Derek’s Top Ten Country & Americana Songs – November 2015

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 1.03.07 PM

Fall tends to slow down in the release department, but there’s always enough for a top ten list. Tim McGraw’s newest album was, to me, surprisingly good with a couple standout songs. Eric Church’s surprise album release is solid from start to finish. Josh Abbott Band’s concept album yielded a few solid country songs, and Maren Morris’ debut EP showcases a budding pop country star. Before we dive into a month of handing out awards, let’s recap November one last time.

  1. “Record Year” by Eric Church – I can confidently say this is one of the best songs of the year in my opinion. As Josh said, Mr. Misunderstood was Church’s love letter to music and “Record Year” tells of how Church rediscovered some favorites while coping with a breakup.
  2. “Humble And Kind” by Tim McGraw – Lori McKenna is one of Nashville’s best songwriters, and “Humble And Kind” is a prime example of why I believe that. McGraw’s vocals are sincere as he lists off advice on living a good life. This was the perfect song to end Damn Country Music.
  3. “Wasn’t That Drunk” by Josh Abbott Band (feat. Carly Pearce) – Even though I misinterpreted how Act II plays out on Josh Abbott Band’s Front Row Seat, it doesn’t change the fact that “Wasn’t That Drunk” is simply a great country song. The tune details how Abbott and his wife began to fall in love and move forward. The vocals from both Abbott and Pearce are great, and the mid-tempo country production works perfectly.
  4. “Don’t Make Me Feel At Home” by Tim McGraw – Originally recorded by Wesley Dennis, this cheating country song is well told. A man who yearns for passion away from a stagnant, comfortable home. The production is a timeless country ballad and McGraw’s vocals have never sounded better.
  5. “My Church” by Maren Morris – Morris sings of how driving and belting out classic country songs bring comfort to her soul. She name drops Johnny Cash and Hank Williams without pandering and sings confidently. With an upbeat production and anthemic chorus, “My Church” (and Morris’ EP as a whole) is a good example of good pop country.
  6. “Knives Of New Orleans” by Eric Church – From the first strum of the acoustic guitar on this track, the mood is set for an epic adventure. Church details how he tries to get away after committing a crime. The passion in the vocals and production is ever-present and the song steadily builds in a beautifully fashion.
  7. “Ghosts” by Josh Abbott Band – This heartbreak song details the pain of getting over a broken relationship. The heavy production aids the tone of the song well, and Abbott sings the lyrics nicely, building and layering the hurt in the words as the song progresses.
  8. “Mistress Named Music” by Eric Church – A singer singing about how much he/she loves to sing songs isn’t the most original topic for a song, but Church’s subdued delivery draws the listener in as the blended production of country, rock and gospel keep the interest piqued. And it’s my personal taste, but I love songs that add a gospel choir for vocal harmonies. The last two minutes of this song are fantastic.
  9. “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” by Maren Morris – Simply put, this no-bullshit approach to a friend who keeps falling for the same guy is hilarious. Trusting this guy to follow through on his words is like saying drunk girls don’t cry, everyone knows it’s wrong. The lyrics are strong, Morris owns the song with her attitude, and the pop country production works.
  10. “Autumn” by Josh Abbott Band – After the blow of the relationship’s end calms, “Autumn” tells of how Abbott’s wife is moving forward with her life. It’s a song about accepting life’s situation and changing your response to a proactive one from a reactive one.

Comment below with your favorites of the month!

Album Review – Breaking Down Josh Abbott Band’s Concept Album ‘Front Row Seat’

I haven’t always been crazy about Josh Abbott Band’s music. And to be frank, I lost quite a bit of respect for the man after he admitted to infidelity in his marriage. But when Abbott came out and said his newest album was to be a concept album about his infinitely and breakup, I was interested, merely because the idea of a concept album is interesting. You may remember my Hodgepodge about how albums as a musical art piece have become lost in this day and age. I don’t necessarily like how Abbott is using his very public admission of infidelity as a marketing springboard for this album, but I’ll set aside those personal feelings to look at the concept of Front Row Seat.

Josh Abbott lays out the songs of the album in five acts respectively titled: Exposition, Incitation, Intimacy, Dissolution, (Denouement). In sticking with the theme of a front row seat to a show, the songs are listed as “scenes” to this story. I’ll break down each act as it relates to the overall story of the album while providing basic commentary on how the songs add to the story. The songs are viewed from the lens of the album and the context they provide, and not necessarily how the songs may fair on their own. However, there are a few songs on Front Row Seat that can work well out of the album’s context, and I’ll highlight those as I approach them.

Screen Shot 2015-11-12 at 8.25.44 AM
Photo courtesy of Zack Kephart

Act 1: Exposition

The first act rightfully serves as an introduction to the core couple. Since Abbott has been open about the inspiration for this album, I have no reservations characterizing this couple as Josh Abbott and his wife. The two meet at a bar (“While I’m Young”), continue to get to learn things about one another (“I’ve Been Known”), and take their physical intimacy to the next level (“Live It While You Got It”). These three songs work well as an introduction as all three are more up beat/mid tempo ready for radio country songs: you’ll hear plenty of banjo and fiddle in the production mix. And in respect to the story, each song adds a new layer to the budding relationship.

Act 2: Incitation

The second act turns the corner and details the cheating incident. “Wasn’t That Drunk” is sung as a duet with Carly Pearce, an upcoming country artist in Nashville. “Wasn’t That Drunk” is one of the stronger songs on Front Row Seat as both parties detail how even though they’d been drinking, they were both well aware of their actions and chose to get together. The following songs “Kiss You Good” and “If It Makes You Feel Good” further explain how far and passionate the affair grew. This act continues a trend of happier sounding, upbeat to mid-tempo country production within the songs. Act 3 will also continue this upbeat country trend, which is worth noting.

Act 3: Intimacy

The three scenes in Act 3 are all love songs. The title, Intimacy, speaks to an emotional intimacy felt between the characters. Within the order of songs, it’s suggested that this intimacy is between Abbott and his mistress, but I think you can make the argument that it’s between Abbott and his wife as well. The ambiguity of who the subjects are in these three songs sets the story back, which is critical as this intimacy should aid the later acts in the emotional blows. When we listen to Abbott sing about responding to the crazy love things she says (“Crazy Things”) we don’t know who ‘she’ is. As Josh Abbott raves about having a front row seat to her life and being close to her heart (“Front Row Seat”) it’s not obvious if it’s the closeness he shares with his wife, or if he and the mistress are the ones growing closer. The final scene of the chapter, “Kisses We Steal,” seems to imply that this is sung to his mistress because of the line: “Say goodbye to the secret fever, kisses we steal make me want you so much deeper.” As a core group of songs, this act does a great job establishing a loving, deep relationship. However, the lack of clarity on the female character keeps this act from making the necessary emotional impact.

Act 4: Dissolution

I’ve been noting the musical production because as act 4 begins, the tone of Front Row Seat shifts from happy, upbeat country to a darker, more emotional pop country production. The tone is fitting as this act is about the end of the marriage and couple falling apart. Abbott takes responsibility and laments of his actions in “Born to Break Your Heart,” another strong song on its own with cutting lyrics that tell the story without the need for an exaggerated emotional delivery. Abbott’s lamentation and guilt continues in “Ghosts.” You can infer that he wants another chance, but she makes it clear that they’re done in “This Isn’t Easy (Her Song).” The songs layer together nicely continuing a conversation and moving from confession to definitive end swiftly without missing an emotional beat.

Act 5: (Denouement)

The conclusion begins with a 90 second interlude (“Intro: A Loss of Memory”) leading right into the album’s first single, “Amnesia.” I concluded that song review by saying the song is weak on its own, but it does gain some strength within the context of the album. This is Abbott’s emotional valley; his lowest point. His guilt and pain is too much for him that he’d rather forget it happened than live with his actions. “Autumn” finds Abbott thinking about his ex-wife, believing that she will move on and grow stronger after he tore her down. He’s accepted where he’s at and what he’s done, and wants her to be happy. The light-weighted string production adds to the comfort in the song’s lyrics. Our story ends with acoustic “Anonymity” where Abbott continues to reminisce about their time together. Even though the darkness of night may bring bad memories, the light of the moon will shine and comfort them until the light of morning rises. It’s a more ambiguous ending that let’s the listener fill in the blanks of our characters’ fates, but Front Row Seat ends on note hope that both will be eventually be good.

Overall Thoughts

For the most part, Front Row Seat is a decently constructed concept album. There’s a clear beginning, middle and end, but the album does have some flaws. Firstly, at 16 tracks, I think the album is a bit too long. Removing songs like “Kiss You Good.” “Intro: A Loss of Memory” and “Anonymity” would still tell a complete story and bring the album to a better 13 true songs.

Secondly, I think the overall story and emotional impact of the album would be improved by swapping acts 2 and 3. By having the acts laid out as they are and having act 3 refer to the mistress, we spend a chunk of 6 songs listening to that relationship develop, only to take a hard left turn into the dissolve of the marriage. This doesn’t work because the introductory tracks doesn’t establish a strong enough relationship for the desired effect of the final two acts. Why are we to care that Josh Abbott is so torn up by this break up when we spend nearly half the album following the good of his affair? Also, why would you spend all that time developing a relationship with a character who’s simply forgotten in the final two acts?

But if the intimacy act refers to the wife character, when we swap 2 and 3: we’re introduced to the characters and the first days of their relationship immediately followed by the Intimacy act where more depth and love is added into this couple. For six songs, we track the growth and depth of a loving relationship only to have our cages rattled by “Wasn’t That Drunk.” Also, by building those to acts uninterrupted, Front Row Seat would better deliver the desired emotional impact of songs like “Born to Break Your Heart” and “Amnesia.”

I think Front Row Seat simply misses the mark on the emotional impact a story like this should bring. I’m not advocating for a story where we sympathize with the cheater, but ambiguity of Act 3 as it stands now keeps the final two acts from delivering their emotional punch to the listener. I think it’s an album worth listening to at least once. Even if you’re not a fan of the concept album, Texas country fans are treated with a handful of good songs like “Wasn’t That Drunk” or “Autumn.” A concept album is not an easy undertaking and Josh Abbott does a good job telling a story within each act of Front Row Seat. It’s the way the acts themselves are structured that hinders the concept.

Grade: 6.5/10