Album Review — Tyler Childers’ ‘Long Violent History’

The best surprises are not what you want, but what you need. Tyler Childers’ surprise new album Long Violent History is a record we needed. It’s easy to dismiss upon first glance for many because it’s an album that’s 90% instrumental music. It’s an understandable take that I at one time would have agreed with, but I’ve learned to gain a new appreciation for instrumental music in recent years. In fact I’m pretty sure I’ve listened to and reviewed more instrumental music in 2020 than all previous years combined.

The key to great instrumental music over the course of an album is variety and conveying mood within the listener as they listen to it. One of the big flaws I find with a lot of instrumental music is an insistence on perfection of the instrumentation, as this actually strips away the humanity of the sound and makes for a sound that is too sterile. It’s essentially elevator music. Instrumental music needs to have a rich tone and identifiable texture, especially when it comes to old time, Appalachian fiddle music like this.

So with all that mind, the novice experience of Tyler Childers when it comes to the fiddle is not really a hinderance for him on Long Violent History. It’s a more of a benefit, as this causes a greater focus on the music sounding good. Yes, if you handed this music to an Amanda Shires or Jimmy de Martini, they probably would “sound better” and hit the notes more precisely. But your average listener of this album wouldn’t be able to discern the difference between Childers’ playing and the best. So your enjoyment of the instrumental portion of this album will come down to how open minded you are toward this type of music and how much stock you put into precision of instrumentation.

For me, the instrumental songs on this album are highly enjoyable. The best way to experience them too is with a set of good headphones, as you can pick up all the little details. Childers dropped this album at the perfect time of year too, as the backdrop of colorful trees and a crisp autumn breeze suit these songs well. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that Dom Flemons and The Pickin’ Crew are part of this album, as their contributions are most certainly as important as Childers’ fiddle playing to what makes this album sound so damn good.

The gentle plucking of “Send in the Clowns” that begins the album is such a warm and inviting sound that grabs a hold of you and doesn’t let go. The frenetic “Squirrel Hunter” creates a feeling of excitement and adventure. I swore I’ve heard this in a video game I’ve played before, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. Hearing “Sludge River Stomp” on headphones for the first time made me do a double take, as it’s heavy and pounding background made me believe somebody was beating on my floor. It’s fantastic. I guess that’s the sound one should expect with a song title like this. The fluttering and melodic “Midnight on the Water” just showers right over you and “Bonaparte’s Retreat” provides that final frenetic burst of fiddle to build up to the album’s concluding climax.

The concluding song, the album’s title track, is what ties all this together and is ultimately what makes this album brilliant. Very rarely does one look at an album and determine that one song is what defines it. But I can’t name another album off the top of my head that utilizes the concept Tyler Childers uses with Long Violent History. In a way I look at the first eight instrumental songs as the prelude to the album itself and “Long Violent History” being the album. Childers could have easily cobbled together a few more songs and made an EP to tide listeners over. He could have just done an instrumental album too. But instead he very deliberately gave us an album with this unique presentation and I can’t help but marvel at the execution.

It all hinges on one song being excellent and “Long Violent History” exceeds this expectation. Many songs that try to cover the current racial and political strife that dominates the headlines and our attentions in this country fail to be great because they want to tell the listener how to think when instead they should invite the listener in with the music and let them draw their own conclusions on the message. We don’t need more agendas, we need honest discussions so bridges can be built. The only agenda in this song that can be found is a plea for empathy and understanding. This is a universal message that makes you think and look within yourself.

In just over three minutes Childers manages to cover a lot of aspects, from the long history of race issues and protests to the fake news and arguing that swirls everywhere you turn today. Childers then turns back to himself, essentially admitting ignorance when it comes to the unfair and brutal experiences of African Americans and instead just shares his experience as an often discriminated and misunderstood person from Appalachia (As someone who is also from Appalachia, I applaud Tyler for continually standing up for our region and showing that we’re not a hillbilly monolith). What’s so smart about this is how he doesn’t use his own struggles and problems as a measuring stick in a misery contest against the problems facing African Americans in this country (nor does he try to equate them in any way, only acknowledging them as a frame of reference), but instead uses it as a perfect analogy to better explain to people like him who may not understand what the protesting is all about. It’s about finding common ground so we can understand each other.

This all sets up the fantastic lyrics that hit the heart of it all, the invite to the listener to empathize: “In all my born days as a white boy from Hickman/Based on the way the world’s been to me?/It’s called me belligerent, it’s took me for ignorant/But it ain’t never once made me scared just to be/Could you imagine just constantly worryin’/Kickin’ and fightin’, beggin’ to breathe?”

Childers spells out clear as day what the issue is better than I’ve heard from any other song this year. And it’s not even that I haven’t heard other songs do a good job of this. But none have spoken to me like this one. Furthermore, he emphasizes how if the police did this to the people who live in Appalachia what they do to African Americans in this country, they would react in the same way many are in this country over the racial inequality that has taken place. Childers then wraps it up perfectly relating back to the beginning of the song how violence and injustice has an awful, long history once it begins and it usually results in being forced to live in an uncomfortable reality.

Who would have predicted an Appalachian country album filled mostly with old fiddle standards would end up being one of the best albums of 2020? But that’s exactly what Tyler Childers delivers with Long Violent History. It’s eight great instrumental songs with beautiful and thoughtful melody packaged around one of the most powerful, well-written songs of this generation. Tyler Childers writes himself into the history books with this album.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Mickey Guyton’s ‘Bridges’ EP

Five years. It’s been five years since Mickey Guyton’s last EP. There’s no good reason why it should have been five years in between releases for Guyton. There should have been a full album by now. I could spend a lot of words on everything surrounding the music, but I’ll digress because the music is too good to spend time on the issues of the music industry.

Onto her new EP Bridges, Guyton picks up right where she left off with her self-titled EP. Opening track “Heaven Down Here” sees Guyton seeking mercy and answers from God for a world that she sees has gone awry. It’s catchy, it has a good message and Guyton is able to showcase her dynamic voice. And even though the nature of the song is somber, it focuses on finding answers and hope, something that is relatable to anyone who is listening. “Bridges” continues this message, a song that strives and urges people to stop fighting and start building bridges instead. I really enjoy the energy of this song, as it’s uplifting and infectious. The lyrics are also grounded in realism (avoiding the cheesiness and “ra ra” of many songs of this nature) with lines like “We’re gonna need more than prayers and wishes” and “It’s gonna take way more work to fix it.”

“What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” is an absolutely devastating and honest song about the cruelty and unfairness of the world. Guyton explores the feelings of herself, as well as other young girls who grow up with aspirations of making it in music and finding out the crushing reality that comes in trying to realize these dreams. She painstakingly outlines all the unfair barriers placed around women and most importantly does not answer the question posed, but leaves it to you the listener to grapple with the answer. Guyton’s voice is absolutely unleashed in this emotional song as it should be, as it’s one of the biggest statement songs of 2020.

Guyton steps away from social issues on the next songs “Rosé” and “Salt.” They’re notably not as good as the social issue songs, which is an actually an odd thing for me to point out as usually it’s the other way around nowadays (as I’ve said numerous times, the majority of artists who tackle social issue songs completely miss the boat in terms of song quality). “Rosé” is about loving the pink-tinted wine and it falls along the lines of most drinking songs you hear in mainstream country music. But I appreciate Guyton’s blunt confession when she sings the line: “You can call it what you want, but everybody loves a good cliché.” She’s exactly right, as the majority of country music listeners eat songs like this right up (whether this is to blame for radio or the audience’s preferences, that’s for you to decide).

The same can be said of “Salt,” a song that is a cautionary warning to guys to avoid women who only want to use them. Guyton kind of flips the script here, as there are numerous songs about guys warning women about guys who use them. While it’s one of my less favorite themes in country music, the bluesy instrumentation and Guyton’s charismatic vocal performance carry the predictable lyrics to a good performance. The EP closes out with “Black Like Me,” a song I highly praised in my single review of it. As I said in my review, I’ll say it again: this is one of the most important songs you’ll hear this year and it should be a milestone moment in country music.

Mickey Guyton once again delivers a great EP with Bridges. Her voice is still one of the best in country music and she takes her songwriting to whole new level with songs that explore deep and complicated issues that many often try to avoid in their music. But Guyton doesn’t have the convenience of running away from these issues because she lives these issues and has to face them everyday. Country music is said to be about everyday people and their lives. Bridges and Mickey Guyton couldn’t fit this definition any better.

Grade: 8/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tXoDPJ5nHH0&list=OLAK5uy_nnCoiMnyu0ykzPxRlEjJr5FKEIeHMrSOI&ab_channel=MickeyGuytonVEVO

Album Review — Wade Bowen’s ‘The Waiting’ EP

Wade Bowen decided to drop a surprise EP in The Waiting a couple weeks ago. And after listening to the album, it’s a welcome one for sure. It opens with “Getaway,” a song Bowen has performed for years live, but never recorded in the studio until now. I’m glad he did, as the catchy chorus and heartland rock vibes are instantly likable. I also appreciate the theme of love going a little awry and recognizing you need a break. I’ve said it before in similar comments, but I would like to hear more songs about in-between/gray parts of relationships. It’s untapped territory and makes for interesting songs.

“Who I Am” is another live song that now has a studio version. It’s a solid, sentimental love song appropriately set to some smooth pedal steel guitar. “Red Headed Woman” is my favorite of the four live songs recorded on the EP. It’s an enjoyably descriptive song about the devil personified in a woman a man comes across, as he gets lured in by her charm before realizing who she is. It’s a more rocking number and reaffirms why I would love to see Bowen lean harder into rock on his next album.

“Mystery of a Woman” is about guys being mystified by women and their behaviors. It’s an okay song and I get where it’s coming from, but the overly assuming nature of the song will probably rub some listeners in the wrong way. “Fairest Lady” is the only new song on the album, as Bowen wrote it with Brent Cobb earlier this year. With these two as writers, it’s no surprise this is a great love song that utilizes medieval imagery well. The bluesy rock nature gives it an appropriate simmering feel.

The EP closes with Bowen covering Phil Collins’ “I Wish It Would Rain Down.” In a year where cover songs are all the rage, especially in country music, I mentioned previously I’m reaching my point of fatigue with them. Yet I really enjoy Bowen’s take on this song. It just fits his voice like a glove, as both Bowen and Collins have similarly expressive voices. Bowen is also really good at hitting those make or break high notes like Collins. So if Bowen wanted to do a Phil Collins cover album, I wouldn’t complain. (If you’re looking for more of him covering Collins, he covers “Easy Lover” on Instagram live with Josh Weathers.)

There’s been several fun little side projects released this year as a result of COVID-19 and this surprise EP from Bowen is one of the better ones for sure. Bowen is on a real hot streak with his recent releases and The Waiting only adds to my anticipation of his next full solo project.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Tim McGraw’s “Here on Earth”

Something felt different about this album from the moment I saw it’s album cover art. Tim McGraw has certainly not shied away from trying out different sounds and approaches in his career, although his temporary fling in bro country scared him away from this for a bit. But he’s started inching back towards this. The concept and production’s presentation of this album is intriguing. The experimentation of the production shouldn’t be entirely surprising, as McGraw shows hints and dabbled with it a lot on his previous album. With Here on Earth, he dives deeper into experimenting and while it works for the most part, it feels like a lot is left on the table too.

It starts off promising with the lush and string-laden “L.A.” It sounds very much like something you would hear on a Glen Campbell album. The same can said of “Not From California,” which has one of the best deliveries on the album as he conveys his ache and yearning. Then you get to a song like “Chevy Spaceship.” It feels like this album mostly contains songs like this: corny and a bit cliché, but well intentioned heart behind them. When it comes to these songs on this album, it’s hit and miss.

“Chevy Spaceship” surprisingly works for me, but in kind of an ironic way because it’s unintentionally one of the funniest songs I’ve heard this year. This is thanks to McGraw delivering lines like “I got the good stuff sittin’ right here/We can catch a little buzz lightyear” and “Let me come by and pick you up/We can do some intergalactic lovin’” with utmost seriousness. It’s just stupid and goofy enough to win me over. I can say the same of “Good Taste in Women.” This is usually a song that would annoy me, yet McGraw’s charisma and the catchy delivery make it effective.

“Sheryl Crow” comes off a bit forced at first, but again I find the charisma and joyful nature of the song to be endearing. “7500 OBO” sounds quite stupid on paper, but once you figure out it’s more about erasing the memory of an ex and less about selling a truck, it’s an easy song to find a connection with. Also McGraw sampling his own “Where the Green Grass Grows” and directly referencing it in the song is a surprise, but a welcome one. It’s a bit egotistical, but since the sampling fits the song and is done to the benefit of the song, I can overlook this. The fiddles are so memorable and reintroducing them on another song won’t get a complaint out of me.

There’s also though the flip side of corny on this album where it doesn’t work. “Hallelujahville” and “Doggone” are gratingly mawkish. With the album being too long for my taste at 16 songs long at just over an hour, these are the first two songs I would cut. “War of Art” and “Hard to Stay Mad At” are based around solid ideas, but it’s too cookie cutter and bland in style. “Here on Earth,” “Hold You Tonight” and “If I Was a Cowboy” are a little better, but suffer the same issue to a lesser extent. If these three songs were less formulaic (lending to better replay value) and given a bit more “depth,” it would have went a long way into help making this a great album.

McGraw would have did better too by having a few more serious songs on the album, as he does a pretty good job delivering on the few songs in this vein. “Damn Sure Do” is a warm ode to reaffirming your commitment to a loved one and lead single “I Called Mama” is a nice song about how reminders of mortality makes you reexamine your appreciation for what and who you have in your life. “Gravy” is another song in this same lane, as the laid back and smooth nature of the production lends well to conveying the emotions of the lyrics.

What’s funny is if you asked ten different people who listened to Tim McGraw’s Here on Earth about their thoughts on it, I think each would give you completely different answers about each song on this album, as each song’s appeal and this album as a whole’s appeal is very much going to come down to your own personal preferences with corny country music. Not to mention the production’s lack of focus could come off as interesting like it does for me or make for a lackluster listen.

Ultimately for me it works more than it doesn’t work. On one hand I could easily make the argument that this album is only a couple changes away from being great. On the other hand I feel like this is an album I’m going to remember because it’s so weird and different from what McGraw has done previously. Here on Earth is an odd album, yet it’s quite interesting and worth at least one listen if only to figure out for yourself where you stand with it.

Grade: 7/10

The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 5 — CeeLo Green, Caylee Hammack & more!

CeeLo GreenCeeLo Green is Thomas Callaway

Dan Auerbach, David Ferguson and Easy Eye Sound just continue to churn out quality albums. This time it comes from veteran R&B artist CeeLo Green, who is known for such hits like “Crazy” as part of Gnarls Barkley and “Forget You” as a solo artist. But this album is much different than his popular material, as the glitz and glamour is all stripped away in favor of more subtle and smooth sounds. It’s an enjoyable mix of R&B, soul, pop, gospel and even some country. Many have described Green as a chameleon-like performer and I think this album exemplifies this more than any of his others.

There’s simmering love songs like “For You,” “I Wonder How Love Feels” and “Doing It All Together” that mix soul and pop to great results. “Lead Me” shows how Green can absolutely excel at gospel with his passionate vocals and makes me wish there were more gospel moments. “Little Mama” and “Don’t Lie” show another side of Green, being a father, which was great to see from him. But the two songs that intrigued me most were when he dipped into a more country-influenced sounds on “People Watching” and “Slow Down.” The former is a simple, yet bouncy song about observing the world around you and taking in the little things. The latter is a fantastic cover of his Easy Eye Sound label mate John Anderson. CeeLo Green covering John Anderson is not something I thought I would ever write about, but hey it’s 2020 and it works well.

The album closes out with another highlight in “The Way,” a brooding song about fighting your way through darkness. Green’s voice really excels in these dramatic songs, as his dynamic voice can add the right amount of tension to build up the lyrics. If you’re into soul music or enjoy Green’s voice, this album is definitely worth your time. 8/10

Caylee HammackIf It Wasn’t For You

The potential of Caylee Hammack is great. She has an incredible voice and when she incorporates her personal experiences into her songwriting, it makes for some damn compelling music. “Small Town Hypocrite” is easily the star of this album, an in-depth look at seven-year relationship that took Hammack away from a music scholarship and changed her life in several ways. And not only is the attention to detail great in the lyrics, but her vocal performance adds just the right amount of emotional touch. The best example is when she sings “When I chose you and daddy gave me hell/I made myself into someone else/Just to love you, damn, I loved you.” The aching regret and hesitation in her voice as she delivers these final words cuts straight to the heart. 

Hammack has other great moments on this album too like “Redhead.” Hammack and Reba sound great together and I’m surprised this wasn’t chosen for her new single, as it’s catchy and fun to singalong with. Hammack, Tenille Townes and Ashley McBryde sound fantastic harmonizing together on “Mean Something,” which is a song dripping with honesty about people seeking to be something more in a world filled with a lot of selfishness and lack of substance. “Sister,” “Forged in the Fire” and “Family Tree” are other solid songs where Hammack peels back layers of her life to deliver heartfelt messages and show the lessons she’s learned. “Gold” is a heartfelt epilogue to “Small Town Hypocrite” and “New Level of Life” is a fun closer to the album that features one of the more interesting production moments on the album.  

But this album falls frustratingly short of being great and I largely blame this on the production. It ultimately hinders Hammack more than it helps, as most of the time it feels very paint-by-numbers as far as pop country goes. Hammack’s voice isn’t fully utilized, as it’s bright and dynamic, so why not fully feature it? It’s also frustrating to have songs in the middle of the album like “Preciatcha,” “Just Like You,” “Just Friends” and “King Size Bed” that pigeonhole her into generic pop country. It’s just not that interesting and throws the flow of the album off for me. It’s not really surprising, as new artists typically have these kinds of songs on their debut album to appease labels who like to send them to radio. Nevertheless, this is a decent debut album from Hammack. 6/10

DUCKWRTHSuperGood

Smooth, slick and funky are the three best words to describe this album. If you’re looking for lyrical prowess, this album won’t have it. Not to say the lyrics are bad. They’re solid, yet unspectacular as most of the lyrics deal with love and enjoying the party. But if you’re looking for some smooth beats, this album is overflowing with them. This is an album to move to and sing along with on a Saturday night. While it’s listed as hip-hop, this is far from a straight hip-hop record. No, I would describe this more along the lines of Tyler the Creator’s IGOR. This album is very much genre fluid, an enjoyable blend of hip-hop, R&B, soul, pop and disco. While I was a big fan of DUCKWRTH’s earlier material that was edgier and had an almost rock flavor to them, it’s clear this sound seems to suit him best. And he did kind of foreshadow this on “MICHUUL,” aspiring to be like the king of pop. And this music is definitely a strong step into that sound. 8/10

The MavericksEn Español

This is definitely one of those times where I wish I had taken more Spanish classes. I know some of the language, but unfortunately not enough to understand and appreciate the lyrics of this album. If anybody would happen to know how to procure a translated version of it, I would be happy to go more in-depth on this album. So for now I can only analyze the other elements of this album and they’re top level as always from the eclectic and dynamic group. The instrumentation is flamboyant, colorful and vibrant, a beautiful mixture of country, pop, Tex Mex and a whole lot more. Raul Malo still has one of the best voices in music, as it still sounds as flawless as ever. So based on the two elements of this album I can understand, this is another great album from The Mavericks. 

Margo PricePerfectly Imperfect At The Ryman

This is the best Margo Price album and you can’t tell me otherwise. In the last edition of The Endless Music Odyssey, I expressed my disappointment with her latest studio album and how it fails to capture the energy of her live shows that get rave reviews. I’ve never seen her live, but I potentially will next year as she opens for a Chris Stapleton show I have tickets to see. This reminded me that she actually released a live album on Bandcamp earlier this year and it had slipped through the cracks for yours truly. After listening to this album, it further cements the sentiment she’s better live. She has a fiery and infectious personality that unfortunately just gets sanded away in her studio recordings. But in a live setting she’s unleashed and at her very best. Her vocals don’t feel restrained and you even get to hear her excellent vibrato on multiple songs, which baffles me that this isn’t featured much on her studio albums. 

I hope whoever produces her next album takes cues from this live album and finds a way to incorporate them. Old Crow Medicine Show was in this same boat for years too and Gary Clark Jr. is still in this boat. It’s a rare occurrence it feels like in music to sound good live, but not in the studio, as it’s usually the other way around for several artists. 8/10

Tucker BeathardKING

Well I’ll say this: at least his voice is tolerable now. I once said he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket and that his voice was grating to the ears. It didn’t help either he was another victim of On The Verge, which is a legal payola way of making someone a “star”, but really just distorts reality. Also a smart move to delete all of his music with Big Machine Records and to start a clean slate. 

So I will say I can now listen to his voice without wanting to turn the song off. But he sounds essentially like every other male pop country artist. Still progress of course to go from bad to generic, but not really good either. None of these songs compel me to say anything other than it’s a song, except for “One Upper.” It’s a song about two characters: a rich asshole in a suit who thinks he can buy everything with money and an average joe who ultimately thinks he’s better because he has a hot girlfriend. What endearing people! 4/10

Josh TurnerCountry State of Mind

Just like I said about Jon Pardi’s Rancho Fiesta Sessions, take this for what it is and you’ll have an enjoyable listen. This is another solid country covers album released in a year where there’s been several. Needless to say I’m starting to get a little fatigued by them at this point. There’s not a bad song on this album, but the highlights in my eyes are “I’ve Got It Made” with John Anderson, the album title track with Chris Janson, “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance,” “Forever and Ever, Amen” with Randy Travis and “Desperately” with Maddie & Tae. 8/10