Album Review – Wynonna & The Big Noise’s Self-Titled Debut Album

After a long, sustainable career as part of a country duo then as a solo artist, Wynonna Judd has taken a new road: leading a band. Wynonna & The Big Noise is Wynonna partially stepping away from her country roots and making more noise. The band’s debut album features more rock influence in the music, while keeping her grounded in the genre that she’s called home her whole life. The album was produced by her husband Cactus Moser, who is also the band’s drummer. Two months into their 2012 marriage, Moser was in a motorcycle accident that resulted in him losing a leg. Wynonna stood by his side, caring for him and helping him get back to normal life. When it came to choosing songs for the album, it’s obvious that Moser’s accident influenced the direction of the album. Several of the songs deal with overcoming obstacles and loving devotion to one another, almost as if Wynonna & The Big Noise is Judd and Moser’s story. After all, Judd calls this album her “battle cry.”

The album kicks off with the rocking “Ain’t No Thing.” Wynonna sings of a relationship that’s just ended. But instead of feeling heartbroken and drawn to a bar to cope with the feelings, she shakes the bad news off. She informs her man that he shouldn’t expect her to mourn over their failed relationship. This bluesy rock piece was written by Chris Stapleton. This is followed by “Cool Ya,” a mid-tempo rock song with a unique production. The song builds nicely as occasional guitar riffs slowly develop into a full melody over the steady drum beat. Lyrically, the song reads sort of like a baptism, encouraging “fallen daughters” and “wilted flowers” to find comfort in the rain and the water while the “hallelujah flows right through.

Jason Isbell provides vocal harmonies on “Things That I Lean On.” Accompanied by acoustic guitar with a fiddle, Wynonna sings of the various things in life she turns to when she feels down or lost. From the 23rd Psalm to a timeless Conway Twitty song; from the shoulder of the one she loves to grandma’s words of wisdom. The song’s vulnerability gets a little lost in the list-y nature of the lyrics.

The theme of devoted love first shows up with “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast.” There’s a vibe in the lyrics that maybe Wynonna is caught off guard by the strong feelings of love within her, but she likes it. This is a total rock song with screeching guitar riffs and a gruff vocal delivery. “Staying In Love” is a bit more country in its melody, but stays within the rock world. The song devotes itself to hard work of maintaining love in a relationship. The song’s production works nicely, building the song and delivering a catchy, anthemic chorus.

“Keeps Me Alive” is an encouraging song about maintaining an optimistic outlook on life. Dreaming and moving forward is what fuels their life and keeps them driving on. The slow-moving production is unique as it layers the acoustic guitar with an electric guitar. While the first half of the album is mostly rock music, Wynonna & The Big Noise, goes back to 100% country music over the next few songs, beginning with “Jesus and a Jukebox.” The song tells a story of an older man trying to cope with the loss of his long time wife by praying and listening to classic country music. Wynonna’s twang in her vocals sounds perfect with the steel guitar. This is without a doubt the album’s best song.

“I Can See Everything” deals with overcoming your own sadness finding joy within yourself. Wynonna sings the encouraging words to the one she loves and cares deeply about. She believes that better days around the corner. The steel guitar is present again among the acoustic guitar and simple percussion. The melody of “I Can See Everything” burns slowly and gets better as the song progresses, ending on a high note. Love is revisited with “Something You Can’t Live Without.” In this case, it’s her man who’s confused by his strong feelings. Wynonna tells him that’s how love should feel. The song balances rock and country nicely, with steel guitar ring among the rock production, which presents itself more on the extended musical outro.

After a strong start, the album sort of sputters to an end with the last three songs. “You Are So Beautiful” is a love song where she tells the man she loves why she loves him. The song’s redeeming quality is found in the bluesy rock production, but the lyrics are mostly cheesy. “Every Ending (Is A New Beginning)” is an inspirational song that also seems cheesy. As you can tell from the title, the story is one of encouragement, remaining hopeful that things will always improve and get better. The country production is noteworthy though, and it’s nice to hear another song with steel guitar. The final song deals with the same kind of message. “Choose To Believe” encourages one to react positively to life’s curve balls: choose to believe in love because we’re strong together. With the slow tempo piano and acoustic guitar, it seems like an odd choice to end the album. While these three songs may in fact be the most personal given the events that preceded the album, the songs sound like echos and repetitions from sentiments earlier in the album.

Wynonna & The Big Noise has a great blended production of rock and country, and neither genre felt out of place. Many of the songs have great, catchy melodies and some great stories. As great as her voice is for country music, I don’t think Wynonna Judd sounded out of place singing rock either, and it’s that comfortable versatility that ties the two genres together on this album. However, even at the average 12 songs, Wynonna & The Big Noise seemed to drag its way to a finish. Maybe it was the cheesier lyrics of the final couple songs, or maybe it was due to the fact that the album started much stronger with more captivating songs toward the beginning. That’s truly my only big complaint with the album, though. Moser’s production is well done, Judd’s vocals are excellent, and most of the songwriting works. Wynonna & The Big Noise perfectly introduces the new direction of Wynonna Judd, adding more rock edge into her music.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review – The Black Lillies ‘Hard to Please’

The Black Lillies raised the funds for their fourth studio album, Hard to Please, with the help of Pledgemusic. The goals were met, the studio time was booked, a producer was hired, then life threw the band a curveball: two of the band members left, leaving the remaining three in a tight spot. Frontman Cruz Contreras ultimately decided to move forward with the recording as scheduled and wrote the album in two weeks. Session players Bill Reynolds from Band of Horses on bass, Matt Smith on pedal steel and Daniel Donato on guitar joined the Black Lillies (Contreras, Bowman Townsend on drums and Trisha Gene Brady on vocals) for the recording of Hard to Please alongside prouder Ryan Hewitt.

The album kicks off with the title track, a rocking number about a man lamenting over the fact that his woman is impossible to please. The guitars play a key role in the instrumentation with Contreras singing lead while Trisha Gene Brady provides some great harmonies. The Black Lillies fuse country and rock together seamlessly throughout the album, and “That’s the Way It Goes Down” is a prime example of that fusion. A song about moving forward and learning from the mistakes you make, “That the Way It Goes Down” has a driving production that builds to a roaring guitar solo.

The Black Lillies explore love on the next few songs. The bluesy, gospel-like “Mercy” finds two people who are shamelessly in need of one another. Contreras and Gene Brady sing the song as a duet, brilliantly using both singers’ vocal power to deliver the emotional punch of the song. “The First Time” is a mid-tempo heartbreak song where Trisha takes the lead on vocals. Here she sings of consistently falling for a man who continues to let her down and leave her heartbroken. “The First Time” uses what appears to be the pedal steel within a rock setting, and it sounds great out of its usual country element.

“Bound to Roam” chronicles a dysfunctional couple in their last moments together. Contreras sings as a rambling man, Willy, who believes he’s bound to roam and travel, while Gene Brady sings as his love, Sarah, who doesn’t want him to leave her alone and heartbroken. Sarah uses Willy’s devoted love to her to manipulate him into staying by her side forever. It’s a story you should hear for yourself, aided by a great acoustic country production. The Black Lillies sing of a happier love in “Dancin’.” Fittingly, it’s an upbeat country dancing number loaded with steel guitar and a driving guitar and drum beat. The song details a couple who look to reignite their passion and love by going out dancing: the one area in their life where they constantly shine together. It’s a well done song from the lyrics to the production, but I feel like “Dancin'” is too long as the outro of the song gets rather repetitive.

Contreras sings solo in the acoustic “Desire.” He holds onto the love and desire he feels for the one that stole his heart, even he’s been left alone and broken. The country fans reading this will love the steel guitar solo found in “Desire.” The music gets cranked up on the rocking “40 Days”, a song influenced by the band’s first national tour where they played 40 shows in 40 days. It’s the ups and downs of life on the road with an old-time rock n’ roll production led by a piano and electric guitars.

Cruz Contreras wrote “Broken Shore” about his grandfather, who fought in Iwo Jima. This country rock epic is led with a mandolin with heavy guitars and pianos chiming in at various times. “Broken Shore” is a song where the lyrics introduce the settings and feelings of our character, but it’s the production that tells the story. The production rises and falls, moving from simple to chaotic, keeping a song with few lyrics moving forward. It’s another one of those songs that needs to be heard to fully appreciate what The Black Lillies accomplish with it. Hard to Please ends with “Fade.” This piano ballad steadily builds as Contreras sings to his love not to fade away from him. The relationship is facing a rough patch and he doesn’t want to see them give in to the pressure of the situation.

The Black Lillies have accomplished a lot within their short, six-year lifespan. Their previous album, Runaway Freeway Blues, was an Americana staple back in 2013, and it’s hard not to consider Hard to Please in the same way. In spite of all the challenges the band faced before going into record the album, The Black Lillies still deliver a great Americana album with perfect fusions of rock and country with some blues and gospel influences splashed in. Even with songs that are decidedly rock and decidedly country on the same album, every song has a place and purpose on Hard to Please.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Striking Matches’ Nothing But The Silence is an Energetic, Entertaining Debut

Watch out Florida Georgia Line. Why don’t you boys take a step aside and watch a brand new mainstream country duo do what you guys have never done, which is making worthy, entertaining music. Now, I know Striking Matches aren’t quite brand new; their self-titled EP back in 2012 was praised by outlets like NPR and the BBC. Not to mention the number of songs they’ve had recorded on the hit TV show Nashville. But their first full-length album, Nothing But the Silence, has now been released to the masses, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With a radio market unwilling to play well written slow songs because they’re “tempo killers,” Nothing But the Silence offers 11 great, well-written tracks, many of which won’t kill the tempo of country radio’s constant party atmosphere. The duo, Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis, also act like a real musical duo. They trade the lead vocals on songs, verses, even lines within verses, and harmonize together at almost every moment. Together, their voices shine and deliver on this album.

Nothing But the Silence kicks off the rocking duet “Trouble Is As Trouble Does.” It’s a new relationship for the two of them, but he’s the bad seed that influences her to rebel a bit out of her well-behaved lifestyle. Yet, she can’t stay away from trouble. This up-tempo rocker is led by both Zimmerman and Davis’ acoustic guitar licks. Yes, acoustic guitars on this rocking, fast paced song. It’s a great track that shows what Striking Matches are capable of in both vocals and musicianship. Davis leads the way on “Make A Liar Out Of Me.” He’s been burned by love and vowed to never love again. Her love however is tempting enough where he encourages her to make him a liar; he wants her love. With a bluesy guitar in the forefront creating an infectious rhythm and a fantastic guitar solo on the song’s outro, “Make A Liar Out Of Me” stands out as one of the better tracks here.

The pair slow it down for the title track. Their relationship has fallen to a point where they aren’t speaking to one another. Davis leads the vocals here again, and pleads for communication to happen. “There’s nothing but the silence in between us that hasn’t already been broken…can we break it tonight?” Sarah Zimmerman’s harmonies on this track are a perfect fit behind Davis. Though the lyrics can get repetitive here, “Nothing But The Silence” still tells a great story. “Hanging On A Lie” is another one of the top tracks on this album. Zimmerman takes the lead on this song about calling out her man on his lies. She knows it’s over; she knows he’s a liar, and she simply wants him to spit out the truth before she leaves. The production on this song is fantastic: a grooving beat behind Zimmerman’s wonderful vocals creates a beautiful melody on this country rock tune.

“Never Gonna Love Again” is a solid mid-tempo track. A noteworthy percussion beat drives this song where Zimmerman sings of catching her man cheating on her. This breaks her spirit to the point where she believes she’ll never love again. Again, this a song that features a bit of repetition with the lyrics, but Zimmerman’s vocals are nearly flawless here. She sells the pain and anger of the situation presented on this song. And after an intense heartbreak song, Striking Matches brings forth one the best love songs I’ve heard in a while. “When The Right One Comes Along” was a tune featured on Nashville, but reproduced a bit on this album. A soft electric guitar and a simple drum beat behind Sarah’s beautiful vocals. The song discusses how you’ll know in your heart when you meet the one. “There’s no music, no confetti. Crowds don’t cheer and bells won’t ring. But you’ll know it, I can guarantee, when the right one comes along.” It’s a love song that tells a beautiful story without tired, clichéd bits from almost every other love song in existence.

“What A Broken Heart Feels Like” bring back the duets of Sarah and Justin. The two trade lines and harmonize well and talk about the aftermath of a breakup. Reminders from photographs and support from friends can’t change the immediate pain one feels after a relationship ends. On “Miss Me More” the relationship ends on a bit of bitter note. He ends it and tries to move on, and she calls him out on how much he’ll miss her afterwards. She doesn’t want him to crawl back to her though. This song features a great harmonies (have I mentioned that already?) on top of a simple, rocking upbeat production. Yet, the relationship on “Like Lovers,” while still ending, wishes to end of strong note. It’s a slow tempo ballad where the couple wants to walk away like lovers.

Up next is “Missing You Tonight.” As Josh wrote in his review of the song, “it’s a tad repetitive and I was really waiting for the climax of this song to blow me away. Instead it was kind of whimper. I could say the same of the instrumentation. They simply didn’t reach the full potential of this song.” There’s not a bad song on this album, but I’d say “Missing You Tonight” is the weakest of the bunch. The song, in it’s production and vocal performances, seems much more subdued than the rest of the album, especially compared to the first two tracks. The album ends on a slow note with “God And You.” It’s another love song, this time led by Justin Davis. He sings how he carries a hard heart and stubborn personality. Yet the only two who have been able to successfully challenge his personality and bring out his venerable side are God and his love. It’s another unique love song with great lyrics.

Overall, Nothing But The Silence shines as a great debut album. Producer T Bone Burnett brings out his signature style for Striking Matches. At times, the songs can find themselves to be repetitive. Lyrics are repeated over and over again, and the similar themes can find themselves a bit tiring. However, there’s a unique production among the songs; and the music is truly unlike what you hear on country radio. There’s an energy and life within this album, especially on the mid tempo and upbeat tracks. Striking Matches have a reputation for energetic performances, and it’s easy to see why after hearing this album. If country radio latches onto Striking Matches, than we’re in for a treat. They are one of the best country duos out there; miles better than the aforementioned Florida Georgia Line, Dan + Shay, and Thompson Square. Nothing But The Silence comes highly recommended: well-written songs and stories with a fresh, entertaining production.

Grade: 8/10

 

Album Review – The Lone Bellow’s Then Came The Morning is Phenomenal

The Lone Bellow

Why didn’t I listen to The Lone Bellow sooner? That was my thought after listening to their new album. For those who don’t know who The Lone Bellow are they are a trio from Brooklyn, New York. It’s comprised of Zach Williams (lead vocalist and guitarist), Kanene Pipkin (vocalist and mandolin player) and Brian Elmquist (vocalist and guitarist). Their music is really hard to describe because they dabble with so many different genres. The best I could describe it is alt-country mixed with blues, rock, roots and pop. Their songs are a melting pot of genres. Normally I save my recommendation thoughts at the end of a review, but I just want to get it out-of-the-way now. Go buy The Lone Bellow’s Then Came The Morning album. It’s simply fantastic and I’m going to do my best to tell you why every song on this album is damn good.

The album starts off with the upbeat and gospel influenced “Then Came the Morning.” The combination of the harmony interludes along with the hints of horn production give this song an infectious harmony that makes you want to listen to it over and over again. It immediately draws the listener into the album. Needless to say, this is an excellent start to the record. This is followed by the heartbreak song, “Fake Roses.” It’s about a woman who had her heart-broken and as a result has shut herself away from the rest of the world. She tries to get lost in watching television. Williams does a great job establishing the somber attitude of the song in the beginning and then the harmonizing at the end really drives it home.

“Marietta” is a love song where a man tries to win a woman named Marietta’s love back. He pleads to her and says that he’ll let her back into his heart, as he can’t shake his love for her. This is a love song with real emotion and heart that will appeal to a lot of people. And the vocal performance in this song is dynamite. It’s arguably the best song on the album, amongst many great songs. Next is another pleading love song in “Take My Love.” This song is more straightforward and not as emotional. It’s as if it’s a follow-up to “Marietta” after the man has got the woman’s attention and is now just begging for her to take his love. The hook in this song will definitely get stuck in your head and that’s a good thing.

Once again the harmonies shine in “Call To War.” It’s a song about a woman who lost her husband to war and how she won’t rest until he’s found. No matter what though her love will triumph over it all. The best line of the song is “remember when the mountains fell like pennies down a wishing well.” It’s really the punctuation mark of this song. Really though Kanene Pipkin’s vocal performance is what makes this song stand out. “Watch Over Us” is one of the more mellow tracks on the album. The acoustic guitar is the only instrumentation used in the song, so the trio’s vocals are front and center. This is probably the weakest song on the album, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad song. It’s actually good. When this is the worst song on an album, you know you’re listening to something pretty special.

This is followed by another stand out song, “Diners.” The lead vocals on this song are spectacular and really set the emotion. The setting of this song takes place in a diner late at night where a man laments letting love, using comparisons to jukeboxes. And of course the harmonies are stellar again. The Lone Bellow kicks the tempo up on “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home.” This is the kind of song that will get you to stand up and dance. I dare you to try to listen to this song and not move your head as you listen. You can’t because it’s impossible. I can imagine the band had as much fun recording this one, as the fans have listening to it. “If You Don’t Love Me” is a bluesy country rock song about giving an ultimatum to a significant other that they can leave or let you go if they don’t love you. It’s an upbeat song with a “tell it like it is” attitude. It’s one of the less serious tracks on the album.

The quietest track on the album is “Telluride.” The song is about a small mountain town in Colorado named Telluride. The town became well-known during the gold rush in the earlier years of America. Many called it “to hell you ride” and there are two meanings behind this phrase. One because it was dangerous to ride their on horseback (I’m assuming Hickory is referring to a horse possibly in the song) and two because it was infamous for it’s bars and brothels, which miners blew their money on. It’s a really neat story and this song does a great job telling it. This is followed by the shortest track on the album, “To The Woods.” It’s a nice little folksy ditty that can breeze right by if you don’t pay attention. It feels like an epilogue to “Telluride.”

The most rocking and dynamic sounding song on the album is “Cold As It Is.” This is a fantastic fusion of blues, country and rock. Just like “Heaven Don’t Call Me Home,” this song will make you want to move your feet. As for the theme, it’s about not leaving your significant other no matter how cold the relationship can be. I know this is a song I will be playing over and over for a while. It’s so damn good and one of the best on an album full of great songs. The album ends with “I Let You Go,” a heartbreak love song about letting love go in hopes that they would come back to you. It kind of plays on the saying of “if you love something you will let it go.” Your brain is saying letting go is the best thing to do, but your heart wants the opposite. It’s a beautiful harmony that concludes a phenomenal album.

The Lone Bellow’s Then Came The Morning simply blows me away. The year is still new, but this album will hold up as one of the best in country music all year. I don’t think it would be a stretch to call this trio one of the most dynamic in music. If you’re looking for a comparison, I would say the closest is Shovels & Rope, except more bluesy and not quite as dark. So if you love Shovels & Rope, you’ll love this group. Some may say this isn’t a country album, but I don’t care what genre you put it under. This is just great music that everyone should hear. This is without a doubt a strong contender for Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year.

Grade: 10/10

Review – Striking Matches’ “Missing You Tonight”

Throughout country music history there has always been a dynamic duo making country music. From Brooks & Dunn to the Civil Wars to Country Perspective’s 2014 Group of the Year First Aid Kit, you’ll certainly find no shortage of talented duos. Well there’s a new duo on the block in country music and their name is Striking Matches. The duo is made up of Sarah Zimmerman (guitar/mandolin/vocals) and Justin Davis (guitar/vocals). They are part of the newly revived I.R.S. Nashville label, which was brought back to life in 2013 by well-known Nashville music executive John Grady. To add even more intrigue to this duo, their upcoming debut album is going to be produced by famous producer T Bone Burnett, who has produced everything from Alison Krauss to Robert Plant to 2014 Country Perspective Album of the Year candidate The Secret Sisters’ album Put Your Needle Down. Today I look at the lead single from their debut album, “Missing You Tonight.”

The song starts off with a mid-tempo electric guitar and a drum beat. It reminds me a lot of late 70s rock music. The tempo and beat pretty much stay the same throughout the song. The bridge has some nice earthy guitar licks too. The instrumentation on this song is certainly interesting. As Striking Matches describes themselves on their site, they’re a combination of country, rock and blues. This song certainly supports this claim and it’s definitely different compared to other songs you hear from mainstream artists. Upon first listen I didn’t really know how to feel about it. After a few more listens the sound has grown on me more. I would like to hear some more country influences, but I also appreciate the bluesy rock feel they’re going for here.

As for the theme of the song, it’s about two lovers who can’t stand to be away from each other because they’re so in love with each other. The first lyrics sang in this song by Zimmerman are:

Don’t hang up/I just wanted to hear your voice/I know we said we would give it some time/I don’t want to start a fire and I don’t want to start a fight/I was just missing you tonight

Basically they’re afraid to be too aggressive in expressing their love to the other, but at the same time are also afraid they aren’t being aggressive enough in showing it. Think along the lines of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now.” I was definitely more impressed with Zimmerman’s vocals in this song and that’s probably what is intended, as Davis is more suited as the second fiddle in this type of song. I thought Zimmerman’s ability to express that desperation in her vocals made up for the lack of storytelling in the lyrics.

Speaking of the lyrics I think they’re just okay and could have been much more. It takes a few listens to not only interpret the sound, but the lyrics in this song. It feels like the line “I was just missing you tonight” is repeated over and over. Needless to say it’s a tad repetitive and I was really waiting for the climax of this song to blow me away. Instead it was kind of whimper. I could say the same of the instrumentation. They simply didn’t reach the full potential of this song and I put a big part of the blame on T Bone Burnett. Sometimes his production choices enhance the songs and in other cases, like “Missing You Tonight,” it hurts the song.

Even though it’s not a great song, I still find it to be decent and I applaud Striking Matches for bringing something different to the table. I definitely think there’s some potential with this duo. Their debut album titled Nothing But The Silence is coming out on March 24 and we’ll definitely be reviewing it here. I want this duo to succeed because they seem quite likable and they’re obviously talented. “Missing You Tonight” is not their best effort and I can’t really recommend it. However I do recommend keeping an eye on this duo because as I said above they have potential.

Grade: 6/10