The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 2: Sara Evans and Mike & The Moonpies Cover Classics, Plus More!

When an artist covers a song or an album, it’s either feast or famine. It’s often the latter because the artist too often falls into the trap of recording a straight-ahead, exact replica of the original. And this quite frankly is boring. Why would I want to hear a cover of, let’s say Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”, if you’re just going to do it exactly how they did it? I’ll just listen to the original instead.

No, the best covers are when an artist takes and reinterprets the songs, giving them a fresh coat of paint and reinvigorating them in the minds of the listeners. So while Sara Evans is an artist that I rarely listen to at times, her Copy That album that covers songs from multiple genres across multiple eras intrigued me when I came across it. I say she’s an artist I rarely listen to because of all the boring, vanilla radio singles that a lot of people seem to like. But they put me to sleep and I would much rather listen to her early career material, which better showcases her talent. Not to mention I didn’t forget her great performance on the country tribute album to The Doobie Brothers.

Evans picks the perfect opener in “If I Can’t Have You,” the disco hit made famous by the Bee Gees and Yvonne Elliman. Evans brings a ton of passion and energy to her vocal performance, feeling right at home on this yearning love ballad. “Come On Eileen” is one of those one-hit 80s rock songs that has always got on my nerves due to radio overplay and the cheesy nature of the delivery. But I just can’t get enough of Evans’ interpretation, as the hints of fiddle and Evans’ clearer take on the song makes it a catchy ear worm. I also enjoy how the bridge speeds up and crashes, giving the song an infectious frenetic feel.

Poco’s rock-country hit “Crazy Love” is a gem I didn’t know about and again fits Evans like a glove, as she keeps enough of the original’s feel while making it feel modern. Evans and Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet beautifully harmonize on Kenny Loggins’ “Whenever I Call You “Friend”” and I would say like their version more than the original, has less of a soupy feel about it. Evans’ best vocal performances on this album are arguably her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Monday Morning” and John Mayer’s “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” as she absolutely belts it on each track.

Old Crow Medicine Show appropriately joins her on Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” and this is a combination I didn’t think I would enjoy so much, as their discographies are so contrasting. But they surprisingly work well. Finally, Evans once again wins me over on a classic rock song that gets overplayed on radio, The Knacks’ “My Sharona.” The blaring guitars being in front and center with Evans impassioned performance hooks me immediately and I would argue she once again surpasses the original of one of her covers.

If this album slipped through the cracks for you I would suggest checking out, especially if you’re like me and listen to multiple genres of music. It’s just a really fun album that you can tell Evans and her band enjoyed making and this is undoubtedly felt by the listener as they sing along to these familiar tracks.

Sara Evans though wasn’t the only band to recently make a great covers album, as Mike and the Moonpies dropped a surprise album of Gary Stewart songs. But Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart isn’t just Stewart songs, but previously unheard songs from the underrated country star. Being a fan of Stewart and Mike and the Moonpies coming off what I considered the best country album of 2019, I was eager to sink my teeth into this one.

It doesn’t disappoint, as Mike Harmeir and his band certainly do justice to the King of Honkytonks’ tunes. It doesn’t necessarily start off the strongest with “Bottom of the Pile,” as I would consider it one of the lesser songs on the album due to it’s repetitiveness. But second track “Smooth Shot of Whiskey” is an immediate favorite of mine. Harmeir is joined on vocals surprisingly by Midland frontman Mark Wystrach and they sound so good together. I say surprisingly because Texas country music doesn’t exactly like Midland due to their “lack of authenticity” and regularly like to compare the Moonpies and Midland. But if you pay attention on social media these bands have always been chummy with each other and they should because each fall into the same style of country music.

The album’s title track might be my most favorite on the record, as Harmeir stretches his vocal range to great effect. It adds the emotion that is much needed on this heartbreak drinking song, not to mention Harmeir’s higher notes are unforgettably good. It’s slightly disappointing there aren’t more country rockers on this album, as that’s what Stewart is most well-known for in his career. But it’s not surprising either, as these songs mostly come from Stewart’s 80s material, which is decidedly more mellow. But we do get one great rocker with “Dance with Barbara,” a rowdy honky tonker about wanting to hit the dance floor with the woman of everyone’s eye in the bar.

It should be said too for those unfamiliar with Gary Stewart’s work that many of his songs center around debauchery, drinking and the darkness that can accompany it, as these themes were very much part of his life. So in a way it can make listening to this album a bit repetitive to listen to at times. But if you’re in the mood for these type of songs, it has this in spades. “The Gold Barstool” and “Finished Product” are darkly humorous takes on over-drinking. But Stewart wasn’t a one-trick pony either, as “I’m Guilty” is a really enjoyable bluesy, soulful love song. While Harmeir delivers a great vocal performance here, I can’t help but wonder what Stewart would have sounded like on it with his trademark vibrato.

The most heartfelt song on this album is saved for last. “Heart a Home” is a devastating and haunting heartbreak song about a man yearning for an ex that’s unexpectedly walked out on him. I would love to know why Stewart never cut this song, as it’s so damn good. The lyrics painstakingly paint a vivid picture of heartbreak and Harmeir delivers a vocal performance that’s worthy of the lyrics.

Mike and the Moonpies continue to prove why many are quickly considering them one of the best acts in country music right now, as they’ve now released two great, back-to-back surprise releases. Not to mention the respect they pay towards Stewart is classy and a true homage to the late country star. If you’re a country music fan and not familiar with Stewart, I hope this urges you to dig into it because it’s a real joy. Also I recommend checking out my friend Zack’s recent piece on Stewart at The Musical Divide to get even more context on the career and life of Stewart.

While many acts struggle to release a good cover song, Sara Evans and Mike and the Moonpies both manage to release great cover albums. Check them out!

Sara Evans – Copy That – Solid 8/10

Mike and the Moonpies – Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart – Strong 8/10


And more…

  • The Last Bandoleros finally released an album available for listeners in the United States, a live album titled Live from Texas. It’s a solid mix of pop country and Tex Mex. But I still remain puzzled by how this act is marketed and positioned.
  • Another album released weeks ago I want to highlight is Thundercats’ It Is What It Is. This is my favorite release from him yet, mainly due to the fact it’s his most concise and tightest album yet (clocks in at 37 minutes). While I enjoyed his previous album Drunk, it’s admittedly a bit of a taxing listen. As Thundercat always does though, he delivers silky smooth beats and dark humor that elicits chuckles. “Dragonball Durag” in particular always makes me laugh when I hear it (you’ll know the line when you hear it that makes me laugh the hardest). But Thundercat also balances this album out with more sober, melancholy songs too, as he spends multiple songs addressing race issues in America and mourning the loss of his friend/rapper Mac Miller.
  • Grady Smith brought to my attention a surprising remix of Barbara Mandrell’s “Sleeping Single In a Double Bed” and even more surprisingly I really enjoy it. This new dance remix take by Dave Audé makes this classic song dancy, fun and decidedly modern. While it’s understandable that this is annoying and ruffles the feathers of some country listeners, this electronification of country music is only going to continue. And I know this may sound naïve, but I believe that this can help bring in more younger listeners to the genre and entice them to check out older country music. It happened with the country station on Grand Theft Auto V, so why not with this?
  • Cam has dropped yet another enjoyable song in “Redwood Tree.” This song is about reflecting on the passage of time and learning that you don’t truly appreciate things until you lose them. I cannot wait to hear another full album from her, as her debut album showed so much potential.
  • One last thing: I’m taking a break from the blog to spend time with my family and friends. I didn’t get to see or spend a lot of time with them during the quarantine, so now I want to focus on spending time with them. Thanks for understanding!

As always thanks for reading and be sure to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below!

Review — Thee Sacred Souls’ “Give Us Justice”

I’ve made it known how little I think of most message/political songs that are released nowadays. Typically it’s a great message, but the artist fails to make it a great song too. There’s certainly no shortage of pressing topics in this country to write about, but the most important lately of course has been the fight against racism and police brutality. Mickey Guyton has already delivered a great song on this topic and you can now add San Diego-based soul group Thee Sacred Souls with their new song “Give Us Justice.”

Set to a warm melody and lush harmonies, the song goes into great details of the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. Josh Lane, lead vocalist of the group and the writer of the song, ponders aloud how he could have easily been in their shoes and could have been murdered for the color of his skin. He also sends the reminder to all that peace will not happen until justice is served. It’s simple and straightforward, yet powerful and pierces right into the heart of this issue. It’s equally excellent in terms of song and message.

“Give Us Justice” is the type of song we need to hear right now. And I’ll admit I came across Thee Sacred Souls thanks to seeing a recommendation from Durand Jones & The Indications (another great band). I’m glad I saw the recommendation and I’m glad to know of such a fantastic band because this song clearly shows they’re a band that deserves your attention.

Grade: 10/10

(From the label Daptone Records: 100% of the proceeds of this song will go to promoting the freedoms, rights, and wellbeing of black people, spread across various organizations which they will continue to research over time, starting with The Movement for Black Lives)

Album Review — Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Dedicated Side B’

She’s really going to do it again, eh? She followed up EMOTION with EMOTION Side B, which many argued the latter was better than the former. And now Carly Rae Jepsen is trying to do it again with the surprise release of Dedicated Side B. For those unaware, Carly Rae Jepsen has quite the prolific output of songs per album cycle (she writes hundreds of songs per album and she also has a “quarantine album” in the works). So with EMOTION she decided to release a Side B for it instead of just shelving the songs in a vault. Except that was an EP. This Side B is a whole new album! And once again she’s showing her “B material” is better than many artists’ A material.

One thing to say about this album upfront is it doesn’t quite have the thematic thread of Dedicated, which explored an emotionally complicated, roller coaster relationship. If I had to pick a theme for this album, it would be summer love songs, as it doesn’t have the tinges of heartbreak and doubt that were peppered throughout Dedicated. This is clear from opening song “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” a song about being self-assured of the love you share in a relationship. It’s bouncy, frenetic, soaring; the same fantastic pop production you can always expect from Jack Antonoff and Jepsen. It’s a fist-pumping anthem that perfectly sets the tone for the album.

“Window” does a great job of utilizing alternating hand claps and drum machines to create an infectious and driving beat. Jepsen’s deliberately staccato-like delivery gives impact to lyrics, making them feel instantly catchy and memorable. “Felt This Way” and “Stay Away” are really fun songs about the insatiable lust one can feel towards someone they love. But what the music nerd in me appreciates is how it gives a glimpse into the songwriting of Jepsen (it was a pretty conscious choice to put both of these songs next to each other). If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice each song song is rooted in the exact same line: “I can’t stay away.” It appears both songs started with this line (or variation) and each evolved into two completely different songs. Yes, thematically they’re the same. But I’m impressed by how Jepsen was able to take one simple line/idea and create two great songs from it. Each have their own feel too, as the first is slow and simmering while the second is upbeat and in your face.

Jepsen shows off her dynamic vocal range on “This Is What They Say.” She stretches her vocals into her uppermost range, specifically on the chorus, and it works to great effect. It puts a renowned emphasis on the hook, which in pop music is critical. Without a catchy hook, your music never sticks. But with Jepsen this is never an issue, as she’s clearly as I’ve said before a student of pop music. She just gets what makes a pop song great. “Heartbeat” is the softest and quietest moment on the album and again Jepsen utilizes her vocal inflections to great effect. Accented with spacey production, Jepsen’s vulnerable vocal delivery gives the song an appropriately delicate and smooth feel as she pours her heart out to the man she loves.

“Summer Love” could have easily been the album title track because as I said I feel this album embodies the idea of summer love: bright, cheery and full of hopeful optimism. This song in particular has an irresistible disco sound that makes you want to burn up the dance floor (or in a better music world, it would be a smash summer hit). “Fake Mona Lisa” seems to be an unfinished song, only clocking in just over two minutes. But I still love it and it only makes me wonder more how it would sound “complete.” Because even in this incomplete form it’s an addictive ear worm, utilizing sci-fi-like synths and drum machines to create a heart-pounding, steamy sex song.

The production on this whole album is amazing, but the production on “Let’s Sort The Whole Thing Out” in particular really stands out for me. The drumming is so damn tight and the instrumentation on this song reminded me instantly of The Go-Gos’ “Vacation.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if The Go-Gos had an influence in some way on Jepsen’s music, as her music unashamedly is inspired by 80s pop. But this instrumentation also perfectly complements the lyrics, as they tell the story of what it feels like to realize you’re in love with someone: the sudden burst of butterflies and feeling like you’re soaring above the clouds as you awaken to what’s in front of you.

The heavily synth-layered “Comeback” sees Antonoff officially accredited as a feature under his indie band name Bleachers. It’s a great choice to include his background vocals, as him and Jepsen harmonize well together in this song about rediscovering ones self in hopes they can win back lost love. “Solo” embraces the 80s pop mentality of go big or go home, as everything about this song is big and loud. This fits perfectly with a song about finding happiness in being single and not letting yourself get caught up comparing yourself to couples. Dance solo, don’t get so low as the song says.

“Now I Don’t Hate California After All” is a fascinating exclamation point to the album. I say fascinating because the production on this is immaculate: a balmy, tropical and soft melody that really reminds me of something Kevin Parker would craft on one of his album. It’s so different from the rest of the album and yet it feels like it still fits. It also makes me want to hear an entire beach-themed album from Jepsen. This song is so chill and relaxing that I can’t help but smile when I hear it and that’s the kind of impression you want to leave with a listener as they finish an album.

Dedicated Side B is yet another pop masterpiece from Carly Rae Jepsen. I can’t believe how she just continues to blow me away with fantastic project after fantastic project. Jepsen won Country Perspective’s 2019 Album of the Year with Dedicated and she’s putting herself in the unprecedented position to win it again in 2020 to make it back-to-back. It’s simply incredible. And oh yeah she still has another album on the way.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s ‘Reunions’

Jason Isbell has clearly established at this point that he’s one of the greatest songwriters of this generation. Album after album of lyrical excellency has solidified his spot in the history books as an artist who will be remembered by many for years to come. But his last album The Nashville Sound felt like a bit of a “let down” and for him a let down is an album that is a strong 8 to light 9 (while also earning two Grammys). While “If We Were Vampires” and “Anxiety” were standouts and in my opinion some of his best songs ever, there were also well intentioned, but clunky in execution songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope The High Road.” I can’t deny I was worried he would have more songs like this one. And again I have zero issues with message songs like this one. But like many modern day message songs, they often focus too much on the message and not enough on the song being good too. You can have the best messages in the world in your songs, but if the songs aren’t good, nobody is listening and nobody hears the message (which defeats the whole purpose).

The first two singles for Reunions were wrongly misinterpreted by a few as being in this vein. But after hearing “What’ve I Done to Help” and “Be Afraid,” these songs clearly aren’t clunky like the aforementioned songs on Isbell and the 400 Unit’s previous album. It’s even more clear when hearing them with the rest of the album. They’re actually great and catchy songs with heartfelt messages about lending a helping hand and taking a stand for things you believe in. And there’s no inherent political messages being conveyed (the listener of course is welcome to interpret this to be political if they wish to do so). These songs also feel even more appropriate within these trying times in our country, serving as inspirational anthems.

These singles were definitely a great indication of the sound of this album, which is a very guitar-driven, straight-ahead rock sound that Isbell said was inspired by 80s rock like Dire Straits. While upon first listens it feels like this album lacks the vibrancy of previous albums, it grows more and more upon repeat listens. Particularly the guitar work on this is really given a pedestal and drives the songs, a credit to Isbell, the 400 unit and his now regular producer Dave Cobb. It really shines on “Overseas,” where the guitar work is just simmering with heat and emotion. The song serves as a great reminder that you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles with this level of guitar playing.

Speaking of “Overseas,” if there’s one weaker spot on this album, it’s when Isbell evokes allegorical, more abstract lyricism. The aforementioned song, “River” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” are all great songs. But they’re definitely not immediately accessible and fall in the same vein of my thoughts on Cody Jinks’ “William and Wanda.” This is kind of ironic in comparison to the rest of the album, as it feels like some of Isbell’s most accessible work yet. It can make for a jarring listen until the album really sinks in. It’s a minor nitpick, but a nitpick nonetheless.

“Dreamsicle” is about a child watching his parents’ marriage fall apart and watching the dreams of his youth disappearing. At first I didn’t like Isbell stretching his vocals so much, but I came to appreciate it with more listens (much like with Eric Church’s “Higher Wire”). “Only Children” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed” are two more great love songs from Isbell. While acts like Tennis and Carly Rae Jepsen do such a great job of showing the sunnier sides of love, Isbell nails the darker, more dour moments. “Running with Our Eyes Closed” in particular feels like the after of “If We Were Vampires,” stripping away the romanticism and showing the “worts” of being in a relationship.

The best two songs on this album for me though are without a doubt the final two. While I enjoy the brawnier guitar moments a lot, it’s these starkly honest final tracks that grab me the most. “It Gets Easier” is a raw and confessional song about Isbell coming to grips with where he’s at in his commitment to sobriety. While the fight never ends and never gets easy, Isbell realizes it gets easier with age, despite the fears that he will relapse in the back of his mind. Emotionally, honest-driven lyrics like these are why Isbell is one of the best, as he flawlessly conveys the drive and struggle behind a complex issue.

Isbell shows his softest side with “Letting You Go,” where he as a father comes to the hard realization of one day having to let go of his daughter. It’s such a beautiful look at the relationship of father and daughter, and how the former has to learn how to shed his naturally protective nature and let his daughter live her life without him by her side at all times. The chorus in particular just tugs so hard at the heart strings, with “The roses just know how to grow” line being one of Isbell’s best. It says so much with so much heart and I imagine any fathers listening to this probably melt when hearing it.

While I wouldn’t put this amongst the very best of Jason Isbell’s work, it’s yet another fantastic album from the singer-songwriter and his talented band. Reunions more than anything is a testament to Isbell’s relentless pursuit of his craft and how he constantly pushes himself to do better than he’s done before (which is quite difficult considering how high he sets the bar). Of course as always there are lots of sad songs too. But it’s hard to argue anyone writes sad songs better than Isbell. Every generation has their own Dylan and Lennon. I feel it’s safe to say Isbell is that level of songwriter for this generation.

Grade: Solid 9/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3Up1uKhcPA

Review — Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me”

This song is amazing, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask: Why did her label wait until yet another instance of racist police murder to release it? Why not release this during a “normal time”? Why wait until something happens? Why did the label not try to spark the conversation whenever instead of looking like they’re being opportunistic and exploiting a situation for profit? And even if this song was just written, it still begets the question of why hasn’t Mickey Guyton been allowed to release a full album? For crying out loud it’s been five years since she released an EP, which was brilliant by the way and I still maintain that “Pretty Little Mustang” should have been a hit. Capitol Records Nashville needs to stop screwing around and forgetting about her because from the outside it appears they treat her presence on the roster as tokenism and that’s wrong. We can get angry at country radio for their bullshit, but these major labels need to be called out and held accountable too.

As for the song, it’s a strong and powerful message that everybody needs to hear: the uncomfortable reality in which African Americans find themselves in every day in this country. Constantly feeling uncomfortable, being shamed and excluded for the color of their skin is the norm for African Americans, something that Guyton clearly explains that’s always been a present issue from childhood to now. The chorus is not only catchy, but sends a loud and clear message with the white picket fence imagery and asking the listener to understand what it feels to be black like Guyton. And of course Guyton’s voice sounds brilliant as always, reminding us she has one of the most dynamic voices in country music. The song fittingly ends with a hopeful message of envisioning the day this oppression ends and how Guyton will always be proud to be black.

This is a song that should be played far and wide for all. This song could be an important moment for country music if it chooses to make it so. I honestly don’t have confidence country music (specifically radio) will do this, but I remain hopeful. And I know I will keep playing this song, as it’s undoubtedly one of the best you’ll hear in music this year.

Grade: 10/10

Click here for ways you can help Black Lives Matter.