Album Review — Ashley McBryde’s ‘Never Will’

Ashley McBryde’s major label debut album Girl Going Nowhere was truly one of the most underrated albums of 2018. Unfortunately it was released at a bad time, as Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour released on the same day along with several other high-profile releases at the time. So it felt like that album and McBryde never got the proper attention and respect. But one thing I definitely took away from that great album was one day McBryde would release an album of the year level record. Well I didn’t think it would happen so soon, but that’s pleasantly the case with her follow-up album Never Will.

The album greets you with heartland rock guitars on “Hang In There Girl.” And I’m so glad she leans more into this sound on the album, as it fits her like a glove. The opening song is an anthem for young girls stuck in small towns with big dreams, telling them to hang on through the hard times until they reach their goals one day. It’s an uplifting and very real message that I imagine will resonate with so many young girls across the midwest of America. Lead single “One Night Standards” shows the excellent storytelling abilities of McBryde, as she vividly tells the story of a one-night stand involving a married man. It’s brutally honest about the nature of the situation, painting both of the people in the story in an appropriately not positive light. It also details the justification of the action’s of the woman in the situation, which is flimsy. But that’s how it’s supposed to be, as the line is blurred between who she’s really trying to convince: him or herself.

“Shut Up Sheila” is an interesting song about a family going through the difficulty of watching a woman’s grandmother dying, only for a “friend” named Sheila to be butting in with unnecessary comments. The overall theme centers around pushing back against judgmental people and standing up for doing things your way. And while I love this message, what really makes this song stand out is the sound. Jay Joyce centers it around a spacey, echoing sound that gives it an ominous feel before giving away to roaring guitars that really put an exclamation point on the song. “First Thing I Reach For” is classic country gold in every way, from it’s steel guitar-driven sound to the timeless theme of overindulging in vices. I particularly enjoy the line, “Another night of bad decisions/There’s one still laying in my bed/The bastard in me wishes/That he’d woke up first and left.” It’s both humorous and memorable.

“Voodoo Doll” has quickly become a favorite for me and for two reasons. One because I love the way it’s written and the amount of intricate details given to a woman being made to feel like a voodoo doll watching her man cheat on her. Two because the production matches the dramatic, whiplash feel of the lyrics with McBryde delivering the type of fiery vocal performance that once again makes me thrilled that there are more rock influences on this album. The guitars absolutely roar, I love the little mandolin interludes and it’s an absolute blast to sing along with the chorus. “Sparrow” is on the other end of the spectrum, a soft and somber song about the cold realities a musician experiences traveling on the road. While McBryde acknowledges the exhilaration of realizing a dream, it also comes with missing your loved ones. Once again I applaud McBryde for both her honesty and genuine heart that shines through in the lyrics.

“Martha Divine” is another rock-driven track, this time a cheating/murder ballad interestingly told from the perspective of the daughter witnessing her father in the middle of misdeed. Fueled by infectious and thumping drums that get the heart pounding, the daughter vows to hunt down and kill the mistress, Martha Divine. Which by the way the name is clever and appropriate in itself, playing on the Aramic meaning of Martha, which is mistress, and divine, which means relating to God (the daughter in this case seeing her interference as a god-like act). And yes the daughter is flawed for only going after the father, but the daughter is going to naturally have an emotional blindspot for the father. The song also wisely avoids endearing us towards these violent actions, but rather gives a neutral window look in.

McBryde goes back to classic country storytelling on “Velvet Red.” It’s about a forbidden love affair between a poor maker of wine and the mayor’s only daughter, resulting in a daughter who would be nicknamed after the very wine her unknown father made. Not only is this storytelling on point, but I love the surprise reveal at the end that the daughter is telling the story of her parents conceiving her. I don’t mind the filter the vocals are being put through either, as it doesn’t hurt the song. “Stone” is the most emotional moment on the album, as a woman comes to grips with the death of her father and realizing how similar they were, despite their rocky relationship. The song doesn’t shy from the complicated nature of the feelings involved and that’s why I enjoy the storytelling of McBryde. It feels real and truly resonates with the listener as a result.

The album’s title track is pure heartland rock, with it’s “Dancing in the Dark”-like guitars perfectly texturing this never-give-up anthem. It’s autobiographical, as McBryde recalls all of the doubters along her journey and how she never gave into this negativity. Personally I really connect with the lyrics, so it’s easily my favorite on the album. Also if McBryde wants to make a straight-up rock album, I’m totally down for it because she just gets the ethos of classic rock. McBryde makes a quirky and fun choice to close the album with “Styrofoam.” Unlike anything she’s ever released before, it’s bouncy, light-hearted track about her love of styrofoam cups and features her doing spoken word through like half of it. And I thought I would dislike it, but I love it. Usually these type of gimmicky songs grind my gears, but I enjoy the history lesson at the beginning and it serves as a nice dose of casual fun to balance out the serious moments on the album. Because as I’ve said before, we don’t need to be serious all the time.

Ashley McBryde delivers exactly what I had hoped for and then beyond with Never Will. She leans heavily into her natural heartland rock sound and combines it with traditional country to create an album I will remember for a long time. The songwriting is brilliant and varied, running the gauntlet of emotions and most importantly I think Ashley McBryde delivers a flawless presentation of flawed characters. They’re never framed as likable, but real and as they are, which can be hard to get behind as a listener. But just like Sturgill Simpson’s SOUND & FURY, it can be understandable to not want to listen to music about such real and flawed characters, songs where there are no heroes even. For me though this is the music that is truly intriguing and has a lasting impact.

That is why I believe this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020 and maybe the best country album of the year.

Grade: 10/10

Spinning All The Records — March 2020

Spinning All The Records is a brand new feature on Country Perspective that is a monthly overview of all the albums reviewed in the previous month on Country Perspective to give any readers, new and old, a quick look at what I covered and to catch anything you missed. In addition I take a quick look at albums I didn’t give full reviews, look ahead at what I want to cover, upcoming album releases that catch my eye and a throwback album recommendation. So without further ado…

March 2020 was obviously a month not remembered by music, but by COVID-19, a deadly and infectious virus that is affecting every corner of the world. For those affected by it directly, I send my heartfelt condolences. For everyone, I hope you have great health and are safe. I urge you all to please wash your hands, follow physical distancing rules and to obey guidelines being outlined from health officials and experts. As I tell everyone around me, remember this situation of quarantine and uncertainty is temporary. We have brilliant minds all around the world working together to solve this and as we gather more information, we will find answers and we will triumph. This will pass and we will return to normalcy, hopefully as soon as possible. But obviously the main focus at hand is treating the ill, protecting the healthy and finding the solutions needed to lift ourselves out of this situation. And listen to music, not the news because the former is going to make you feel a whole lot better than the latter. 

Speaking of music, the quality of album releases dipped in March 2020 until the latter part of the month where several great albums released. Of course the most notable was The Weeknd’s After Hours, a fantastic album and a no doubt strong contender for Country Perspective’s 2020 Album of the Year. Brandy Clark rebounded with her new album, Jay Electronica actually dropped his debut album finally and Caitlyn Smith unfortunately disappointed with her new album. The Dixie Chicks returned with a great new single too. There were less albums reviewed overall this month, but that’s because I’m employing a new strategy for reviews moving forward. It will be explained more in the newest section of Spinning All The Records below the monthly album summary. 

(Click the album titles to read the full review)

Dixie Chicks — “Gaslighter” (Single review)

The story the song tells is of a man who was a grand puppet master, successfully manipulating and controlling a woman for what sounds like years before she woke up and is now calling him out on his bullshit, a gaslighter. Each member of the trio takes their turn on lead, each adding another layer and detail to the story that gives you an exact look into this toxic relationship and the freeing liberation being experienced by the woman who’s finally rid of him. The production is big and soaring, an instant foot-stomper with thumping drums and an infectious hook.

Brandy Clark — Your Life is a Record

Despite a few hiccups, Brandy Clark takes a big step up from her last album with Your Life is a Record. I think the production is the biggest improvement, as it flows together really well from start to finish. I really enjoy the incorporation of the flutes in this album, as it’s something not really utilized as much in country music. The songwriting stumbles in a few spots, but for the most part is pretty good and at times great. There’s a surprisingly nice mix of emotions on an album centered around a breakup too. Most importantly, Clark rewards you for listening to the whole album, giving you the emotional journey with the fittingly positive, yet realistic destination.

Jay Electronica — A Written Testimony

The long-awaited debut album of Jay Electronica does not live up to it’s lofty expectations and hype, but A Written Testimony is nevertheless a pretty good album. The production is definitely the strongest point of this album, as a cavalcade of all-star producers and Electronica himself create some exciting and interesting sounds throughout the whole album. The bars on this album are mostly good despite some bumps along the way and the overuse of religious imagery. More than anything I’m glad that Jay Electronica is finally releasing music and I think on his next album we’ll see something even better from him. But for now this is a solid debut.

Caitlyn Smith — Supernova

The tale of the tape for Supernova is quite simple: this album focuses too much on flash and not enough on substance. Smith seemingly forgets about her greatest strength on this album and that’s her songwriting. It soared and impressed on Starfire. On this album the songwriting is so lifeless and it feels like so many themes are used multiple times and recycled. There are some bright spots on this album, but they’re dominated by what I would describe as run-of-the-mill pop rock moments for the most part. I never thought I would levy this kind of criticism toward a Caitlyn Smith album, but the songwriting just isn’t good enough. Supernova is ultimately just an okay album.

The Weeknd — After Hours

After Hours is a phenomenal achievement by The Weeknd. This album is a rich, cinematic experience of love, losing it, fighting to regain it and ultimately reaching the realistic conclusion of realizing that it’s lost. The production team absolutely nails every emotion on this album and takes the lyricism to a whole new level. The juxtaposition of the breezy, mixed cocktail of genres (R&B, pop, hip-hop, dream pop, 80s) feels perfect on this album of frenetic, dark emotions that permeate throughout it. This is without a doubt an album of the year contender.


All The Other Albums I Want To Talk About!

This is the newest section of Spinning All The Records where I give quick thoughts/reviews on all the other albums I listened to over the past month that released this year. Essentially I listened to these albums enough, but didn’t want to write full reviews and/or didn’t feel I had enough thoughts for a full review. Also there’s a lot of damn albums released every week and when you want to listen to a little of everything from every genre like me, time doesn’t allow for full reviews of everything. But I still want to talk about lots of albums, so this is the solution! So moving forward I’m only focusing on doing full reviews for albums I truly have a lot to say about while the rest will be here. And of course you’re welcome to ask about any albums I don’t cover here in the comments below!

The Steeldrivers — Bad For You 

This is an album I initially really enjoyed. But after a few listens of the album I haven’t felt the need to go back to it since. I had a similar reaction when I listened to Randy Houser’s Magnolia last year. Just like that album, Bad For You just doesn’t leave enough in terms of hooks, impactful lyricism and gripping melodies consistently through the album. The album’s title track is absolutely brilliant, but that’s the only song I’ll remember from this album. 6/10

Hailey Whitters — The Dream

Whitters’ previous album Black Sheep gleamed with potential, but unfortunately she takes a step back all around with The Dream. Other than “Janice at the Hotel Bar,” this album lacks the devastating and meaningful lyrics of the previous album. Instead there’s annoyingly kitchy and uninteresting wordplay like with “Red Wine and Blue” and “Heartland.” And yet another version of “Happy People.” Zack at The Musical Divide sums this song up best: it’s just a more “broadly written version” of “Humble and Kind.” Then you have “All The Cool Girls,” your run of the mill, generic song about bad party girls. Its just such a bizarre choice from Whitters and doesn’t fit her at all. This album comes off as a desperate play for popularity and that’s a disappointment. 5/10

Megan Thee Stallion — Suga EP 

So here’s the state of hip-hop for me right now in 2020. 10% of releases are absolute garbage like Eminem’s latest album. 10% are absolute gems like Freddie Gibbs’ latest album. And the remaining 80% are middle-of-the-road, generic albums that use the same flow in every song like this Suga EP from Megan Thee Stallion. This pop hip-hop sound is starting to remind me a lot of the pop country on country radio. This isn’t a good thing. And that’s such a shame coming from Megan Thee Stallion because I enjoyed her last album, which suffered a little bit of the “sameness” problem too, but it had a lot of fun energy and memorable bars. She’s just capable of so much more than this, but she is also in the midst of a label battle and I’m hopeful this is just satisfying a label contract. 5/10

Porter Union — Loved & Lost 

This album has some nice moments, but unfortunately it just doesn’t have enough consistently engaging songs to hold my attention throughout. Because as I first listen to this album I’m intrigued because of the vocal dynamics, but by the end it just feels like another indie country album. There just isn’t enough here to make it stand out from the rest of the crowd.

Gabe Lee — Honky Tonk Hell 

So let’s get one thing straight: Gabe Lee can sing his ass off. He puts a ton of passion behind it, so the cover of this album is quite appropriate. Upon first listens I was really blown away, but unfortunately as I delved deeper into this album it lost it’s shine for me. Neither the songwriting nor the instrumentation lends itself strong enough for extended replayability. The sound of this record in particular is just too straightforward for my personal taste because after a while the songs feel like they blend together. There just isn’t much distinctiveness. But while I know this isn’t for me I do know there’s a large crowd of people who will love this. And I hope they do, as Lee is undoubtedly talented and full of passion. 6/10

Don Toliver — Heaven Or Hell

This album starts out so strong. The smooth, trap-flavored beats are on point, Travis Scott has a great feature on “Euphoria,” “After Party” is a lot of fun and “Can’t Feel My Legs” is catchy. But the second half of this album falls off a cliff. “Candy” is annoyingly repetitive, the Quavo and Offset feature is completely forgettable and then there’s the Sheck Wes feature on “Spaceship.” It’s just awful, but then again I’ve never understood why “Mo Bamba” blew up. If the second half of the album was as good as the first then this could have been a great album. 6/10

Childish Gambino — 3.15.20

I come away from this new Childish Gambino album with the same thoughts I came away with on his last album: sounds nice, but the lyrics do nothing for me. In fact I remember I spent a ton of time listening to “Awaken, My Love” over and over to see what I was missing lyrically. And ultimately I concluded that there was nothing to miss. It was an alluring sound with nothing to say. And I’m not falling for this trap again with this album.

Kelsea Ballerini — kelsea

So upon initial listens I enjoyed this album. But as I started to listen to it more closely it just doesn’t hold up. There’s some fun production moments on this album like “bragger,” “hole in the bottle” and “needy.” But this albums lacks the necessary polish and hooks it needs to be what it seems to aspire to be and that’s Taylor Swift’s Red. And it doesn’t have the melody to hold up to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour.

Now I bring up those albums not to pit these women against each other but rather to demonstrate how this album doesn’t measure up in the space it’s trying to enter. When you’re going for this big pop country sound, these are the albums that are considered the modern standards. And not only does the production not measure up, but the songwriting isn’t strong enough and is outright confusing in spots (“love me like a girl,” “la” and “half of my hometown”). Sure there’s some strong spots in this regard like with “overshare” covering anxiety and “homecoming queen?” dealing with peer pressure. But this needs to be consistent throughout the album. And I still don’t understand the appeal of Halsey as a feature on any song. This is by no means a bad album and I applaud Ballerini for taking risks. I think one day she will deliver a great album, as she continues to show improvement. But this album just gets too many things wrong for it to be good, so instead it’s just above average. 6/10

Lil Uzi Vert — Eternal Awake – LUV vs. The World 2

You know 14 songs was long enough on the regular album and then the “deluxe” version of the album adds 18 songs. Holy bloat! As I’ve mentioned many times, the amount of streaming manipulation in hip-hop with albums is ridiculous and this is the most blatant example yet. Lil Uzi Vert essentially added an entire album to an entire album. It’s stupid. Nevertheless I did listen to all of this and it’s surprisingly not bad, granted you don’t have high expectations. There are no deep and meaningful messages here, but rather some fun beats and catchy hooks in most of the songs. The production is this album’s greatest strength, largely attributed to Pi’erre Bourne and Brandon Finessin. Both 21 Savage and Young Thug come through with great features too. If you’re looking for some light and breezy rap where you just want to turn your brain off, this works really well. 


Looking Ahead to April 2020…

So as I mentioned at the beginning there were a lot of albums released at the end of the month that I plan to cover. Namely you will be seeing a full review of the new Ingrid Andress album very soon and highly likely a full review of the new Jesse Daniel album too. Other new albums that have released from artists that I still haven’t listened to yet, but plan to and could likely cover in some fashion include: Knxwledge, Dua Lipa, Margaret Glaspy, Brian Fallon, Conway & The Alchemist, Jessi Alexander and Kody West. 

As for upcoming releases in April 2020 there are multiple albums I’m particularly looking forward to hearing. On April 3 the new Ashley McBryde album Never Will and Thundercat’s new album It Is What It Is both catch my eye. I really enjoyed McBryde’s last album and I’m looking forward to see if she can do even better with this one. Thundercat is one you’ve likely never heard of by name, but if you listened to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly you did hear his fantastic bass contributions. His music is best described as “out there” R&B. Also his last album included a slice of yacht rock heaven with “Show You The Way.” 

Maddie & Tae will finally be releasing their new sophomore album The Way It Feels on April 10. I still don’t understand the bizarre EP release strategy, but nevertheless I’ve enjoyed a lot of the songs released on them and of course I gave high praise to their debut album. Speaking of weird release strategies, The Last Bandoleros may finally be dropping an album on April 17. Supposedly it’s a live album, which is even more strange considering they haven’t released a studio album yet. I just don’t understand what is happening with this group, but I want to hear more from this Tex Mex-influenced country group. For crying out loud I reviewed their first single four years ago

A few other notes: Willie Nelson was originally supposed to release a new album this month, but it was delayed until July. Sam Hunt and Lady Gaga are both dropping new albums this month, but I fully expect them to be awful based on what I’ve heard from each. Also country newcomer Logan Ledger’s new album is one I’m not necessarily anticipating since he’s brand new, but intrigued by for sure based on what little I’ve heard. 


Throwback Album I Recommend 

Black Tiger Sex Machine’s New Worlds

Yes, I’ll admit I checked this band out based solely on the name. And I’m glad I did! It’s really intriguing dance music with some nice metal influences mixed in. Be forewarned it’s loud and in your face. But if you have any interest in dance music, I highly recommend this apocalyptic-flavored album they released back in 2018.