how a simple approach is all that was needed to give this song a punch. “Hallucinate” is another perfect pop song in the same vein as “Physical.” On a 1-10 scale of danceability, it’s a 20 and Lipa delivers the hook with the amount of emotion needed to convey the desperate, intoxicating love being explored in the song. The sound is completely in synch with what feels like an out of control love.

Lipa explores overcoming doubt and insecurity on “Love Again.” It can be easy to overlook how much depth is in the songwriting here, as Lipa goes into many details about how she was previously in the state of never believing she would find love and the storm of emotions she once experienced before finding the love of her life. It’s another song too that nails the futuristic disco sound and the big hero for me is the violin play by Drew Jurecka (who also did the great violin work on “Physical”). It gives the song an appropriately triumphant and resilient feel, while also fueling the catchy disco sound too. “Break My Heart” is about falling for a heartbreaker, enjoying the rush of falling in love and dreading what feels like the inevitable falling out. The drums and the tambourines do a great job of creating that bouncy, disco sound. And I know I keep praising this, but I have to point out that it’s essentially a different team of producers on each song. So it’s kind of incredible how cohesive this album sounds.

Unfortunately “Good in Bed” is a complete mess, even though it does something incredible: it brought universal agreement amongst critics, in that essentially every critic says it’s the worst song on the album, and universal agreement is quite rare these days. The choppy cadence and the clunky lyrics about sex just makes this a bizarre song within the context of the rest of the album, as it just doesn’t fit in any way. Closing song “Boys Will Be Boys” doesn’t really fit the theme of the album either, although at least it’s good and it has a great message. It’s about how boys and young men are given a pass for dangerous behavior that increasingly leads to predatory and violent action towards women, often with the casual phrase “boys will be boys.” All the while girls are expected to be women and forced to adapt to these social double standards. It’s a powerful and meaningful way to bring a message that all should take to heart.

Dua Lipa delivers an absolutely fantastic album in Future Nostalgia. It has the elements I want to hear in a pop album and it comes oh so close to be an album of the year contender. Despite one slip-up, this album delivers everything else perfectly. It encapsulates disco, electro pop and dance music with the kind of aplomb and grace I would expect out of Carly Rae Jepsen, while at the same time delivering incredibly infectious hooks and vocal performances that will stick with you long after listening. This is one of the best pop albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Eric Church’s ‘Desperate Man’

(Note: This was originally published in Oct. 2018 on Fusion Country, which is now closed. It is being reposted here for reader availability. Plus I really loved talking about this album, which is fantastic and one of the best released in 2018.)

Eric Church has always did it his way. It’s a cliché thing to say in the music industry. So many artists love to say it in press releases and interviews. But very few are being genuine. It’s just another marketing phrase. When it comes to Church, he’s one of the few being sincere. Not only has he done it his way, but his sound has evolved and changed with his life along the way. Each album shows more growth in his music and artistry. On Mr. Misunderstood, I thought Church delivered his best album yet. I didn’t think he could top himself on Desperate Man, but he does. Church delivers more on Desperate Man than I could have imagined.

Church delivers a real statement with opening song “The Snake.” It’s a stripped-down, appropriately sinister sounding song about a Copperhead and a rattlesnake. I’m not sure how others interpret it, but for me it’s a scathing commentary on American politics regarding the two major political parties. It tells of how each work together to continue eating the mice (who represent the people) and keep their power, each out for themselves and not the people they represent. “And the whole world’s burning down,” as Church wisely sings.

Church then does a complete 180 with the fun and upbeat “Hangin’ Around.” It’s probably the most danceable song Church has ever released, as it’s impossible to not want to move your head and feet along with the beat. The bass, drums, clapping and electric guitars chug along in unison, creating an infectiously funky sound. “Heart Like A Wheel” is a slice of bluesy country goodness that puts the guitars front and center. It’s about a love that can’t be stopped and keeps rolling on. Church delivers the lyrics with a real passion that make them really resonate over the listener.

“Some Of It” is the perfect marriage of Church’s past and present styles. The lyrics of the song are classic Church, with his deftly simple message about finding wisdom in life. It pairs up well with the new rich, heavily textured sound of Church. To me it’s a no-brainer, future single. The next song “Monsters” sounds like a single too. For many I imagine this is the center-piece of the album and I don’t blame them. The song’s writers Church and Jeff Hyde cleverly weave together a story of the monsters in life. When you’re a kid, they’re under the bed and you kill them with a flashlight. When you’re an adult, you realize they’re all around you and even in your head. In the case of Church, you pray them away. Whether you’re young or old, we all have our demons and we all have our way of dealing with them. You know you’re hearing a special song when we can all relate to it, as it unites us through its message.

Church fondly looks back on his upbringing and life on “Hippie Radio.” Specifically it was the sounds of rock radio that were always there through many milestones, marking each moment in his mind. It’s a song that celebrates the meaning of music and the influence it has on us. It’s a great song that’s probably the least memorable on the album, but that’s a testament to the sheer amount of quality throughout this record. “Higher Wire” shows a completely different side to Church. It’s a bare, soulful tune that Church sings almost entirely in falsetto. Like many I didn’t know what to think of it at first. It reminds me a lot of when I first heard “Like a Wrecking Ball,” which I originally didn’t like. But just like that song, “Higher Wire” grows stronger on you with each listen. My main takeaway: It’s so much damn fun to sing along to the chorus!

I covered the album’s title track when it first released and I still stand by what I said. It’s a great song and it’s appropriate it’s the title track because it perfectly captures the spirit and sound you hear throughout the album (not to mention Ray Wylie Hubbard gets some shine with a co-write). “Solid” immediately gives you a ’70s vibe thanks to the undeniable presence of the electric guitars. Not a surprise, considering Church has cited many influences from the era. Church sings about the many things in his life that keeps him grounded and allows him to have a solid foundation in life. By the end he takes it back to where he grew up and the upbringing by his parents, the appealing emotional closer that ties it all together.

The shimmery feeling “Jukebox And A Bar” sees Church once again fuse his classic lyrical style with his new production style. The theme is a staple of country music, but it’s Church’s lyrical approach that makes this song so good. I particularly enjoy the line, “We got pinpoint GPS, all you need is an address/But her love is the one thing I can’t find.” I enjoy it because despite all of the technology we have and all of the problems it can solve, ironically it still can’t heal a broken heart like the camaraderie of a bar. Plus the use of words like “phosphorescent” and “incandescent” have never been used better in a country song.

The album closes out with “Drowning Man,” taking the album back to where it began with the headache of politics. Church is the voice of many, as he doesn’t want to think about the problems of the world and would rather drown in whiskey. He doesn’t want to hear about your “beach” or “mountains” either, which can be interpreted as the endless chatter from each side on social media. The drowning is a sea of words. “Save your breath, I don’t want to hear about it” are the final words from Church, as he carefully expresses the exasperation of many.

Desperate Man is a fantastic album. Church’s songwriting has never been better and the production choices made by him and Jay Joyce blow me away. Just like Kacey Musgraves with Golden Hour, Eric Church shows us just how innovative and exciting country music can be when you throw out the “rules” and just create your sound. It’s not about giving people what they want, but giving them what they didn’t know they needed until they heard it. Eric Church did it his way on Desperate Man and his way is excellent.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Jesse Daniel’s ‘Rollin’ On’

I enjoy many styles of country music, but if I had to pick my favorite it would be Bakersfield country. So when I heard about Jesse Daniel and his style of country being Bakersfield, I obviously had to check him out. And after listening to his new album Rollin’ On, I’m pretty happy I did. Opening track “Tar Snakes” is heavy on the steel guitar, an easy-going song about a man hitting the open highway to forget about his ex. It’s your classic country song with the kind of sunny melody that let me know I was in for an album that was going to do Bakersfield country right.

“If You Ain’t Happy Now (You Never Will Be)” is about enjoying the here and now, not worrying about the past or future. It’s a simple and catchy tune with a good message about appreciating what you have in your life. It’s another no-frills, instantly enjoyable song thanks to it’s infectious melody by producers Tommy Detamore and Daniel. When I first heard the album’s title track I said to myself (no joke), “This is some Dwight Yoakam shit.” And this is a great thing of course! The prominent guitars and piano make it a dead ringer for something straight out of Yoakam’s catalog. Also I have to point out that I know it feels like I’m not “reviewing” these opening songs that deeply. But it’s hard to put into words really what these songs get right. I guess the best way I would describe it is you know it when you hear it that these songs just capture what a traditional country song is supposed to sound like in terms of melody and vocals.

“St. Claire’s Retreat” is about a man running off to the mountains and leaving behind his love. But he realizes it to be a mistake, as he loses his love in the process. I feel like this song could have used more emotion, as the story feels too vague emotionally for me to really get into as I’m listening. “Champion” on the other hand immediately hooks me with it’s story about a mammoth of a man who strikes fear into those around him, but also has a sad backstory and ultimately a sad ending. I particularly enjoy how Daniel describes this man named Champion in great detail, as I can vividly picture him. This line in particular struck me: “His hands were big as baseball gloves and fists were solid rock.” On top of that it has a memorable Tex Mex sound that adds even more texture and depth to the song.

I love how Daniel throws a little surprise instrumental track in “Chickadee” in the middle of the album, as typically these are expected at the end. It’s a great instrumental, a tasty blend of guitars and fiddles. I wish more artists would put instrumentals onto their albums (although I understand why because it’s not “consumer friendly”). “Mayo and the Mustard” is my least favorite track on the album, as the song’s hook just doesn’t make sense to me (“keep it between the mayo and the mustard’). Not to mention the story of the song is predictable, as the narrator of the song starts out a young man receiving advice from an older gentleman and by the end becomes the latter bestowing advice. I’ve heard much better versions of this song.

“Bringin’ Home the Roses” is the kind of funny and cheesy country love song I can always get behind. The song is about a man spotting another man at the bar holding flowers and wise cracking to him “How ’bout the weather?” And the man with the flowers hilariously deadpanning “You know pal that ain’t what’s on my mind.” The latter reasons that flowers should at least help him get into his house where his angry wife awaits. The former eventually finds himself in the same predicament. Again, it’s cheesy of course. But this is the type of cheese that’s endearing and clever.

“Sam” is about someone wondering what’s happened to a long lost friend that likes to run the road due to his reckless lifestyle. It’s another simple country song that just works, thanks in large part to the nostalgic retelling of small stories the man experienced with Sam in his life and the reflectiveness in Daniel’s voice as he delivers the hook. Daniel draws inspiration from his life and playing on the road on “Old at Heart.” In his early years he spent time in prison and dealing with various addictions, leading to the haggard inner soul he has despite his outer youthfulness that deceives those out in the crowd. It’s a cool way for Daniel to tell his story to the listener without being so on the nose. And of course the fiddle-driven sound is sweet on the ears.

Daniel’s partner Jodi Lyford joins him on “Only Money, Honey.” The song is about money being less important than love and of course this is quite cliché. It’s certainly no different than any of the other thousands of country songs along these same lines. But it’s nice to see Lyford featured on a track, as she’s been an important part of Daniel’s recovery and life, in addition to helping him write several tracks on this record and having a nice voice. The album closes on a strong note with “Son of the San Lorenzo.” Daniel opens with pondering about fake news and stories before moving to his own story. He recalls his roots, the good and the bad, but ultimately hopes he ends up back there some day. It’s a song that does nostalgia right, not painting everything with rose-colored glasses and harping on memories, but rather a bright hopefulness of return that lives on in Daniel’s heart.

Jesse Daniel does Bakersfield country proper justice on Rollin’ On. While it has a couple of just okay spots that mar it from being a fantastic album, it mostly shines throughout with it’s classic country themes and a traditional country sound that fully embraces the roots of the genre in an enjoyable, fresh-feeling way. The best way I would describe this album to someone is I would liken it to fried chicken and mash potatoes. I’ve had it hundreds of times and from many different places, but it never gets old when you eat some great fried chicken and mash potatoes. And this album is certainly a great one.

Grade: 8/10