EP Review — Khruangbin & Leon Bridges’ ‘Texas Sun’

Khruangbin and Leon Bridges are not exactly two acts on paper you would picture teaming up together to make music. The former is a modern instrumental trio who really don’t fit into a particular genre or sound, while the latter is a soulful artist who sits comfortably within throwback R&B. But they both hail from Texas and through touring came to know each other, leading to the EP Texas Sun. And I’m just going to throw out my biggest complaint right up front: why is there only four songs? I want to hear more!

The opening title track instantly puts you in mind of driving idly down a hot Texas highway in the middle of summer with it’s warm guitars, rhythmic drums and the subtle chimes floating in the background. Of course I also love the introduction of the pedal steel guitar mid-way through, as you can’t forget country influences when it comes to Texas. Bridges proves too that his voice can easily shine beyond soulful sounds, as he can pretty much fit his dynamic voice into any sound.

“Midnight” is about Bridges recalling a passionate romance of days past and I love all the little details of the relationship that Bridges packs into the song. The chorus in particular is just fantastic, not just for all the details (the midnight black of the car, the leather seats, the passion), but the way Bridges delivers the lines so smoothly that matches both the mood and lyrics. Throw in the swanky guitar tones of Khruangbin and I feel like I’m right there watching the scenes of this song play out. This is the first song of 2020 that has “wowed” me.

“C-Side” is another love song oozing with passion and charisma in both the lyrics and instrumentation. In particular I enjoy how the instrumentation in this song has this sweaty, swaggering, jungle-like vibe. Being an instrumental band, it’s not surprising how great Khruangbin is at creating a particular atmosphere for the listener. Bridges always nails the vibe on these type of love songs in his delivery with an almost flawless sense (listen to his latest album Good Thing to hear it for yourself).

The EP closes with “Conversion,” an indie rock meets gospel song about a man having a come to Jesus moment with a woman in their relationship. It’s about seeking forgiveness and learning the errors of your ways to appreciate the love you have. After the Saturday night feel of the previous two songs, this is the Sunday morning response and these two nail the other side of the coin too. The reflective nature, appropriately driven by the organ, tugs at the heartstrings and creates this genuine sense of remorse and redemption within as you listen. It’s what truly great gospel songs do.

Texas Sun is a truly brilliant little collection of music. As I said in the beginning, man I wish this was a full album instead of an EP. Khruangbin and Leon Bridges go together so well and come together to create a vibrant and colorful set of songs. It’s a true homage to the many sounds of Texas music that is fresh and invigorating. Do yourself a favor and listen to this exciting EP.

Grade: 10/10

The Brilliance of the Hot Country Knights & Why Fun Music is Important Too

Starting in 2014, Dierks Bentley and his band started a side project dubbed the Hot Country Knights. It was a clear tongue in cheek, winking the whole way, gag of his band putting on purposely tacky 90s country gear and acting like the biggest deal of that decade. So basically, Wheeler Walker Jr. without becoming too self-aware of the joke and ruining it. The side gag then eventually morphed into an opening act for Dierks himself on his tours. Now in 2020 this band is officially dropping music. The music leans hard on all the 90s country elements, has over-the-top lyrics and doesn’t take itself that seriously.

And I absolutely love it. In fact, I would go as far to say it’s brilliant and I’ll tell you why: country music has forgotten how to have fun and this band can help bring it back. This has been a quiet fear of mine ever since the rise and fall of bro country. But you can go back even further than this to see where country lost its way in being fun.

A lot of proponents of 90s country like to say this era of music was a great because of all the pedal steel guitar, fiddles and the general presence of more traditional country elements. And I would agree that it’s a big part of what made that era of country music so enjoyable. But also Garth Brooks and Shania Twain were the biggest artists of this decade. I don’t see anyone flying the traditional country flag for them, but their music was still great and beloved by many. What these two did have in common with the traditional artists of this era though is the fun factor. Pretty much all the popular country music of this decade was fun.

Then we get to the 2000s and the party stopped. 9/11 happened and gave rise to patriotic country, which took on a more serious tone (and also started the slide into more politics in the genre). The Dixie Chicks were ran off and grocery store country made its presence known once patriotic country was beaten like a dead horse. Then the transitional period of checklist country gave rise to the biggest boom the genre had seen since the 90s: bro country. The fun element this genre had missed for so long had returned (the surge in popularity of country in this time is undeniable), but the baggage of creepy lyrics and the stripping of country elements came with it.

Critics like myself rightly ripped the shit out of this, but in the process this led to the overcorrection that we’re still in the midst of now. The rightful, yet intense criticism of this sub-genre compounded with the industry overplaying it’s hand (and throw in the rise of Stapleton), it scared artists of mainstream country into the soupy, soulless, vanilla “boyfriend country” that has slowly permeated over the last couple of years into the current “it” trend of the genre.

See now what I meant about the quiet fear I’ve had since the fall of bro country? While the unsavory elements of bro country were rightfully knocked down, it also led to the fun element being brushed aside too and it explains why enthusiasm for the genre has waned so much over the last couple years. Who wants to go to a party where everyone is being so straight-laced and serious? It’s important of course to have serious songs that speak to the heart and soul of the human condition, conveying important life lessons and stories that help you grow. But this is a drum that critics always have and always will beat.

We need to have balance. We need to have fun, not-so-serious music too. Because as much I love Willie Nelson’s Spirit, it’s not the album I want to listen to after working a 40-hour week. I want something more along the lines of the Hot Country Knights. I want something that’s fun to sing along with and it’s catchy. I want some drive in my country. Country music has given the world of music so many meaningful and heartfelt songs and I hope that these types of songs will continue to be delivered. But country music has demonstrated it knows how to throw a damn good party too. It’s time the genre rediscovers this side of itself. And don’t forget to bring the fiddle.

Album Review — Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Hotspot’

The Pet Shop Boys have been around for decades and when it comes to this duo you know exactly what kind of music you’re going to get: catchy synth pop. It’s no different on the 14th album from Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe. The in-your-face “Will-o-the-wisp” opens the album with it’s pulsing synths. The song is about coming across someone from the past you considered a will-o-the-wisp (an unobtainable person that you feel compelled to pursue), but has now become a boring and normal person. Yet despite this new reality, the old allure still remains. It tells a good story and I guarantee you will have the hook of this song stuck in your head (in a good way of course).

“You are the one” is a dreamy love song with satisfying lo-fi synths that make you feel like you’re floating in the clouds. I imagine this song will be a love it or hate it type, as I can see how some might find the soft sound to be a bit boring and dragging. Personally I find it relaxing and soothing. The duo gets back to that louder sound on “Happy people.” It’s sound is pure 80s, with the thin synths, hints of snare drum crashing throughout and thumping bass. And I love it, as this is a fist-pumping anthem that puts a smile on my face. The Pet Shops Boys go for an even bigger and bolder sound on “Dreamland.” With surrealistic lyrics about finding solace and comfort in dreams and the grand horns throughout, this song is just fantastic. It’s so much fun to dance to and is easily my top moment on Hotspot.

“Hoping for a miracle” is about the lifelong struggle one can go through to find acceptance and success. While I applaud the theme being explored, I find this song is too meandering for my taste, as it really never goes anywhere in terms of the theme or the sound, which is kind of meh considering the expectations one has with the Pet Shop Boys. “I don’t wanna” is essentially an introvert’s anthem, as it’s about not wanting to go out to the club and be around people. By the end the introvert finds his courage and heads out into the night. I like this hopeful message the song ultimately ends up at. I also enjoy the sound and feel of this song a lot more, as the pounding drum loops and skipping synths gives it a catchy and smooth melody.

“Monkey business” is a funky, heavily disco-influenced track about going out on the town to find “monkey business” (I think you can figure this out). It’s a simple and fun song that is unsurprisingly great for dancing. “Only the dark” is right along the lines of “Hoping for a miracle” for me. It’s too slow, boring and has nothing interesting to say. “Burning the heather” is a song that just outright confused me upon first listen with it’s reflective and ambiguous lyrics. But then I looked up what it means to burn the heather: it’s a common shrub in Europe that has to be periodically burned to help regenerate it, often in the fall. As for the rest of the song, it seems to be about a man who is misunderstood. Personally I find the song to be too complicated to enjoy and quite frankly doesn’t seem to fit the rest of the album.

The album closes with “Wedding in Berlin,” another song that quite frankly sticks out like a sore thumb with the rest of the album. It’s a mashup of electro-dance beats and the traditional wedding march, essentially a modern take on the latter. Most of the song consists of “We’re getting married” being repeated over and over. If you’re getting married and you want it to also feel like the club, this is your song. For the rest, it’s a neat listen once or twice and after that I have no desire to hear it again. It just comes off as a novelty song.

The highs the Pet Shop Boys deliver on Hotspot are really fun and are definitely memorable, while the lows are completely forgettable. It’s a bit of a roller coaster listen, but if you’re a fan of synth pop it’s worth listening to it a few times and picking out your favorite songs to go back to. But the album taken as a whole is just decent and leaves more consistency and cohesiveness to be desired.

Grade: 6/10

Album Review — Tenille Arts’ ‘Love, Heartbreak, & Everything in Between’

I have to be honest that I wasn’t very familiar with Tenille Arts before coming across her new album. But after listening to Arts’ sophomore album Love, Heartbreak, & Everything in Between, I’m glad I gave her music a chance because the young Canadian country artist shows a ton of potential on this album. Opening song and lead single “Somebody Like That” is a bouncy and catchy love anthem that sets a great tone for the album. Arts is unashamedly pop country and this is great because if you’re going to do this sound, you have to commit to it. What I also enjoy about this song is it’s confidence, as Arts asserts the kind of love she’s looking for and refusing to settle for less.

“Slow It Down” is a waltzing love ballad about learning to slow things down in a relationship and enjoying all the little moments in it. It also has an appropriately simmering feel to match the theme of the song too. It’s a really solid track. “Wild Love” is another love song, this one falling a bit short for me compared to “Slow It Down.” This song’s biggest fault is the unnecessary synth that lingers in the background, as I find it distracting and taking away from the melody. Otherwise it’s another quality love song from Arts. “Butterfly Effect” is another case of a bit too much production for my liking, as the guts of this track would have been a perfect balance. And usually I don’t say this, as I’m a sucker for sappy love songs, but I find the lyrics to be too saccharine for my taste.

“I Hate This” is one of my favorites on this album, as the lyrics perfectly show the internal struggle of wanting someone who doesn’t want you in the same way back. It also shows not only the emotions of the situation well, but pulls off the simple storytelling to show how the person got into this situation of being tangled up between reality and their feelings. If I were in charge of making hits, this song would be one. “Nothing to See Here” is another greatly written song (penned by Arts and Whitney Duncan), this one about being haunted by the memories of people and sights in a small town. Yet Arts says there’s nothing in the town to see, writing it off as just another town. It’s this contrasting dichotomy that Arts plays against each other so well that makes this song so good.

“Another Life” is another home run from Arts. The song is about imagining the life that could have been with a past love and aching for something that will probably never be. It’s lyrics and piano-driven melody give it a seriously devastating feel of letting opportunity slip right through your fingers and struggling to reconcile with the situation. To top it off Arts delivers a passionate and impactful vocal performance, showing she can absolutely belt it when it’s necessary. “Right Guy Wrong Time” is a song that I would have left off the album, as it’s a less interesting take on other themes that are explored much better on the album (lost love, heartbreak, what if). Not to mention it’s a bit too sleepy feeling for my taste.

“Call You Names” is about Arts recalling the relationship with her mother up until now. She remembers calling her controlling and mean when she was a teenager and looking forward to being out on her own. Now she’s an adult, always calling her, realizing how important she is in her life. It’s a nice song about growing up and seeing your parents for who they really are, even if it’s a bit predictable. “Missing You” is about getting over an ex and realizing you no longer miss them. The hook of this song is great (“The only thing missing is me missing you”) and I like how the song focuses more on self-happiness rather than petty revenge, giving it a more positive, uplifting tone (too many of these songs devolve into a “winning” the breakup angle).

“Wouldn’t You Like to Know” is a flat-out fun singalong about daring someone to fall for you. The lyrics are a fantastic mix of temptation, mystery and adventurousness, a credit to writers Arts, Alex Kline and Allison Cruz. The instrumentation is also great, blending roaring guitars, pounding drums and a touch of organ to create a really infectious melody. “Everybody Knows Everybody” closes out the album and it’s a fine song about enjoying the small town atmosphere of knowing everyone after growing up in it and being sick of it. I say it’s just fine because it’s a theme that’s done to death in country music, although I give Arts credit for giving an accurate portrayal of the gossipy nature of small towns. It’s a song where I can take it or leave it. I think “Wouldn’t You Like to Know” would have been a better closer.

Love, Heartbreak, & Everything in Between is a good showing from Tenille Arts. The songwriting is really smart and shines at times and the production of Kline, Grand Vogelfanger and Adam Wheeler shows they know how to pull off a great pop country sound. A couple of unnecessary cuts, some average songwriting moments and a few small cases of getting carried away with the production bring this album down enough to prevent it from being a great album. But if you’re a fan of pop country I still recommend checking out Tenille Arts, as she shows a lot of promise and talent on Love, Heartbreak, & Everything in Between.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review — Marcus King’s ‘El Dorado’

If you’re expecting the same rocking sounds of The Marcus King Band in Marcus King’s debut solo album, you’re going to be a little disappointed. After all when an artist steps away from their band to release a solo record, I think it would be unrealistic to expect the same sound. Otherwise what’s the point of going solo? And while different can sometimes be bad (see Zac Brown with Sir Rosevelt), in this case it actually turns out quite good with Marcus King’s El Dorado.

The album doesn’t get off to the best start with “Young Man’s Dream” as the opener. Choosing such a mellow song to open the album doesn’t exactly invite you in to want to hear more. The theme makes sense with King looking back on the dream he set out to conquer when he left home years ago and realizing he’s still chasing it. But I’m a big believer in a higher tempo song as an opener. So I would have switched the second song “The Well” into the opening spot with it’s loud, guitar-driven sound, which is also more familiar to listeners who have followed The Marcus King Band. The bluesy and smooth rifts are instantly infectious and pair perfectly with the dynamic voice of King’s.

King really pours the soul on in “Wildflowers & Wine.” The heavy soul influence on this album is really what makes this album shine in my eyes, as King is just as comfortable with soul as he is with rock. The lyrics in this song, written by King, producer Dan Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, do a fantastic job of describing the love and passion in a relationship and King delivers them with the kind of fire needed to really drive them across to the listener.

“One Day She’s Here” is about ruminating over an on and off love. Lyrically this is fine, albeit one of the weaker moments on the album regarding this aspect. It’s just a bit too repetitive for my liking. “Sweet Mariona” sounds like something The Eagles would cut with it’s easy-going country rock sound. The instrumentation is what makes this really shine with the shimmering pedal steel guitar and light acoustic touch, as it gives the song an appropriate reflecting feeling.

One of my favorite moments on the album is “Beautiful Stranger,” as it shows off King’s great falsetto voice. The lyrics sets the scene well of a man approaching a woman in a bar and wondering of the possibilities they could have if they’re no longer strangers. The secret sauce though of this song and really this album is the subtle country sensibilities that permeate it. This song after all was written by King, Auberbach and longtime country writer Paul Overstreet. While this isn’t a country album of course, El Dorado does take a lot of influence from the genre, as it’s molded with the sounds of rock, soul and blues throughout.

“Break” reminds me of the Michael McDonald era of The Doobie Brothers with it’s theme of heartbreak combined with it’s smooth sound and King’s falsetto. I’m glad that this song doesn’t go overboard with the production though (it avoids over-polishing the sound), instead allowing King’s voice to be more front and center. “Say You Will” is this album’s only other guitar-driven rock sound that is more in line with The Marcus King Band and of course it sounds great. While I enjoy the more soulful, bluesy detour of this solo album, King really does thrive within the more rock driven sound on songs like this one.

“Turn It Up” is great driving music. It helps of course with it’s chorus (“Driving 90 miles an hour down a dead end street/Cold steel under my feet” and “Testing my nerves, taking the curves”), but most importantly it’s swanky, swaggering funk-influenced sound makes me picture myself driving down the highway. I guess when it comes to driving music you know it when you hear it would be the best way to describe it. I said before this album has subtle country sensibilities. Well it’s not so subtle on “Too Much Whiskey,” with it’s honkytonk sound and name-dropping Willie Nelson’s iconic album Shotgun Willie (and the “Whiskey River” reference). King nails the classic country drinking song and I love the harmonica that pops up throughout.

I feel like “Love Song” is very much a love it or hate it type song, as I can see why some might find this song to be too saccharine for their taste. But I fall in the enjoy it camp, as I feel the lyrics have genuine heart behind them. And I think it’s King’s passionate delivery that makes this song work for me. The album closes out strong with another high point in “No Pain.” Written by King, Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin, it’s a short and simple song about what I perceive to be about acceptance in the face of death. It’s possible it was at the hands of alcohol addiction as the lines “I fall off of that wagon/Won’t be no last call” allude to. There’s not that many lyrics, yet it’s able to get across a clear and impactful story to the listener. It’s excellent songwriting and shows less is more can be a highly effective approach to storytelling.

El Dorado may not be the album you expected from Marcus King, but it’s without a doubt a great album. It shows another side of King and the range he has as an artist, being able to draw so effectively from a wide variety of genres. King and Auerbach not only craft this intriguing mix of sounds, but the songwriting is quite solid too. El Dorado is an album that can be appreciated by fans of several genres and most importantly shows Marcus King is a promising young artist who is poised to become even better with time.

Grade: 8/10