Album Review — The Cadillac Three’s ‘COUNTRY FUZZ’

The Cadillac Three is a group I haven’t exactly embraced in the past. They were an easy target when they arrived on the scene amid the bro country era, especially being on a label like Big Machine that really pushed the sub-genre. But in hindsight I realized I was probably way too harsh on Jaren Johnston, Neil Mason, and Kelby Ray. I feel looking back that I didn’t view them objectively enough. So, I looked back through their discography and while they won’t be competing with Blackberry Smoke for the best modern country rock, I’ve realized this is a fun group that hits more than they miss. And on their newest album COUNTRY FUZZ, I think they’ve managed to put out their best album yet.

Opening track “Bar Round Here” is a feel-good bar anthem that’s easy to singalong with. It’s a fun song that hits just right at the end of a long work week. Also, it’s surprising to see Lori McKenna as a co-writer on this track, as this isn’t the type of song you’re used to seeing her pen. “The Jam” is another fun song that is a blast to both sing to and move to. It also shows off a funkier side of the group and it actually suits them well. The rhythmic guitars in juxtaposition with the bouncy drums helps this song easily live up to its name.

“Hard Out Here for a Country Boy” is a song on paper I wouldn’t enjoy, as the whole “I’m a country boy” theme is done to death in the genre. But the charisma of the trio along with guests Travis Tritt and Chris Janson makes the song instantly likeable and makes this common theme surprisingly work for me. It also helps that the sound is decidedly country with some well-placed crunchy harmonicas in the bridge. “Slow Rollin’” can feel a bit “butt rock-ish” at first, but upon repeat listens it’s really grown on me thanks to the song’s heavy guitar tones and it’s catchy lyrics.

“All the Makin’s of a Saturday Night” is one of my least favorite tracks on the album, as the group fails this time to make a well-worn theme work for me. The instrumentation just isn’t fun enough nor does it stand out. The lyrics aren’t really catchy either and the song is just too thin to really sink your teeth into. “Crackin’ Cold Ones with the Boys” is one of my favorites, as the group once again nails those heavy guitar tones that give the song both a head-bobbing quality and a sense of excitement. The hook is memorable too.

“Labels” is one of the more serious moments on the album, as the song is about not judging people by their looks and how there’s always more than meets the eye. While I would have liked for them to go a little bit deeper within the topic, it’s still an admirable message and they also still manage to put in some enjoyable guitar licks. “Raise Hell” is about coming to the realization of being a troublemaker, but also learning lessons from the years of raising hell. I particularly enjoy the funny line of “If me and the big man are on the outs then I guess I understand.” This song really highlights what I’ve realized is the secret sauce of this group and that’s their presentation and delivery. Their lyrics aren’t competing with Isbell anytime soon and their country rock sound isn’t unique. But they present it in a way that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is ultimately trying to just create a good time for the listener.

“Back Home” is about yearning to return to the sights and sounds of home. Again, this is a well-trodden theme of country music that I think The Cadillac Three manage to present as catchy, authentic and relatable to the average listener. Although I wouldn’t begrudge you for finding it a bit repetitive either. “Dirt Road Nights” is a slow, R&B-influenced jam about a couple getting nostalgic about cruising the backroads in their younger years. I like the theme, but I would have liked a little more “meat” to the story of the song to feel more connected to it. A little less repetitive and a little more background on the relationship the song focuses on.

“Blue El Camino” is everything you want in a country rock song: loud, in-your-face guitars that get you moving and an instantly catchy hook you’ll find humming to yourself long after listening to it. When I say want to hear more fun songs in country music again, this is it. “Jack Daniels’ Heart” is another song that’s a blast with it’s clever premise of pondering who was the girl who broke the heart of the famous whiskey maker. But it doesn’t matter as the song explains because the whiskey makes you forget. Throw in some great drumming from Mason that gives the song a beat with a real kick and this is again what I want out of a fun country song.

“Why Ya Gotta Go Out Like That” is a breakup song that gets a bit repetitive for my taste and at this point in the album the choice of making it 16 songs long is proving to be a stretch. I think this album would have benefitted more from knocking a few songs off it and staying closer to 12 songs in length, especially when a lot of the themes can get repetitive for some listeners. “Heat” is one of my favorites on this album with its swampy and smoky feel. I also love how Johnston delivers the hook with passion and authority, inviting the listener to want to shout along.

“Whiskey and Smoke” falls in the same category of “Why Ya Gotta Go Out Like That”; not necessarily a bad song, but unnecessary on an album at 16 songs that has other songs that cover the topic at hand much better. “Long After Last Call” is a softer love ballad that closes out the album. It’s a great choice for a closer due to its reflective, easy nature. It’s also a fitting conclusion that after all the fun and party throughout the album it ends with finding and cherishing that meaningful connection you want to keep going long after the party ends.

Fun is a word I repeat over and over in this review. And it’s for good reason: that’s the ultimate appeal of The Cadillac Three and their album COUNTRY FUZZ. It’s entertaining country rock that aims to help you have a good time and forget your worries. The lyrics aren’t deep, and they aren’t meant to be; they’re meant to singalong with and have fun. So while this album may not be one for the record books or album of the year lists, it is an album that entertains and it’s exactly what you’re looking for when you just want to listen to something with loud guitars and big hooks.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Blackberry Smoke’s ‘Like An Arrow’

blackberry-smoke-like-an-arrow

A fool once said in 2016, “There are no cool rock bands anymore.” This makes sense to someone like Jason Aldean, who puts out bad pop music parading to be country. It also makes sense to anyone who just follows mainstream music because rock has been dead in the mainstream for a while. But bands like Blackberry Smoke can assure that rock is not only alive, but it’s still kicking ass. It’s just not on the radio. It’s out there in the independent scene and at concerts across the world, its natural environment far away from corporations and suits who wouldn’t know rock if it bit them in the ass. Blackberry Smoke is one of those bands that occupies a unique space, somewhere between country and rock, or put more simply southern rock. They probably don’t get the respect they deserve from either genre because they have a foot in each. But they should because they’re one of the best bands in music today.

Their last album Holding All The Roses was one of the best of 2015 and served as my personal introduction to the band. I’ve since dug deep into their library and from beginning to present they’ve consistently put out some of the best southern rock in the modern era. They started out with Zac Brown’s label Southern Ground before moving onto being independent and partnering with Thirty Tigers, which suits the band just fine. Their music and attitude has a very independent spirit about it. They also have one of the most passionate and dedicated fan bases in both country and rock. Their new album Like an Arrow debuts at Billboard at #1 on the country chart (second in a row), #1 on the Americana chart and #3 on the rock chart. Needless to say this is an album I was anxiously ready to dive into and give a listen. I can confidently say that once again Blackberry Smoke delivers excellence.

This album kicks ass from the moment you hit play on “Waiting for the Thunder.” The impressive roaring guitars hit you in the face like a ton of bricks. The lyrics scathingly take down powerful institutions that put down the men and women who bust their ass to get by. It’s a tornado of a song that just sort of leaves you in awe after hearing it. This may be one of the band’s best songs ever. “Let It Burn” can be interpreted as a dig at Music Row and it’s bullshit (something the band addressed on their last album) or any old small town across the country where people are fed up with the way things are run. Either way the lyrics hit hard and the guitars hit harder.

One of the more sentimental moments on the album is “The Good Life.” It’s about a father passing onto his son the advice his own father gave him when he was young. It’s a song that promotes the values of family, hard work and tradition. The heart behind the lyrics could bring a tear to your eyes. This is probably one of the most well written songs I’ve ever heard from Blackberry Smoke. “Running Through Time” is one of those songs that band makes look and sound so easy. I love the soulful touches added in throughout the song, with an organ sneakily playing in the background. That soulful influence shows up again on “Believe You Me,” a song about you controlling your own destiny. Again the guitar work blows me away and combined with the soulful touches it just makes the band’s sound even better.

There are some songs on this album where you just have to sit back and admire the instrumentation work, like on “What Comes Naturally” and “Ought to Know.” The latter especially has a memorable riff in the bridge. The album’s title track is about life and how sometimes we go high and sometimes we go low, just like an arrow. The guitar work on this song is extremely impressive and you’ll find yourself jamming along to this song with ease. Both the lyrics and instrumentation are so damn infectious and catchy. The same can be said about “Workin’ for a Workin’ Man.” Starr and the band sing about the grievances and pains of the workingman under the man. It’s a battle cry for everyone who feels short-changed at their jobs and at life. I mean look at lyrics like, “This bait and switch is a son of a bitch, it ain’t workin’ for a workin’ man, I got to shuck and jive just to even survive.” I find it impossible not to be hooked by lyrics like this because it’s not only catchy, but it can have real anger and power behind it.

One song that sort of sneaks up on you is “Sunrise in Texas.” On the first listen it may not stand out as much as other songs on the album do, but with more listens it just gets better and better. Charlie Starr delivers one of his best vocal performances here, just belting the lyrics with conviction and fire. Then you have the crunchy guitars in the bridge and you just have to marvel at this song. “Ain’t Gonna Wait” leans more country than rock and shows this band could go straight country if they wanted to and sound just as great. But why choose one genre when you can nail two at once? Gregg Allman of the iconic Allman Brothers joins Blackberry Smoke on the album’s final song, “Free On The Wing.” This song is about finding your way in life and saying goodbye to old stories to say hello to new ones. It’s appropriate to see Allman do a song with the band because Blackberry Smoke is the modern-day successor to the Allman Brothers.

Hands down Like an Arrow is one of the best albums of 2016. Blackberry Smoke continue to demonstrate why they’re amongst the best in both country and rock. What’s amazing is how flawless they make it look. But I probably shouldn’t be surprised. Blackberry Smoke isn’t your ordinary band that goes through slumps and bad albums. They consistently churn out some of the best music you’ll hear today. You can chalk up Like an Arrow as another fantastic album from Blackberry Smoke.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – YES

Album Highlights: Waiting for the Thunder, The Good Life, Running Through Time, Like an Arrow, Sunrise in Texas, Workin’ For A Workin’ Man, Let It Burn

Bad Songs: Nope!

Wallpaper: Nope!


Album Review – Mudcrutch’s ‘2’

Before there was The Heartbreakers, Tom Petty had Mudcrutch, a southern rock/alt country band. Mudcrutch initially formed in 1970, but after fives year with no musical traction, the band split and Petty went on to do great things with The Heartbreakers. Over the last eight years though, Tom Petty has brought Mudcrutch back together for some short tours and a few album releases, including released in May. As mainstream country grew in popularity due to bro-country, Tom Petty turned heads with his comments on the music, calling it “bad rock with a fiddle.” While Mudcrutch falls into Americana with 2 rising up the Americana Airplay Chart, the album has a couple good offerings of country and rockabilly songs mixed in with Petty’s style of rock.

The album opens with a harmonica playing over a simple drum beat and guitar strum on “Trailer.” The song details a man who, upon graduating high-school, got himself a mobile home to start his own life with the girl he loves. “Trailer” highlights the ups and downs of their life together. “Dreams of Flying” sounds like a vintage Tom Petty rock song, with longer guitar solos accompanied by a faint organ sound. The lyrics hint at the attraction of the rock and roll lifestyle, with an itch to get out and explore the world and fly.

Mudcrutch slows it down with love song “Beautiful Blue.” The spacey, rock ballad production feature piano and organ keys along with another extended solo in the middle of the song, and a nice piano solo toward the song’s end. “Beautiful Blue” certainly has a callback sound to 70s classic rock. “Beautiful World” touches on love again, in a more anthemic, mid-tempo rock song. The song touches on mystery and uncertainties in life, but the love shared between the man and woman in the song make those uncertainties worth it. “I Forgive It All” takes a different approach to dealing with life’s curveballs. The acoustic ballad finds the narrator down on his luck with little money, but he keeps pushing along and forgiving the downs of life.

“The Other Side of the Mountain” takes a turn into country music with a prominent banjo setting the beat in the production. The “mountain” in the song separates two lovers who long to be with one another, but can’t figure out how to navigate around the mountain. “Hope” is another song with a classic rock production. The guitar lick in the middle of the song actually reminds me a bit of Eric Clapton and Cream’s “White Room.” The song is a thank you to a friend, or even a prayer to a religious figure, for providing hope and a more joyous outlook in life.

The rockabilly side of Mudcrutch comes out with “Welcome to Hell.” The piano beat and simple, repetitive drum beats make the song sound like a remastered 50s hit, a sound that suits the band well. “Welcome to Hell” details the fall of a relationship and marriage. The emotional nature of the lyrics is lost in contrast to the upbeat production, but the song works well as it’s produced. Failed relationships and the country sound continue in “Save Your Water.” The woman of this relationship is playing games, and he’s tired of playing along, so he finally burns bridges and breaks the ties. “Save Your Water” is ultimately forgettable.

The quick southern rock tune “Victim of Circumstance” is an upbeat driving song. In this relationship, the man is taking a long journey back to California, hoping his woman will welcome him with one more chance. Mudcrutch closes out 2 with the six-minute “Hungry No More.” The song tells the story of a man who’s been beaten down by life, yet he’s still determined to fight back and make the best out of the situation. “Hungry No More” is a slow burning track with a mid-tempo beat, but the songs packs a bunch in the final two minutes with a roaring guitar solo.

Mudcrutch’s second album showcases a good musical variety for Tom Petty and his bandmates. Mike Campbell (guitarist) and Benmont Tench (keyboards) are also members of The Heartbreakers. Drummer Randall Marsh and singer/guitarist Tom Leadon round out Mudcrutch. The five-piece band are experienced musicians and producers, and that experience helps this album work. The balance between country and rock and the way the two genres blend help shine. It’s the sort of album you come to expect from a group of musicians at this point in their career: solid, well-produced songs.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Brothers Osborne’s “Pawn Shop”

 

“I think people are tired of the bullshit and are ready for the real substance,”

John Osborne told that to Rolling Stone as new country music duo, Brothers Osborne, readied their second radio single, “Stay A Little Longer.” John (lead guitar) and his brother T.J. (vocals) are ready to go toe to toe with country’s hottest male duos like Florida Georgia Line and Dan + Shay. Osborne also said that we may be on the cusp of a country music era where songs will have longer shelf lives down the road. While that remains to be seen, Brothers Osborne seem poised to bring forth more organic music to country radio. The duo has a Grammy nomination for Country Group/Duo Performance for the Gold-Certified “Stay a Little Longer.” Riding the wave of a top five single and Grammy nomination, Brothers Osborne have released their first full length album with the help of producer Jay Joyce. Pawn Shop features 11 songs, all of which the brothers co-wrote with several of country’s hot shot writers like Jessi Alexander, Craig Wiseman, and Shane McAnally to name a few. I’d argue that Pawn Shop isn’t quite an album full of substance, but the Brothers Osborne certainly take country music a step in the right direction.

Brothers Osborne and Pawn Shop have already differentiated themselves from the pack with singles like “Rum” and “Stay a Little Longer.” But that’s taken one step further with the album’s lead track, “Dirt Rich.” A heavy picking acoustic guitar lays the ground for the melody before a simple percussion track joins the mix. The “less is more” attitude fits with this song’s production. Playing off the phrase “dirt poor,” the song encourages those blue-collar, down on your luck folks to embrace their situation. The appliances in the kitchen may be broken and the mailbox may be standing crooked, but that’s the way life goes sometimes. Brothers Osborne have more rock influence in their music than country, in my opinion, and “21 Summer” is one of the several songs on Pawn Shop that show the rock influence. The gentle beat of guitars and percussion set the mood for the nostalgic ballad. T.J. sings of the memories of the summer he turned 21 and the girl who made a man of him.

The album cut of “Stay a Little Longer” features an extended guitar outro that was cut from the radio edit. The song nicely strides the line between country and rock, fitting nicely into both genres. Brothers Osborne made a great choice with releasing the single to radio, because this is arguably the best song on the album. The whole package of lyrics, vocals, and production work together in “Stay a Little Longer.” “Pawn Shop” is a song where the heavy acoustic picking is in the forefront of the production mix. Sticking with the blue-collar themes of those just getting by, the song is an ode to pawn shops. Selling for some extra cash, finding what you need at a cheap rate, even if it isn’t the best. The deep, baritone vocals are a nice touch to the song with the production to help the song stand out. Even though the lyrical content is nothing special, the song is packaged nicely.

The duo’s lead single “Rum” comes next. As Josh wrote in the song review, “This is a song you listen to after a long day of work and just unwind to. The instrumentation used in this song is what really makes this song good. There are a lot of influences from rock, blues and folk mixed in with this country beat. Really the instrumentation is the star of “Rum.”” Brothers Osborne are joined by Lee Ann Womack for “Loving Me Back.” This love song finds a man happy with the fact that he’s found a woman who can love him back. The production of this song is top-notch. It’s simple with little guitar tracks. The production allows the vocals room to stand out, which is a good thing as T.J. Osborne and Lee Ann Womack harmonize together really well on the chorus of the song. The lyrics, though, of this song are a cliché pile of crap. “You get me high, you get me stoned, it’s a ride I ain’t never been on. It’s a binge, it’s a buzz, it’s a drunk I can’t find in no glass.” Sure the verses sort of set the stage about how this man has spent years loving his vices and things that bring him down, but to resort to a chorus with a lead line like that is major cop-out. “Loving Me Back” is a wasted opportunity for a collaboration with Lee Ann Womack.

“American Crazy” is a song that doesn’t help the cause of bringing real substance to country music. The song is basically “Drunk Americans” 2.0. Brothers Osborne sing in the chorus, “We’re lost, we’re found, we’re up, we’re down, we’re all just American crazy. We’re left, we’re right, we’re black, we’re white, we’re all just American crazy.” This song is nothing but two and a half minutes of stupid clichés that should have been left off the album. The blue-collar blues continue in “Greener Pastures.” The song finds our narrator down to his last resort after praying and working hard with nothing to show for it, so he moves onto greener pastures. In this case, though, greener pastures is marijuana. Growing and smoking weed in order to cope with life’s tough battle. Sure, it’s another country music song about pot, but there’s semblance of something deeper about the motivations for turning to pot. “Greener Pastures” also has a more country/rockabilly feel to the production, a great, modern callback to country’s early sound. While the content of the song will detract some, I think the song works because it’s packaged nicely in its story telling and production.

“Down Home” is another rock-like song. The electric guitar leads the way, showing no signs of trying to cater to the country side of music – save for the lyrics. “Down Home” is a party song in a small town. A bunch of buddies getting together and raising hell in a town where nothing much happens. “Heart Shaped Locket” is perhaps the most country song on the album. Noticeable banjo and steel guitar find its way into the mid-tempo production. The song finds a woman in a relationship ready to go out on the town. The man, already suspicious of her cheating, feels that his suspicions are confirmed by the way she’s dressed. He wants to know who’s in her heart-shaped locket, because he knows it’s no longer him. “Heart Shaped Locket” is another song that shows the full potential of Brothers Osborne; it’s the kind of modern, substance-filled song that country radio should embrace. Pawn Shop ends with “It Ain’t My Fault.” The narrator is out on the town having a good time, but it’s not his fault. It’s the band’s fault who played the song that fueled the party. It’s the ex’s fault that he’s drinking, and it’s his family’s history that he’s a wild boy. Essentially, the lyrics try to tell some story, but this is a song meant to get a crowd rowdy and having fun. The electric guitar leads the beat and drum kicks in this rollicking rock song.

Overall, Pawn Shop shows flashes of what the Brothers Osborne are capable of bringing to country music. They have an organic production that shows commitment to their own style away from the masses of their country music pop peers. The almost folk style of rock/country with the lone acoustic guitar like in “Dirt Rich” or even “Loving Me Back” is a definite musical niche for the duo. The lyrics, however, don’t do quite enough to bring more substance to country music. Several songs rely on overdone cliches and lazy tropes to tell the story. There are moments here, like “Heart Shaped Locket,” where if you let the brothers be who they want to be, they can bring some great country music. Pawn Shop shows nothing but potential for the Brothers Osborne. If Music Row can leave them alone and allow the duo to grow and progress as artists on their own terms, then we will be in for a treat with future albums. Pawn Shop isn’t anything special, but it’s worth listening to at least once.

Grade: 6/10

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