Album Review – Miranda Lambert’s ‘The Weight of These Wings’

miranda-lambert-the-weight-of-these-wings

Making a great album is a tough challenge. Making a great double album, though? You’re taking on an almost impossible task that many of the best artists can’t even pull off. I’ve made my stance on album length quite clear, with simple math telling us that the longer an album is the more chances you have of making mistakes. The biggest challenge with taking on a double album is finding enough great content to fill it up from start to finish. Most artists can’t put together 10-12 track length album because writing songs is hard. So when I heard Miranda Lambert’s new album would be a double at 24 songs long, I was worried about it. While no doubt the heartbreak and turmoil she’s experienced over the last couple years while also beginning a new chapter of her life would certainly give plenty of inspiration, I was skeptical if she could find enough for a double album. There would undoubtedly be great songs on it, but there could also be ample bad songs that could drag the good down. Not to mention I’ve lost track of how many different albums from major labels have been wrecked by bad production choices. On the flip side the names involved with the project inspires a lot of positive thinking. So with all of this in mind I dug deep into the mammoth-sized double album, The Weight of These Wings.

The album is broken into two 12 song parts, with the first part being called The Nerve and the second part being called The Heart. I’m going to review the first 12 songs together first and the second set after because this is how the album is intended to be listened. The ominous “Runnin’ Just In Case” opens it up and sets the tone for the album perfectly. Written by Lambert and Gwen Sebastian (who is part of writing some of the best songs on the album), the song is about running from the pain of love or love itself, not exactly sure of which it really is. What really captivates me is the raw emotion on display from Miranda, something that happens a lot on this album.

The decidedly upbeat “Highway Vagabond” is bound to be a future single and I’m surprised it wasn’t the follow-up to “Vice.” While the nature of the song is kind of kitschy, it’s also fun-loving and doesn’t take itself seriously, which is why I think many have already gravitated towards it. The album’s second single “We Should Be Friends” is another upbeat song, which Lambert wrote entirely herself. It’s a clever song about Lambert identifying who she has a friend in, from the frankly honest to the heartbroken. She keeps the song simple and it works. I’m not sure if country radio will get behind it though. I have to say I’m glad there are some upbeat songs on this double album because if it were just entirely heartbreak and dark songs it would be a draining listen. Also by having some lighter songs it acts as a great contrast and helps the darker songs stand out even more.

Lambert sings of helping a friend get out of a bad relationship in “Getaway Driver.” Written with Hemby and her boyfriend/Americana artist Anderson East, it’s a somber Bonnie & Clyde type song. Instead of gleefully riding into the sunset guns a blazing like in the movies, we get something real. Lambert duets with East on “Pushin’ Time.” It’s a song about falling in love, which I imagine is based on these two falling in love. Even if you had no clue these two were together when you listen to this song, you can feel the genuineness and love shine through in every aspect of the song. The steel guitar work by Spencer Cullum goes fantastically with the lyrics. This is hands-down one of the best songs of the album.

The Muscle Shoals-influenced “Covered Wagon” is one of those feel good songs that’s easy to sing along with. “Ugly Lights” sees Lambert incorporating a garage country like sound that Aubrie Sellers really brought to light with her debut album. It really suits both Lambert and the song, which is a sort of gritty and dark tune about hiding in a bar with your broken heart. The lyrics do an even better job of capturing this feeling, which doesn’t surprise me considering Lambert wrote it with Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose. The bluegrass-tinged “You Wouldn’t Know Me” speaks to the truth of not knowing a person just by asking them how they’re doing. A person can change everyday, so you really don’t know someone. It’s one of the simpler, more overlooked songs of the album, but it’s definitely one of my favorites on The Nerve.

There’s a couple of songs on The Nerve that get away from this simplicity and make things too complicated. “Smoking Jacket” is a straight up sex song. This itself isn’t bad; I’m just calling a spade a spade. What else can be gleaned from the line, “every night he makes his magic on me”? That being said this song just doesn’t do much for me, perhaps due to it being too long. One of my least favorites of the album and the worst on The Nerve is “Pink Sunglasses.” The production on this song is just way overdone and self-indulgent. Not to mention the song feels like it drags. It feels like six minutes when it’s only four. This all takes away from the theme of the song, which centers on the sentimental value and confidence one can gain from simple objects.

The final track of The Nerve is “Use My Heart,” which serves as the perfect transition into The Heart. The reason being is the song revolves around the phrase of “I don’t have the nerve to use my heart.” To boot it’s a great song, as Lambert sings of dealing with the inner demons of trying to move on and reconcile with what has happened. Lambert wrote the song with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne. I point this out because this is one of two songs this specific troika wrote on the album and both songs are excellent.

Kicking off The Heart is “Tin Man,” probably the most heartbreaking song of the album. It’s about Lambert and the tin man of the Wizard of Oz, who famously always wanted a heart, discussing the merits of having one. She explains to him how he doesn’t know what kind of pain he’s asking for when he asks for a heart and it’s not worth the trouble. By the end of the song she offers to trade her heart, which is shattered into pieces and covered in scars, to him in exchange for his armor. Written by Lambert and Jack Ingram (who is quite proficient in the art of writing about heartbreak), this is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard from Lambert.

Lambert’s sassy happiness shines through on “For The Birds.” It symbolizes her re-awakening so to speak after her breakup, wanting happiness and sunshine back after going through so much darkness. It’s finally finding that light at the end of a long tunnel. “Good Ol’ Days” is about Lambert willing to go back to where it all began for her to rediscover herself and her truth. It’s about re-examining everything and figuring out just where to go from where you’re at currently. The song does a great job of capturing the humility of the subject, which doesn’t surprise me because Brent Cobb and Adam Hood wrote the song with Lambert. “Tomboy” is a personal anthem from Lambert about her and everyone like her. She’s a proud tomboy who does it her way and this is her way of telling young girls it’s cool to be this way too. For this reason I think this would be a great choice for a single.

If you feel like you need more steel guitar in your life, just listen to “Things That Break” and “Well-Rested.” It’s as thick and infectious as molasses on each song. These are classic heartbreak country songs in every sense. There are a lot of great songs I enjoy on this album, but if I had to pick the best one on this expansive double album it would have to be “To Learn Her.” Written by the praised above troika of Lambert, Monroe and Payne, this song is pure country music. If you asked me to define country music, I would point to a song like this one. The heavy steel guitar makes me smile from ear-to-ear. This song is Lambert at her very best.

The other songwriting trio I absolutely enjoy on this album is Lambert, Hemby and Rose, who get their shining moment on “Keeper of the Flame. “ I didn’t even have to look at the credits to know these three wrote this because their fingerprints are all over it. The very best of these three come together to create this soaring love anthem that you just want to listen to over and over again. I even surprisingly enjoy the synthesizer on this song, which gives the song some real energy and urgency. “Bad Boy” is the weakest track of The Heart, but even it isn’t a bad song. It’s the fact that rest of it is so strong that a just solid song doesn’t quite stand out. While the song relies on the predictable trope of falling in love with the bad boy, I really enjoy the instrumentation. The song starts off with a harder rock edge before giving away to twang pedal steel guitar towards the end.

I really applaud Miranda for going completely outside the box on “Six Degrees of Separation.” I love it when an artist tries something completely different and takes risks and this song is a perfect example of why. The vocal layering combined with the grungy guitars and snappy lyrics make for an infectiously great song. Lambert’s ode to the sun “Dear Old Sun” shows a more subdued soulful side of her. It’s probably the most spiritual Lambert gets on the entire album, as you can really feel the heart in her voice as she sings. Then again Lambert bared her entire self in every part of this album.

The Weight of These Wings closes it’s story with “I’ve Got Wheels.” It’s where Lambert finally moves on from her demons. As she sings, she’s got wheels and now she’s using them to get away from the heartbreak that haunted her for so long. It’s that sobering feeling that you’ve finally picked up all of the pieces and can move on with your life to something after being consumed by something old for so long. And that itself is another chapter that won’t be easy, but Lambert at least knows she’s moving forward now.

After thoroughly listening to The Weight of These Wings from front to back and over again several times, Lambert accomplished something I’ve seen for the first time while running Country Perspective and that’s releasing a great double album. This is an amazing accomplishment that should make her proud because this is nothing to scoff at. If I had to pick the best side, it would definitely be The Heart. There’s not a single bad song on this part of the album, while The Nerve is hampered by the only three missteps of the entire album.

Lambert put every bit of her talent into this album; there was no holding back from her. She utilized some of the best songwriters in country music today, while also showing off her own songwriting chops. We not only get to see her at her most country, but she even takes some risks and pulls them off well too. Frank Liddell, Eric Masse and Glenn Worff for the most part did a great job producing this album and not falling into the usual mainstream pitfalls. Miranda Lambert did something many artists have trouble with and that’s channeling pure, raw energy into beautiful art. The Weight of These Wings is arguably the crowning jewel of Lambert’s entire career.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – Yes!

Album Highlights: Tin Man, To Learn Her, Ugly Lights, Runnin’ Just in Case, Vice, Pushin’ Time, Use My Heart, Good Ol’ Days, For The Birds, Six Degrees of Separation, I’ve Got Wheels

Bad Songs: Pink Sunglasses & Smoking Jacket

Wallpaper: None


Album Review – Stoney LaRue’s Aviator

Born in Texas, bred in Oklahoma, Stoney LaRue grew up in the heart of Red Dirt country music. It’s no surprise that the organic honesty embodied by this music scene is one that LaRue has worked on building and perfecting for years. All that work and effort put into live shows and two previous studio projects has paid off in Stoney LaRue’s newest studio album, Aviator. Always doing it his way, Stoney LaRue sticks with his core producers Frank Liddell and Mike McCarthy to bring Aviator to life. Team LaRue recorded these songs in one take live in the studio, recorded on two-inch tape. No fancy production tricks, just simple, raw, pure instrumentation captured live.  Also, Stoney LaRue has Aubrie Sellers and Mando Saenz providing great backing vocals and harmonies on the album.  (Thanks to Stoney himself for letting me know this tidbit via twitter!) Content wise, Stoney LaRue taps into a lot of personal issues and drastic life changes for his songwriting. But the results aren’t moody, heartbreak songs, but rather messages of self-rediscovery and overcoming the obstacles of life’s trials.

“One and Only” starts off with a gentle acoustic strum, but the instrumentation builds throughout the song, offering up instrumental breaks of fiddles and steel guitars. The song serves as a nice introduction for Aviator, and discusses a looming, hidden danger. This enticing temptation is essentially like chasing an empty dream. It’s meant to bring you down with no happily ever after. Following this is the more upbeat “Golden Shackles.” Here LaRue describes himself a monster of man, standing tall, strong and proud. Yet, as the famous saying goes, pride comes before the fall. But LaRue recognizes his fall and realizes that there’s a lesson to be learned with this setback. For my money, “Golden Shackles” is on the top-tier of this album in terms of songwriting.

“Til I’m Moving On” is one of the many songs where LaRue sets a scene of wandering lost, directionless in life. But in this more subdued track, music is the short-term remedy to the broken-hearted, offering an escape from reality. Next up is the title track, which you may remember made my top ten list from October. This is another song written about wandering lost and reminiscing about the innocence of youth while in the midst of a broken heart. “Aviator” is about putting on a mask to hide these lost feelings.  The instrumentation build along with the lyrics and LaRue’s delivery present a fantastic display for this song.

Stoney LaRue starts to explore failing relationships in the next few tracks. “First One To Know” is another album standout. This song is about the self-awareness of the man. He knows he’s in a rut and not the same guy she fell in love with, and once he figures out how to change back, she’ll be the first to know. Next up is “Blending Colors.” This song has the feel of a more traditional country heartbreak song, with LaRue singing about wanting to show her his sorrow. He’s desperate for her attention and wants her to notice him again. “Spitfire” has more rock influence in the song’s instrumentation than the rest of the album, and rightfully so. This details a final argument; the last biting words that she said to open his eyes to his wrong ways. She didn’t waste any words spitting that fire to him.

Next up is another standout track, “Still Runnin’.” This song is a bit more redemptive with the realization that everything else in life is still the same and still running even though his heart is broken. This song has great piano and steel guitar instrumentation with some excellent harmonies here. In “A Little Too Long” Stoney LaRue sings about a woman who grows tired. She’s tired of waiting for him, tired of giving him second chances. She’s ready to move on because she’s been waiting just a little too long.

“Too Soon” is an upbeat country jam about not giving up on what you’ve started just yet. The instrumentation here is nice, but the lyrics are rather repetitive. “Million Dollar Blues” is another song about broken hearts while battling pride. This heartbreak came from losing his love and feeling empty while chasing dreams. “I paid the price I’ll never know walking them lonely streets of gold with million dollar blues.” The album caps off with a second song I featured on my top ten, “Dark Side of the Line.” This is a song of acceptance that life isn’t forever, and every day we move closer to the inevitable end. The long journey of wandering lost and searching for anything worthy in life is becoming weary.

Overall, this album is loaded with great instrumentation and vocals within every track. Aviator is a musical definition for “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” There may be songs or instances within songs that can nit-picked for doing or not doing something. But this album is meant to be enjoyed by pushing play at “One and Only” and letting it spin from there. This is an album in the true sense of the word.  Each song adds to the story and theme as Aviator progresses.  And if you find the deluxe edition, you’ll be treated to two wonderful bonus tracks: “Natural High (For Merle Haggard)” and “Studio A Trouble Time Jam” which features Stoney and the band rocking out at Nashville’s historic recording studio. Stoney LaRue earns himself a well deserved place along side Red Dirt’s best artists. Aviator is a statement album that speaks loud and clear.

Grade: 9.5/10

Album Review – Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’

The return of Lee Ann Womack to country music couldn’t have come at a better time. Female country artists are struggling to make a dent in mainstream country music in radio and older artists are being pushed further from radio every day. Womack falls in both of these categories, making her album even more significant. She’s also no longer part of a major label, joining bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records. With this newfound creative freedom and some extended time off, the anticipation for her new album The Way I’m Livin’ has certainly been high. I should note from the beginning that she did not write a single song on this album, but this is not a problem. Instead of writing her own songs, she went out and did something I’ve been begging mainstream country artists to do. She brought in an all-star cast of writers for the songs on this album. Garth Brooks has been rumored to do the same thing with his album. There are so many talented writers out there that deserve to be noticed and by bringing in these great writers, it allowed Womack to focus more on her vocal performance on this album (which shines brightly I might add).

The album begin with the prelude, “Fly.” It’s a soft song about Womack wishing she was in heaven flying above and seeing the whole world. Her vocals are absolutely stellar (get used to me saying this throughout the review). The writers for this song are Reed Foehl and Brent Cobb. If you recall, Cobb also co-wrote and performed the background vocals on “Poor Sweet Me” on Lucette’s debut album. This song was also a good way to transition into the second song on the album, “All His Saints.” It’s an upbeat song about Womack looking to get to heaven someday. The song is definitely Christian-oriented. The instrumentation on this is pretty good and the beat really draws you into the song. Mindy Smith was the writer of this song.

“Chances Are” is a song about a woman’s tough luck romantic life and this sets the scene for her in a bar where she wonders what her chances are with the guy across the room. It’s a heartbreak song that features strong country instrumentation. Womack’s twangy and dynamic vocals really shine on this song. Fellow country artist Hayes Carll wrote this song and it’s great to see Carll’s work featured on a big album like this one. I’m looking forward to his new album next year. This song is followed by “The Way I’m Livin’,” the debut single from this album. I already reviewed this song (click here for the full review) and here’s the main snippet of the review: “This song is a traditional country song without a doubt, but it feels fresh and new still. This is the kind of sound all country artists need to be striving for, which is honoring tradition and brining new elements in to make it fresh.”  I will say after hearing the whole album that this song doesn’t come off as strong as I originally thought because there are better songs on the album.

The next song on the album is “Send It On Down,” which is about a woman praying to God to help her get out of her hometown. She wants to escape for many reasons, from her father’s hardware store being out of business to the men in the town having the unrealistic expectation that women should be rich to be attractive. It’s a real soulful song and I like the inclusion of the piano in the song. Chris Knight and David Leone do a great job with the songwriting. The great song writing continues on the Buddy Miller penned “Don’t Listen To The Wind.” It’s a song about a woman getting over a breakup and having a hard time escaping the memory of her ex. Womack’s vocals are excellent and she shows such great emotion in her voice at the right moments. The instrumentation is great too. One of the best songs on the The Way I’m Livin’.

Womack gets even better on “Same Kind Of Different.” It’s a stripped down love song about two different people who are really not different and are actually quite the same. They may not have experienced the same things in their life, but the feelings from these experiences are the same and this connects them. Natalie Hemby and Adam Hood exhibit top-notch songwriting and Womack once again blows me away with her vocals. This song is really the whole package and is arguably the best on the entire album. “Out On The Weekend” and “Nightwind” are two solid love songs from Womack, but each have a distinctive sound. The Neil Young song “Out On The Weekend” has a more Americana sound and “Nightwind,” written by Bruce Robison, has more of a country sound. The latter was a little more complex too, as the metaphors used in the song make you really pay attention to the story being told.

The low point of this album I feel is “Sleeping With The Devil.” It’s a song about a woman sleeping with a man who she believes is the devil. I’m not the song is bad, but it’s a bit repetitive and the theme is cliché. Womack already sang about the devil in “The Way I’m Livin’,” so maybe that’s why it feels repetitive. It is well written though, so kudos to Brennen Leigh. “Not Forgotten You” is another Bruce Robison penned song and it’s about a woman who continues to remember a man in her past. I felt this song could have had a little bit more to it, but it’s solid nonetheless. Although I found both of these songs to be slightly underwhelming, Womack’s vocals and the instrumentation are great on both of them.

Womack caps off her album with a bang in the final two songs. “Tomorrow Night In Baltimore” starts off with the beat of a drum and acoustic guitar. The instrumentation used in this song gives it a fresh and modern feel, yet traditional. It really has a distinctive sound compared to the rest of the album. The song is about a man who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, who is a singer, and he’s determined to win her heart back. Despite her fame, he continues his pursuit of her. The writer of the song, Kenny Price, tells a nice little story through the lyrics. The album closes with “When I Come Around.” The song is about a woman looking for a man she lost contact with several years ago and she continues to wait for him around the spot where they last saw each other, hoping she can find him again. Again it’s a well written song that tells a good story that draws the listener in. Mando Saenz shows just how fantastic of a songwriter he really is and I hope more artists take notice of his talent.

Womack took several well-written songs on this album and just knocked them out of the park with her outstanding vocals. I’m going to reiterate once again what a great decision it was for her to recruit these fantastic songwriters for her album. Her husband and producer of the album, Frank Liddell, deserves credit too for a well produced album. The instrumentation never overtook Womack’s stellar vocals, which is important. When you have a vocalist with the talent of Womack you should always go lighter on the instrumentation and just let the vocals do the heavy lifting. Womack’s album is already being met with critical praise and her lead single, “The Way I’m Livin’,” is receiving radio time. And Womack did it her way too. She didn’t sell out to a major label nor did she try to play to radio programmers with her music. She made the music she wanted to and in the end when you make quality music like this people are bound to take notice. This album lived up to expectations and I certainly thinks it’s a top ten country album of the year. The Way I’m Livin’ comes highly recommended.

Grade: 9/10