Album Review — HARDY’s ‘A ROCK’

HARDY surprised me last year when he dropped his HIXTAPE album last year, as it was an album I found a good bit of an enjoyment in. The main appeal I harped on throughout the review is the fun nature of the songs and how it unashamedly embraces common themes in country music that many people want to ignore or pretend it isn’t a part of the genre. While singing about drinking beer, Friday nights, neon and trucks are done well past the point of fatigue in the genre, you can’t just completely erase these aspects and just have songs that have to possess some deeper meaning or topic. Otherwise you’re just Americana and Tyler Childers described that “genre” best. You have to have a balance and fun is very much a part of this equation.

However, there is a fine line between stupid fun and stupid nonsense. Unfortunately HARDY crosses more into the latter on his new album A ROCK. The album opens with one of the better songs in “TRUCK.” Despite it being heavy in well-trodden country tropes, it does speak to a lot of country listeners out there and it’s details like HARDY mentioning stuff like in memoriam stickers you see plastered on the back of people’s trucks that shows he understands this crowd. While it may not exactly be my cup of tea, that is the listener HARDY is targeting and songs like this do a great job of it.

The bad on this album begins with “BOYFRIEND.” It makes my ears perk up at first because it sounds like a diss on boyfriend country, a rare mainstream backlash to the mainstream. But then I’m bamboozled, as this ends up being the most nauseating boyfriend country song I’ve heard yet. It’s so saccharine and predictable, it makes me openly gag. But it wouldn’t shock me at all if this schlock ends up being a huge hit. Predictable is the name of the game for “GIVE HEAVEN SOME HELL” too, as I knew before even hitting play it would be about a friend wishing a recently parted friend with the salutation in the title. This song would work if something interesting was actually said in addition, but it isn’t.

“BOOTS” is about falling asleep in a pair of boots and then waking up in them. That’s it. That’s the song. What? Anyway, it gets worse with “WHERE YA AT.” This is one of the biggest piles of word salad bullshit I’ve ever heard. This song seems to be a challenge in how many damn basic mainstream country clichés can be jammed into one song. I only listened to this song twice before reviewing because each time I listened I began to develop a light headache. This is one of the worst songs of 2020. “AIN’T A BAD DAY” is a return to something good on this album though. It’s about a man realizing and accepting blame for his alcoholism throwing away a good relationship. I applaud the introspection and the conveyance of the crushing regret of the man’s actions.

“ONE BEER” is a song I covered in my review of HIXTAPE last year, so go check out that review if you want to read my thoughts on it. I still maintain it’s a good song, although I’m against the idea of gaming sales and streaming numbers by shoehorning old songs onto an album. “SO CLOSE” is about a love that fell just short of working and I have to say this song may be the best on the album. Ashland Craft joins HARDY on the song and they pair well together on this rock country ballad. The stars and rocket imagery used as a comparison for the nature of the relationship is effective too.

“BROKE BOY” is another annoying song about a man basing success around having a hot girlfriend/wife. Just like I said about Tucker Beathard’s “One Upper,” this is not a character I really feel motivated to get behind and why country artists feel the need to continue to push these type of songs baffles me. “HATE YOUR HOMETOWN” is an ugly song about a man being bitter and angry over an ex who ditched him and their small town. The whole premise of this song is HARDY being like “I’m not trying to be a raging asshole, but…” and then proceeds to be a raging asshole. While we all experience this kind of blind rage in a brutal breakup, it doesn’t make for a good song. Nor does this elicit any sympathy for the ranting asshole this song represents. This is essentially a redux of “Redneck Crazy.” The only thing missing is the stalking.

“UNAPOLOGETICALLY COUNTRY AS HELL” is first off a mouthful of a title. Second, this is another song like Tim McGraw’s “Chevy Spaceship” where it’s so goofy, on the nose ridiculous with it’s theme (in this instance how country you are) that I can’t help but be amused as hell. I mean how can you not laugh at a line like “I don’t give a shit if you don’t give a damn” being delivered so earnestly? It rivals the actual parodying done by the Hot Country Knights. The album’s title track closes the album and it’s another one of the highlights. It’s a bit silly to base an entire song around a rock, but HARDY makes thoughtful use of this simple object as he explores different stages of life. While he’s not making any mind-blowing observations, it’s songs like this that shows one of HARDY’S best strengths and that’s relating to the average listener in a way that connects with some depth.

A ROCK is unfortunately a step down for HARDY. While there are some good moments on this album, the bad moments overshadow them and likely will end up being the singles that come from it. This album’s biggest issue is flat-out lazy, predictable songwriting that doesn’t manage to evoke a sense of newness nor fun. Regardless don’t be surprised if HARDY starts becoming a bigger household name in country music, as his style and approach is similar enough to the most popular artists in the genre at the moment in Luke Combs and Morgan Wallen that he seems well positioned to become the next hitmaker in mainstream country.

Grade: 5/10

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

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