Album Review — Ward Davis’ ‘Black Cats and Crows’

I’ve enjoyed a lot of Ward Davis’ songwriting the last few years, from his songs for Willie Nelson to Cody Jinks. But admittedly his debut album 15 Years in a 10 Year Town bored me. The straight-ahead traditional country sound paired with his voice just didn’t work for me, as it sounded like your run-of-the-mill “outlaw” country album. But on his new album Black Cats and Crows he thankfully ditches this and embraces a southern rock sound, which fits him like a glove. Bringing on Jim “Moose” Brown, a member of Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band, as the producer was a wise choice, as he brings the sound Davis needed to make his voice standout.

This album mainly centers around heartbreak, dealing with demons and drinking to cope with it all. It’s pretty dark and heavy in a lot of parts, as Davis intimately details the path of sorrow and regret that’s paved throughout the album. Right away I will say this album suffers from bloat, as it doesn’t need to be 50 minutes long to drive the theme of it across. It would have greatly benefited from trimming about 10 minutes, as the themes explored in this album get to be tiresome after a certain runtime for me. But for the most part this album offers a lot of good.

“Ain’t Gonna be Today” is a great opener, as it’s a nice thesis of the album: heartbreak is in the air and it isn’t going anywhere today or for the foreseeable future. Davis laments it will pass one day, but he knows he’s still got some healing to do before it happens. I appreciate that there’s just enough hope of light shown and it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel bullshitted. It feels realistic and acknowledges that your stuck down deep in sadness. The title track continues on this theme and shows just how far Davis feels gone in the light of losing the love of his life, as he feels like darkness lurks around every corner.

“Threads” begins an excellent four-track run. What I love about this song is how it slowly builds up through the song to reveal what’s ultimately got the narrator down to threads, which is an empty spot next to him in the bed. The piano-driven sound suits Davis perfectly and compliments his rough, baritone voice well. The piano gives that bit of softness needed to give gravitas to Davis’ weary voice and lyrics. The same can be said for piano love ballads “Heaven Had a Hand” and “Lady Down on Love.” While these two songs could come off as schmaltzy to some listeners, I think it shows a refreshing vulnerability to Davis and a balance to this rowdier side in other songs. I would like to see Davis lean more into this on his next album.

I love a well-written murder ballad and “Sounds of Chains” checks off everything I want in this type of song: a sense of drama, mystery, an intimate detailing of what happened and the running emotions of the murderer. Even better you get a compelling psyche of the murderer: someone who thinks he was justified in killing his wife and the man she was cheating with and thinks finding God in his jail cell would save him. But the song ends with him waking up burning in hell after being sentenced to death and seeing both of them staring back at him. The visuals created by the songwriting here are excellent and the music video David could create for this could be amazing.

Unfortunately Davis’ other murder ballad “Papa and Mama” is exactly the kind of murder ballads I don’t enjoy. This one doesn’t work because it’s so predictable and you know what’s going to happen from the very beginning. The theme of the abusive father being killed by their child has been done so many times and this offers no compelling alternate take. Not to mention the straight-ahead bluesy country sound is not interesting either, so the production is also boring. I would have left this one on the cutting room floor. I can say the same of “Where I Learned to Live” and “Good to Say Goodbye,” as these songs are telegraphed from a mile away of where they’re going and you know what the lyrics are going to be about before you even hear them.

“Get to Work Whiskey” is a song upon glance at the title makes one think it’s another generic drinking song. And it is a drinking song, but it’s actually quite compelling because Davis takes the different approach of treating the whiskey like someone he just hired for a job. It’s an amusing premise and the lyrics are enjoyably catchy. Davis’ take on “Colorado” is dare I say better than Cody Jinks’ version. It’s not that I don’t like Jinks’ version, as I very much enjoyed it too. But I what I like about this version better is it’s more stripped down sound and Davis’ voice having more of an aching loneliness behind it.

Davis’ attention to detail works really well again in “Book of Matches,” as he’s now left to deal with the remains of a relationship gone. His coping mechanisms of a book of matches and a bottle of wine help paint a nice picture of a heartbroken man trying to find some way to get over it all. This same amount of detail would have been nice to have in “Nobody.” While the glimpse into the mind of a man who sees himself as a nobody is an interesting part of the album, I would have liked to hear this song go somewhere with the theme. It feels a bit listless and the hook feels a little repetitive by the time you reach the end of the song.

“Good and Drunk” is an appropriate closer on the album, as a man somberly reflects on signing his divorce papers and finding hope in numbing himself with the bottle. The latter is an understandable paradox to the former, yet is also a continuation of what likely made the former happen. It’s a seemingly endless cycle that he continues to live, which sums up the whole album: trying to fix a situation with something that likely was also what caused him to be in the situation of a sad, broken man with little hope beyond what lies at the bottom of a bottle.

The ability to demonstrate the complex layers of emotion behind a man hopelessly clinging to a bottle and tormented by heartbreak is what makes this album shine and shows the strength of Ward Davis’ songwriting. Like I said his songwriting has always been good, but on Black Cats and Crows he most importantly touches on the type of storytelling needed to deliver a really good album. And of course the southern rock sound that he dives into provides the sonic palette he needed to elevate his lyrics too. Overall this is a great step in the right direction for Ward Davis, as he delivers a dark southern rock album brimming with great storytelling.

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The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 8 — Cody Jinks, Brent Faiyaz, Miley Cyrus & more!

Welcome to the first edition of The Endless Music Odyssey of 2021 and the eight volume overall! In this volume I take a look at several albums (plus a single) that were released in late 2020 as I continue to knock out the backlog of releases from 2020 I didn’t cover yet. So if you don’t see something covered here, it’s likely in the next volume or it’s going to be a separate review. Let’s dive in…

Buy It

Cody Jinks — Red Rocks Live

Basically if you’ve ever wanted a Cody Jinks greatest hits album, here you go. A live album is always hard to review, as they’re mostly songs that have been heard and reviewed before. So you have to judge it just like you’re at a show. And if this was a show, I would give it an easy two thumbs up. As someone who greatly misses live music, this makes you feel like you’re back in person. The only complaint I have with this album is I would have liked to have heard more crowd noise incorporated, as at times it feels like they go missing. You gotta remember to keep the live element to distinctly differentiate it from the studio recordings, otherwise it sounds sterile and uninteresting (Midland’s live album is unfortunately an example of this). If you want a great example of a modern band who does this well on their live records, see all of Blackberry Smoke’s live albums.

Other than that this is a fun album front to back that covers all of the great Jinks songs from his first handful of albums. The sped up live version of “David” and the encore, extended performance of “Loud and Heavy” are the immediate standouts. And of course I really enjoy Jinks’ cover of Alan Jackson’s “Chasin’ that Neon Rainbow,” as it’s one of my favorites from Jackson and the song fits Jinks like a glove. I’ve never seen Cody Jinks live before, but this album reminded me I need to change that once concerts return one day. This is a great live album and well worth your time and money if you’re a fan of Jinks.

Stream It

Brent Faiyaz — F**k the World

This was an album that slipped through the cracks for me last year and when I discovered this at year’s end I immediately rectified this. I wish I had heard and reviewed this sooner because it would have without question gotten attention on at least one year-end list. Brent Faiyaz is an artist I’ve been following with interest, as his independent approach has been written about countless times and he’s an example of an artist who’s figured out how to thrive outside of the traditional music system.

His debut album didn’t do a lot for me, but it showed enough potential that I hoped I would like the next one. Well I definitely enjoy F**k the World. It’s a fantastic fusion of R&B, pop, soul and hip-hop that see Faiyaz explore relationships, wealth, indulging in pleasures and consciousness of one’s own self. The song that best exemplifies this is “Clouded,” a song that clocks in just under two minutes. Despite it’s short length, this song pulls no punches and showcases everything great about this album: the catchy lyrics, Faiyaz’s confident and cool delivery, the musing lyrics and the drowning, atmospheric production that engulfs the listener.

“Been Away” is a really nice take on 90s R&B and I enjoy the wandering anxiety of doubt and trust that’s explored in a relationship. The album’s title track shows off Faiyaz’s crude humor, as best shown by the line “Fuck the world I’m a walking erection.” That’s the funny thing about this album: how Faiyaz is able to pull off this weird juxtaposition between thoughtful reflection and outward bravado. They’re polar opposite reactions, but I feel like that’s the point Faiyaz is making with this album. It shows how complicated people can be and how the inside and the outside don’t always match up. “Bluffin” only reinforces this idea. And oh yeah Faiyaz really makes some fun songs that quickly grab your attention.

As funny as this is to say out loud, a great R&B album should have a sexy, classy tone. And F**k the World quickly establishes this mood and keeps it from front to back. Also I must say this album impresses me with how long it feels in terms of runtime while listening to it despite it coming in under 30 minutes. It speaks to how great this record is and I can’t wait to hear more from Brent Faiyaz.

 

Kishi Bashi — “Never Ending Dream”

I usually stick to albums for The Endless Music Odyssey, but I had to make an exception here. Kishi Bashi continues to be one of the most underrated artists in indie music and his pop sensibilities are incredible. His new song “Never Ending Dream” only drives this point harder. Made as the theme song for Apple TV+ kids show Stillwater, this song is so damn bright and colorful, as it bursts with the kind of happiness you expect from a song for a kid’s show. Yet it’s not cartoony or corny and works equally great as a regular song. The soaring, whimsical melody and the catchy lyrics can’t help but make me grin as I listen. Can more people finally start paying attention to Bashi on his next project, please?

Worth a Listen

Miley Cyrus — Plastic Hearts

I really wanted to like this album more than I ultimately did. It’s the type of album I’ve been hoping to hear from Miley Cyrus: an 80s pop rock album with a modern touch. This style of music is right in my wheelhouse. It starts out promising, as the first three songs are pretty good and feature strong hooks. Then you get to “Prisoner” and I’m expecting something great with Dua Lipa being featured. After all Lipa released one of the best pop albums of 2020 and she did an excellent job of utilizing retro sounds. But this song is so underwhelming. Lipa’s vocals sound incredibly weak and I can’t believe there’s no harmonies on the song, as it strongly calls for it.

The rest of the album follows suit for the most part with songs that have potential, but fall short. I will say an exception is “Night Crawling,” as Billy Idol’s feature is good and the over-the-top, synth driven sound has a real infectious appeal. Some songs the hooks are weak (“Midnight Sky”, “Hate Me”), others the production is half-baked (“High,” “Golden G String”) and lacks any sort of melody or groove. I’m shocked by the lack of guitars featured on this album, as you would think this style of music would feature plenty of guitars. But they’re largely absent until “Edge of Midnight,” which is a clear highlight of the album (even this song could use more guitars). Stevie Nicks sounds great on the feature and there’s harmonies that give the song real power (see why this was needed for “Prisoner”).

While Miley Cyrus clearly appreciates 80s pop rock, her execution of it on Plastic Hearts is unfortunately lacking overall. If you enjoy this style of music, it’s definitely worth one listen and who knows you might find more to like than I did. But as someone who’s listened to a lot of this type of music, there’s certain elements that just aren’t strong enough for this album to rival any of it’s inspiration.

Izaak Opetz — Hot & Heavy-Handed

While the chill and lo-fi approach Izaak Opetz takes to this is intriguing and drew me in, the only song I found myself wanting to re-listen to was “Drunk on a Plane.” And I feel like that was only because of my familiarity with it and the jarring contrast to the original. This is a fun novelty album that I’m glad I gave a chance, but not something I see myself returning to in the future. The aesthetic and presentation of this album is make or break for you.

Ariana Grande — Positions¬†

Ariana Grande has a fantastic voice, probably one of the best in pop music today. But her music has always proved to be elusively appealing to me because it feels like her songs just lack the type of melody that get me interested in a pop song. Her songs also have a more modern sleekness, which I personally don’t enjoy as much as pop music that reutilizes retro sounds and combines with modern stylings. There’s a few songs I enjoy on this and while I respect Grande’s work, it’s just not something that appeals to me.

Goodie Mob — Survival Kit

Man, the production on this is fantastic! It’s rich, varied and immediately commands your attention. There’s a melting pot of influences from hip hop to soul to gospel. Andre 3000 and Big Boi deliver great features as you expect from Outkast. And CeeLo Green is singing his ass off throughout it. But the songwriting is just flat-out weak and fails to hold my attention in any way. The hooks are somehow even weaker and are instantly forgettable. It’s worth a listen just for the production, but if the songwriting was just a little better this album might have bumped up a category. Damn shame.

Jim Clack — Submariner¬†

For a debut album, this is a decent effort from Jim Clack and shows enough potential that I would check out his next project. But this one just doesn’t quite have enough to go from decent to good. The songwriting is not bad and explores interesting themes, but it falls just short of being interesting enough to merit revisiting. The touches of harmonica throughout give the songs a nice bluesy feel. Clack has passionate vocals, but at times stretches himself a bit too thin like on “Long Lost Innocence.” He feels much more comfortable vocally on the rowdy and catchy “Sick” and the reflective “Someday I’ll Go into Space.” It’s a short project, so if you enjoy country music with a bluesier, rougher edge I think you’ll find things to enjoy.

Avoid It

38 Spesh — Interstate 38

The production on this is intriguing at first and keeps you listening. It’s the clear strong point. But the hooks on this are weak, the lyrics are not memorable and it feels like 38 Spesh’s flow never changes throughout the album. Even Benny the Butcher’s feature is kind of unremarkable. This album feels like the perfect example of an unfortunate side-effect in music, but especially in hip-hop: artists are churning out music so quickly that it pressures those around them to keep pace and not being forgotten by listeners. Not to mention it also pressures a lot of artists to stay close to the sound “that works.” The result is album’s like this that feel like your standard hip hop album in today’s music world; there’s nothing that really stands out or is remarkable.

Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 (Cowboy Arms Sessions)’

Sturgill Simpson stayed true to his promise. He told the fans he would release two bluegrass albums if they raised enough money during Simpson’s charity run last summer and he delivered Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 (Cowboy Arms Sessions) as a surprise album release as he had originally intended for the first volume. Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1 took myself and many by surprise for just how damn good it turned out to be. So I expected an album at basically the same level with the second volume. But I believe Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 is actually even better.

The first thing that stands out about this volume is the album length. It’s a lot more concise at 12 songs and 40 minutes long. While I certainly didn’t complain about getting 20 songs from Simpson the first go-around, it’s admittedly harder to pick up an album and listen to it in one sitting with such a length in tracks. The second aspect is the track list for this is arranged in a deliberate manner, unlike the first volume that was in alphabetical order a la a mixtape. While it didn’t take away from me enjoying the first album, it’s always a better listen with a more arranged track list. And then the final aspect that makes this album stand out is the tracks largely revolve around people who are deeply close to Simpson. I’m not sure if this was deliberate of Simpson or just a nice coincidence, but this ends up making for a strongly connectable theme of cherishing and honoring loved ones.

The closer for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth “Call to Arms” opens Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 and it absolutely shreds as you expect from this frenetic song. This was a song I had my doubts about translating to bluegrass, but my concerns are immediately assuaged. The closing of the song shows how bluegrass fast-picking can be just as mind-blowing as a rock band jamming out. “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” was the first single of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, yet it was probably the least heralded track of the record. My memory of it is it’s a solid track that largely stands out for it’s thrashing guitars, but is overshadowed by other songs because it’s lyrics aren’t as strong. Yet in this version of the song I gain a new appreciation for the lyrics, as the clearer enunciation and quieter nature of the song really grip me. The latter part really makes this version stand out, as the song now feels more like a wise and sober reminder to enjoy life despite the hurdles. The songwriting is given a chance to breathe. Honestly this take of this song made me see more of what people who didn’t like SOUND & FURY saw in it. Great lyrics can be harder to appreciate with more aggressive production and rough enunciation.

I also think the new versions of both “Oh Sarah” and “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” are better than the originals. This version of “Oh Sarah” sounds better to me because it has a more somber, confessional feel about it and this better suits the story of the song. As much as I enjoy this version of “Oh Sarah” though, “Welcome to Earth” is hands down is among my top five favorites between the two volumes. The softer, gentler melody at the beginning gives the lyrics a whole new level of gravitas to the point where it’s tear-inducing for yours truly as I envision myself in Simpson’s shoes. It’s just a beautiful combination that is sweet to the ears. And yet the song breaks in the second half to a dizzying, happy crescendo of strings that’s arguably even better. The soaring melody is so full of joy and makes one imagine themselves waltzing through a sunny country hillside. It feels so appropriate on a song that celebrates the birth of life.

It would have been impossible for this version of “Sea Stories” to top the original for me, as it’s one of the clear best songs on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. But this one comes close, as the fun, singalong nature is still very much present. The harmonizing of The Hillbilly Avengers (as they’re officially dubbed now) is a nice touch to close the song too. I enjoy “Keep it Between the Lines,” but it has a harder time standing out both here and originally because the songs around it are stronger on a lyrical level. But I can appreciate the more fun nature of the songwriting on this and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle play feels particularly strong, which is fun to hear.

“Hero” is one of those songs that I’m always surprised doesn’t get mentioned more when Simpson’s best songs are discussed. It’s such a touching tribute to his grandfather and it’s only appropriate it gets a bluegrass version considering he’s the one who introduced Simpson to bluegrass. I also noticed how Simpson put the songs about his first-born son and grandfather back to back in the middle of the album, showing the line between the past, present and future of those that have helped shape who he is as a person. Simpson’s personal relationships with those he deeply loves are put on full display, so it’s easy to feel the heart behind this record.

Simpson dips into the rest of High Top Mountain with great success, as he finally figures out something to rhyme with bronco on “You Can Have the Crown.” And it’s a great, hilarious rhyme you would expect from Simpson. It’s shocking he even touched this considering his open disdain for the song in the past, as he said it was too “pop-y.” But maybe now he’ll play it live again with the updated lyrics. With “Some Days” this is a song where I enjoyed the original too much that I knew I wouldn’t like the bluegrass version as much. But it’s always nice to be reminded of one of my favorite Simpson lyrics “Well I’m getting pretty tired of being treated like competition/When the only one that can hold me down is inside my head.” On the surface it’s a braggadocious line about being unrivaled, but the subsequent lyrics reveal it to be more of a battle against your inner critic and how it holds you down more than those around you.

A couple more Sunday Valley favorites are brought back to life in “Jesus Boogie” and “Tennessee.” Both songs are fantastic and show the strength of his Sunday Valley songwriting. The first is a mournful, plead from Jesus to God, as he questions his place as the son of God and paying for the sins of the father. It’s one of those songs that makes me go, “Huh…I guess I never thought about this.” It’s fascinating not only for taking a different view on a common biblical subject, but coming up with a different angle altogether. And as I’ve said in the past, I’m a nerd over lyrics that greatly utilize not often used words like Simpson does with “My silver is dross, my water is mixed with wine.” “Tennessee” is immediately striking with it’s a cappella opening. Apparently this song was inspired by a small breakup between Simpson and his girlfriend who would become his wife later. The great detail in the lyrics of the distance both physically and emotionally between them during this time is really gripping and an example of a sorrowful heartbreak song done right.

Simpson closes the album with a really special song in “Hobo Cartoon.” The legendary Merle Haggard helped him write the song, as Simpson says Haggard passed the partially written lyrics onto him via text as Haggard’s health was declining as he laid in a hospital bed before his death. Simpson grew quite close to Haggard in his final years and highly praised Simpson’s work. And you can tell how much Simpson appreciated his friendship. This song feels like such a Haggard song, as the Bing Crosby and Jimmie Rodgers references are big giveaways. It centers around a simple character in a hobo and his story, but has a much greater message about cherishing memories of yesteryear. A poetic muse from Haggard as he was dying and a great common connection between two railroad men as they romanticize their pasts. Simpson said he “cowboyed up” after years of putting off finishing the song and I’m glad he did great justice to some of Haggard’s last written lyrics.

Sturgill Simpson delivers a fantastic bluegrass album in Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2. I dare say this is now amongst my top three favorite Simpson records, but more listens in time will reveal where this firmly sits in his discography. It will probably be a couple years before we hear volume 3, as Simpson is now turning his attention back to his fifth and “final” regular album that he says is still the plan he’s following he revealed years ago. But between these two volumes, I think there’s more than enough great music to listen to in the meantime. Regardless of your feelings of him, Sturgill Simpson has proved to be one of the most interesting and creative songwriters to emerge out of the 2010s.

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Country Perspective’s Plans for 2021

Hey y’all! Happy New Year! Here’s to a safe and fun year ahead!

So let’s talk about my plans for the blog in 2021! I’m a little further behind on starting the year than anticipated because well I’ve been thinking and tinkering with ideas for the blog. I’ve also been working through the late 2020 album release backlog and as you know album reviews are the heart of this blog. That’s where I’ve been tinkering too. So here’s my thinking on what I want to do on Country Perspective in 2021 and I want to start with the big change I’m making with my reviews:

  • I’m ditching the traditional number grading system! This was something that I’ve been planning on doing since last fall and I nearly implemented it then. Simply put the biggest pain I’ve come to realize in writing reviews is coming up with a grade. It’s such a silly thing to fuss over. Is there really a big difference between an 8 and a 9? Hell I gave out high scores in the past like candy compared to the average reviewer. To me there’s too much focus on the number, when really a grade should just quickly tell the reader how much is the music worth your time. Speaking of which, here’s what will be taking the place of the traditional 1-10 grading scale…
  • A four-tier recommendation system! Here’s how it will work: There’s going to be four recommendations an album can fall under. The recommendations are Buy It, Stream It, Worth a Listen, Avoid It. The highest recommendation of course is Buy It. This means this is a fantastic album and it’s worth not only your time, but your money too. It’s an album that is worth visiting for years to come. Stream It means this is a pretty good to good album that is certainly worth your time to stream multiple times. It’s something I can see being worth revisiting many times. Worth a Listen means it’s worth streaming once or a few times to check it out. There’s a few songs in there that are good and at the very least worth looking at even though I don’t think it’s something that merits repeat visits in the future. Avoid It of course means I think it’s a bad to terrible album and not even worth taking the time to stream it.
  • So I went with this new recommendation system based on how I view music and my own listening habits, along with reading up on music forums about how others view reviews and what they want out of them. When I listen to an album and I’m really enjoying it and I know I’m going to want to listen to this for a while, I don’t think to myself, “man, this is a 9/10.” No, I listen to it on repeat and I make plans to buy this album on vinyl. When you want to invest both time and money in something I think that speaks volumes to the value you perceive it to have. Now please don’t mean that I’m commanding you to go out and buy it, as everybody is in a different financial situation and some of you I imagine just stream music, which is perfectly fine! Hell it can also sometimes take a couple years before I get around to buying something on vinyl (case in point I just bought Southern Family on vinyl last year). The big point is this recommendation system is more personal-based and comfortable for me. For you the reader I feel like it gives a pretty clear cut idea of how I view an album.
  • Speaking of personal, I’m going to lean more into the conversational style reviews I started doing last year. These reviews feel like they bring out my best writing and they’re also the most enjoyable, so this is the style I’m going to be using for all reviews going forward. This was something that it seems like many music listeners nowadays seek in reviews too.
  • People who read reviews overwhelmingly say they always read reviews after giving a good listen to the music itself. I thought this was interesting and something I’m keeping in mind with writing reviews moving forward. It’s not entirely surprising because of the ease of streaming of course. But a point I’m taking into consideration nonetheless.
  • In today’s hyper-paced, streaming-focused music world, it’s increasingly hard to keep up with all the releases and I hope the recommendation system is a better reflection of this too. I’m hoping this better sorts the wheat from the chaff so to speak.
  • I’m going to continue to cover multiple genres in reviews. I briefly flirted with the idea of going back to country only or doing full reviews for country and using The Endless Music Odyssey for other genres. But that just wouldn’t have worked for me and I enjoy exploring a variety of genres too much to limit myself.
  • The Endless Music Odyssey will be continuing as a regular feature. It will also reflect the new recommendation system.
  • I haven’t forgotten about Josh’s Jukebox Journal! This is something I hope I find the time to do somewhat regularly in 2021.
  • And of course there’s always a chance I come up with even more feature ideas! Something I’m really hoping to do this year is get into covering past albums. I’m always digging into a combination of new releases, old favorites and exploring past discographies of artists, so I certainly don’t lack things to talk about. If there was only more time in the day!

Thank you as always for reading Country Perspective! Here’s to an awesome 2021!