Album Review — Justin Moses’ ‘Fall Like Rain’

Bluegrass is a genre I admittedly had trouble appreciating when I was younger. I’ve always respected the genre, but it was something that was hard for me to sit down and truly enjoy. In the earlier days of the blog I covered some bluegrass and writing a review was like pulling teeth from me. Even before that I was exposed to bluegrass from my grandpa. Maybe that’s why when Sturgill Simpson mentioned having a similar experience with his own grandfather that it allowed me to connect to this two volumes of Cuttin’ Grass even more. So admittedly these albums finally made me wake up and appreciate bluegrass a lot more and I’ve been slowly diving into the genre since the release of Simpson’s first volume.

When I was searching for upcoming bluegrass releases, Justin Moses’ album caught my eye and I gave a listen to some of the pre-release singles. The sound immediately caught my ear. Keep in mind I didn’t even know until I dove into Fall Like Rain that he’s the husband of bluegrass star and mandolin virtuoso Sierra Hull, who blew me away with her work on Simpson’s bluegrass albums and her own album 25 Trips released last year was quite impressive too (definitely worth your time if you haven’t heard it). Moses’ work though is quite talented in his own right, as he delivers a really good record in Fall Like Rain.

The title track kicks off the album and it should be noted it’s an Eric Clapton cover from his Pilgrim album. Moses does a great job making it his own and re-contextualizing it within bluegrass, as the aching pain of heartbreak that permeates in the lyrics suits the bluegrass sound well. Hull joins Moses on “Taxland” for a captivating instrumental that shows off both of their impressive picking abilities. It’s so much fun and the energy of it is amazing. When I hear a song that jams this hard it only makes me miss live music even more, as I imagine this song would be even more fun to hear in-person.

Prominent bluegrass artist Dan Tyminski joins Moses on “Between the Lightning and the Thunder.” Even if you don’t listen to bluegrass, Tyminski’s voice is quite distinctive, as he’s been featured in some major hits in O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Avicci’s “Hey Brother.” With that in mind I was surprised at the restrained nature of Tyminski’s vocal performance. It’s a solid track, but as someone used to Tyminski’s vocals being more prominent this caught me off guard. Not to mention the theme of the song centering around the clashing of lightning and thunder would be seem to call for a more powerful sound to reflect this.

“Walking to Lebanon” has an appropriately Middle Eastern-inspired sound to open the album, which really catches my ear. The songwriting is just as distinctive, as Moses tells the story of a young girl who lives amongst violence and chaos in a Middle East country and is forced to walk across the desert to Lebanon with her sister to escape the bombings that have ravaged her home. It’s a tragic story with a small sense of hope that peace can be found for the young girl. I also appreciate the line from Moses when he sings “It’s hard on us all, but it’s meaner for some,” contextualizing the difference of a tough life in a first-world country versus a tough life in a third-world country. For me it’s a small reminder that somebody somewhere is experiencing something that I will likely never have to go through and I should both take solace in this and sympathize with those who are struggling.

Moses gets a chance to show off his own picking chops in a solo capacity on tracks “Wise & Born” and “Watershed.” As I said in my review of Tyler Childers’ Long Violent History, 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. And Moses does this quite well on Fall Like Rain. There’s a distinct character to each track, as “Wise & Born” feels like you’re taking an exciting ride along the countryside and “Watershed” has a soaring, flying feel about it that captures my attention.

Bluegrass legend Del McCoury joins Moses on “My Baby’s Gone.” The impressive picking of Moses combined with the high-pitched twang of McCoury make for a sweet combination on this heartbreak song. I particularly enjoy McCoury’s closing vocals on the track as he hits the highest notes of the song, as it leaves a lasting impression. It also shows the blues of bluegrass and it’s influences on the genre (hence why I liked Moses’ pick of a Clapton cover too). By the way the guest features on this album are great and Moses delivers one more when Shawn Lane of Blue Highway joins him on “Looking for a Place.” I had never heard Lane sing before this, but his voice really stands out with it’s distinctive softness. It also makes for great harmonizing with Moses on the chorus and adds to the breezy melody that envelopes the song.

“U.F.O.” and “Locust Hill” close out the album in a strong way. The former is a quiet observation of the climb we all experience in life, but remaining hopeful that we can one day find the “streets paved with gold.” It works not only in a biblical context, but also striving to find that inner peace in life too. This song underscores the subtle theme throughout the album of acknowledging the rough spots we all experience, but still finding the strength and hope to overcome them and reach the heights we aspire to in our lives. It’s quite the uplifting message to take away from this album. But I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the tight instrumentals too. The small break before the instrumental reprise at the end of “U.F.O.” is a nice touch. It also provides a good contrast to the fast-picking of “Locust Hill,” as Moses leaves the listener with a real shot of energy and allows all the players on the record to really stretch their legs, which is a standard in the world of bluegrass. The collaborative nature of the genre is without question a shining aspect.

Justin Moses really delivers a fun and memorable listen with his first full-length bluegrass record Fall Like Rain. Almost all of the features are utilized well and there’s plenty of catchy melodies throughout. And unsurprisingly the picking by all the players on this project is top-notch. I would liken this album to warm comfort food for me: it’s not the flashiest nor the most distinctive. But it’s something I can come back to again and again because it’s just so solid and reliable all-around.

Stream It

Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 (Cowboy Arms Sessions)’

Sturgill Simpson stayed true to his promise. He told the fans he would release two bluegrass albums if they raised enough money during Simpson’s charity run last summer and he delivered Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 (Cowboy Arms Sessions) as a surprise album release as he had originally intended for the first volume. Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1 took myself and many by surprise for just how damn good it turned out to be. So I expected an album at basically the same level with the second volume. But I believe Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 is actually even better.

The first thing that stands out about this volume is the album length. It’s a lot more concise at 12 songs and 40 minutes long. While I certainly didn’t complain about getting 20 songs from Simpson the first go-around, it’s admittedly harder to pick up an album and listen to it in one sitting with such a length in tracks. The second aspect is the track list for this is arranged in a deliberate manner, unlike the first volume that was in alphabetical order a la a mixtape. While it didn’t take away from me enjoying the first album, it’s always a better listen with a more arranged track list. And then the final aspect that makes this album stand out is the tracks largely revolve around people who are deeply close to Simpson. I’m not sure if this was deliberate of Simpson or just a nice coincidence, but this ends up making for a strongly connectable theme of cherishing and honoring loved ones.

The closer for A Sailor’s Guide to Earth “Call to Arms” opens Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2 and it absolutely shreds as you expect from this frenetic song. This was a song I had my doubts about translating to bluegrass, but my concerns are immediately assuaged. The closing of the song shows how bluegrass fast-picking can be just as mind-blowing as a rock band jamming out. “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” was the first single of A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, yet it was probably the least heralded track of the record. My memory of it is it’s a solid track that largely stands out for it’s thrashing guitars, but is overshadowed by other songs because it’s lyrics aren’t as strong. Yet in this version of the song I gain a new appreciation for the lyrics, as the clearer enunciation and quieter nature of the song really grip me. The latter part really makes this version stand out, as the song now feels more like a wise and sober reminder to enjoy life despite the hurdles. The songwriting is given a chance to breathe. Honestly this take of this song made me see more of what people who didn’t like SOUND & FURY saw in it. Great lyrics can be harder to appreciate with more aggressive production and rough enunciation.

I also think the new versions of both “Oh Sarah” and “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” are better than the originals. This version of “Oh Sarah” sounds better to me because it has a more somber, confessional feel about it and this better suits the story of the song. As much as I enjoy this version of “Oh Sarah” though, “Welcome to Earth” is hands down is among my top five favorites between the two volumes. The softer, gentler melody at the beginning gives the lyrics a whole new level of gravitas to the point where it’s tear-inducing for yours truly as I envision myself in Simpson’s shoes. It’s just a beautiful combination that is sweet to the ears. And yet the song breaks in the second half to a dizzying, happy crescendo of strings that’s arguably even better. The soaring melody is so full of joy and makes one imagine themselves waltzing through a sunny country hillside. It feels so appropriate on a song that celebrates the birth of life.

It would have been impossible for this version of “Sea Stories” to top the original for me, as it’s one of the clear best songs on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. But this one comes close, as the fun, singalong nature is still very much present. The harmonizing of The Hillbilly Avengers (as they’re officially dubbed now) is a nice touch to close the song too. I enjoy “Keep it Between the Lines,” but it has a harder time standing out both here and originally because the songs around it are stronger on a lyrical level. But I can appreciate the more fun nature of the songwriting on this and Stuart Duncan’s fiddle play feels particularly strong, which is fun to hear.

“Hero” is one of those songs that I’m always surprised doesn’t get mentioned more when Simpson’s best songs are discussed. It’s such a touching tribute to his grandfather and it’s only appropriate it gets a bluegrass version considering he’s the one who introduced Simpson to bluegrass. I also noticed how Simpson put the songs about his first-born son and grandfather back to back in the middle of the album, showing the line between the past, present and future of those that have helped shape who he is as a person. Simpson’s personal relationships with those he deeply loves are put on full display, so it’s easy to feel the heart behind this record.

Simpson dips into the rest of High Top Mountain with great success, as he finally figures out something to rhyme with bronco on “You Can Have the Crown.” And it’s a great, hilarious rhyme you would expect from Simpson. It’s shocking he even touched this considering his open disdain for the song in the past, as he said it was too “pop-y.” But maybe now he’ll play it live again with the updated lyrics. With “Some Days” this is a song where I enjoyed the original too much that I knew I wouldn’t like the bluegrass version as much. But it’s always nice to be reminded of one of my favorite Simpson lyrics “Well I’m getting pretty tired of being treated like competition/When the only one that can hold me down is inside my head.” On the surface it’s a braggadocious line about being unrivaled, but the subsequent lyrics reveal it to be more of a battle against your inner critic and how it holds you down more than those around you.

A couple more Sunday Valley favorites are brought back to life in “Jesus Boogie” and “Tennessee.” Both songs are fantastic and show the strength of his Sunday Valley songwriting. The first is a mournful, plead from Jesus to God, as he questions his place as the son of God and paying for the sins of the father. It’s one of those songs that makes me go, “Huh…I guess I never thought about this.” It’s fascinating not only for taking a different view on a common biblical subject, but coming up with a different angle altogether. And as I’ve said in the past, I’m a nerd over lyrics that greatly utilize not often used words like Simpson does with “My silver is dross, my water is mixed with wine.” “Tennessee” is immediately striking with it’s a cappella opening. Apparently this song was inspired by a small breakup between Simpson and his girlfriend who would become his wife later. The great detail in the lyrics of the distance both physically and emotionally between them during this time is really gripping and an example of a sorrowful heartbreak song done right.

Simpson closes the album with a really special song in “Hobo Cartoon.” The legendary Merle Haggard helped him write the song, as Simpson says Haggard passed the partially written lyrics onto him via text as Haggard’s health was declining as he laid in a hospital bed before his death. Simpson grew quite close to Haggard in his final years and highly praised Simpson’s work. And you can tell how much Simpson appreciated his friendship. This song feels like such a Haggard song, as the Bing Crosby and Jimmie Rodgers references are big giveaways. It centers around a simple character in a hobo and his story, but has a much greater message about cherishing memories of yesteryear. A poetic muse from Haggard as he was dying and a great common connection between two railroad men as they romanticize their pasts. Simpson said he “cowboyed up” after years of putting off finishing the song and I’m glad he did great justice to some of Haggard’s last written lyrics.

Sturgill Simpson delivers a fantastic bluegrass album in Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 2. I dare say this is now amongst my top three favorite Simpson records, but more listens in time will reveal where this firmly sits in his discography. It will probably be a couple years before we hear volume 3, as Simpson is now turning his attention back to his fifth and “final” regular album that he says is still the plan he’s following he revealed years ago. But between these two volumes, I think there’s more than enough great music to listen to in the meantime. Regardless of your feelings of him, Sturgill Simpson has proved to be one of the most interesting and creative songwriters to emerge out of the 2010s.

Buy It

Country Perspective’s Top 10 Other Genre Albums of 2020

Country Perspective will be posting multiple best of albums lists this year to recognize the staggering amount of high quality album releases in 2020. It will ultimately conclude with Country Perspective’s Top 10 Albums of 2020, which will reflect all genres and crown this blog’s top award, Album of the Year.

Today I take a look at the top ten albums from all other genres in 2020. So this list was a bit of a crapshoot. As you can see before this list I had no problem formulating lists for country, hip hop and pop. Then I was left with a bunch of albums scattered across multiple genres and not enough in any of those categories to make a long enough list for each. Not to mention determining the genre that some of these albums felt like a rather pointlessly tiresome exercise. At the end of the day I don’t concern myself much with this anymore and just focus on if the music is good or not. So rather than just forego putting them on any list, I decided to make a list of the best of the rest outside of the three genres aforementioned. The whole point of these smaller lists is to cover more artists and specific niches, while also showcasing the variety of great albums talked about on this blog through 2020. Just throwing up my top ten albums of the year didn’t feel like it was wide-reaching enough. So on this list you’ll find R&B, indie, alternative, rock and more. Without further ado, here are Country Perspective’s Top 10 Other Genre Albums of 2020:

10. DUCKWRTH — SuperGood

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.

9. CeeLo Green — CeeLo Green is Thomas Callaway

Dan Auerbach, David Ferguson and Easy Eye Sound just continue to churn out quality albums. CeeLo Green 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. Green’s voice really excels in the more 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. The Mavericks — En 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. So 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.

7. Khruangbin — Mordechai 

I find it difficult to get into instrumental music most of the time and even harder to review it. But Khruangbin is easily an exception to this rule. I had never heard of this group until their excellent collaborative Texas Sun EP with Leon Bridges earlier this year. I’m so glad I found them, as I’ve now listened to their entire catalog after hearing the EP. Even better that they’ve dropped even more music with new album Mordechai. While I wouldn’t put it at the level of their great, southwestern-flavored 2018 album Con Todo El Mundo, this album is another pretty damn good record from the trio. This album centers mostly around a groovy, psychedelic funk sound with tinges of disco and jam pop mixed in at times. The band also surprises by mixing in some vocals on this record and they actually work pretty well. Most importantly they don’t detract from the hypnotic sounds of the band, which will always be the focus and strength of the group. If you’re looking for a relaxing album, you will be hard-pressed to find one more chill than this one this year.

6. John Moreland — LP5

LP5 is another fantastic album from John Moreland. He’s always been a great songwriter since his first album, but it’s the recognition to grow and experiment with his sound starting with his last album that’s taken him to a whole new level in my mind. Too many singer-songwriter artists think they have to stick to a stripped-down, folk-y sound for their lyrics to be taken seriously. At the same time, drum machines are dismissed as “not real instruments” used by pop stars. Well with LP5, Moreland proves both these claims to be moot.

5. Tame Impala — The Slow Rush

The Slow Rush sees Tame Impala once again delivers a memorably great album. But it’s also hard not to see this album is a few missteps away from equaling the brilliance of Currents. It lacks focus in a few spots and there’s one song that just isn’t needed. But this is also a bit nitpicking admittedly. The production from Kevin Parker is once again deeply rich and textured, engulfing you with it’s fantastic details. The songwriting mostly hits and the hooks are some of the best from Parker. You really couldn’t ask for much more from an album like The Slow Rush.

4. AC/DC — POWER UP

POWER UP showcases this group at their best. There’s anthemic, blaring riffs, strong hooks and powerful vocals. This record is a fantastic swan song and a perfect way for a legendary band to take their final bow. The entire band is on their A game and you couldn’t ask for better performances from these guys. I’ve seen some say this one of the group’s best albums and I can absolutely buy this argument. Personally I wouldn’t put it in my top three, but maybe top five. Regardless, I find this album to be quite poetic. Everybody thought this group was done when Bon Scott passed, but then they made their career-defining album in Back In Black. And everybody again thought they were done when Malcolm Young passed amidst other group issues. But once again they have surpassed expectations and made a damn great album.

3. Sturgill Simpson — Cuttin’ Grass – Volume 1

Now I expected this album to be good. Sturgill Simpson’s love and appreciation for bluegrass has always shined through. But man I did not expect this album to be this good. The melody on this album is so damn infectious, making old songs sound completely new and giving real vibrancy to his previously unrecorded Sunday Valley songs. Simpson is clearly in his element on Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1. He takes to bluegrass like a duck takes to water. Who knows what direction he will go on his fifth and supposedly final studio album and who knows when he’ll release Volume 2 of Cuttin’ Grass. In a tumultuous year, the best thing to do is sit back and enjoy this wonderful surprise from Simpson.

2. Tennis — Swimmer

With Swimmer, Tennis delivers an excellent album about love. It’s quickly became one of my favorite love albums. And this isn’t rash hyperbole on my end. I’m being serious when I say that this album truly delivers a heartfelt, genuine and truly touching take on true love. Love albums and love song are an absolute dime-a-dozen. They’re churned out every day. Most only focus on the surface level of love and the flip-side with heartbreak. What they don’t ever seem to focus on are the little things, the nitty gritty of relationships that aren’t easy to convey in an informative and interesting way. But that takes brilliant songwriting with equally high-quality production that aids it. Tennis delivers this.

1. 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 one of the best albums of 2020.

Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions)’

Sturgill Simpson has always hinted at and talked about doing a bluegrass album throughout the years. Thanks to his dedicated, loyal fans who donated an overwhelming amount of money through his Dick Daddy Survival School charity endeavor he started on a whim on Instagram, Simpson lives his dream with Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1 (Butcher Shoppe Sessions).

Now I expected this album to be good. Simpson’s love and appreciation for bluegrass has always shined through and if you want a true glimpse into this I highly urge you to read the letter he emailed to fans expressing his gratitude (along with an update on where he’s at now as a person and an artist). But man I did not expect this album to be this good. I don’t think many people expected this much out of an album that is mostly bluegrass renditions of his previous songs along with finally recording some gems from his Sunday Valley days.

But maybe we shouldn’t have been so surprised because the list of people involved with this project are absolutely incredible and need to be recognized. David Ferguson produces the album, who’s been involved with numerous projects with Simpson. Mark Howard is on rhythm and lead guitar, Scott Vestal is on the banjo, Mike Bub is on bass, Tim O’Brien provides background vocals and is on rhythm and lead guitar, Simpson’s longtime drummer Miles Miller provides background vocals and is on percussion, and the iconic Stuart Duncan is on fiddle. Finally the player I feel who is most important on this album and that’s Sierra Hull on mandolin and who also provides background vocals.

Hull is the secret sauce behind why this album is so damn good. As always she shines brightly on mandolin, but her background vocals are just as integral to this album’s quality and there’s no song that’s more apparent on than “Breaker’s Roar.” The original version of this song on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth was already hauntingly dark and beautiful. But this new bluegrass version is actually even better than the original, which blows my mind. Hull’s background vocals are a big reason why, as it gives the song a heavenly soft sound that feels equal parts soothing and trippy. It makes for such an addictive listen and it’s arguably the best moment on the album.

But there are a lot of moments that shine on Cuttin’ Grass. “All Around You” may not be the best opening song choice, as Simpson simply organized the track list in alphabetical order. It’s the complete opposite of his usual approach, as he’s said in the past he’s particular about the track list on his album and usually urges fans to listen to the album front to back to grasp their true spirit and meaning. But with this being such a casual and unexpected side project, I don’t think track list should be such a concern for listeners. This could easily be shuffled and enjoyed. As Simpson said this is his version of a mixtape and as someone who has listened to a lot of mixtapes from the world of hip hop, this fits the nature of them.

Back to “All Around You,” maybe it’s because it’s one of my favorite songs from Simpson, but it works for me as an opener. It works because it’s one of the best performances on the record and it feels like all the aforementioned players above get to shine in moments throughout the song. Duncan’s fiddle play and Hull’s mandolin player in particular gives the song that dynamic and uplifting feel that the original version of the song does so well.

“All The Pretty Colors” is the first of four Sunday Valley songs Simpson records on the album and each one are a welcome sight to those of us who have wanted them after years of shoddy recordings on YouTube. This one is about getting your heart broken and watching the colors fade away from your world. The hook of this song is so clever and catchy with the Van Gogh reference and the play on words with “And all the pretty blue is fading/From the sea of tears I’m wading.” The contemplative “I Wonder” is another heartbreak song about wondering where you ex is and what they’re doing now. The strings on this song give it an appropriately dark and brooding feel.

“Sometimes Wine” is about acting like you’re not broken up when an ex walks out the door, but then later coping with drinking and lamenting the loss. Despite the somber nature of the lyrics, Vestal’s banjo is pretty hot and gives the song a strong melody. Out of the four Sunday Valley songs though, it’s “I Don’t Mind” that is the undisputed best (consensus seems to agree too, as it was the highest selling and streaming song of the entire album when it released). What starts out as a beautiful proclamation of love and finding God quickly turns to a lonely man’s desperate plea for the love of his life to take him back. It’s one of Simpson’s best songs he’s ever written, as the aching pain and yearning for someone that was once so close and now so far is so poignantly described to exhibit the duality of love’s light and darkness. The only complaint I have is why did it have to take so long to get a proper version? No wonder his wife told him to not come home until he recorded this song for the album.

The bending sounds of the fiddle that greets you on “Just Let Go” are so satisfying and once again sets the tone perfectly for a song on this album. “Life Ain’t Fair and the World is Mean” unsurprisingly works really well as a bluegrass song, as do all the songs from High Top Mountain on this album. I especially enjoy the harmonizing of Simpson, Hull, Miller and O’Brien on this track. The same can be said of “A Little Light,” which has always felt like a bluegrass song, even though it was on the psychedelic Metamodern Sounds in Country Music.

Simpson really blazes through a lot of the songs on this record at a blistering pace, which works for the most part. But it’s nice when he slows it down on songs like “Life of Sin,” “Old King Coal,” “Time After All” and “Voices.” It allows for the album to breathe a bit and let the melody simmer. But when he does let it rip on songs like “Long White Line,” “Sitting Here Without You,” “The Storm” and “Railroad of Sin,” it’s a lot of fun. Those last two songs in particular stand out, as the fury of both Simpson’s vocals and the guitars show how brawny bluegrass can sound. It’s the definition of when bluegrass “rocks out” and how a banjo can be just as powerful of an instrument as an electric guitar on full blare. This version of “Railroad of Sin” has a strong argument being even better than the original.

Two of Metamodern’s three most iconic songs, “Living the Dream” and “Turtles All the Way Down” were songs I was really curious to hear interpreted in bluegrass, as I would like to imagine these were two of the harder adaptions. While both of these are enjoyable renditions in bluegrass form, they definitely don’t touch the originals. The dripping steel guitar on “Living the Dream” and the tripping on balls nature of “Turtles All the Way Down” are integral to what make these songs so great. Not to mention the slower pace of the originals allows the lyrics to deliver better impact, while the more frenetic pace of their bluegrass covers lack gravitas.

“Water in a Well” closes the album and I love it as a closer because it features some of Simpson’s most impactful songwriting. This album also has a great focus on the earlier part of Simpson’s career and this song is one of his best from his early days. It’s another instance where Simpson does a great job of capturing the feelings of heartbreak, as it’s a complicated mixture of sadness, regret and getting over it. Hull once again shines too, as the mandolin gives the song a weeping nature that perfectly suits the lyrics and her background vocals once again add that needed extra emotional layer.

In Simpson’s letter he says he could do about 17 more of these mixtapes and that sounds great to me. On the next one I hope he tackles some bluegrass interpretations of SOUND & FURY, as it could make for an interesting challenge for him and the listener. People seemed to really overlook the quality songwriting of that album and I think bluegrass versions could make them re-evaluate it. His covers of The Osborne Brothers’ “Listening To The Rain” and Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” would make fine additions too. But I’m not sure how difficult this may be to cover these songs nor his SOUND & FURY songs due to legal/licensing reasons. In the infamous Uproxx interview, he mentions licensing masters for a term before getting them back, so he may not have the rights to SOUND & FURY songs returned to him yet.

Sturgill Simpson is clearly in his element on Cuttin’ Grass – Vol. 1. He takes to bluegrass like a duck takes to water. Who knows what direction he will go on his fifth and supposedly final studio album and who knows when he’ll release Volume 2 of Cuttin’ Grass. In a tumultuous year, the best thing to do is sit back and enjoy this wonderful surprise from Sturgill Simpson.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Dwight Yoakam’s ‘Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…’

dwight-yoakam-swimmin-pools-movie-stars

It’s pretty simple: If Dwight Yoakam releases new music, you should pay attention. At least that’s how I feel about the iconic Bakersfield-sound country artist. When discussing the titans and legends of country music you’ll always (rightly) hear about Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, George Jones, Willie Nelson and George Strait. But you never hear Yoakam’s name thrown in with them when in my opinion he 100% belongs amongst the best in the history of country music. Thanks to him, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley, they brought style and tradition back to a genre in the 80s that sorely lacked the earmarks that had made the genre special and memorable. Yoakam’s incorporation of elements of rock into his brand of country music quickly made him a ton of fans and still has a pretty loyal following to this day. He really did introduce a lot of rock fans who didn’t bother with country before to the genre, something that often gets overlooked.

The last we heard from Yoakam was his 2015 album Second Hand Heart, released via Warner. It was personally one of my favorites from last year and found it to be a solid country album from start to finish. And unlike a lot of older country artists Yoakam has accepted that country radio won’t play him anymore. He certainly won’t ever be one to chase trends either. In fact he’s done the opposite with his newest project. Yoakam announced earlier this year he was going to do a bluegrass album that would consist of some of his best music, only in bluegrass form (plus a surprise I’ll get to in a second). That album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movies Stars…, is now here (released via Sugar Hill Records). If you’re a fan of Yoakam or bluegrass, you’ll certainly have a lot of fun listening to it.

While it’s jarring at first to hear iconic songs like “Two Doors Down” and “Guitars, Cadillacs” in bluegrass form, after a few listens they’re really fun and it’s cool to hear them in a different way that’s still great. They don’t top the original versions of course, but it’s interesting as a fan to hear Yoakam be able to craft such untouchably good songs into something different and still make the music sound great. What also impressed me about these bluegrass covers is Yoakam’s swagger and attitude really doesn’t disappear. When I think of bluegrass I think of a humble tone, yet Yoakam makes it sound cool because I think it’s impossible for Yoakam to not give his music a feeling of coolness. Of course while I’m impressed by the album as a whole, the track that undoubtedly stands out for me and I think a lot of listeners is Yoakam’s cover of the legendary Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The one-of-a-kind artist’s death earlier in 2016 undoubtedly sent shockwaves throughout the entire music world, as Prince’s music influenced and touched artists and fans of all genres. It was no different for Yoakam, who felt inspired to honor the artist’s late memory by covering one of his best songs he told People:

“I always loved the song. The first time I heard it, it stopped me in my car. It struck me as interesting and as unique an expression of love musically as anything ever in pop music,” Yoakam says. “I thought it spoke volumes about the honest willingness of the person who wrote it to bare his heart to the world through his music. Prince, I never really knew you, but I’m sure going to miss you.”

I recommend reading the whole interview he gave on recording it and deciding to put it on the album if you haven’t yet. One thing I love about Yoakam’s cover is that he keeps the rawness and passion of the song intact. That’s what makes the song standout so much for me, as Prince just puts all of his heart and soul into the song. Yoakam’s interpretation doesn’t match it because nobody can match it, but I’m glad I still felt those elements when listening to Yoakam’s version. It’s good the instrumentation was kept downbeat too, as this song is supposed to have a melancholy undertone to it. So many artists covered Prince after his death, but not many did him justice like Yoakam does here.

I always find it fun and exciting to watch legendary artists take on new and different musical side projects and Dwight Yoakam’s Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… is no different. It’s yet another album for fans of Yoakam to enjoy, as well as a pleasure for anyone who enjoys bluegrass. Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars is one of those albums you can just throw on at anytime and enjoy.

Grade: 8/10