Album Review — Lindsay Ell’s ‘heart theory’

I feel like Lindsay Ell has been the classic example of a major country label having no clue what they have in an artist and therefore completely botching her presentation. More importantly, they have been pushing her in the wrong direction with the music she’s been releasing, specifically her last album The Project felt a bit directionless. With heart theory, it feels like they finally let Ell shine and release the album that feels like her breakout moment. heart theory is an album that finally showcases her at her best.

This is a great pop country album centered around the concept of a breakup and the five stages of grief. I feel like she does really well at nailing the various emotions one goes through in a breakup and her guitar playing is on display throughout, which is important because she’s a damn good guitar player. “Hits me” is an ideal opener, as it’s instantly catchy and carries a surprising amount emotional heft behind it. It reminds me of Lorde’s “Green Light,” in that it’s a song in the “crying in the club” vein. “i don’t lovE you” perfectly captures the unwanted feeling of wanting your ex back, even though you know deep down you don’t love them anymore. The Kane Brown co-write “wAnt me back” is a song I normally wouldn’t enjoy if it was a standalone song, as the arrogance and selfishness of expecting an ex to want you back is annoying. But within a breakup album it fits because this is an emotion that is understandable to feel during a breakup, as it’s a bit of a coping mechanism in the wake of feeling insecure.

“wrong girl” has that unleashed bluesy rock sound that I wish Ell would show off more, as this song just flat out rocks. The frenetic pace of the song is infectious and her label would be wise to make this a single, as I think this sounds like an absolute hit. “body language of a breakup” manages to articulate something that’s only learned after you’ve broken up in a serious relationship and that is the realization that you completely ignore the signs of a breakup before it happens. You get so sucked into the relationship that logic is essentially thrown out the window. And while this may not be the most ear-catching track on the album, it’s accurate psychology greatly aids the overall concept of the album.

The bittersweetness of “good on you” does a great job showing the complicated feelings of watching you ex “win” the breakup and having to accept that while you wish the best for your ex, you wish you didn’t have to see it either. “The oTHEr side” is about coming to the healthy realization that you don’t need an ex to live a happy life and that the relationship doesn’t define who you are. It’s the calming realization that you’re free from emotions that were holding you hostage and being back in control of yourself again. The mellow and smooth sound really aids this emotion and makes for an enjoyable listen too. “gO to” is a solid love song, but it doesn’t feel like it fits the flow of the album and it feels even more out of place when the album’s concluding song feels like it better captures the rediscovery of love.

I can say the same of “make you,” even though it’s an incredibly brave song that the world needs to hear. Written with Brandy Clark, Ell recounts in the song her traumatic experiences of surviving sexual assault and learning how to be a stronger person on the other side of this. It’s such a tragic song that’s unfortunately the reality for so many people and I’m glad that Ell is sharing her story to help other survivors. But I would be lying if I said this just doesn’t fit the rest of the album, just like I said of Dua Lipa’s “Boys Will Be Boys” on Future Nostalgia.

“ReadY to love” is a great conclusion to the album, as Ell has fully moved on from her breakup and is ready to love somebody again. After so much heartbreak throughout the album, it’s good to end the album on an uplifting note and moving forward with a positive attitude, much like one is encouraged do in their own breakup and officially completing the fives stages.

Overall I think Ell mostly nails the concept she’s going for with heart theory, with my biggest complaint of this album being just a bit too long. At the very least I would have trimmed this down to ten songs, possibly even eight (“how good” and “get oveR you” are not bad songs, but feel a bit redundant when there are other songs that cover the same themes better). I’m also not a fan of the all lowercase titles with random capital letters to spell out the album title, as it’s tacky and uncreative. It’s better to let the songs themselves spell out the concept of the album than literally spelling it out in the song titles.

Despite my criticisms though, Lindsay Ell gets a lot right on heart theory and it’s a big step in the right direction for her sound and style. Her guitar playing is great as always and producer Dann Huff, who’s production I haven’t always been a fan of, is actually quite complementary of her strengths and brings a compelling sound that grips me throughout. This album is a great achievement for Ell, as she manages to craft both a fun, yet thought-provoking pop country album in heart theory.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Daniel Donato’s ‘A Young Man’s Country’

Cosmic Country is certainly a name that catches the eye. It’s not something that is common in country music and as someone who spent a fair amount of time diving into the various sub genres of country music, the little bit of cosmic country I did find I found to be…well not very good. It also doesn’t help for artists wanting to explore this sound that the bar was set quite high by Sturgill Simpson with Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, one of the best albums of the past decade.

Sometimes though there’s exceptions to the norm and Daniel Donato’s A Young Man’s Country is certainly in this vein. This is by far the best cosmic country album I’ve heard since Metamodern. Even more impressive that this is the debut album of Donato. Combining obvious Grateful Dead influences and sounds with old school country, Donato delivers an album that captivates my attention from beginning to end.

There are a couple of things that immediately stand out about this album. First, is the approach, as Donato and producer Robben Ford lay out the songs like a live album despite it being a studio album. Most of the songs are stretched to their max with extended guitar solos that one is accustom to hearing at rock concerts. I absolutely love this this, as it gives the songs personality and also shows off the impressive guitar skills of Daniel Donato.

That leads to the other immediate impression: Donato is a kick ass guitar player. He absolutely shreds throughout this album. Whether it’s quieter, more melodic strumming or trippy solos, the guitar playing is the absolute hero of this album. In terms of magnetic and mesmerizing production, this album reminds me so much Tame Impala’s The Slow Rush. And just like that album it can kind of overshadow the other aspects of A Young Man’s Country.

The other aspects of this album though are by no means weak, just weaker looking in comparison to the absolute strength of the guitar playing. The songwriting is actually quite solid, albeit most of it centers around love and touring on the open road. While it would nice to have some more variety in terms of theme, these limited themes suit the feeling this album is going for, which is one of a traveller on the search for happiness and love as he explores the western landscape.

Opening songs “Justice” and “Always Been a Lover” show the yearning for a love that’s true with the appropriate amount of aching and hooks that catch the ear. But it’s the songs that deal with loneliness that shine the brightest like “Meet Me in Dallas” and “Broke Down.” The former hints at optimism, as someone waits for a lover to meet them and embraces the feeling of being alone. Not to mention it features a mind-blowing guitar outro. The latter is quite dark, going into vivid detail of how broken down the narrator feels. If Donato can continue to deliver songs with excellent details like these ones, combined with his excellent guitar skills, then the sky is the limit for him.

I would be remise if I didn’t also commend Donato for his absolute bold choice of cover songs. He does the Grateful Dead proud with “Fire on the Mountain” and his soulful rendition of the late great John Prine’s “Angel from Montgomery” is both respectful of the original’s message while being decidedly original and fresh to the ears. Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This” is a great choice to close the album, as it allows Donato to go off both vocally and on the guitar to put an exciting exclamation point on the album.

Daniel Donato delivers quite an impressive debut with A Young Man’s Country. It’s not too often an artist of his caliber on guitar comes along, as his style and skill reminds me of a cross between Marty Stuart and Charlie Starr of Blackberry Smoke. It evokes a lot of emotion and color, giving Donato’s music a cinematic-like quality that draws the listener in. Needless to say I look forward to hearing more from Donato.

Grade: 9/10

Side note: When putting tags for this review, I noticed that Daniel Donato has actually been mentioned on Country Perspective before. Turns out he was a guitarist on The Black Lillies’ album Hard to Please, which Derek covered five years ago. I found that to be quite interesting, so I thought I would pass that on to you the reader too. 

The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 4 — Margo Price, Jon Pardi, The Chicks & more!

Margo Price — That’s How Rumors Get Started

I really wanted to enjoy this album and there isn’t a single bad song on it. But yet after multiple listens not a single song sticks with me either. And it bugs the crap out of me how I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that continues to be missing from Price’s albums. I’ve always been a fan of Sturgill Simpson’s production and while I think the direction taken with it suits Price’s style, it doesn’t necessarily work to her best either. I guess if I had to pick reasons of why this album just doesn’t work for me is it’s due to a lack of energy and presence of Price. She has a fantastic voice and yet it feels like she continues to be relegated to middling/softer vocal performances. So if it was up to me, I would like to see her go in a heavier rock direction and fully unleash her voice to see how the result turns out. 5/10

Jon PardiRancho Fiesta Sessions

Take this for what it is and you can find a lot of enjoyment in his small cover album. While the sound engineering isn’t the best and rawness of the recording exposes Pardi’s biggest weakness as a vocalist (sounding too thin at times), you can tell Pardi and his band really enjoyed recording this and this is infectious as a listener. It also further supports why I think Pardi needs to get away from his more traditional direction he’s been taking and get back to the more country rock sound of his first album. He just seems to enjoy himself more and it brings out his best too. Kudos to him having the guts to cover Prince too, as it is not an easy task and he actually does a solid job. 8/10

The ChicksGaslighter

This is one of my most disappointing listens of 2020. I’m still a big fan of the lead single and title track, as it’s energy is infectious. But this album becomes so tedious and monotonous to listen to thereafter. First off it feels less like a project from The Chicks and more of a Natalie Maines solo project. There isn’t enough harmonies. The “boat incident” is rehashed ad nauseam. But perhaps the worst thing about this project is the production. I’m a big fan of Jack Antonoff. Hell, he produced Country Perspective’s 2019 Album of the Year. But his production does not go well with The Chicks at all. It’s just too polished for this trio and pales in comparison to their previous sound. I had high hopes for the return of The Chicks, but this honestly feels like the Garth Brooks return all over again. 6/10

Tenille TownesThe Lemonade Stand

I come away from this album seeing a lot of potential in Tenille Townes. Her voice is distinctive and it sticks with you long after listening. And I think Jay Joyce is the right choice as producer, even though I think he can get a bit heavy handed with the production at times on this album. Townes is only going to get better as a songwriter too as she continues to get more experience. While there are a few too many moments where the songs just feel run of the mill, the moments that do work though are great, such as “Jersey on the Wall” and “Come as You Are.” 6/10

Mark ChesnuttNumbers on the Jukebox EP

The sound on this EP is just not mixed well at all. And I’m forgiving in this department when it comes to independent artists. But it’s just so jarring as the listener and I find it puzzling how live and studio recordings are intermingled. The songwriting is also a big step down from Tradition Lives, which is a great album. I expected a lot more from Chesnutt and this feels like a letdown.

Eric PaslayNice Guy

Man, what happened to this guy? He showed so much promise on his debut album. He’s a great live performer too. Then he released the terrible single “High Class” and it’s been steady down hill ever since. This mediocre batch of pop country only continues his descent. It just baffles me how an artist who seems to only be trending upwards to make such a sudden 180. Only Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry baffle me more when it comes to changing so suddenly.

RaeLynnBaytown EP

I’ve been enjoying the direction RaeLynn has been taking into more goofy, “kitchy” songs. This EP features even more enjoyable songs in this vein. “Judgin’ to Jesus” is really catchy and “Bra Off” makes me laugh at the new twist on a breakup song. “Fake Girl Town” doesn’t land for me as the tone just doesn’t fit RaeLynn nor the other tracks on the album. While the lighter side seems to fit RaeLynn best, “Me About Me” is a nice reminder of when RaeLynn wants to get more serious she can do quite well too. It honestly surprises me she hasn’t had more radio success because she has so many songs with great hooks and her charisma is infectious. But if you’ve been enjoying RaeLynn’s recent direction, this is an EP certainly worth your time. 7/10

Cassadee PopeRise and Shine

“I really want this record to sound like an acoustic Dashboard Confessional — like a country Dashboard record.” That’s what Pope says of this album and well mission accomplished. That’s not a good thing. It only makes me want to repeat again: Pope is not suited for country music. She has a great voice, but it is not suited for country. The pop punk of Hey Monday is where she needs to get back to, but we all know what’s more marketable and that’s what drives the decision making of most artists. It’s a shame.

Blackberry Smoke — Live Bandcamp albums

As always this band delivers and they deliver no better than when they’re in a live setting. These lives albums are admittedly not too different from their excellent 2019 live album Homecoming, but if you’re a fan of Blackberry Smoke it’s certainly worth checking out. If anything listen to the songs that aren’t covered on their previous live albums.

Albums from artists I’ve heard and will be covering soon:

  • Daniel Donato
  • Lindsay Ell
  • Duckwrth
  • CeeLo Green

Albums from artists I haven’t heard but on my to listen to list and will likely cover:

  • Caylee Hammack
  • Jacob Collier
  • The Mavericks
  • Tim McGraw
  • Josh Turner
  • Tucker Beathard
  • Taylor Swift
  • The Allman Betts Band

Album Review — Orville Peck’s ‘Show Pony’ EP

Orville Peck was one of the most buzzed about indie artists in 2019, as his debut album Pony made several best album lists. And like many country-influenced artists who get buzz from the indie scene, I would often hear the phrase around him, “I don’t usually like country, but I like this.” I gave it a listen of course and I came away not really understanding the buzz. While his voice is immediately intriguing, something as a mix between Roy Orbison and Marty Robbins, I found the songwriting to be lacking for the most part. I thought many of the songs relied too heavily on the aesthetics presented and quite frankly expected to hear more country in the sound. While the country influence is there without question, it’s very much not an album I would personally call country.

So with these two criticisms in mind, I gave Peck’s new EP Show Pony a spin. And he actually resolves both of my biggest issues from Pony. This EP is undoubtedly more country and not just because of the superstar collaboration. His duet with Shania Twain on “Legends Never Die” is easily the star moment on the album, followed by (both on the album and in terms of having a moment) his great cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy.”

I’m surprised Peck and Twain go so well together, as Peck’s bellowing voice and Twain’s polished pop country vocals on paper don’t seem like a great fit. But these two clearly enjoyed working with each other and this fun chemistry really shines through in the song. Peck was also quite brave to pick “Fancy” to cover, as not only is the original by Gentry great, but it’s most famous rendition by Reba is considered amongst the best songs of 90s country. Yet he knocks it out of the park with his more dark and dramatic interpretation. Also if you’re reading this country awards shows, if you’re looking for a cool collaboration performance, it would be great to see Peck and Reba perform this together.

The western-flavored “Summertime” is an enjoyably simmering ballad about lost love snd yearning for it again. Peck really shows off the deepness of his vocals on this track and I think that’s when he shines the best. His voice is better suited for more cinematic songs rather than more subdued tracks like “Kids” and many of the songs on his debut album. This is further proven with “No Glory in the West” and “Drive Me, Crazy.” In each song his vocal performance gives gravitas to the scenes being framed, the old west and driving trucks on the highway respectively. I also enjoy how the latter can double as a tale of the loneliness of the highway and as a love ballad.

While Orville Peck’s style is certainly nothing new in country music, I appreciate that he’s reviving it. With Show Pony he also proves to some critics that he’s more than a dress-up gimmick and that he truly wants to carve his own space in country music. There’s certainly more room for sound he brings, as very few in the genre occupy it at the moment. I hope Peck continues to move in the direction he’s shown with Show Pony, as it suits him quite well.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Brett Eldredge’s ‘Sunday Drive’

“What in the world are we all doin’ here?”

They say first impressions are important, whether it’s the first time you meet somebody or the first time you’re listening to a piece of music. Right away Brett Eldredge leaves an impactful first impression with his new album Sunday Drive. It’s such an important question that can resonate with anyone listening. Right away Eldredge reaches out to the listener and makes a connection, inviting them into the music.

The question also indicates the start of a clear turning point in the career of Brett Eldredge. Leading up this album, Eldredge made clear that this material is much different than his previous music. He enlisted Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk as producers, the same duo who produced the genre-boundary pushing Golden Hour from Kacey Musgraves. It showed all the makings of an artist who is ready to fulfill their full potential. But yet the cynic in me wanted to hear for myself to truly be convinced. Once Eldredge uttered this opening line, I realized I was listening to an artist that is truly ready to deliver a memorable album. And then he continues to deliver until the last note is played on “Paris Illinois.”

What’s truly remarkable about this album is how it manages to capture such a broad range of emotions in a painstakingly honest and human way. The lyrics keep it simple and certainly won’t be mistaken for the complexity of Jason Isbell or John Moreland. Yet they convey the same emotional depth because they come from a place of true introspection and personal experience. When you pair this with production that is colorful, vibrant and makes the lyrics come to life, it feels more almost like a movie experience, as I can picture each of these songs in my head as I listen. The only other album released in 2020 I can say this about is The Weeknd’s After Hours.

While every song on this album is great, the two clear standouts are “Sunday Drive” and “Then You Do.” The former grapples with growth and mortality, as Eldredge reflects on the life lessons bestowed upon him by his parents in such simple moments and how their love is still strong as they reach older age. It’s a beautifully sad and happy song, showing the never-ending cycle of life and death. The latter song is a perfect description of the roller coaster of finding relationships and love. It’s surprisingly unexpected, both the joyful discovery of the beginning and painful crashing of the end of it. Just when you think you have it all figured out, then it all changes and you have to begin anew. In a world full of head-in-the-clouds love songs that only highlight the highs and heartbreak songs that only show the lows, this song manages to brilliantly capture the in-between that most people are experiencing.

While there is a sad undertone in several moments throughout this album, there are also many uplifting, happy moments. “The One You Need,” “Crowd My Mind” and “Fall For Me” are great love songs that put Eldredge’s soulful side on display. This is a side I’ve been wanting to see Eldredge show more, as his voice has the passion and warmth suited for soulful love songs. He may not have the raw power that blows you away like Chris Stapleton, but his charisma and polished delivery make up for this.

As I alluded to in the beginning of this review, “Where The Heart Is” is a fantastic choice for an opening song, as it sets the tone well and lets you know right away what this album is in terms of message and sound. “Magnolia” and “Gabrielle” are the more pop country songs of the album. The first is a fun look back at falling in love for the first time and I enjoy the descriptive nature of the track, as Eldredge describes the moment in time with lots of little details that help paint the picture. When “Gabrielle” was first released, I found it to be repetitive. But upon more listens within the context of the album, it’s grown a lot on me and fits perfectly with the theme. This song examines lost love and the lingering questions from what might have been between the once couple. I love the mature approach this song takes, not showing malice or ill will, instead taking the high road and realizing the lessons learned in order to move forward.

“Good Day” immediately made me think of Don Williams’ “Lord, I Hope this Day is Good.” Both songs see the narrator striving and looking for hope and optimism, even if the world around them isn’t looking so good. This is certainly the type of upbeat song we could use in this pandemic world in which we currently live. Eldredge’s lively deliver certainly brings a smile to my face. His bright delivery shines again on “When I Die,” another song with a great message about living life to the fullest and not getting caught up in the problems of yesterday.

There are many excellent production moments on this album, but I particularly enjoy the horns that sneak in on “Fix a Heart” and “Paris Illinois.” The catchiness of the chorus on “Fix a Heart” immediately hooks me and the redemption arc angle of the lyrics feel heartfelt instead of the mawkish selfishness that seems to permeate so many boyfriend country songs that attempt this same angle. The subdued and reserved “Paris Illinois” is the nice sentimental cap off to this album, closing with some comfortably soft horns that make you reflect on the music you just heard.

This is easily the most surprised I’ve felt listening to an album this year. There could not be more of a stark contrast between Sunday Drive and Brett Eldredge’s previous album. It’s simply night and day. Every moment on this album is absolutely enjoyable. The lyrics and production could not shine and compliment each other anymore. Brett Eldredge has never sounded more energized and is at his absolute best on this record. There’s no other way to put it: Sunday Drive is a phenomenal album. 

Grade: 10/10