The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 6 — Reba, Keith Urban, Travis Tritt & more!

Reba McEntireRumor Has It (30th Anniversary Edition)

A classic album full of great love songs and heartbreakers with the iconic “Fancy” that I’m glad to see is getting a special anniversary release. If you’re a country fan and you haven’t heard this, you need to change this asap. One day I hope to give a full review of this album, along with many other past releases. Anyway, this anniversary edition comes with two new additions: a live version of “Fancy” and a Dave Audé remix of it. I want to talk about the latter, as once again Audé delivers a fun remix of a classic country song.

I know remixes aren’t exactly looked well upon by a lot of people in country music, but to me there’s everything to gain by releasing remixes of old country songs. At worst everybody ignores it and keeps listening to the original. But on the other hand you could entice a young listener who isn’t familiar with it to get into country music. Now some might argue this is the wrong way to get someone into country music through something that is sonically not country. But the biggest appeal for me in country music is the lyrics. “Fancy” is iconic because of the story, not the instrumentation. There are thousands of songs with the same sound as this remix and they remain ignored in a metaphorical music landfill. So if someone can find appeal in this remix of “Fancy,” I like to believe it’s because of the song itself.

Keith UrbanTHE SPEED OF NOW Part 1

You know this album starts out promising enough. Opening song “Out The Cage” has the kind of frenetic energy you want to open an album that grabs your attention. The P!nk duet “One Too Many” isn’t terrible, although a bit boring and run of the mill. “Live With” is actually quite enjoyable, as the chorus is catchy and has a good message about seeking a life that can be enjoyed. Not to mention the incorporation of Urban’s solid guitar work gives the song a needed punch. “Superman” is solid pop music with connectable imagery, even though the lyrics are a bit cliché.

With the exception of the nice collaboration with Eric Church on “We Were,” the rest of the album is quite vanilla and goes in one ear and out the other. In other words, what’s been the story for Urban on the last several albums. While the experimentation of Urban in his music was interesting at first, I think he’s well past due to get back to his roots and that’s guitar-driven music. But I don’t foresee this happening, as Urban seemingly got bored with this type of music. So since Urban seems hellbent on continuing the experimenting, here’s ultimately the biggest problem with it: it feels like he just wants to be the Ed Sheeran of country music.

Just like Sheeran in pop, Urban is trying to be everything to everybody and as the old saying goes, if you’re trying to please all, you’ll please none. I guess the most realistic ask I’m hoping from for Urban then is to pick a lane for an album and stick with it throughout. There’s just no constant theme with his albums anymore. It’s just jumping from one thing to the next and as an album listener I become frustrated quickly. Also two thoughts on “We Were.” First, there’s absolutely no need to have the non-Church version of the song. Second, I find it amusing a country artist adding a country artist to a song to make the sound more country to be hilarious. 4/10

Travis Tritt – “Ghost Town Nation”

I’ve quietly been waiting to see what comes of Travis Tritt’s team up with producer Dave Cobb on his new upcoming album and this is the first look. And I have to say I’m looking forward more to what’s in store. This is a great lead single that speaks to the divide between the rural people in towns across America and the media. The term “ghost town nation” is appropriate in this context as it reflects not only how small town America feels like everybody turns their noses up at them and that “there’s nothing there,” but also the loss of jobs and collapse of rural America due to the loss of manufacturing and other industries. If anybody can shine a spotlight on this divide in a way that’s articulate and gives insight to the issues faced by the average, small town American and their feelings of alienation, it’s Travis Tritt. 

NasKing’s Disease

You know I really wanted to enjoy this album. Nas is one of the all-time great rappers in the history of hip-hop and is required listening for anybody who has any kind of interest in the genre. But this album feels too same-y in so many spots and this makes for a tedious listen at times. Songs like “Ultra Black,” “All Bad” and “10 Points” are great, but in between these standout moments are songs that just don’t really stand out in terms of production or lyrics. Of course when you’ve set the bar as high as Nas has with previous albums, that undoubtedly hurts perception of new albums. While this is not a good album, it’s not bad either and it’s worth your time to spin through it once. 6/10

Aaron Frazer – “Bad News”

The fantastic drummer and falsetto vocalist for Durand Jones and the Indications teaming up with Easy Eye Sounds and Dan Auerbach is a combination that absolutely excites me on paper. Each have a foot solidly in the classic/throwback world while delivering lyrics that are modern and fresh. After hearing this enjoyably funky and soulful lead single, rest assured this debut album is one already on my radar for 2021. 

Texas HillTexas Hill EP

A brand new trio formed between Adam Wakefield, Casey James and Craig Wayne Boyd, I was intrigued by this grouping. Their obvious commonality of course is their backgrounds, as they each come from music competition shows. Each hasn’t really had the success as solo artists as I imagine they would prefer, so forming this trio is a pretty good idea. And I will say it’s clear right away their voices harmonize quite well together. Blending country, rock and soul, it’s a catchy sound too. They’ve said though they recorded a dozen songs together, so this EP is only a teaser of the full offering to come. So I’ll keep my comments on the vague side for now, as I want to hear the full project before offering my full thoughts. I’ll say this though: Texas Hill shows a lot of potential with these songs and I’m looking forward to hear what else they have in store. 

The Allman Betts BandBless Your Heart

This is a band on paper that is very much in the same vein of bands like Blackberry Smoke and The Wild Feathers. It’s a band I expect to enjoy, so I expected great things from this album. But there’s a big issue that prevents it from being enjoyable and that’s it’s runtime. There’s no reason why this album should be over an hour long. If you cut about 25 minutes from this album it would be a much better listen, but instead of this album concluding when it hits the sweet spot, it well overstays it’s welcome and makes me not want to revisit it. An undoubtedly talented band that fell into the trap a lot of younger acts fall into with albums. 6/10

JojiNectar

Once again this is another example of an album going way too long. Clocking in at just under an hour, there are multiple songs on this album that feel like a repetition of a previous song. Trim it down to around 30 minutes and this album would have gotten a full review and recommendation from me because Joji has a lot of great ideas, especially production-wise, throughout this album. “Ew” is a fantastically melancholy song about not feeling like enough in the wake of a breakup. “Tick Tock” and “Gimme Love” are absolute jams. Joji shows great introspection on “High Hopes” and “Mr. Hollywood” too. But unlike The Allman Betts Band, Joji’s longer than necessary runtime feels more like a major label trying to game streaming numbers. Despite my issues with this album though, Nectar is worth a listen if you’re into darker, “crying in the club” type R&B-influenced pop music. 6/10

Album Review — Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s ‘Reunions’

Jason Isbell has clearly established at this point that he’s one of the greatest songwriters of this generation. Album after album of lyrical excellency has solidified his spot in the history books as an artist who will be remembered by many for years to come. But his last album The Nashville Sound felt like a bit of a “let down” and for him a let down is an album that is a strong 8 to light 9 (while also earning two Grammys). While “If We Were Vampires” and “Anxiety” were standouts and in my opinion some of his best songs ever, there were also well intentioned, but clunky in execution songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope The High Road.” I can’t deny I was worried he would have more songs like this one. And again I have zero issues with message songs like this one. But like many modern day message songs, they often focus too much on the message and not enough on the song being good too. You can have the best messages in the world in your songs, but if the songs aren’t good, nobody is listening and nobody hears the message (which defeats the whole purpose).

The first two singles for Reunions were wrongly misinterpreted by a few as being in this vein. But after hearing “What’ve I Done to Help” and “Be Afraid,” these songs clearly aren’t clunky like the aforementioned songs on Isbell and the 400 Unit’s previous album. It’s even more clear when hearing them with the rest of the album. They’re actually great and catchy songs with heartfelt messages about lending a helping hand and taking a stand for things you believe in. And there’s no inherent political messages being conveyed (the listener of course is welcome to interpret this to be political if they wish to do so). These songs also feel even more appropriate within these trying times in our country, serving as inspirational anthems.

These singles were definitely a great indication of the sound of this album, which is a very guitar-driven, straight-ahead rock sound that Isbell said was inspired by 80s rock like Dire Straits. While upon first listens it feels like this album lacks the vibrancy of previous albums, it grows more and more upon repeat listens. Particularly the guitar work on this is really given a pedestal and drives the songs, a credit to Isbell, the 400 unit and his now regular producer Dave Cobb. It really shines on “Overseas,” where the guitar work is just simmering with heat and emotion. The song serves as a great reminder that you don’t need a lot of bells and whistles with this level of guitar playing.

Speaking of “Overseas,” if there’s one weaker spot on this album, it’s when Isbell evokes allegorical, more abstract lyricism. The aforementioned song, “River” and “St. Peter’s Autograph” are all great songs. But they’re definitely not immediately accessible and fall in the same vein of my thoughts on Cody Jinks’ “William and Wanda.” This is kind of ironic in comparison to the rest of the album, as it feels like some of Isbell’s most accessible work yet. It can make for a jarring listen until the album really sinks in. It’s a minor nitpick, but a nitpick nonetheless.

“Dreamsicle” is about a child watching his parents’ marriage fall apart and watching the dreams of his youth disappearing. At first I didn’t like Isbell stretching his vocals so much, but I came to appreciate it with more listens (much like with Eric Church’s “Higher Wire”). “Only Children” and “Running with Our Eyes Closed” are two more great love songs from Isbell. While acts like Tennis and Carly Rae Jepsen do such a great job of showing the sunnier sides of love, Isbell nails the darker, more dour moments. “Running with Our Eyes Closed” in particular feels like the after of “If We Were Vampires,” stripping away the romanticism and showing the “worts” of being in a relationship.

The best two songs on this album for me though are without a doubt the final two. While I enjoy the brawnier guitar moments a lot, it’s these starkly honest final tracks that grab me the most. “It Gets Easier” is a raw and confessional song about Isbell coming to grips with where he’s at in his commitment to sobriety. While the fight never ends and never gets easy, Isbell realizes it gets easier with age, despite the fears that he will relapse in the back of his mind. Emotionally, honest-driven lyrics like these are why Isbell is one of the best, as he flawlessly conveys the drive and struggle behind a complex issue.

Isbell shows his softest side with “Letting You Go,” where he as a father comes to the hard realization of one day having to let go of his daughter. It’s such a beautiful look at the relationship of father and daughter, and how the former has to learn how to shed his naturally protective nature and let his daughter live her life without him by her side at all times. The chorus in particular just tugs so hard at the heart strings, with “The roses just know how to grow” line being one of Isbell’s best. It says so much with so much heart and I imagine any fathers listening to this probably melt when hearing it.

While I wouldn’t put this amongst the very best of Jason Isbell’s work, it’s yet another fantastic album from the singer-songwriter and his talented band. Reunions more than anything is a testament to Isbell’s relentless pursuit of his craft and how he constantly pushes himself to do better than he’s done before (which is quite difficult considering how high he sets the bar). Of course as always there are lots of sad songs too. But it’s hard to argue anyone writes sad songs better than Isbell. Every generation has their own Dylan and Lennon. I feel it’s safe to say Isbell is that level of songwriter for this generation.

Grade: Solid 9/10

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i3Up1uKhcPA

Album Review — The Highwomen’s ‘The Highwomen’

The Highwomen are country music’s newest supergroup comprised of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris. With the group’s aim to shine a brighter light on women in country music, along with the undeniable amount of talent the group exudes, their self-titled debut is an album that’s been on my radar for a while. The title track opens, which plays on the same template The Highwaymen had used for their self-titled song back in the 80s. On paper this sounds hokey and contrived. But this song is anything but that. It’s fantastic, as it tells the story of various women throughout history and how they suffered untimely fates. I especially love the surprise appearance from Yola, who sings the story of a freedom rider. Hemby sounds great on her verse too. This is how you open an album!

“Redesigning Women” is another amazing song from the group. It’s a song that promotes all types of women and what makes them great. The lyrics are clever, relatable, catchy and meaningful. The harmonizing, especially in the bridge, is that powerful moment that drives the song home. It’s no hyperbole when I say this song is perfect. “Loose Change” has the misfortune of following it, but it’s no slouch either. It’s a great song about a woman feeling used and under-appreciated in a bad relationship. She likens herself as loose change to him and I love the visual this creates, as it perfectly conveys to you the emotions she’s feeling. Again, it’s clever and relatable songwriting from this group.

“Crowded Table” is a down-home country song that’s impossible to listen to without coming away feeling warm and happy. The song is about family and bring everyone together around the table. The harmonies on this song are excellent, showing the chemistry and cohesiveness of these four artists. Kudos to producer Dave Cobb for building the ideal sound around the harmonies too (warm, powerful and not letting the production overpower it). “My Name Can’t Be Mama” is a fun singalong about women choosing not to be a mom, at least for today. I enjoy all the vocal performances on the song, but I particularly enjoy Morris’ performance, as this style of song really fits her voice.

“If She Ever Leaves Me” is classic country storytelling with a modern twist. Written and primarily performed by Carlile, it’s about a woman watching a man eye a woman on the dance floor, only for him to be informed that she belongs to her. While she may one day leave her, it certainly won’t be for him, as the punchy hook reminds you. Carlile’s passionate vocal performance on this is stunning, especially as she hits the high notes. It’s without a doubt a highlight on an album full of them. “Old Soul” is another great vocal performance from Morris and I enjoy the soaring, clean sound of the song. But man does it drag for far too long. You could easily cut three minutes from this and it would still get the point of the song across. Less is more in this case, especially with a well-worn topic.

“Don’t Call Me” is a fun ditty about telling a man to piss off. I enjoyed this the first few listens, but it just doesn’t have the same effect with repeated listens, as the lyrics on this song are decidedly less clever than other moments on the album trying for this effect. “My Only Child” is an ode to children who grow up without brothers and sisters. I’m impressed alone for just covering a rarely covered topic, but then the group also covers it with tact and grace. The song does a great job focusing on the love shared between the child, parent and the special bond between them, really forming a connection with the listener, even if you can’t relate to the lyrics.

“Heaven Is a Honky Tonk” is a feel-good singalong about the legends of country music passing on to heaven, which the group imagines to be like a honkytonk. It’s a fun song, especially when the group hits the high notes. “Cocktail and a Song” is a real tear jerker and is Amanda Shires shining moment on the album. Shires wrote the song about her terminally ill father, as the song is from the point of view of a daughter watching her father slowly die. It’s a beautifully tragic song and Shires delivers it with such powerful emotion, as you can feel the crushing ache and pain every second she sings. It’s the best she’s ever written.

The album closes with “Wheels of Laredo,” which is my least favorite track on the record. The reason I don’t like it is the songwriting is so boring and outdated and relies on scenery tropes that are overused in country music. If the themes and images were presented more livelier, I could get into it. And I know for sure I didn’t like this song when I didn’t like the Tanya Tucker version either. On an album full of fresh songwriting, it’s a shame it ends with a song on the other end of the spectrum.

At it’s brightest The Highwomen’s self-titled debut album screams album of the year (and maybe one of the best of the decade). But unfortunately, they can’t quite keep this up for the whole album. It’s still a great album though and definitely worth your time if you’re into country music at all. I hope this is the first of many great albums from The Highwomen, as the world needs to hear more.

Grade: 8/10

Review – Wheeler Walker Jr.’s “Pussy King”

wheeler-walker-jr-puy-king

Every once in a while you get an artist who comes around and completely changes the game. The genre is never the same after their arrival. In 2016 country music got this artist and his name is Wheeler Walker Jr. His debut album Redneck Shit was one of the most memorable albums of the year, landing at #30 on our top albums of 2016 list. It was also one of the raunchiest, most debauchery-filled and most honest albums I’ve heard in recent memory in country music. Thanks to fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson, Dave Cobb produced the debut and of course brought out the best in Wheeler. Now Walker is back with a new single “Pussy King,” the lead from his new upcoming album Ol’ Wheeler set for release on June 2. And as you can see from the title, Wheeler is singing about something he’s quite familiar with from his debut record. The song opens with Wheeler proclaiming, “Wheeler Walker Jr. motherfucker…I’m back.” The instrumentation is decidedly more blues influenced, with the prominent harmonica and rocking guitars. The song also has soulful backing vocals, that gives the song a more powerful sound than any of the songs on his debut record. The song itself is of course about Wheeler having sex with women all over the place in many different ways. There are multiple hilarious lines, including my favorite: “Catholic virgin who thinks anal doesn’t count.” Wheeler’s new single “Pussy King” sees Wheeler stick to this tried and true self, while also elevating his sound. Can’t wait to hear what the album has in-store.

Grade: 8/10

 

Recommend? – Yes (although not for the faint of heart and you probably shouldn’t listen to this at work without headphones)

 

Written by Wheeler Walker Jr.

Review – Zac Brown Band’s “My Old Man”

zac-brown-band-my-old-man

Welcome Home. As you longtime readers know, I wasn’t fond of Zac Brown Band’s last album Jekyll + Hyde. While it wasn’t a bad album, it was a disappointment and I let my criticisms of the album be known, most notably the lackluster songwriting and releasing an EDM song to country radio. They were better than this and many other fans expressed the same. The band seemed to get the message, as in late 2016 they let it be known their next album would go back to their roots. Now we get to hear if they walk the walk with their new single “My Old Man.” From the very first listen, it’s quite clear that this group is back where they belong. There’s no other way to put this: the song is gorgeous and features Zac Brown Band at their best. The song is about a man recalling the upbringing by his father and the impact it had on him. He’s now a father of his own and hoping to pass this along to his own son. All the while he’s hoping his father is still looking down on him, hoping he’s as proud of him as a man when he was a child. This is the type of impactful and emotion-packed songwriting I’ve been wanting to hear from them. Brown delivers the same type of vulnerable vocal performance that he delivered with “Grandma’s Garden” on Southern Family, perfectly fitting the song. The harmonies are great and well placed. Then we get to the instrumentation, which is an area Zac Brown Band has always thrived in. But they even take this to a new level, with the delicate acoustic guitar sweeping through the song and excellent fiddle play from Jimmy de Martini is heavily featured that was so lacking on the previous album. Of course credit has to also go to Dave Cobb, who is producing this song and the entirety of their upcoming album Welcome Home (I had a sneaking suspicion after seeing the band switched to Elektra/Warner). “My Old Man” is absolutely fantastic and this makes me pretty excited for what’s in-store for the rest of the album.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – YES!

 

Written by Zac Brown, Niko Moon & Ben Simonetti