Album Review — Brett Eldredge’s ‘Sunday Drive’

“What in the world are we all doin’ here?”

They say first impressions are important, whether it’s the first time you meet somebody or the first time you’re listening to a piece of music. Right away Brett Eldredge leaves an impactful first impression with his new album Sunday Drive. It’s such an important question that can resonate with anyone listening. Right away Eldredge reaches out to the listener and makes a connection, inviting them into the music.

The question also indicates the start of a clear turning point in the career of Brett Eldredge. Leading up this album, Eldredge made clear that this material is much different than his previous music. He enlisted Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk as producers, the same duo who produced the genre-boundary pushing Golden Hour from Kacey Musgraves. It showed all the makings of an artist who is ready to fulfill their full potential. But yet the cynic in me wanted to hear for myself to truly be convinced. Once Eldredge uttered this opening line, I realized I was listening to an artist that is truly ready to deliver a memorable album. And then he continues to deliver until the last note is played on “Paris Illinois.”

What’s truly remarkable about this album is how it manages to capture such a broad range of emotions in a painstakingly honest and human way. The lyrics keep it simple and certainly won’t be mistaken for the complexity of Jason Isbell or John Moreland. Yet they convey the same emotional depth because they come from a place of true introspection and personal experience. When you pair this with production that is colorful, vibrant and makes the lyrics come to life, it feels more almost like a movie experience, as I can picture each of these songs in my head as I listen. The only other album released in 2020 I can say this about is The Weeknd’s After Hours.

While every song on this album is great, the two clear standouts are “Sunday Drive” and “Then You Do.” The former grapples with growth and mortality, as Eldredge reflects on the life lessons bestowed upon him by his parents in such simple moments and how their love is still strong as they reach older age. It’s a beautifully sad and happy song, showing the never-ending cycle of life and death. The latter song is a perfect description of the roller coaster of finding relationships and love. It’s surprisingly unexpected, both the joyful discovery of the beginning and painful crashing of the end of it. Just when you think you have it all figured out, then it all changes and you have to begin anew. In a world full of head-in-the-clouds love songs that only highlight the highs and heartbreak songs that only show the lows, this song manages to brilliantly capture the in-between that most people are experiencing.

While there is a sad undertone in several moments throughout this album, there are also many uplifting, happy moments. “The One You Need,” “Crowd My Mind” and “Fall For Me” are great love songs that put Eldredge’s soulful side on display. This is a side I’ve been wanting to see Eldredge show more, as his voice has the passion and warmth suited for soulful love songs. He may not have the raw power that blows you away like Chris Stapleton, but his charisma and polished delivery make up for this.

As I alluded to in the beginning of this review, “Where The Heart Is” is a fantastic choice for an opening song, as it sets the tone well and lets you know right away what this album is in terms of message and sound. “Magnolia” and “Gabrielle” are the more pop country songs of the album. The first is a fun look back at falling in love for the first time and I enjoy the descriptive nature of the track, as Eldredge describes the moment in time with lots of little details that help paint the picture. When “Gabrielle” was first released, I found it to be repetitive. But upon more listens within the context of the album, it’s grown a lot on me and fits perfectly with the theme. This song examines lost love and the lingering questions from what might have been between the once couple. I love the mature approach this song takes, not showing malice or ill will, instead taking the high road and realizing the lessons learned in order to move forward.

“Good Day” immediately made me think of Don Williams’ “Lord, I Hope this Day is Good.” Both songs see the narrator striving and looking for hope and optimism, even if the world around them isn’t looking so good. This is certainly the type of upbeat song we could use in this pandemic world in which we currently live. Eldredge’s lively deliver certainly brings a smile to my face. His bright delivery shines again on “When I Die,” another song with a great message about living life to the fullest and not getting caught up in the problems of yesterday.

There are many excellent production moments on this album, but I particularly enjoy the horns that sneak in on “Fix a Heart” and “Paris Illinois.” The catchiness of the chorus on “Fix a Heart” immediately hooks me and the redemption arc angle of the lyrics feel heartfelt instead of the mawkish selfishness that seems to permeate so many boyfriend country songs that attempt this same angle. The subdued and reserved “Paris Illinois” is the nice sentimental cap off to this album, closing with some comfortably soft horns that make you reflect on the music you just heard.

This is easily the most surprised I’ve felt listening to an album this year. There could not be more of a stark contrast between Sunday Drive and Brett Eldredge’s previous album. It’s simply night and day. Every moment on this album is absolutely enjoyable. The lyrics and production could not shine and compliment each other anymore. Brett Eldredge has never sounded more energized and is at his absolute best on this record. There’s no other way to put it: Sunday Drive is a phenomenal album. 

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Kacey Musgraves’ ‘Golden Hour’

(Note: This post originally appeared in April 2018 on Fusion Country, which is now closed. It’s being reposted here for reader availability. This is another review I absolutely loved writing, as it’s one of my favorite albums of the 2010s and my co-album of the year in 2018.)

The trajectory and journey of the career of Kacey Musgraves has been an interesting one. Her major label debut album Same Trailer, Different Park captured heaps of critical acclaim and attention, most notably for her open-minded anthem “Follow Your Arrow.” She then followed it up with Pageant Material, which I found to be a great album that was seemingly ignored by many in the music industry. It was disappointing, but predictable considering it didn’t have any “eye-catching headline” songs or hits. But I’ve been highly anticipating her newest album Golden Hour. Musgraves has consistently improved as a songwriter throughout her career and I felt this could be a moment for her to really step up into the spotlight if she hit a home run. After thorough listens to Golden Hour, this album impressed me from start to finish with its bold risk taking and its deep dive into various emotions.

The album begins with the autobiographical “Slow Burn.” It appropriately has a dreamy, hazy feel as Musgraves croons about taking your time and doing it your own way. The song serves a signal for the rest of the album, which goes places many don’t dare to go in country music. “Lonely Weekend” is an anthem that assures you it’s okay to be alone at times in life. The song has a bubbly tropical feel despite the song tapping into the dark fears of missing out and social pressure. It’s the perfect song for the social media generation, describing the loneliness felt by many despite being more “connected” with each other than ever before in history. “Butterflies” goes against the sarcastic, sly personality Musgraves has largely personified in her songs up to this point. It’s cute, vulnerable and the production of the song even has the feel of butterflies fluttering through a bright blue sky. It also serves as a metaphor of how Musgraves’ outlook on love has went from the unloved caterpillar to blossoming into the pretty and appreciated butterfly.

The spacey sounds of a vocoder greet you on “Oh, What a World.” I absolutely love the utilization of the vocoder throughout this song because it helps sonically frame the lyrics. As the listener it makes you feel like you’re floating in space looking down upon the planet and admiring the mystery and vastness of it all. Then there’s the world of love between a couple, which feels just as deep and magical. This is a song where everything clicks perfectly together to create something beautiful and memorable that will stick with you. “Mother” is a more of an interlude than a song, as Musgraves soberly reflects upon the relationship with her mother after an acid trip. It’s a short and tasteful piano ballad. Musgraves expounds more upon her excitement of falling in love on “Love Is a Wild Thing.” She likens it to an exploration in the wilderness and stumbling upon it, rather than finding it. The instrumentation stays close enough to traditional, until the bridge where there’s a slick beat change that really adds a great spark to the song (credit to the producers Ian Fitchuk and Daniel Tashian).

There are several standout moments throughout this album and one of them without a doubt is “Space Cowboy.” With a title like this you expect something much different from what it is: your classic break-up country ballad. Except it’s set in modern-day, where the cowboy rides off in his Silverado instead of his horse. Then we get to the bridge of the song, which goes into a trippy, steel guitar-laced instrumental that adds more gravitas to the setting of the song (another smart production choice). It’s such a refreshing take all-around in the one of the most oft-treaded spaces in the genre. Heavy drum loops introduce “Happy & Sad,” which might be one of Kacey’s best written songs ever. The song expertly explores the complicated feelings of being happy and sad at the same time, in other words anxiety. It’s the anxiety of losing your happiness and everything crashing down when it’s all going great. I don’t think my words can properly describe how well the lyrics get to the root of this emotion and something you have to feel yourself.

“Velvet Elvis” is a fun and funky jam that will probably make a lot of summer playlists. It’s the kind of the song you want to blare loudly as you drive down the highway with the windows down. I got a strong classic country feel from the very first listen of “Wonder Woman.” It feels like something Dolly Parton would record. As Musgraves sings, she freely admits she isn’t always strong, reliable and is only a human who makes mistakes. It’s starkly honest, showing strength through an expression of fear. I previously did a whole other post dedicated to “High Horse,” a fantastic disco country jam about taking the high road. I will add that it’s ironic country radio casted aside Kacey and then she delivered a song that screams hit.

The album’s title track is probably the most underrated on the whole album. It’s not as flashy, catchy or fun as a lot of the other tracks. But it’s one of those songs that’s instantly comforting, like a ray of sunshine. It’s a new song, but it feels like an old favorite. The album finishes with a fantastic closer in “Rainbow.” The song captures that moment when the storm has finally passed and the light casts upon you again. It’s liberation from anguish and an embrace of capturing a sense of happiness that’s felt elusive for so long.

Golden Hour is an excellent journey through the ups and downs of the spectrum of human emotions. Happiness, sadness, love, confusion, fun, loneliness, togetherness, cockiness, hope and more are all on display. To be human is to feel and this album makes you feel so many things. This a defining moment for Kacey Musgraves, as a songwriter and an artist. Not only showcasing her top-level songwriting, but fearlessly taking the kind of risks that so many artists are outright scared or incapable of taking with their music. Most music released today sounds timid and lacks creativity. This album is full of confidence and charges ahead without letting the unwritten rules of music hold it back. When you cast away life’s preconceptions, you’re truly free as Kacey Musgraves demonstrates with Golden Hour.

Grade: 10/10

 

Album Review — Little Big Town’s ‘Nightfall’

When it comes to taking a risk and failing or playing it safe, I would rather see an artist/act choose the former every single time. But sometimes you can take risks and if you don’t fully commit to it, you can end up with a safe sounding album. This is what I unfortunately see for Little Big Town on their new album Nightfall, as it doesn’t live up to what it aspires to be.

Opening song “Next To You” showcases the band harmonizing well. But then you listen to the rest of the album and it feels like most of this album stays in this same slow pace/mood. There’s just no variety, as it stagnates over this same sounding type of song. It’s not that these songs are bad. But you put them all next to each other and they blend together. And it would make sense if a common theme threaded these songs together, but there isn’t.

The album’s title track flirts with a surrealistic, disco-influenced country sound, but doesn’t fully commit to the sound for it to really stand out. And that’s a shame considering Daniel Tashian’s involvement with the song. The lyrics are your standard, generic tropes about falling in love under the night sky. “Forever and a Night” is an appropriately named song because that’s how long it feels listening to it. It’s an overwrought love ballad that tries too hard to come off as seriously romantic and quite frankly the song never goes beyond second gear in terms of storytelling/messaging.

“Throw Your Love Away” is a throwaway love song. And you know it won’t be a single since Karen Fairchild isn’t on lead vocals. “Over Drinking” is a decent get-over-you drinking song since it has a bit more of a pulse than the rest of the album. The hook isn’t half-bad, but I would have liked to have heard a little bit more lyrically to give the song more meat.

“Wine, Beer, Whiskey” puts me of two minds. On one hand, the lyrics are your standard alcohol name-dropping, modern country song. It’s nothing special. On the other hand, Little Big Town actually do something different, which I love. It has a distinctively Tejano-influence with the vibrant horns, giving it a fun and memorable sound. Why this isn’t utilized more in country music stupefies me. Ultimately “Wine, Beer, Whiskey” is a highlight of Nightfall.

Unfortunately the album falls right back into a lull with “Questions.” For a ballad trying to come off as serious and dealing with the doubts in the fallout of a relationship, why are there snap tracks and clap tracks? This is a guaranteed way to get me not to take this song seriously. But in pop country music today I guess this is a requirement for some asinine reason. I love the message that “The Daughters” is trying to deliver about unfair expectations that get placed on women and unifying through this struggle. It’s a worthy and admirable message. But the ways its delivered is clunky and the religious overtones feel forced and not really necessary.

“River of Stars” would be a good song on an album with more variety. But when you already have how many slow to mid-tempo songs on the album, it quickly becomes another one on the track list. At this point I’m bored and just waiting for something to change in terms of sound to wake me up.

“Sugar Coat” is a song on paper that I should enjoy. It’s a story of a woman who always has to grin and bear it with a husband that’s never there for her and her family enough. But then there’s the chorus, which comes off as sanctimonious to me: “Sometimes I wish I liked drinking/Sometimes I wish I liked pills/Wish I could sleep with a stranger/But someone like me never will.” It paints the picture of someone who views themselves as never making mistakes nor standing up for themselves as also alluded to in the lyrics. This isn’t someone I really want to empathize or connect with as the listener.

“Problem Child” is a ballad about acknowledging we all have problems, whether it being lonely or not being accepted in someone else’s eyes. I would have liked to heard this fleshed out a bit more, as I do like it’s unifying message and the anthemic feel in the delivery. But the message comes off as half-baked, as I’m waiting for it to say something greater.

“Bluebird” sees the groups best embracing of the Tashian/Ian Fitchuk country sound and it makes for arguably the best song on the album. I enjoy the breezy, laid-back feel in this dreamy love ballad. The hook is also memorable and stands out with it’s emphasis on both the harmonies and the melody. “Trouble With Forever” is another sleepy ballad that has nothing interesting to say. It’s yet another case on this album of an interesting topic not being explored enough to deliver something memorable.

Nightfall is an album that shows hints of potential and interesting wrinkles, but Little Big Town for the most part don’t take enough chances and spend enough time on the lyrics. It’s a shame because this group has excellent music sense and can be quite creative when they want to be. The biggest criticism that brings Nightfall down is it’s failure to execute on its idea, as this had potential to be great.

Grade: 5/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CkZdKLLmpcY&list=OLAK5uy_mGwUMXyRYP3Mz2Ok2s73iVhZ0uFc-EjpA

Review – Josh Turner’s “Hometown Girl”

josh-turner-hometown-girl

I think one of the biggest things missing from country radio nowadays is depth. And when I say depth, I mean depth in terms of star power. Country radio always used to have established A-listers, as well as solid B-level artists who you could always depend on to give you solid singles. This was the case as recent as the 2000s even and one of those solid B-level artists you could always depend on was Josh Turner. His music would never blow you away lyrically and were kept pretty simple, but most importantly listeners could easily connect with it. His strong vocals and the always leaning traditional instrumentation combined with this really made him a fan favorite of traditional crowds. Unfortunately with the rise of bro country and now Nashville pop, Turner was one of the artists that got cast aside in favor of the new flavors of the month. It’s now been four years since his last new studio album and his upcoming sixth studio album has yet to be announced. The first single off of it, “Lay Low,” was released two years ago and barely cracked the top 30. Now he’s back with the unnamed album’s second single, “Hometown Girl.”

Just by looking at the title I had a bad feeling Turner compromised with his label MCA Nashville. After all we’ve seen the same thing happen to Gary Allan’s latest singles, which are also off an album that has yet to be announced. David Nail and his label had to push like crazy to make “Night’s On Fire” a hit so he could release his new album Fighter. Unfortunately my suspicions of “Hometown Girl” being a compromise are confirmed. But fortunately it isn’t to the point of you can’t identify Turner (unlike Eric Paslay’s “High Class”). The instrumentation and production are a mix of modern and the usual Turner sound. In other words, it’s a very safe pop country sound. The song is about a boy looking for a “pretty little homegrown, hometown girl.” That’s it. Even by Turner’s standards, this is pretty lightweight stuff. Sure it goes into more details about the girl he wants, but it’s nothing ground breaking. It’s kind of annoying how most of the details he wants out of the hometown girl revolve around looks, but it isn’t anything misogynistic. Turner’s vocals sound pretty good as always and is probably the most interesting aspect about the song.

“Hometown Girl” is definitely not amongst Turner’s best singles. It’s nowhere close to great, but it isn’t terrible either. It’s just a boring, almost barebones song that plays it safe in all aspects. MCA Nashville will push the hell out of this song to make it a hit and at the rate it’s been rising on the airplay charts recently, it appears it should do better than the previous single “Lay Low” (which is a shame). It’s hard not to be disappointed about this song if you’re a Turner fan, but at the same time this is the (stupid) game he has to play if he wants to release his album. Hopefully it’s enough to appease his label and the album is a home run because I probably won’t remember “Hometown Girl” when looking back on the career of Josh Turner.

Grade: 5/10

Written by Marc Beeson and Daniel Tashian