Album Review – John Moreland’s ‘High on Tulsa Heat’

John Moreland has spent most of his life writing songs and making music. He was in a punk band for a bit, but shifted his personal musical direction once he realized he wanted to sing songs that would hit listeners right in the chest. He wants to write and sing stories that were raw, emotional, and real. 2013’s In the Throes was Moreland’s breakout album, and he follows that heartbreaking collection of songs with High on Tulsa Heat. High on Tulsa Heat is equally as eloquent and poignant as its predecessor. Moreland wrote ten deep, heartbreaking songs about life’s toughest moments. These songs aren’t light, and the mostly stripped back production aids the songs in way that’s like John Moreland inviting his listeners into his soul.

The album begins with “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars.” The song appears to deal with dissatisfaction. Searching endlessly to find life’s calling and dealing with pain that you feel when life lets you down. Moreland describes this search with intense imagery; his word choice is excellent with some wonderful rhyme schemes. “This world will have the wolves outside your door, and make you leave all that you love to fight a war and never tell you what you’re dying for.” If you, like myself, hadn’t listened to Moreland before now, this is a prime example of the type of writing he delivers across the board. The production picks up a bit on “Heart’s Too Heavy.” The drums find a nice place behind the guitars, and it sounds like a faint steel guitar in the mix. The song deals with being weary on a journey. Love is dying, dreams aren’t panning out, and there’s doubt and pain weighing you down.

The album slows down again in “Cleveland County Blues.” Here Moreland deals with the pain of being left by his love. He compares her with a tornado, and even though he’s way up in Cleveland County, he won’t soon forget her. There’s some great acoustic country instrumentation behind Moreland’s vocals. Moreland writes of a different side of love on “White Flag.” The relationship in this story is one of endless devotion, possibly to a fault. Where she is struggling to get by with life, he is there to be her white flag. He’ll give everything he has to help her make it through. For my money, “White Flag” is the best song of the album: great writing, great vocals and a perfect production behind the lyrics.

“Sad Baptist Rain” is about being drawn toward temptation. Moreland grew up in the Baptist church, and speaks of how there were times of guilt with his actions and aspirations conflicting with the Baptist ideals. There’s a nice light rock production to this song that fits nicely. “Cherokee” is said to have been written about a lucid dream. The lyrics depict a search for a long-lost figure of wisdom, maybe a deceased father. Moreland engages the listener with vivid descriptions and details that tell a story while leaving interpretation up to the listener.

“Losing Sleep Tonight” finds Moreland dealing with the aftermath of a broken heart. She has left him cold, confused and searching for answers. Moreland simply ponders if she, like him, is losing sleep tonight over the end of the relationship. The melody picks up a bit on this track with heavier drums and guitar strums behind the vocals. “American Flags in Black & White” is another great track that allows room for the listener to find their own meaning. The title alone paints a great picture in your head, and the song uses that image to pine for a time of simpler ways. Life has gotten hard, blows have been dealt, and the characters long for the days from their old black and white pictures.

John Moreland shows a different side of relationships falling apart on the next track. “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” is about a relationship that’s gone cold. His old demons have gotten the best of him and allowed it to affect their life together. And while he continues to struggle, his actions have left her so burned that she can’t feel any sympathy for his pain. When Moreland describes his desire to punch people in the chest with his songs, this one is a prime example of that. The album ends with the title track. “High on Tulsa Heat” ties the album together in a sped up, but similar melody to the opening track. The theme of searching for a place to call home add to the songs paralleled similarities. Moreland grew up in Tulsa after moving from Kentucky, so it makes sense to have these two particular home-themed songs named after that city. The song works nicely to tie the album together and drive it home.

High on Tulsa Heat is about identity. It’s an album depicting some bad situations and how we can find out who we are in light of those challenges and struggles. John Moreland’s insight on this album is not something that you find in music much anymore. The lyrics all paint vivid, wonderfully imagery, and Moreland puts himself and the listener in the center of each story in a natural way. While fans get a further look into the complex mind of John Moreland, the lyrics also leave enough room for each person to gather their own meaning from the songs. That same praise will also be the dividing line between the casual music fan and those who pine for deep songs and gut punching stories. Moreland doesn’t write for the casual fan; he writes for himself and those who are willing to tag along on his journey.

Grade: 9/10

Derek’s Top Ten Country Songs – April 2015

April ALbums

April had a huge amount of album releases this year! And for the most part, the quality matched the quantity of songs. Many great albums from start to finish and several albums with some strong songs make for a difficult time when compiling a top ten list. While the following list is mostly subjective to my personal taste, if you believe I overlooked a song for my top ten or honorable mentions, please don’t hesitate to share your thoughts below. There’s a chance I haven’t listened to everything released in April, though I sure did try.

  1. “’Til It Does” by Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – When Randy and Wade sing about having standards over hits, this song is the perfect example of that. A broken heart can just sneak up and hit you at any moment. There’s no way to prepare for it, and you won’t know it until it happens. The message is simple, the delivery is flawless, and the instrumentation is beautiful.  “’Til It Does” is the country music standard.
  2. “Dress Blues” by Zac Brown Band – “Dress Blues” is a tragically beautiful song. Jason Isbell paints the perfect picture with his lyrics, and the way he tells the story conveys the sorrow of the situation is as heartbreaking as it is wonderful. I think the Zac Brown Band’s cover is an excellent version of the song and does justice to Isbell and his original cut. Not to mention, Jimmy De Martini’s fiddle solo mid-song is breathtaking. No question that this is the best track on JEKYLL + HYDE.
  3. “Standards” by Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – This song alone exponentially increased everyone’s excitement for Hold My Beer Vol. 1. A lighthearted poke at record executives who pine for one big hit, and a fun critique at the mainstream country climate. This song sums up the whole album, and truly sums up the careers of both Rogers and Bowen.
  4. “Second Hand Heart” by Dwight Yoakam – The title track of Yoakam’s new album is far and away my favorite. It was hard for me to pick just one from Second Hand Heart because the album is packed with great song after great song. Country and rock blends nicely on this track, and Yoakman’s vocal delivery is excellent.
  5. “They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To” by Will Hoge – Hoge teamed up with Texas songwriter Sean McConnell to write this song about a son trying to live up to his dad’s hardworking legacy. The linear way they compare the father’s working life to the son’s is great, and the piano in the melody is the icing on the cake. This song is a much more authentic version of Hoge’s hit “Strong” and is the top track on Small Town Dreams.
  6. “Just Like Them Horses” by Reba McEntire – Reba sings of a loved one passing away in this heartbreaking song.  The lyrics describe the goodbye in a wonderful way, and Reba’s vocal delivery knocks this out of the park. The best song, in my opinion, on Love Somebody(Thanks to reader Scott for enlightening me on the song’s background.)
  7. “El Dorado” by Randy Rogers & Wade Bowen – There’s something to be said for a great cowboy song, and that’s what “El Dorado” is. Bowen and Rogers detail the old cowboy’s story with great imagery and feeling. Wade sings most of the song, but when Randy chimes in for the last verse and chorus, it adds more sorrow to stinging words of the cowboy’s final goodbye. “El Dorado” also features a great musical outro of guitars, fiddles, and steel guitars that you can’t help but love.
  8. “Man Of Constant Sorrow” by Dwight Yoakam – Yoakam’s rocking version of this timeless classic is fantastic! The guitars carry more of an old-time rock and roll sound, but the song is nothing but country.
  9. “Bittersweet” by Zac Brown Band – JEKYLL + HYDE saw the band from Georgia dipping into genre after genre, but this track is an evolution of the Zac Brown Band sound. A song about preparing to say goodbye to an ill loved one, and the acoustic instrumentation building to a roaring climax is a great compliment to lyrics. Also, Zac Brown’s vocal delivery is awesome.
  10. “Jayton and Jill” by Zane Williams – A lovely story song off Williams’ Texas Like That. Jayton and Jill meet on a dark highway in the rain, and together they ride the storm out at a local diner while they talk. The night sparks a friendship that lasts a lifetime, and a friendship that saves both their lives. This is an example of great story telling in country music.

Honorable Mentions

  • “Guitar or a Gun” by Will Hoge.
  • “Dreams of Clay” by Dwight Yoakam.
  • “Sympathy” and “Still Think About You” by William Clark Green from his album Ringling Road.
  • “White Flag” by John Moreland from his album High on Tulsa Heat.
  • “Suffer in Peace” by Tyler Farr from his album Suffer in Peace.

Find all 16 songs in the Spotify playlist below.  And I’d love to hear some of your favorite songs from the month.