The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 5 — CeeLo Green, Caylee Hammack & more!

CeeLo GreenCeeLo Green is Thomas Callaway

Dan Auerbach, David Ferguson and Easy Eye Sound just continue to churn out quality albums. This time it comes from veteran R&B artist CeeLo Green, who is known for such hits like “Crazy” as part of Gnarls Barkley and “Forget You” as a solo artist. But this album is much different than his popular material, as the glitz and glamour is all stripped away in favor of more subtle and smooth sounds. It’s an enjoyable mix of R&B, soul, pop, gospel and even some country. Many have described Green as a chameleon-like performer and I think this album exemplifies this more than any of his others.

There’s simmering love songs like “For You,” “I Wonder How Love Feels” and “Doing It All Together” that mix soul and pop to great results. “Lead Me” shows how Green can absolutely excel at gospel with his passionate vocals and makes me wish there were more gospel moments. “Little Mama” and “Don’t Lie” show another side of Green, being a father, which was great to see from him. But the two songs that intrigued me most were when he dipped into a more country-influenced sounds on “People Watching” and “Slow Down.” The former is a simple, yet bouncy song about observing the world around you and taking in the little things. The latter is a fantastic cover of his Easy Eye Sound label mate John Anderson. CeeLo Green covering John Anderson is not something I thought I would ever write about, but hey it’s 2020 and it works well.

The album closes out with another highlight in “The Way,” a brooding song about fighting your way through darkness. Green’s voice really excels in these dramatic songs, as his dynamic voice can add the right amount of tension to build up the lyrics. If you’re into soul music or enjoy Green’s voice, this album is definitely worth your time. 8/10

Caylee HammackIf It Wasn’t For You

The potential of Caylee Hammack is great. She has an incredible voice and when she incorporates her personal experiences into her songwriting, it makes for some damn compelling music. “Small Town Hypocrite” is easily the star of this album, an in-depth look at seven-year relationship that took Hammack away from a music scholarship and changed her life in several ways. And not only is the attention to detail great in the lyrics, but her vocal performance adds just the right amount of emotional touch. The best example is when she sings “When I chose you and daddy gave me hell/I made myself into someone else/Just to love you, damn, I loved you.” The aching regret and hesitation in her voice as she delivers these final words cuts straight to the heart. 

Hammack has other great moments on this album too like “Redhead.” Hammack and Reba sound great together and I’m surprised this wasn’t chosen for her new single, as it’s catchy and fun to singalong with. Hammack, Tenille Townes and Ashley McBryde sound fantastic harmonizing together on “Mean Something,” which is a song dripping with honesty about people seeking to be something more in a world filled with a lot of selfishness and lack of substance. “Sister,” “Forged in the Fire” and “Family Tree” are other solid songs where Hammack peels back layers of her life to deliver heartfelt messages and show the lessons she’s learned. “Gold” is a heartfelt epilogue to “Small Town Hypocrite” and “New Level of Life” is a fun closer to the album that features one of the more interesting production moments on the album.  

But this album falls frustratingly short of being great and I largely blame this on the production. It ultimately hinders Hammack more than it helps, as most of the time it feels very paint-by-numbers as far as pop country goes. Hammack’s voice isn’t fully utilized, as it’s bright and dynamic, so why not fully feature it? It’s also frustrating to have songs in the middle of the album like “Preciatcha,” “Just Like You,” “Just Friends” and “King Size Bed” that pigeonhole her into generic pop country. It’s just not that interesting and throws the flow of the album off for me. It’s not really surprising, as new artists typically have these kinds of songs on their debut album to appease labels who like to send them to radio. Nevertheless, this is a decent debut album from Hammack. 6/10

DUCKWRTHSuperGood

Smooth, slick and funky are the three best words to describe this album. If you’re looking for lyrical prowess, this album won’t have it. Not to say the lyrics are bad. They’re solid, yet unspectacular as most of the lyrics deal with love and enjoying the party. But if you’re looking for some smooth beats, this album is overflowing with them. This is an album to move to and sing along with on a Saturday night. While it’s listed as hip-hop, this is far from a straight hip-hop record. No, I would describe this more along the lines of Tyler the Creator’s IGOR. This album is very much genre fluid, an enjoyable blend of hip-hop, R&B, soul, pop and disco. While I was a big fan of DUCKWRTH’s earlier material that was edgier and had an almost rock flavor to them, it’s clear this sound seems to suit him best. And he did kind of foreshadow this on “MICHUUL,” aspiring to be like the king of pop. And this music is definitely a strong step into that sound. 8/10

The MavericksEn Español

This is definitely one of those times where I wish I had taken more Spanish classes. I know some of the language, but unfortunately not enough to understand and appreciate the lyrics of this album. If anybody would happen to know how to procure a translated version of it, I would be happy to go more in-depth on this album. So for now I can only analyze the other elements of this album and they’re top level as always from the eclectic and dynamic group. The instrumentation is flamboyant, colorful and vibrant, a beautiful mixture of country, pop, Tex Mex and a whole lot more. Raul Malo still has one of the best voices in music, as it still sounds as flawless as ever. So based on the two elements of this album I can understand, this is another great album from The Mavericks. 

Margo PricePerfectly Imperfect At The Ryman

This is the best Margo Price album and you can’t tell me otherwise. In the last edition of The Endless Music Odyssey, I expressed my disappointment with her latest studio album and how it fails to capture the energy of her live shows that get rave reviews. I’ve never seen her live, but I potentially will next year as she opens for a Chris Stapleton show I have tickets to see. This reminded me that she actually released a live album on Bandcamp earlier this year and it had slipped through the cracks for yours truly. After listening to this album, it further cements the sentiment she’s better live. She has a fiery and infectious personality that unfortunately just gets sanded away in her studio recordings. But in a live setting she’s unleashed and at her very best. Her vocals don’t feel restrained and you even get to hear her excellent vibrato on multiple songs, which baffles me that this isn’t featured much on her studio albums. 

I hope whoever produces her next album takes cues from this live album and finds a way to incorporate them. Old Crow Medicine Show was in this same boat for years too and Gary Clark Jr. is still in this boat. It’s a rare occurrence it feels like in music to sound good live, but not in the studio, as it’s usually the other way around for several artists. 8/10

Tucker BeathardKING

Well I’ll say this: at least his voice is tolerable now. I once said he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket and that his voice was grating to the ears. It didn’t help either he was another victim of On The Verge, which is a legal payola way of making someone a “star”, but really just distorts reality. Also a smart move to delete all of his music with Big Machine Records and to start a clean slate. 

So I will say I can now listen to his voice without wanting to turn the song off. But he sounds essentially like every other male pop country artist. Still progress of course to go from bad to generic, but not really good either. None of these songs compel me to say anything other than it’s a song, except for “One Upper.” It’s a song about two characters: a rich asshole in a suit who thinks he can buy everything with money and an average joe who ultimately thinks he’s better because he has a hot girlfriend. What endearing people! 4/10

Josh TurnerCountry State of Mind

Just like I said about Jon Pardi’s Rancho Fiesta Sessions, take this for what it is and you’ll have an enjoyable listen. This is another solid country covers album released in a year where there’s been several. Needless to say I’m starting to get a little fatigued by them at this point. There’s not a bad song on this album, but the highlights in my eyes are “I’ve Got It Made” with John Anderson, the album title track with Chris Janson, “I Can Tell by the Way You Dance,” “Forever and Ever, Amen” with Randy Travis and “Desperately” with Maddie & Tae. 8/10

Album Review — John Anderson’s ‘Years’

John Anderson is truly one of the most under-appreciated artists in the history of country music, as his distinctive voice has fueled so many great songs. Whether they be on the more serious or novelty side, Anderson could deliver a memorable performance. So after a long hiatus from music and overcoming health setbacks, I was thrilled to see him back with his first new album in 20 years. Produced by Dan Auerbach and David Ferguson and released on Easy Eye Sound, who I’ve given lots of praise, I was intrigued to hear what the group had in store for Years.

The mellow and subdued “I’m Still Hangin’ On” opens the album. Right away I’m impressed with how great Anderson’s voice still sounds after all these years. It’s aged like fine wine. And it’s an appropriate song to open the album, as Anderson reflects on his life and how he’s still moving forward, even though many thought he wouldn’t make it to this point. The songwriting is so sharp and detailed, with memorable lines giving the perfect insight into Anderson’s psyche and the quiet, humble optimism that beams within him. “Celebrate” continues on with the same theme of Anderson’s own mortality and celebrating all the gifts he’s been given in his life. The mix of countrypolitan and western sounds great, especially the hints of harmonica that show up throughout give it a “journey” feel.

The album’s title track became an instant favorite for me. For one, the hook is instantly catchy and I love how the production mashes together classy sounding strings and roaring guitar interludes. It’s not only a triumphant and uplifting sound, but a homage to the sounds of Anderson’s career, as he often mixed rock in with his country. Anderson is surprisingly joined by Blake Shelton on “Tuesday I’ll Be Gone” and man they sound pretty great together on this warmly melodic track. Despite my issues with Shelton over the years, he undeniably has a fantastic voice and it’s cool how this collaboration came together thanks to Shelton having Anderson open for him on his tour. I love to see older and younger generations of artists collaborating and this is one of the best examples I’ve heard in recent years. In a better music world, this song about finding solace in alone time would be a hit.

“What’s a Man Got to Do” is about a man barely holding on in a relationship, wondering what he has to do to keep it alive. It’s really solid storytelling, Anderson’s pen shining through, and I love how much the fiddles and strings stand out in this track, giving it an enjoyably smooth feel. “Wild and Free” is Anderson’s ode to still living life wild and free. He may be getting up there in age, but his spirit is still as vibrant and young as ever. Again, I love the optimism he expresses and I love the sly nod with the song’s name to his album Wild and Blue. The waltzing love ballad “Slow Down” is another song that instantly won me over. The soft pedal steel guitar, strings and piano give it such a soothing and peaceful feeling that’s easy to get lost in, much like the love being described in the song.

“All We’re Really Looking For” is perhaps the best written song of the album, as Anderson’s storytelling is absolutely wonderful. The song begins with stories of his youth, from his mom making him feel better after a scrape to getting his first car, he relates it all back to love and the importance it plays in one’s pursuits in life. The material possessions we chase, the statuses we covet and the secure feeling we seek all just boil down to love. It’s an inspiring and impactful message that truly touches the heart. “Chasing Down a Dream” contemplates how man can be so driven to chase down a dream. It’s a really good song asking an important question, although I wish it would have went a bit deeper (admittedly a little nitpicking, but a tiny criticism nonetheless).

The album closes with the sad and dark “You’re Nearly Nothing.” It explores the cold lonely feeling of not feeling love, applying to several situations, whether it be because you’re single and can’t find love or if you’re getting up in age and not as many people coming around to visit you. It’s a sobering and real look at loneliness and the effect it can play on one’s mind. This is one instance though where I don’t like Auerbach’s production being so grandiose, as this song needed to be more stripped back to give it even more effect. Still the lyrics and Anderson’s vocal performance pack a powerful punch.

There have been many near death/mortality albums done throughout country music history, calling to my mind Johnny Cash’s famous American Recordings series, Wille Nelson’s hauntingly great Spirit (and various other sharp takes on the subject), and the late great John Prine’s final album The Tree of Forgiveness grinning in the face of mortality. John Anderson’s Years is without a doubt worthy of standing right next to these pieces of work. The songwriting on this is incredibly strong, with Anderson impressively having a hand in writing every track. Auerbach and Ferguson also deliver production that shines for the most part and continues their streak of quality projects. Years shows John Anderson is not only still hanging on, but he’s thriving and smiling.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review — Marcus King’s ‘El Dorado’

If you’re expecting the same rocking sounds of The Marcus King Band in Marcus King’s debut solo album, you’re going to be a little disappointed. After all when an artist steps away from their band to release a solo record, I think it would be unrealistic to expect the same sound. Otherwise what’s the point of going solo? And while different can sometimes be bad (see Zac Brown with Sir Rosevelt), in this case it actually turns out quite good with Marcus King’s El Dorado.

The album doesn’t get off to the best start with “Young Man’s Dream” as the opener. Choosing such a mellow song to open the album doesn’t exactly invite you in to want to hear more. The theme makes sense with King looking back on the dream he set out to conquer when he left home years ago and realizing he’s still chasing it. But I’m a big believer in a higher tempo song as an opener. So I would have switched the second song “The Well” into the opening spot with it’s loud, guitar-driven sound, which is also more familiar to listeners who have followed The Marcus King Band. The bluesy and smooth rifts are instantly infectious and pair perfectly with the dynamic voice of King’s.

King really pours the soul on in “Wildflowers & Wine.” The heavy soul influence on this album is really what makes this album shine in my eyes, as King is just as comfortable with soul as he is with rock. The lyrics in this song, written by King, producer Dan Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, do a fantastic job of describing the love and passion in a relationship and King delivers them with the kind of fire needed to really drive them across to the listener.

“One Day She’s Here” is about ruminating over an on and off love. Lyrically this is fine, albeit one of the weaker moments on the album regarding this aspect. It’s just a bit too repetitive for my liking. “Sweet Mariona” sounds like something The Eagles would cut with it’s easy-going country rock sound. The instrumentation is what makes this really shine with the shimmering pedal steel guitar and light acoustic touch, as it gives the song an appropriate reflecting feeling.

One of my favorite moments on the album is “Beautiful Stranger,” as it shows off King’s great falsetto voice. The lyrics sets the scene well of a man approaching a woman in a bar and wondering of the possibilities they could have if they’re no longer strangers. The secret sauce though of this song and really this album is the subtle country sensibilities that permeate it. This song after all was written by King, Auberbach and longtime country writer Paul Overstreet. While this isn’t a country album of course, El Dorado does take a lot of influence from the genre, as it’s molded with the sounds of rock, soul and blues throughout.

“Break” reminds me of the Michael McDonald era of The Doobie Brothers with it’s theme of heartbreak combined with it’s smooth sound and King’s falsetto. I’m glad that this song doesn’t go overboard with the production though (it avoids over-polishing the sound), instead allowing King’s voice to be more front and center. “Say You Will” is this album’s only other guitar-driven rock sound that is more in line with The Marcus King Band and of course it sounds great. While I enjoy the more soulful, bluesy detour of this solo album, King really does thrive within the more rock driven sound on songs like this one.

“Turn It Up” is great driving music. It helps of course with it’s chorus (“Driving 90 miles an hour down a dead end street/Cold steel under my feet” and “Testing my nerves, taking the curves”), but most importantly it’s swanky, swaggering funk-influenced sound makes me picture myself driving down the highway. I guess when it comes to driving music you know it when you hear it would be the best way to describe it. I said before this album has subtle country sensibilities. Well it’s not so subtle on “Too Much Whiskey,” with it’s honkytonk sound and name-dropping Willie Nelson’s iconic album Shotgun Willie (and the “Whiskey River” reference). King nails the classic country drinking song and I love the harmonica that pops up throughout.

I feel like “Love Song” is very much a love it or hate it type song, as I can see why some might find this song to be too saccharine for their taste. But I fall in the enjoy it camp, as I feel the lyrics have genuine heart behind them. And I think it’s King’s passionate delivery that makes this song work for me. The album closes out strong with another high point in “No Pain.” Written by King, Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin, it’s a short and simple song about what I perceive to be about acceptance in the face of death. It’s possible it was at the hands of alcohol addiction as the lines “I fall off of that wagon/Won’t be no last call” allude to. There’s not that many lyrics, yet it’s able to get across a clear and impactful story to the listener. It’s excellent songwriting and shows less is more can be a highly effective approach to storytelling.

El Dorado may not be the album you expected from Marcus King, but it’s without a doubt a great album. It shows another side of King and the range he has as an artist, being able to draw so effectively from a wide variety of genres. King and Auerbach not only craft this intriguing mix of sounds, but the songwriting is quite solid too. El Dorado is an album that can be appreciated by fans of several genres and most importantly shows Marcus King is a promising young artist who is poised to become even better with time.

Grade: 8/10