Album Review – William Michael Morgan’s ‘Vinyl’

william-michael-morgan-vinyl

A traditional revival in mainstream/radio country is something that many fans have been craving for quite a while. Of course traditional country has never really died in the broader sense for anyone who expands their listening beyond the radio, but that’s a topic for a different day. For those who limit themselves to what country radio and the major labels churn out, there’s definitely been a lack of traditional country in the last five years. When Chris Stapleton had his breakout night at the 2015 CMA Awards and the subsequent skyrocketing of his popularity afterwards, it prompted a lot of labels to re-examine themselves and prioritize putting out their own traditional country artists. After all “the industry propagates things it stands to benefit from.” Enter Warner Nashville artist William Michael Morgan. The traditional country artist from Vicksburg, Mississippi has been one of the breakout stars of the genre this year with his single “I Met A Girl.” His breakout has made a lot of traditional country fans excited about his potential and possibilities, especially since his music is being heard on the radio. To say his debut album Vinyl has been highly anticipated by these fans is an understatement. I myself have been looking forward to it too. So I dove headfirst into this album and one thing for certain from the very first listen is there’s definitely a palpable sound of traditional country throughout it.

Vinyl kicks off with “People Like Me,” an upbeat tune about the working man. It’s about the person who doesn’t go to college, doesn’t have a filter on their mouth and bust their backs working nine to five everyday. While the sentiment of the song is in the right place, the whole song paints an us vs them theme that kind of rubs me the wrong way. Not to mention it’s a tired trope I’ve heard numerous times and done better. It’s just hard to get much out of a generic theme like this. The instrumentation is nice though, decidedly in that 90s country vein of rowdy and catchy that fans grew to love. Some pedal steel guitar plays in the album’s title track “Vinyl.” As you can guess from the title, the song revolves around vinyl, as the man compares his love for his woman to music on vinyl. Just like vinyl, he says his woman is the “old fashioned” type that you don’t see too many of anymore. This analogy works well enough and with vinyl’s popularity continuing to surge, it smartly appeals to a lot of people. It’s most likely the second single from the album, as it’s been getting a lot of airplay on Sirius XM’s The Highway for months.

“Missing” is undoubtedly one of the best tracks on the album. The song is about just going missing for a while, off to a place where the world can’t annoy you and getting away from the noise of everyday life. It’s a feeling we all experience. It’s just a simple theme, yet resonates so deeply because it’s a song rooted in real feelings that real people experience. The fiddles and steel guitar heard throughout are like a hot knife cutting through butter. The lead single of the album and Morgan’s first hit I’m sure of many, “I Met A Girl,” is next. The song is about a man meeting a girl (you could figure this out from the title) and the ways this girl make him feel. He’s obviously struck by her. That being said there isn’t a lot of meat to this song either. Then again with a first single you can’t expect something too deep and really this goes deeper than most debut singles. As many have heard already, Nashville pop artist Sam Hunt helped write it and I’m sure that will make your head spin if I just broke the news to you.

Following this is “Spend It All on You,” a song with a sort of lingering tone. It’s about a man wanting save up all of his time to spend it with the love of his life. Again just like “People Like Me,” this song just doesn’t do much for me. When I say it has a lingering tone, I don’t just refer to the production and instrumentation. The lyrics are pretty generic and the song feels like it drags on too long, even though it clocks in just over three and a half minutes. For a romantic love song, I think it tries too hard to convey this feeling. “Beer Drinker” is what you would call one of the most “radio friendly” songs on Vinyl. The song is about shouting out all of the hard-working people out there who bust their ass and finish it off with cold beers at the end of the week. It’s an ode to the working man. But while the lyrics err on the side of radio friendly, the instrumentation is still decidedly country. Think of this as a better, more country version of Lee Brice’s “Drinking Class.”

The deepest and best song on the album is hands down “I Know Who He Is.” Written by Casey Beathard, the song is about a man seeing his father suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and forgetting who he is. But the son reminds us that he remembers who he is and how important his father has been to him throughout his life. The song is a real tear-jerker having to listen to a son watching his father slowly fade away. Alzheimer’s disease is probably one of the scariest diseases someone has to watch their loved one suffer through and this song perfectly captures that feeling. This is followed up by another well-written love ballad, “Cheap Cologne.” Or I should say heartbreak ballad, as the song is about a man having a sneaking suspicion his woman is cheating on him. He can smell “the honky tonk in her hair” in the form of cigarettes and cheap cologne. Of course he doesn’t smoke nor wear cheap cologne. It’s pretty obvious she’s cheating, although it’s never clearly answered. This is another song I think would make a great choice to release as a single, as it’s not only strongly country, but the lyrics are catchy too.

“Somethin’ to Drink About” is another generic drinking song. That may be hard for some to admit, but it’s true. If you gave this song a more rock sound, it wouldn’t be out of place on a Jason Aldean album. There’s just nothing to remember about this song, as it comes off as filler. Fortunately this is followed by one of the best tracks on the album, “Lonesomeville.” If you’re looking at the title and instantly thinking of Joe Nichols’ #1 hit “Brokenheartsville,” well you’re going to think of it more when you hear the song. Just like that hit, this is your classic heartbreak, drinking country song. The man’s love has left and now he’s left alone to pick up the pieces of his broken heart. The songwriting is sharp and can really hit an emotional spot to some listeners. This is a great credit to the writers of the song: Morgan, Trent Tomlinson, Mark Sherill and Ash Underwood. The album concludes with “Back Seat Driver,” a song about a father dealing with his son growing up and moving out. The main focus is around the father giving pointers to his son on driving and making sure he’s prepared for anything. Of course this is beyond driving and about life in general, as he tells his son that he can’t be his back seat driver anymore (in life or in the car). While this theme will come off as saccharine to some, I think it will resonate with many younger listeners and connect with them in a big way. Overall it’s another pretty solid song from Morgan and a great way to close the album.

I have to be honest with you: William Michael Morgan’s Vinyl was kind of disappointing. While yes this album is without a doubt traditional country and features pedal steel and fiddle throughout, the lyrics are pretty lukewarm at multiple times. It’s what ultimately drags this album down for me, which is a shame because there are some truly great songs on it like “I Know Who He Is” and “Lonesomeville.” I think that’s something many tend to forget when it comes to major label artists and that is there’s still a great chance of major label writing, which can get derivative and monotonous. When I can point out multiple songs on this album that fit this description, that isn’t good. Despite this album’s flaws though I think it’s still a good album and a nice start for Morgan’s career. Vinyl does more things right than wrong and Morgan’s heart is certainly in the right place. The instrumentation is definitely one of the standout aspects of the album. Hopefully the lyrics can match it on the next one.

Grade: 7/10

*parts of this review originally appeared in my review of Morgan’s self-titled EP*

Review – Tucker Beathard’s “Rock On”

Tucker Beathard Rock On

Oh look, another new artist being shoved down our throats. If there’s one thing Music Row doesn’t run out of, it’s starry-eyed, young artists hoping to be big country stars and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to make it big. Nowadays they all have the perfect look that make label executives swoon and Tucker Beathard is no different. It helps tremendously too that Beathard is the son of Casey Beathard, who is a well-known country writer. As Thomas Rhett can attest, nepotism can be a big help. Beathard has been around for a few years, but is just now starting to get a big push as he’s part of Big Machine Label Group’s Dot Records imprint. His new single “Rock On” is the newest pick by the On The Verge program, which ensures singles skyrocket up the airplay chart. You’ve probably never heard of it and it already is up to #30 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart.

There’s one thing that stands out clear as day right away to me when I hear “Rock On.” Tucker Beathard is a terrible singer. His voice is absolutely grating to the ears. I would describe his voice as party whiny and part jagged. He could not carry a tune in a bucket. Beathard is basically a quieter, poor man’s Brantley Gilbert as a vocalist. With a voice this bad it’s hard to even listen to the song. Speaking of the song, it’s about a man pondering about an ex who has now moved on and while he wished her the best, he still lives with the regret of not putting a “rock” on her finger. In other words, this guy is sitting around thinking about a relationship that will never happen that he blew and just repeats over and over how he should have committed. While the hook of “rock on” is catchy, that’s about the only appeal I can see to the casual listener. The song just isn’t that interesting, which was written by Beathard, his father and Marla Cannon-Goodman. The generic rock instrumentation is even more boring.

Overall “Rock On” is just another mediocre, generic song that country radio will force down listeners throats. It’s same song, different face. Even if you gave this song to a competent vocalist, the song still wouldn’t be appealing. You know you’re listening to a bad song when three and a half minutes feels like five minutes. I can see this song appealing to fans of Brantley Gilbert and other country artists who churn out rock trying to be country. Otherwise I think once the On The Verge push stops, this song will sink like a rock. Then again Chase Bryant and Lee Brice still manage to find airplay. As long as you’re willing to play the game with country radio, your song will get played. I think a better name for “Rock On” would “Turn Off,” as about 30 seconds of this song will make you want to do the latter.

Grade: 2/10

Album Review – Eric Church’s ‘Mr. Misunderstood’ is His Best Work Yet

Eric Church Mr. Misunderstood

What a surprise! Eric Church caught the entire world off guard when he released his brand new album Mr. Misunderstood in the midst of the 2015 CMA Awards. The first signs of it didn’t appear until members of Church’s fan club received it in the mail days before it was available to the public. Then everyone listened to it and I think I can speak for most people when I say we once again said, “What a surprise!” I never reviewed Church’s previous album The Outsiders here on Country Perspective, but anyone who has followed this site for a while has known my stance on it. I wasn’t fond of it all and found it to be highly overrated and over-produced. I found it to be a sonic mess with no cohesive theme or direction while also lacking a country sound for the most part. I was definitely one of the most negative about it amongst critics. I like to think Church listened to this feedback because every problem I had with The Outsiders is non-existent on Mr. Misunderstood. This album is a complete 180 and features what I consider the deepest and most inspirational music of Church’s entire career.

The album’s title track and lead single kicks this album off. It’s an appropriate opener, as it essentially lays out what this album is all about and that’s Eric Church and his love of music. Church sings about how he grew up as “Mr. Misunderstood,” the kid in the back of the class who didn’t fit in with his friends who “got their rocks off” on top 40 radio. Instead he was the kid who listened to his dad’s vinyl and the likes of Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy (a really cool shout out to three talented artists who have clearly influenced him). It’s an acoustic driven track influenced by southern and heartland rock. There were many things I found relatable about this song and I think many other listeners feel the same when they hear it. This is Eric Church at his best, something I find myself saying a lot as I listened to this album.

The gospel-influenced “Mistress Named Music” follows. Just like “Mr. Misunderstood,” Church sings of his love of music and how it’s been a part of his life ever since he was a kid listening to the organ player in church. The instrumentation on this song is really well done, perfectly meshing country, rock and gospel to create a compelling and interesting listen. It should be noted Church wrote both of these first two songs of the album with Casey Beathard, a fellow country artist and somewhat known songwriter. The upbeat and acoustic-driven “Chattanooga Lucy” is the closet thing to a party song on this album, although I wouldn’t classify it as such. It is a very fun song to listen to and move your feet along with. There’s not a lot of depth on this song, but that’s not a problem considering most of this album has a lot of depth and takes on a more serious tone. So this is a nice breakup and something to play when you’re looking for some mindless music to put on in the background. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a heartbreak song penned solely by Church himself. The man in the song is trying to drink his sorrows away after his woman left him and it’s not helping that much. Church duets on the song with blues artist Susan Tedeschi and their voices go together greatly. Their voices and instrumentation create the perfect mood in the song and it’s arguably the one of the best heartbreak songs Church has released.

There are many great songs throughout this album. But one of the standouts amongst them and most buzzed about I’ve heard so far is “Knives of New Orleans.” The song is about a criminal on the run trying to escape his sins and looking for his getaway key. It’s one of those songs you have to hear for yourself to truly appreciate and once you do you know it just fits Church perfectly. He wrote the song with the brilliant Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman and I would have loved to be in the room when they finished penning this song because I can only imagine the reaction. One of the more under-looked songs on the album, “Round Here Buzz,” is next. It’s about a man sitting on the hood of his car drinking, as he thinks about the girl who just left him. He’s perfectly content to just sit there and take in everything around him, as his heart heals. Living in a small town is part of the theme of this song too and unlike in The Outsiders, Church avoids being cheesy or unimaginative and instead does a great job describing it in an authentic way. It’s a really solid song that takes a few listens to really grasp, but once you do you definitely appreciate it much more.

One of my personal favorites on Mr. Misunderstood is “Kill A Word.” It’s about getting rid of negative words and really negativity in general, as Church says words are something that can’t be unheard or unsaid. The songwriting is really sharp, clever and catchy, while also avoiding the pitfall of getting too pandering (hello “We Shall Be Free). But really what takes this song to another level for me is the vocal performances delivered by Church and guest performers Andrea Davidson and Americana artist Rhiannon Giddens. I particularly want to highlight Giddens, who is an amazing artist and delivered the performance of the night at this year’s Americana Awards. I have an immense amount of respect for Church including her on such a powerful song. “Holdin’ My Own” is Church’s ode to his family. Another one penned solely by himself, Church is proud of how he’s been able to survive the early years of his life and how’s he now able to hold his arms around his wife and two boys and do what he loves for a living. You can tell how close and sentimental this song is to Church and his heart shows more on this song than any other on the album. This is a song straight from the heart and for the heart.

While I pretty much love this entire album, the best song on Mr. Misunderstood is “Record Year.” In fact I’ll go so far to say this may be the best song Eric Church has released in his entire career. “Record Year” is about a man who has just broken up with his girlfriend and turns to his vinyl collection to heal his heart. While he plays these records he slowly heals and not only gets over his heartbreak, but also rediscovers himself and some great music along the way. More than anything it’s a song about finding your way in life when things are at your darkest. When Church releases this as a single (it has to be a single), I predict it will be the biggest hit of his career and will go down as one of his signature songs. This is a special song that hits a home run in every department.

Mr. Misunderstood comes to a close with “Three Year Old.” Church is once again inspired by his family, particularly his three-year-old son Boone, on this song. He sings about all of the lessons he has learned from him and how it puts into context how simple life is through the eyes of a child. It reminds you as an adult how we can over complicate stuff and how we need to step back to realize this. It should also be mentioned his son nicknamed the guitar that Church wrote this album with, “Butter Bean.” So it goes back to where this album all began. Not to mention this album started off with Church relating back to his younger days and ends with him as an adult watching his own child grow up before his very eyes.

Mr. Misunderstood is hands-down the best album Eric Church has released in his career. While The Outsiders felt like a contrived, egotistical vanity project, Mr. Misunderstood is Church’s love letter to music. He went back to his roots while also incorporating a sense of freshness that had been needed in his music. It’s no secret that Church is not strictly a country artist and loves to dabble in other genres too. This has hurt him a lot in past albums, but on this one he finds the perfect balance. He incorporates influences from blues, soul, southern rock, heartland rock, folk, gospel and funk in a way that maintains the integrity of the music while also making something new and creative. The songwriting is sharp, well-written and varied in theme and the writers Church brought in alongside him fit well. While I wouldn’t call this an album of the year contender, it is definitely one of the top 30 albums I’ve heard in country this year. It’s an absolute must-listen. Mr. Misunderstood has made me believe in Eric Church and his music once again.

Grade: 9/10