Album Review – Lydia Loveless’ ‘Real’

lydia-loveless-real

I knew this album would take a while to write. Lo and behold it would take over a month after its release to write. I knew this from the first listen because this is not the type of album you will take to at first. It would be a grower and reviewing it after five listens wouldn’t be fair. So I sat on it for a while and kept listening until finally I feel like I’ve got a great grasp of what Lydia Loveless aimed to capture with her new album Real. Born in Coshocton and residing in Columbus, Ohio, the alternative country artist has certainly racked up her fair share of critical acclaim over the last few years. She’s definitely the type of artist who goes to the beat of her own drum and isn’t afraid to get dark with her music. And she’s only 26 years old, with a long career still ahead of her. While her previous album Somewhere Else released in 2014 was solidly in the alternative country/Americana sound, her new album Real takes quite the sonic turn to the point that many probably wouldn’t even call it country. Regardless of what genre you put it in though, this is an album that absolutely shines from start to finish with its honest songwriting.

Ominous guitars ring in “Same To You.” Loveless’ distinctive voice is something that will stick with you upon the very first time you hear her sing, one of the many things that makes her standout amongst her peers. This opening song of the album deals with the end of a relationship and both sides accepting that things are over, even though one seems to want to try to keep things going on. It’s a solid song to open the album. One of the first songs released off the album, “Longer,” is next. Once again Loveless dives into heartbreak headfirst, as the song is about a woman struggling to get over the end of a relationship and just wanting to spend the day in bed (like the music video for it perfectly depicts). She keeps telling herself she just needs a little bit longer to get over her heartbreak, only to keep repeating this everyday. The song really encapsulates that feeling of helplessness and despair after having your heart-broken.

“More Than Ever” stays in the same vein of exploring relationships and is one of the softer toned tracks on the album. In this song a woman confronts her man cheating on her. The sonic twist I foretold of at the beginning of the review really shows up on “Heaven.” The instrumentation captures the glitz and glamour of 80s pop, a stark contrast to Loveless’ previous albums. But the sound suits her like a glove. Most artists wouldn’t be able to pull of this sonic shift. In some ways it reminds me of a song Linda Ronstadt would cut, but the sound reminds me of something on a Lionel Richie album. Up next is “Out On Love.” It’s the type of song we’ve become accustomed to hearing from Loveless. Her vocals are at it’s absolute best, as she bears her emotions out on this raw love song. Despite her sonic embellishments throughout the album, this songwriting reminds you of why you should be listening to her music.

The song I’ll probably remember the most off this album though is “Midwestern Guys.” It’s pretty straightforward: it’s about midwestern guys and their lives. Now as a Ohioan and Midwestern guy, I knew this song was dead on as soon as the line about them wanting to go to Myrtle Beach was uttered from Loveless. She got inspiration from multiple midwestern guys for this song and I just can’t believe how well she nailed the midwestern life. I will say though for the record I do not like Def Leppard’s Pyromania or any of their other music for that matter. “Bilbao” is probably the happiest song on Real (well it’s happy in terms of this album). The song is about a woman expressing to her man how much she loves him and asks her to marry him. But he’s distant, figuratively and possibly literally. He doesn’t seem to show the same interest in her and so the song comes off more as wishful dreaming by someone who knows it’s too late for this love to happen.

The quirkiest song on the album is “European.” As Loveless has said in multiple interviews, her inspiration for this song came from her touring in Europe and her fascination by European guys who treated kissing so nonchalantly to Americans. It’s a different kind of song, which is nice. It’s probably my least favorite of the album, but it’s still pretty good. “Clumps” is very much along the same lines of “Bilbao.” There’s a strong passion of love from one side, while the other resents it. This is one song where you really get to hear just Loveless’ voice, as an acoustic guitar is the only instrumentation on this song. The album’s title track closes the album out and really puts a ribbon on all of the themes that are explored on it. It might be the best on it, as Loveless explores the feeling of helplessness a young girl can feel when it comes to love. They watch TV, which distorts their view of what’s real and makes them feel inadequate. It makes them go so far to contemplate suicide until eventually they find someone who isn’t exactly “Peter Pan,” but they make it feel like it. Loveless admits to relating to all of this and this honesty is quite refreshing in a world where plastic themes are common in the mainstream.

Lydia Loveless’ Real is an album that won’t be for everyone, but it should be because it’s pretty great. The sonic changes and the album’s not immediate appeal may turn off some listeners. But for those who are patient, willing to give it a chance and don’t fuss over genre labels, they’re rewarded with an album that deeply explores love and heartbreak. The songwriting is quite sharp and I think the production is really solid on each song, a credit to producer Joe Viers and Loveless herself. I also applaud Loveless for refusing to play by “genre rules” and setting out to make the album she wants to make because the honesty of this album really shines through. Real is the type of record any music fan willing to listen to it will enjoy and respect.

Grade: 9/10

Review – Will Hoge’s “Middle of America”

Nashville singer-songwriter Will Hoge achieved critical and commercial success with his album, Never Give In, last year. It reached #1 on the Billboard U.S. Top Heatseekers Albums chart and even reached #23 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His single “Strong” was featured in a Chevrolet commercial, garnering him a lot of new fans. 2013 was a pretty good year for Hoge. Now he’s gearing up to release the followup album later this year and has released the first single from it, “Middle of America.” Hoge though almost didn’t record this song for himself. From an interview with Rolling Stone:

“I wasn’t expecting to write a song for me. We were just trying to write a great song and as it went on I started getting more and more attached to it. There’s always that moment of, ‘Do I want to keep this song for myself because I think it’s really great, or do I want to send it to Blake Shelton and make a whole bunch of money off of it? Maybe he’ll want it.’ It’s a strange place to be, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that sometimes that’s the right play,” says Hoge.

It’s good he kept it because a producer from a mainstream country camp would probably butcher this song into something entirely awful. “Middle of America” was written by Tommy Lee James, Jessi Alexander and Hoge himself. The song is about the everyday life and happenings in rural America. And you regular readers know my thoughts on songs about small towns. They’re done to death and you really have to distinguish it from the rest of the pack to make me pay attention to it. In this case, Hoge does enough to make me listen to it and even like it. Why? The lyrics for once in a song about a small town are actually honest. Basically the picture of rural America that Hoge paints in the listeners’ heads is it isn’t perfect, but that’s just the way things are in rural America.

“Middle of America” is a well-written song, but there are some moments where you feel like the lyrics are kind of cliché, which isn’t uncommon in these type of songs. But the instrumentation and authenticity of the mood of the song make up for it. At least it’s not trying glamorize it to be one big party or throw down like bro country portrays it. Speaking of the instrumentation of the song, there’s a guitar, drum and piano that plays throughout it. This song is one of the most country Hoge has produced, but like all Hoge songs it isn’t purely country. There’s also rock and Americana influences throughout it.

I think “Middle of America” is a solid, new single from Hoge. If this song ever got a shot at radio time, I think it would do well. Perhaps with Hoge’s writing credentials and connections with mainstream country he could get a shot. But that’s being a hypothetical optimist. Hoge though is now more known by the country music listening audience and I think he’ll do even better on the charts with his new upcoming album. He’s dedicated to his music and you know you’ll always get honest music from him. His new single is a good listen and I recommend checking it out if you haven’t done so yet.

Grade: 8.5/10

Album Review – Micky & The Motorcars’ Hearts From Above

For the second consecutive day, we’re going to talk about a new release from the Texas country music scene. But I promise you will enjoy today’s music a lot more. We’re going to take a look at Micky & The Motorcars new album Hearts From Above. Micky & The Motorcars are made up of Micky Braun (lead vocals, acoustic guitar), Gary Braun (lead & harmony vocals, guitar, mandolin, harmonica), Joe Fladger (bass), Dustin Schaefer (lead guitar) and Bobby Paugh (drums & percussion). After releasing four albums under mainstream label Smith Music Group, Micky & The Motorcars have broken away from the label and are back to being independent again. Does their newly re-found independence make for great music? Yes.

The Best Songs on the Album

First thing I should point out is the instrumentation on this album is flawless in every song. I have zero complaints in this department. Every song’s instrumentation created the right feeling and helped convey the message of the song. A perfect example of this is “From Where the Sun Now Stands.” It’s a mysterious song and the haunting sound of the instrumentation really creates dark emotions when listening to it. Based on the line of “blood soaked ground” and other similar lyrics in the song, I’m guessing this is a murder ballad. But the theme isn’t real clear. (Correction: As pointed out by reader Dan below, this song is about Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce leaving their home in Wallowa Valley. This was a careless mistake on my part not to research this and assume it was a murder ballad, although in my defense they lyrics aren’t real discreet about this and I’m not well versed on Native American history. I will try my best to avoid this kind of mistake in the future) I think that’s what makes the song such an intriguing listen. The tone is the exact opposite in “Once in a Lifetime Girl,” which is sincere love song. The toned down, acoustic instrumentation makes this a moving love ballad. Another song that intrigues me every time I listen to it is “Fall Apart,” which is about a girl who has it all and yet wants to lose it all (or rather the feeling of losing it all). It features some of the best harmonica play I’ve heard in a country song in a good while. Kudos to Gary Braun.

The band’s storytelling is at it’s best in “Destined to Fall.” It’s about two people with two completely different upbringings coming together and falling in love. One of the things that make a great country song is the ability to tell a story in the song. The lyrics in “Destined to Fall” hit a home run in this department. Take notes mainstream country music. The guitar licks are strong in “Hurt” and “Tonight We Ride.” You can definitely feel the rock and roll influences in these two songs the most, in an album where the rock influences permeate throughout it. Both songs are great just based on the stellar guitar play.

The Worst Songs on the Album

I would say the one song that feels underwhelming on this album is “Sister Lost Soul.” Another one that feels just above average is “My Girl Now.” The lyrics of both songs feel a bit repetitive and too simple. But this is just me really nitpicking them. They’re both solid songs that I just wasn’t blown away by. These would probably stand out on a lot of other country albums.

The Rest of the Album

The album opens with two love songs, “Hearts From Above” and “Long Road to Nowhere,” that are elevated by great instrumentation. The lyrics weren’t bad, but they could have been slightly better. “You Led Me the Wrong Way” is a short and fast song. It’s about a woman leading a man astray in a relationship and causing him strain. While the song does feel short, it utilizes it’s time well and makes the listen worthwhile. The same can be said for the drinking song, “Southbound Street.” This song has a great mix of country, Americana and rock influences. The guitar play in this song stood out.

Overall Thoughts

I promise this is the last time I’ll say it in this review. The instrumentation on Hearts From Above is damn impressive. The only other country albums that have impressed me as much with instrumentation this year is Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Remedy. It’s that good. Don’t sleep on the songwriting on this album though. It’s pretty good too for the most part. This album debuted at #17 on the Billboard Country Albums chart last week and I hope more people give it a listen. I have a feeling it’s going to quietly be one of the top ten best country albums in 2014 and will surely be considered for Country Perspective’s awards at the end of the year. I hope it isn’t quietly for the band’s sake because this group deserves more recognition. Some country purists may be turned off by the amount of Americana, folk and rock influences in Hearts From Above. But if you love great music with fantastic guitar play you will surely enjoy this album.

Grade: 9.5/10

Album Review – First Aid Kit’s “Stay Gold”

Every once in a while when listening to music, you’ll get blindsided from something out of left field. This is music that is so good or bad that it just takes your breath away when it hits your ears. Today’s album is so damn good I couldn’t help but smile the entire time I listened to it. There is no use in beating around the bush. First Aid Kit’s new album Stay Gold is absolutely phenomenal. The Swedish sister duo of Johanna and Klara Söderberg are like a fresh breath of air when hearing them harmonize together. It’s so pure and raw. Throw in spot-on instrumentation and you got one hell of an album.

Stay Gold starts off with “My Silver Lining.” This song is about finding the good in every situation. The sisters really show off their range in this song and is a good start to the album. This is followed by “Master Pretender,” the most explicit song on the album. I reason I say most explicit is because of the following line towards the latter part of the song: “I always thought you’d be here/But shit gets fucked up/And people just disappear.” It’s a haunting and jarring line. The melody of this song gives it a carefree feel, which is perfect because the song is about exploring and relationships.

The album’s title track, “Stay Gold,” is about wishing things would stay good, but it continues to fail and falter. The mood of the song is hopeful and determined in the face of bad recent happenings and striving to “stay gold.” It’s really one of the more underrated tracks on the album in terms of depth. “Cedar Lane” is one of the softer tracks on Stay Gold. It’s a song about reflecting on past love and hoping that love returns again. “Cedar Lane” is deepest song on the album and what really makes it one of the standouts is how the little things all come together. Everything is cohesive and paints a picture in the listener’s head, while also evoking that same emotion from them.

“Shattered & Hollow” has a similar theme to “Cedar Lane,” which is a reflection of a past relationship. It’s also a song about striving for more in life and trying to escape a feeling of emptiness. The emotions of this song are complex because the lines are about hopefulness, but the theme is about the hope being a part of the past and being gone now. “The Bell” is a complex song in terms of what its about. To me, I interpret it as it being about a person running away from a marriage (the line about running from the bell) and not wanting to return home. Instead they choose to travel, while reflecting on the choice. I really enjoy the harmonies at the end of this song.

This is followed by “Waitress Song,” is about exploring different experiences and journeys in life. The melody of this song is whimsical and light-hearted, really giving the song the perfect emotion of wandering. It’s really about finding yourself. “Fleeting One” is about a woman’s relationship slowly ending and falling out of love with her man. The woman slowly breaks out of the relationship and looks for her true love. The sisters really showcase their high vocal range well in this song.

The penultimate track on the album is definitely my favorite track on the album. “Heaven Knows” is an upbeat and fast song about a person seeing their partner slowly lose their identity and becoming a lie. They know they’re a liar and this has caused them to stop trying. They know their partner is better than what they have become. But then the person contemplates what happens if the relationship ends. This is indicated when the shrillest line on the album is uttered by the sisters: “What’ll we do if it comes down to it/If it all goes, straight to hell!” Really adds a punch to this song. Stay Gold concludes with “A Long Time Ago,” which is a reflective heartbreak song. The person in the song realizes they were never good enough for the other person and how they were never the right fit for them. A soft ballad that closes out a dynamic album.

I know this doesn’t squarely fall under country (it’s categorized as “alternative” on iTunes). It doesn’t fall under any one genre, but rather many. You hear elements from country, alternate country, folk, pop and Americana. It really reminds me of The Mavericks’ In Time album from last year, in that both do a great job of combining so many different elements and mixing them together to create such interesting and innovative music. Some traditionalists won’t like this album and that’s fine. I know First Aid Kit may not be for everybody. But if you’re somebody who can put on blinders when it comes to genre and just appreciate great music, then you should like this album.

Stay Gold is definitely more than good enough for me (and country enough). It’s one of the best albums of the year in all genres. This is the one of the top contenders for Country Perspective’s Album of the Year.

Grade: 10/10