Album Review – Lori McKenna’s ‘The Bird & The Rifle’

Lori McKenna has been recording and releasing music for nearly 16 years, but with her songwriting success over the past year, now is as good a time as ever for her to release an album. McKenna co-wrote Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, a song which captured the attention of pretty much everyone. And most recently, Tim McGraw’s “Humble & Kind”, written solely by McKenna, topped the airplay charts and has gone onto be a career hit for McGraw. McKenna teamed up with producer Dave Cobb with The Bird & The Rifle, Lori McKenna delivers nine brand new songs as well as her own recording of “Humble & Kind.”

The Bird & The Rifle begins with the heartbreaking “Wreck You.” McKenna sings from the first person point of view of a wife struggling to find out why her marriage has been falling apart. She’s not exactly sure where things went wrong or what she needs to do to change and fix it, but she’s aware that something is definitely wrong. You can hear the pain in McKenna’s voice as she sings. This is followed by the excellent title track for the album. An acoustic driven story song, Lori McKenna sings of another troubled marriage. She compares the wife to a bird and the husband to a rifle, two things that don’t go together well. While the bird can sing beautiful songs that rifle loves, the bird has the urge to fly but seems to be held down by the rifle’s fear and anger. “Something about the bird her spreading those wings always seems to bring the rifle out in him.” It’s a tried and true story, but McKenna writes and delivers it with a new sense of purpose and heart.

Lori McKenna visits small town life with “Giving Up on Your Hometown.” A bit more upbeat song than the first two, but this song takes a solemn look returning to your hometown and not recognizing how it has changed. People have passed, old hot spots have been torn down, and the place simply doesn’t feel like home anymore. Even with a more slightly upbeat production, the song doesn’t drift any faster than a mid-tempo ballad. “Halfway Home” tells the story of a woman who’s stuck in relationships with men who are unreliable or around for only one night. The song encourages the woman to keep moving on because she’s halfway home, half of the way to finding the true love she deserves. “Halfway Home” is another excellent vocal delivery from Lori McKenna.

I like Tim McGraw’s recording of “Humble & Kind”, but Lori McKenna’s recording on The Bird & The Rifle is even better. Maybe it’s due to the fact that McKenna is the lone writer of the song, but she sings the lyrics with such a conviction that isn’t present in McGraw’s recording. “Humble & Kind” is a song with fantastic lyrics, and hearing Lori McKenna sing them is a gift for the listener. “We Were Cool” is another song of nostalgia. Lori McKenna reminisces about growing up and how she and her friends felt cool riding in the older brother’s cool car. With an album full of poignant heartbreaking songs (and following the excellent “Humble & Kind”), “We Were Cool” gets a little lost in the shuffle, but it’s still a fun song to listen to, and it doesn’t make it a bad song by any stretch of the imagination.

Another album standout is the brutally honest “Old Men Young Women.” For starters, this song has one of the best opening lyrics. “You can have him; I hope you have fun. I guess wife number three could be the one.” Lori McKenna, presumably singing from the perspective of wife number one, speaks to the young third wife, shining a light on the dark corners of the marriage. She’s the trophy and link to a past he’ll never experience again, and he has the material resources to provide for her. But at the end of the day, neither one is fulfilled emotionally and it’s only a matter of time before the relationship meets its inevitable end.

“All These Things” is an upbeat love song, perhaps the most upbeat song of the album. McKenna lists off several different things and situations that illustrate the strength to their devotion to one another. “Always Want You” is a song about trying to get over a break up. Just like water runs through the creek bed or church bells ring on Sunday, McKenna believes she’ll always want the one she can’t have. “If Whiskey Were a Woman” is another heartbreaking song about a marriage on the rocks. Again, Lori McKenna is singing from the perspective of a woman who has let her marriage fall apart. She knows she can’t love and comfort her husband like she should, and compares herself to the whiskey he clings to and drinks, and how she would be if she were the whiskey.

In a word, The Bird & The Rifle is excellent. Lori McKenna writes and sings great stories with a stunning conviction and honesty. These truly are McKenna’s stories to tell, and she sells you on that truth. Even with the slower and mid-tempo production, Dave Cobb helps keep the focus of the album on McKenna’s voice and words, which is where the strength of the album lies. Whether it’s a single word choice in the title track or the biting delivery in “Old Men Young Women”, Lori McKenna let’s focal point of the album shine. The Bird & The Rifle is a must listen and a must buy album. Lori McKenna delivers a stunning country, folk album.

Grade: 10/10

 

 

Album Review – The Honeycutters’ ‘On The Ropes’

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One of my favorite Americana discoveries over the past year has without a doubt been The Honeycutters. This five-piece band from North Carolina brings a dedicated country sound to their music, with lead singer Amanda Platt also serving as the chief songwriter. Last year’s album, Me Oh Mywas a solid country album with 14 songs that never peaked beyond a mid-tempo range in the production. As good a songwriter as Platt is, the songs seemed to sit in a safe, traditional country region with several songs about cheating, love, or lost souls hooking up for one night. But with the band’s fourth album the monotony is gone. On The Ropes shows more versatility from The Honeycutters with a bit of rock and pop influence in the production, while still keeping the songs firmly planted in country music. The songs and lyrics are richer, exploring more topics, and Platt’s vocals sound as good as ever.

The album begins with the title track, where the phrase “on the ropes” is used in the boxing sense, also coming full circle with the album cover. The boxing metaphor for the song is used to describe a relationship falling apart, and how she’ll continue to fight her fight and not give in. “On the Ropes” is more upbeat, setting the tone for the album. “Blue Besides” deals with the realities of growing up and moving on from a once comfortable life. Starting a new chapter isn’t easy, and takes its toll on you, and Platt highlights the struggles of the process. The production kicks up halfway through the song, making this an easy to listen song.

“Golden Child” has a bit more rock flair to it with an electric guitar leading the production. This is also one of several songs where the organ chimes into mix. “Golden Child” continues on with the more upbeat tone of the beginning of the album. “The Handbook” seems to combine some pop influences into the mix, while also having the most traditional sounding country music of the entire album. The steel guitar owns the production, but with the electric keyboards and pop nuances in the song’s delivery. It’s a unique style for the song, one I enjoy listening to.

On The Ropes slows down with “The Only Eyes.” This is a tried and true country love song where Platt sings of how her past failed relationships have left her heart heavy and eyes blue. But even with her past experiences, she knows that she’s in love and that these are the only eyes she could have to be able to see this love. It’s one of the better written songs on the album. The Honeycutters explore a nice mix of rock and country in “Back Row.” With the electric guitar, organ, and harmonica mixed into the production, “Back Row” has a heavier tone, fitting with the song’s content. Platt sings of a man who’s down on his luck, in need of prayers and support, who may be too prideful to admit he needs help. The extended solo over the last minute of the song is excellent, giving the backing band members a chance to shine on the album.

Another great example of Platt’s songwriting is “Useless Memories.” It’s another slower song, but the stripped back production allows the story to sink in. “Useless Memories” touches returning to your old home, a house now abandoned, dusty, and run-down. The subject is clearly running away from real life, and using the distractions of memories from his or her younger years to avoid whatever he or she is running from. “Piece of Heaven” deals with lost love. Platt sings in the first person about how she tried to keep her lover at a arm’s length, only to be surprised when he had enough and left her all alone. And now that she’s had what she calls a piece of heaven, she’s searching to find it again.

The Honeycutters break out their honky-tonk side with “Let’s Get Drunk.” The rowdier guitar and keyboards fill the production as Platt sings about a woman who’s ready to be rowdy and reckless for the night. The song isn’t really anything special, but it’s a fun listen nonetheless. “500 Pieces” explores the broken hearts of those who’ve lost love along the way. The steel guitar rings as Platt sings about trying to alleviate the pain from the brokenness. The Honeycutters strip the production down all the way to a single electric guitar on “Ache.” This breakup song deals with a prideful woman who doesn’t want to admit that how hurt she is to see a man walk out of her life. For a song dealing with vulnerability like this, I love the decision to use one heavy guitar to compliment the lyrics. It’s easy to overlook this song playing the album in the background, but it’s one to pay attention to.

The band takes a stab at covering Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and do a justifiable job in my opinion. There’s many different covers of the song out there, but The Honeycutters truly make it their own with the steel guitars and production fitting nicely into the band’s musical niche, with a bluegrass like style to the song. On The Ropes comes to a close with “Barmaid’s Blues.” Set in an old western town with horses, cowboys, and saloons, Platt sings about the local barmaid who copes with the fact that there are no eligible bachelors available for her. The song starts out slow as the stage is set, but the production picks up after about two minutes, and carries the song and the story that keep you entertained until the end.

Unlike their previous album, I think On the Ropes shows The Honeycutters stretching themselves into new territories with the music and lyrics. It’s a welcome evolution in their music, as the album flows nicely between songs without sounding repetitive. The best thing about their additional styles and influences is that the band keeps it decidedly country throughout every song. The Honeycutters are a band worth listening to, and they keep getting better.

Grade: 9/10

Review – Hicks’ U.S. Debut Single “Hayride”

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Country Perspective was again approached by a management company about requesting a review for a couple singles from their artists. One song we found appropriate for review was a rocking country song called “Hayride” by Swedish country star, Hicks. Hicks (Miqael Persson) has certainly achieved a great amount of success in the European country market. Back to back nominations at ICoMA (Independent Country Music Association)  for “Best International Artist” and “Video of the Year” in 2013 and 2014. Also, this year he adds “Song of the Year” to that nomination list. Winner of “Favorite Country Group” at the IMN (Independent Music Network) Country Music Awards and “Artist of the Month” on Sky TV in the UK, Hicks has accomplished quite a lot early in his career.  He hopes to build on that success by finding his way into the U.S. country market with his debut, “Hayride.”

The first thing you’ll notice about this song is that it’s country: rocking, up-beat, banjos, drums, and electric guitars country. The opening riffs remind me of Keith Anderson’s first single “Pickin’ Wildflowers.” Fiddles pepper the verses, and the guitars and drums kick up during the chorus. “Hayride” is a song meant to rock an arena, and the rock influences of Hicks are definite here, but the song doesn’t lose sight of its roots; the track is without a doubt country music. There’s a rough edge to the production that works on this kind of song. The instruments aren’t over produced and are mixed well behind Hicks’ booming voice.

Lyrically, “Hayride” is a little fresh in terms of content. Essentially, this is a song about a summertime party on the farm. The song is meant to inspire a good time for country folks. “Leave your gun… at home” because the party’s good, clean fun. The song hooks in some lyrical clichés with moonshine and trucks, but the song describes a different kind of party than we’ve been treated to all year from our bros in country. However, that’s not to say the lyrics here are groundbreaking or brand new to the country scene. The chorus is repetitive, and the track is filled with “Hey! Hey! Hayride!” shouts throughout. “Hayride” is a self-described hillbilly party. There’s no female objectification, no mentions of cutoffs. It’s just a group of people coming together party on the farm.

The thing I like about this song, and Hicks, is the charisma found in his delivery and in the music video. Hicks is enjoying himself here, singing the song with a smile and ready to bring his good time fun to those listening. The music video, however, has one stark contrast to the song; they recorded it in the dead of winter in Sweden. I don’t quite understand the decision to film a music video for a summer song in the snow, but I’ll give Hicks this credit: he doesn’t let the snow/cold detract from his upbeat, fun delivery of the song. “Hayride” is a song meant to inspire good times and pump up crowds, and will do just that. Content wise, country parties in the field/on the farm are the kind of song that’s been over done in country music, especially in recent years, and “Hayride” doesn’t have much to offer that will help it standout in that respect. U.S. mainstream country is over saturated with solo male act’s singing about parties right now, and it’s hard to get yourself noticed in a crowd that large. However, I’ll say it again: Hicks has the charisma and allure to attract and entertain an audience. From this one song, I can tell he has more personality in him than many of the new male singers also vying for attention. While “Hayride” might not be the right song to bring Hicks the same level of success he’s found in Europe, Hicks has the makings to be a country star in the U.S.

Grade: 6/10