Album Review – Rachel Allyn’s ‘Next Year’s Girl’

Rachel Allyn Next Year's Girl

Hailing from The Garden State of New Jersey, meet artist Rachel Allyn. Her career started at age ten in dive bars throughout the state, where her parents would take her to take part in karaoke contests. She grew up listening to a variety of artists that have shaped her including Shania Twain, the Beatles and Elvis Costello. Now she cites her influences as Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves and Chris Stapleton. It’s quite a list of artists to take influence from to shape her music. When Allyn is asked what she calls her music she labels it Americana Country. Furthermore she says, “As long as it’s meaningful, I don’t care what anyone wants to call it. Country music, Americana music and alt-country music, however you want to define each of them, all come from the same place. They were all born of the same kind of storytelling and I feel like they’re all converging again. This is a really exciting and interesting time for country music, and consequently, for myself as an artist.” With that in mind I dove head first into her third album Next Year’s Girl. After thoroughly listening to it, I find Americana Country is a perfect descriptor of the album.

The album’s title track is an upbeat, steel guitar-driven commentary on female artists in country music. Themes explored throughout the song includes the emphasis on looks, how only one female artist per year is seemingly allowed to shine and how female artists need to stop allowing the industry to pit themselves against each other. While it could be a little more fleshed out, the song gets it’s point across. It should also be noted that this song was written as a response to Elvis Costello’s “This Year’s Girl.” “Crash Hard” is about a heartbreaker of a woman who never let anyone into her life. That was until she came across a man she falls in love with and doesn’t want to let go. She says if he leaves her, she’ll be crashing hard as a result. It’s a solid song, although it drags just a tad too long.

The soft “No Second Chances (Tennessee),” is about a woman dealing with an ex boyfriend and her ex-home of Tennessee. She’s moved on to a new place and new man, but both are trying to pull themselves back into her life. Her ex boyfriend never treated her right and Tennessee tore her apart and she desperately pleads for both to stop calling her. It’s a really well written song and a highlight of the album. “Perfect” is about trying to keep a relationship together. The woman pleads to the man to stay and work through their issues together, arguing they’re better together. It’s a solid song with fun and decidedly country production.

Perhaps my favorite of Next Year’s Girl is “After All (The Bird Song).” The song is centered on a bird in a cage, which sits in her cage silently. Her owner wonders why the bird has lost it’s voice and doesn’t want to sing, so this prompts the owner to sing to the bird. The bird finds it’s voice again and sings it’s songs it used to sing again. On surface the story seems to be about the bird, but really it’s about losing confidence in life and finding that courage to be you again. Backed by some lingering fiddle and steel guitar, I would call this the best track on the album. Written in response to Kacey Musgraves’ “It Is What It Is,” “Going Through The Motions” is an organ-backed tune about realizing what you lose when you let go of a relationship. A woman realizes after her man has left that she realizes she misses the “going through the motions” part of the relationship and having someone to sleep with at night. While the production is a little busy, it’s a solid song. The album closes out with “For What It’s Worth.” Allyn covers the Buffalo Springfield song (written by Stephen Sills) superbly and certainly does it justice. It’s a bit jarring hearing such an old song from a young artist, but then again I hear a lot of old soul in Allyn. The instrumentation really shines on this song too, especially the organ play towards the end.

Next Year’s Girl shows that Rachel Allyn is an artist who should be on more people’s radars. She knows exactly where she wants to go with her music and her songwriting is engaging, personal and vibrant. The production and arrangement of the songs on this album are great too. The main sound this album appears to go for is a soulful Muscle Shoals meets traditional country sound. It works well and suits Allyn’s voice. Female Americana and country artists have really shined in 2016 and Allyn is yet another example you can add to the ever-growing list. You don’t hear very many country/Americana artists from New Jersey, but this is one New Jersey Americana artist you need to hear. Rachel Allyn steps up to the plate and hits a home run with Next Year’s Girl.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Loretta Lynn’s ‘Full Circle’

Nearly 53 years ago, Loretta Lynn, the Queen of Country Music, released her debut album Loretta Lynn Sings. Ever since, she has led a successful career as a groundbreaking singer and songwriter, eclipsing eras and continually releasing new music. And at the young age of 83 years, Loretta Lynn has released her 54th studio album with Full Circle. Released through Sony Legacy and produced by Lynn’s daughter Patsy Lynn Russell and John Carter Cash (son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash), Full Circle brings forth 13 songs: new recordings of old hits, and covers of famous folk songs Lynn grew up singing. The album moves with ease between traditional country sounds and the sounds of Appalachian folk music.

The album begins with a quick introductory story of Loretta Lynn explaining how she wrote her first ever song, “Whispering Sea.” A song she wrote while fishing and preparing for her first album. Naturally, Lynn’s recording of “Whispering Sea” follows. And for 83 years old, Loretta Lynn sounds fantastic on this album. She holds notes, sounds confident, and sings like she hasn’t aged. “Whispering Sea” tells the story of a young heartbroken girl who takes her boat out to sea in order to cry. Accompanied by a steel guitar and violin, the ballad sounds straight out of the 1960s. The first cover on the album is “Secret Love.” Originally recorded by Doris Day in the 1950s, the song details a young girl in love who works up the courage to tell the world. Loretta Lynn does her best to capture Doris Day in her vocals and provides a great cover of the song.

“Who’s Gonna Miss Me” is a new song penned by Lynn. The song is about Loretta wondering what her legacy will be like once she’s gone, questioning if she lived her life to its potential, and above all else, wondering who will miss her? The chorus gets a little repetitive, but it’s hard to not like the sentiment, combined with excellent country melody. Loretta Lynn covers two songs written by A.P. Carter of The Carter Family. The first being “Black Jack David.” The folk song details the story of Black Jack David, a rambler who meets a young girl in the woods and charms her into abandoning her family and running away with him. Between Loretta Lynn’s vocals and the bluegrass melody, this recording is one of my favorites of Full Circle. 

Loretta Lynn touches on religion a few times, with the first time being “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven.” This is another song that gets repetitive, but the lyrics talk about how everyone wants to wind up in heaven, yet no one wants to die and would rather keep living. Another cover song Loretta Lynn beautifully records is “Always on My Mind.” A classic love song recorded by Elvis Presley and Willie Nelson, among many others, Lynn keeps the song’s traditional arrangement in check and provides her excellent vocals to the lyrics. “Wine into Water” is another religious song recorded by Lynn. This ballad acts like a prayer with Lynn begging the Lord to help her turn her wine back into water. She’s in pain with the way her actions have hurt the ones she’s loved, and needs help in correcting her ways. This is a classic country topic and she delivers the story with conviction and strength.

“In the Pines” is another traditional folk song whose various versions have been recorded by several people, including Lead Belly, country great Bill Monroe and even Nirvana. Again, Lynn’s vocals knock this song out of the park. “Band of Gold” is a song with a great classic country sound including a slick steel guitar ring. Lynn sings about truly only wanting a wedding ring from her man, to show off their firm commitment to one another. “Fist City” is a re-recording of the hit from Lynn’s 1968 album of the same name. Loretta Lynn brings out her sass in this country rocker. Here, she warns another woman about coming into town to try to steal her man. If the woman tries anything, Loretta Lynn isn’t afraid to fight for her man.

The second Carter Family cover is “I Never Will Marry.” The song tells the story of woman whose man has left her. She feels that she’ll never marry again and decides to take her life in her sorrow. The dark nature of the lyrics are in contrast to the happier sounding guitar strums, but as you listen to the lyrics, you can sense the impending heartbreak. Full Circle ends with two collaborations. The first is another new song called “Everything It Takes.” This is a mid-tempo folk song with Elvis Costello providing vocal harmonies. It’s another song where Loretta Lynn warns her man about another woman wanting to steal him from her. And while he may see this other woman as a catch, Loretta Lynn isn’t afraid to hide how she feels about her. The album ends with a Loretta Lynn and Willie Nelson duet called “Lay Me Down.” The song details how life can take its toll on a person, and how they’ll find peace when they’re finally laid down. It’s a poignant song as two of country’s still living legends sing about death, but the delivery from the two is excellent. I can think of no more appropriate song to close out Full Circle than this one.

Full Circle is an excellent offering from Loretta Lynn. Her vocals sound strong on every song. The album is like a time machine back to the early eras of country music and folk, and it delivers on that front. Full Circle showcases what Loretta Lynn does best: her singing, her attitude, and the beauty of her country music. It had been 12 years since Lynn’s last studio album release, and I think it’s a real possibility that this could possibly be her last release of new recordings. From the recording of the first song she’s ever written, to capturing her spirit and attitude throughout the album, and ending with a song like “Lay Me Down,” Full Circle fits as the name for this album. It’s not like Lynn is slowing down yet as she’s still touring, but it’s still nice to get one more album of vintage Loretta Lynn.

Grade: 9/10

 

Album Review – Eric Church’s ‘Mr. Misunderstood’ is His Best Work Yet

Eric Church Mr. Misunderstood

What a surprise! Eric Church caught the entire world off guard when he released his brand new album Mr. Misunderstood in the midst of the 2015 CMA Awards. The first signs of it didn’t appear until members of Church’s fan club received it in the mail days before it was available to the public. Then everyone listened to it and I think I can speak for most people when I say we once again said, “What a surprise!” I never reviewed Church’s previous album The Outsiders here on Country Perspective, but anyone who has followed this site for a while has known my stance on it. I wasn’t fond of it all and found it to be highly overrated and over-produced. I found it to be a sonic mess with no cohesive theme or direction while also lacking a country sound for the most part. I was definitely one of the most negative about it amongst critics. I like to think Church listened to this feedback because every problem I had with The Outsiders is non-existent on Mr. Misunderstood. This album is a complete 180 and features what I consider the deepest and most inspirational music of Church’s entire career.

The album’s title track and lead single kicks this album off. It’s an appropriate opener, as it essentially lays out what this album is all about and that’s Eric Church and his love of music. Church sings about how he grew up as “Mr. Misunderstood,” the kid in the back of the class who didn’t fit in with his friends who “got their rocks off” on top 40 radio. Instead he was the kid who listened to his dad’s vinyl and the likes of Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Jeff Tweedy (a really cool shout out to three talented artists who have clearly influenced him). It’s an acoustic driven track influenced by southern and heartland rock. There were many things I found relatable about this song and I think many other listeners feel the same when they hear it. This is Eric Church at his best, something I find myself saying a lot as I listened to this album.

The gospel-influenced “Mistress Named Music” follows. Just like “Mr. Misunderstood,” Church sings of his love of music and how it’s been a part of his life ever since he was a kid listening to the organ player in church. The instrumentation on this song is really well done, perfectly meshing country, rock and gospel to create a compelling and interesting listen. It should be noted Church wrote both of these first two songs of the album with Casey Beathard, a fellow country artist and somewhat known songwriter. The upbeat and acoustic-driven “Chattanooga Lucy” is the closet thing to a party song on this album, although I wouldn’t classify it as such. It is a very fun song to listen to and move your feet along with. There’s not a lot of depth on this song, but that’s not a problem considering most of this album has a lot of depth and takes on a more serious tone. So this is a nice breakup and something to play when you’re looking for some mindless music to put on in the background. “Mixed Drinks About Feelings” is a heartbreak song penned solely by Church himself. The man in the song is trying to drink his sorrows away after his woman left him and it’s not helping that much. Church duets on the song with blues artist Susan Tedeschi and their voices go together greatly. Their voices and instrumentation create the perfect mood in the song and it’s arguably the one of the best heartbreak songs Church has released.

There are many great songs throughout this album. But one of the standouts amongst them and most buzzed about I’ve heard so far is “Knives of New Orleans.” The song is about a criminal on the run trying to escape his sins and looking for his getaway key. It’s one of those songs you have to hear for yourself to truly appreciate and once you do you know it just fits Church perfectly. He wrote the song with the brilliant Travis Meadows and Jeremy Spillman and I would have loved to be in the room when they finished penning this song because I can only imagine the reaction. One of the more under-looked songs on the album, “Round Here Buzz,” is next. It’s about a man sitting on the hood of his car drinking, as he thinks about the girl who just left him. He’s perfectly content to just sit there and take in everything around him, as his heart heals. Living in a small town is part of the theme of this song too and unlike in The Outsiders, Church avoids being cheesy or unimaginative and instead does a great job describing it in an authentic way. It’s a really solid song that takes a few listens to really grasp, but once you do you definitely appreciate it much more.

One of my personal favorites on Mr. Misunderstood is “Kill A Word.” It’s about getting rid of negative words and really negativity in general, as Church says words are something that can’t be unheard or unsaid. The songwriting is really sharp, clever and catchy, while also avoiding the pitfall of getting too pandering (hello “We Shall Be Free). But really what takes this song to another level for me is the vocal performances delivered by Church and guest performers Andrea Davidson and Americana artist Rhiannon Giddens. I particularly want to highlight Giddens, who is an amazing artist and delivered the performance of the night at this year’s Americana Awards. I have an immense amount of respect for Church including her on such a powerful song. “Holdin’ My Own” is Church’s ode to his family. Another one penned solely by himself, Church is proud of how he’s been able to survive the early years of his life and how’s he now able to hold his arms around his wife and two boys and do what he loves for a living. You can tell how close and sentimental this song is to Church and his heart shows more on this song than any other on the album. This is a song straight from the heart and for the heart.

While I pretty much love this entire album, the best song on Mr. Misunderstood is “Record Year.” In fact I’ll go so far to say this may be the best song Eric Church has released in his entire career. “Record Year” is about a man who has just broken up with his girlfriend and turns to his vinyl collection to heal his heart. While he plays these records he slowly heals and not only gets over his heartbreak, but also rediscovers himself and some great music along the way. More than anything it’s a song about finding your way in life when things are at your darkest. When Church releases this as a single (it has to be a single), I predict it will be the biggest hit of his career and will go down as one of his signature songs. This is a special song that hits a home run in every department.

Mr. Misunderstood comes to a close with “Three Year Old.” Church is once again inspired by his family, particularly his three-year-old son Boone, on this song. He sings about all of the lessons he has learned from him and how it puts into context how simple life is through the eyes of a child. It reminds you as an adult how we can over complicate stuff and how we need to step back to realize this. It should also be mentioned his son nicknamed the guitar that Church wrote this album with, “Butter Bean.” So it goes back to where this album all began. Not to mention this album started off with Church relating back to his younger days and ends with him as an adult watching his own child grow up before his very eyes.

Mr. Misunderstood is hands-down the best album Eric Church has released in his career. While The Outsiders felt like a contrived, egotistical vanity project, Mr. Misunderstood is Church’s love letter to music. He went back to his roots while also incorporating a sense of freshness that had been needed in his music. It’s no secret that Church is not strictly a country artist and loves to dabble in other genres too. This has hurt him a lot in past albums, but on this one he finds the perfect balance. He incorporates influences from blues, soul, southern rock, heartland rock, folk, gospel and funk in a way that maintains the integrity of the music while also making something new and creative. The songwriting is sharp, well-written and varied in theme and the writers Church brought in alongside him fit well. While I wouldn’t call this an album of the year contender, it is definitely one of the top 30 albums I’ve heard in country this year. It’s an absolute must-listen. Mr. Misunderstood has made me believe in Eric Church and his music once again.

Grade: 9/10