Album Review — HARDY’s ‘HIXTAPE, Vol. 1’

HARDY (real name Michael Hardy) has been writing a lot of songs for some of the biggest names in mainstream country in the the last few years and now he’s stepping into the spotlight himself with what is essentially his debut album, HIXTAPE, Vol. 1. It features several collaborations from various country artists (17!) and is based off the successful mixtape format popularized by hip-hop. And I have to say I did not expect to review this album at all. Even more surprising: I did not expect to enjoy this as much as I did.

Lead song and single “Boy from the South” features Cole Swindell and Dustin Lynch. It’s an okay track about your typical guy from the south. Swindell’s part I enjoy, but not so much Lynch’s part. Other than the John Boy and Billy Big Show shout out and the funny line about writing “We Want Bama” on the windshield (which you shouldn’t write if you’re a fan of a southern team not named Clemson, Georgia or LSU), the lyrics are pretty average for me.

“He Went to Jared” is my favorite song on the album. Featuring Morgan Wallen, the song is about a working man getting dumped by his woman for a rich man. I love the simple storytelling and hooks used and Wallen’s unique voice is the perfect choice for this song. Also am I the only one who gets a chuckle out of the line “I’m just sittin’ here with a beer and my jeans tucked”? It’s such a random ass observation, but it fits so well.

“Redneck Tendencies” is a modern day, redneck version of “Mama Tried” and sees HARDY calling on ’90s country staples Trace Adkins and Joe Diffie. Both are great features on this fun little singalong. “Nothin’ Out Here” features Thomas Rhett and is your standard “don’t overlook small town” songs that doesn’t have anything new to say about the subject nor is it catchy. It’s ironic that the two singles of this album are the ones I skip when listening to this album.

“My Kinda Livin'” is about taking pleasure in country living. HARDY is joined by Hunter Phelps and Jameson Rodgers and I have to say I’m not too familiar with Phelps and Rodgers. But the three sound pretty good together and they fit this easygoing song well. The crickets chirping in the background throughout are a nice touch, as they compliment this tone too. Unlike “Nothin’ Out Here,” “No Place like Hometown” is a small town song I can get behind. The sentiment resonates with me, Keith Urban’s solo vocals sound good and I really enjoy the harmonies of HARDY, Urban and Hillary Lindsey in the latter half of the track.

Mitchell Tenpenny and Jon Langston join in on “Something a Lil’ Stronger” and I have to admit this was the song I was expecting to hate the most because I have not been a fan of Tenpenny up to this point. But I have to give props where it’s due: he sounds great on this song and so does Langston. The both fit this singalong about always wanting to move on to something stronger and better, whether it be a drink or a woman. The simple and catchy observational tone reminds me a lot of another song I like, Jon Pardi’s “What I Can’t Put Down.” This is definitely a highlight of the album and Tenpenny should consider working with HARDY more.

The underrated Tracy Lawrence knocks it out of the park on “What They Make Backroads for.” Jake Owen sounds pretty good too. These are both artists who just know how to approach these simple country songs that aren’t trying to be anything more than fun singalongs. These may seem like shallow observations, but there’s not much more to say when it comes to these type of songs: you listen to them and they either work or they don’t, and this one works. “Turn You Down” is that fun rocker, Friday night anthem that this album needed. It’s another great feature from Morgan Wallen and Zakk Wylde is awesome at delivering the rollicking guitar licks that make you want to bang your head. Also I love the depiction of Wylde on the cover of the album, which is one of the most memorable albums covers I’ve seen this year.

After an album of fun songs, the album closes with a more serious song in “One Beer,” which is nice to see. It’s about how one beer turns into a hook-up, which turns into an unexpected pregnancy, then a unexpected marriage and family. It’s a real story that happens in small towns every day across America, so I praise the storytelling of the lyrics. Devin Dawson and Lauren Alaina are the guest artists, but I really don’t feel their presence like other guest artists on the album. Nevertheless, they all three sound good harmonizing together.

Readers familiar with my reviews might be shocked to see I enjoy HARDY’s HIXTAPE, Vol. 1, but that’s because you’re not listening to this album for what it’s trying to be: a fun album full of catchy, mindless songs that are easy to turn on and immediately get into. And this album does this well. HARDY isn’t trying to make you think, he just wants you to have a good time and I do when listening to his mixtape.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review – Little Big Town’s ‘The Breaker’

little-big-town-the-breaker

Let’s be honest: I wasn’t exactly a fan of Little Big Town’s last album Pain Killer. I went back and re-read it. I was actually quite brutal with my remarks. Man, did I go in on the 80s rock comparisons. In my defense though these comparisons weren’t off and I can honestly say I only remember two songs from that album, “Day Drinking” and “Girl Crush.” The latter of course went on to become Little Big Town’s biggest hit yet and racked up tons of awards. So at least the best song went on to earn the most praise. Coming into this veteran group’s new album The Breaker, I was kind of cautiously optimistic based off the Taylor Swift-penned lead single “Better Man.” But in the back of my mind I still remembered the previous album being a disappointment. After all Jay Joyce returns as producer, who was a big part of why the last album was underwhelming and forgettable. Well after listening to The Breaker, it’s definitely a step up and into the right direction for this group.

The opening song “Happy People” really establishes the overall tone and vibe of this album. It’s a very easy-going, light, roots-y type sound that permeates throughout this song and album. The song is about doing whatever floats your boat and how happy people do a lot more than unhappy people in this life. It takes a few listens, but the lyrics kind of subtly impress. It’s no surprise considering two great songwriters in Lori McKenna and Hailey Whitters wrote it. One of the more upbeat tracks on this album is “Night On Our Side.” It’s catchy, but the song itself really doesn’t have much to say and is greatly aided by the vibrant instrumentation. Moody and mellow would best describe “Lost In California.” This might be the most different song I’ve heard from Little Big Town, as this song is very much driven by tone. The song is a love ballad and features some illustrative songwriting that really paints a picture in your head, a credit to the famous troika of Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and McKenna. Then we have the production, which perfectly compliments it with it’s dreamy, almost hazy like feel. It might be Jay Joyce’s best work he’s ever done.

This is before we get to what I would deem the best track on the album, “Free.” I knew right away that McKenna helped write this, as it just has the markings of her best work. The song is instantly feel good, along the same lines of “Humble and Kind.” It’s about how the things we want most in life are free and some of our best qualities are free too (how we get our sense of humor from a parent, our eye color from a relative). The harmonies are also perfectly timed. This is one of Little Big Town’s best songs it’s ever released and deserves to be a single. “Drivin’ Around” is a breezy, summer song you play with the windows down as you well drive around. I enjoy how the harmonies drives this song, but I wish the production were toned back a bit to let the song be more breezy and less overbearing at times (“Rollin'” is along the same lines). Nostalgia will determine how much you love “We Went To The Beach.” Most of the time nostalgia songs usually don’t work for me, but this one does because well I can relate to the first part of the song. If you can connect with a part of the song, it’s enjoyable. If not, it’s probably just okay. I also have to say Phillip Sweet was a good choice for lead vocals here, as his voice suites the overall mood of the song.

Kimberly Schlapman takes the lead on “Beat Up Bible.” It’s about the meaning of a Bible that’s been passed down through a family. The memories it holds and the lessons learned are what make it so special, even though it’s nearly fallen apart. Usually these types of songs devolve into cliché territory quickly, but this one has heart and comes across sincerely. Schlapman is a great choice for lead vocals, as her sweeter, more restrained voice suits it. Little Big Town do a really job tackling heartbreak on “When Someone Stops Loving You.” The song explores the feelings you go through after a breakup: having to trudge through the normal routine, forced to face life without that person and a little part still hoping they come crawling back. It’s well written and Jimi Westbrook really shines on lead vocals. The album’s title track closes the album out. With Sweet on lead vocals, the song is about a man who thought he would be the man of his woman’s dreams. But he ends up turning out to be the one to break her heart in the end. I enjoy the concept of this song, but I think it would have been even better if it were a duet between the man and woman, explaining each side. It would have really added some depth, but as is it’s a decent song.

Little Big Town delivers a pretty solid album in The Breaker. It’s a nice rebound from the group and mostly a return to where this group shines: more organic, restrained, harmony driven songs. Everything on this album is a step up, most notably the songwriting. Five co-writes from Lori McKenna, along with contributions from the likes of Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose and Hailey Whitters is likely to help an album in the songwriting department. Overall I like the sonic direction this album takes and the themes explored, but I felt like if it could have been taken further this could have been a great album. It felt like some potential was left on the table, but hopefully the group stays on its current path and takes these steps on the next album. Little Big Town should be proud though of their effort on The Breaker, as I think this will be one of the best albums from mainstream country in 2017.

Grade: 7/10

 

Recommend? – Yes

Album Highlights: Free, Lost In California, When Someone Stops Loving You, Happy People, Beat Up Bible, Better Man

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old; Night On Our Side


Review – Lady Antebellum’s “You Look Good”

lady-antebellum-you-look-good

Lady Antebellum was one of the biggest acts in country music in the late 2000s, racking up multiple hits. But when they chose to go on hiatus in October 2015 radio had seemingly left them behind in favor of younger, more pop friendly acts. So it was a smart move of the group to take a break and really give people a chance to miss the trio. In 2016 both Charles Kelley and Hillary Scott released their own solo projects, each seeing a varying degree of success. Kelley earned a Grammy nomination for “The Driver” and Scott got a #1 hit on Christian radio for “Thy Will.” The trio is now reformed and my hope upon their return was that they took the great things about their solo projects and incorporated it into their new music. Their return single is “You Look Good” and man they did not go the way I was hoping. Instead this feels more like a continuation of the dreadful 747 era. I’m not sure where to begin with this mess. I guess with the obvious: the horns. There are a lot of horns incorporated into this song, which as I’ve said before I’m perfectly fine with horns in country songs. While it’s probably the best part of the song, they’re just sort of there and jammed into the blatant pop rock production when they could have incorporated in an interesting way. And for a song that seems to be striving for higher energy, it fails too. After a couple of listens you realize this song is almost just as lifeless as most songs at country radio right now. Then we get to the lyrics, which are just hilariously thin and vapid. I mean look at these chorus lines: And baby you look good all day, all night/You look good, so fresh, so fine/You look good, got everybody watching you like cameras in Hollywood/Baby you look good/Aw baby you look good. This also another country sex song that fails to create a sexy vibe with its lyrics and production. You would think the producer of this song busbee would know how to execute this coming from pop. Just listen to Bruno Mars’ latest album. I digress. But all in all I find “You Look Good’ to be a major disappointment and based off this I am not looking forward to their new album Heart Break.

Grade: 1/10

 

Recommend? – No Way!

 

Written by Hillary Lindsey, Ryan Hurd and busbee

Album Review – Carrie Underwood’s ‘Storyteller’

Carrie Underwood Storyteller

Over the last few years in country music, female artists have struggled to standout and get played on country radio. Well unless your name is Miranda Lambert or Carrie Underwood. They haven’t struggled a bit and are regularly featured. Underwood in particularly has really been shining with her singles, as in the last year she has received heaps of praise for them. “Something In The Water” won a Grammy and universally praised by country fans. “Little Toy Guns” had a more pop sound than many liked, but it’s challenging theme and solid songwriting made it standout in the vast wasteland of mainstream country. And her latest single “Smoke Break” is on pace to reach #1 at country radio. This has helped build hype to her new album Storyteller, which has been highly anticipated for months. Underwood promised this album had more twang and more emphasis on telling a story than her previous records, something that piqued my attention. And after listening to this album, this proved to be right. This album also proved to be more complex and connected than it appears on the surface.

Storyteller begins with “Renegade Runaway,” a song that borrows from country, pop and rock to create an interesting sound. The song is essentially a modern-day Bonnie & Clyde-type anthem. I didn’t know what to make of this song after the first few listens, but there’s something about this that makes it enjoyable to my ears, whether it’s the exciting production or Underwood’s vocals. “Dirty Laundry” is about a woman catching her man cheating on her by looking through his dirty laundry and finding stains that are clear evidence of it (perfume and red wine). The phrase “dirty laundry” works as a double entendre in this situation, as his dirty laundry is the dirty laundry that hangs him out to dry and exposes him as a cheater. It’s a solid song, although I thought the instrumentation could be better.

“Church Bells” is an interesting song about a woman falling in love with an “oil man” who she thought was Mr. Right. She was picturing the wedding and the whole nine yards until one night he shows his true colors and hits her out of rage. She gets her revenge by slipping something into his whiskey one night and he dies without anyone knowing what happened. Now I know I’ve said before that answering a wrong with violence is…well wrong. But when it comes to this story I don’t have as much of an issue, even though violence shouldn’t ever be the answer to anything. Then again when you hit a woman I lose any respect for you, so you kind of get what you deserve (what goes around comes around). I will say the songwriting on this is good, despite the production being a little overboard.

One of the more confusing songs on the entire album is “Heartbeat.” This is basically Luke Bryan’s “Strip It Down” or Sam Hunt’s “Take Your Time” from the female perspective. From the reference to partying in the city to the R&B-styled production, this is no different from those songs. Hunt is also the male background singer on the song. This song might have had a chance at being a romantic love ballad if it was actually country, but instead it chases trends and ruins the song. The lead single “Smoke Break” follows. As I said in my original review, this song does a great job of balancing appeal to the roots of country music and what radio wants. From my review: The song itself is an ode to the working class person. The protagonists of the song are a woman and a man who both work their asses off. Both are clearly tired. Neither drink or smoke, but wouldn’t mind a drink or smoke break. Now some might imply this as literal, but I think the songwriters here (Underwood, Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsey) are implying it’s just an expression.

My favorite song on the album is “Choctaw County Affair.” It’s a murder ballad about a couple who thought they could get away with murder, but in the end it catches up with them. I found it slightly humorous how Underwood sings about how one half of the couple, Cassie O’Grady, is painted as the “All-American cheerleader type” when she’s really a cold-hearted “gold digger.” If you recall Underwood had a single a few years back called “All-American Girl” that was nauseatingly clichéd. That song made me roll my eyes because in many instances this good girl is just putting on a front and “Choctaw County Affair” goes there with that thinking. At first I thought the production was a little overdone (and if you think that I understand), but to me it gets it just right. I especially enjoy the harmonica play from Travis Meadows. On an album called Storyteller, this song exemplifies the name the most and credit to the writer of the song Jason White (who also wrote the controversial Tim McGraw song “Red Ragtop” and Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Ain’t It Enough”).

“Like I’ll Never Love You Again” is a rare love ballad from Underwood, who is on record as to saying she doesn’t like to record these type of songs very often because they’re cheesy. It’s a very sweet, heartfelt song that fits Underwood perfectly. It also feels very genuine coming from Underwood, which is important when trying to get people to connect to a serious love song. The songwriting is solid through and through, as Hillary Lindsey, Lori McKenna and Liz Rose wrote it. There are many songs I had to listen to on Storyteller to fully grasp and get a hold of and “Chaser” was one of them. It’s another song where Underwood melds together country, pop and rock to create a weird sound. It feels like this song doesn’t know what it wants to be. If it maintains it’s high energy in the chorus throughout it, I think I would like it more, but the roller coaster energy throughout it makes the song a middle of the road tune at best. Underwood shows off more of her pop rock side on “Relapse.” The production drags this song down, as once again it’s kind of bizarre and indecisive.

The sound of a ticking clock plays in “Clocks Don’t Stop.” This is pretty much a straight pop song and feature the worst lyrics of the album. Chris DeStefano, Hillary Lindsey and Blair Daly are the writers of the song. Everyone is familiar with the first two for the most part, but Daly is probably not so familiar. Well actually she’s more familiar to you than you think, as she co-wrote Maddie & Tae’s “Your Side of Town” (the worst song on their debut album) and helped write many of the songs on Kip Moore’s new album, including his current single “Running For You.” The production in this song is just as bad, making the song very easy to skip. Another standout of the album is hands down “The Girl You Think I Am.” The song is about how Carrie’s parents have always believed in her and thought the best of her, making her strive to be as great as they say she is. It’s an easy song for many to connect with, especially those who have parents like in the song who believe in you fully and push you to reach your potential. Everything about this song flows together well and would love to see it released as a single.

“Mexico” is another Bonnie & Clyde-like tale about being on the run and heading for Mexico to escape the police. Going into this song I was expecting a sunny, summer tune, but I probably shouldn’t have considering Underwood has never did these types of songs. This is the type of song that will grow on you the more you hear it. Storyteller comes to a close with “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted.” It’s another song where Carrie draws from her current life. Underwood sings about how she never envisioned herself being married and having a kid, but now she realizes this is what she always wanted. This song has a couple of production missteps, but not enough to take away from this well-written song. I would have added a little more piano and some acoustic guitar to make it feel more heartfelt. Nevertheless, it’s a solid song and an appropriate way to end the album.

Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller is an album that lived up to expectations in some areas and disappointed in others. Her promise of more twang and rock influences definitely showed and for the most part was good. The songwriting was undoubtedly the biggest highlight of the album, as it was varied and interesting. I give a lot of credit for Underwood having a hand in writing many of the songs and reaching out to talented songwriters to contribute to the album who deserve more attention. And of course Underwood’s vocals shined, but that’s almost always the case. Where this album disappointed me the most was with the production and the amount of pop influences at times. It dragged down too many songs and some of them should have been left off the album entirely. Also Sam Hunt should never be involved with a Carrie Underwood song, even if it’s something that’s seemingly harmless like background vocals. Overall I think Storyteller will be loved and hated by many, as early on it’s proving to be divisive amongst fans and critics alike. At the end of the day I found this album to more good than bad and I mostly enjoyed it. What will determine if you like this album is how much emphasis you put on instrumentation and songwriting.

Grade: 7/10

 

Review – Carrie Underwood’s “Smoke Break”

Carrie Underwood Smoke Break

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, a much-hyped Carrie Underwood announcement has been building in anticipation for a week. Well that event finally came yesterday evening (8/20) and we got two big announcements from Underwood. The first announcement is that she will be releasing a brand new album on October 23 titled Storyteller. The second announcement was the immediate release of the new, lead single from the album, “Smoke Break.” For those who aren’t on Twitter or happened to miss it, I highlighted the most interesting answer from Carrie’s Q&A on Facebook yesterday (which is worth a read) and it was in regards to the influence on her new album. Here it is:

https://twitter.com/realcountryview/status/634481340361142273?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

I don’t know about you, but this sounds pretty promising. Storytelling, traditional and twangy are the three words I like to hear in regards to a country album. This will be her first new album of completely new songs since the 2012 release Blown Away. Last year of course she released a greatest hits album with two new songs, “Something In The Water” and “Little Toy Guns.” Both singles were good, especially the former as it won a Grammy for Best Country Solo performance this past year. So this new single “Smoke Break” certainly had lofty heights to live up to, as the previous singles set the bar high.

Does it meet the standard Underwood has set? Yes. There’s definitely a twanginess to the song, so Underwood lives up to this promise at least with this song. Leading up to this announcement there were a lot of murmurs of her adding more of a rock influence to her music and that can definitely be heard here too. I’ve always said if country artists want to borrow from another genre, it should be rock, as it’s the closest to country in sonic compatibility. A combination of guitars and drums make up the instrumentation for the most part, although there is also a much welcome organ, in addition to electric guitars, that makes an appearance in the bridge of the song. I think the instrumentation does a great job of balancing between having traditional roots and having a fun enough sound for country radio.

The song itself is an ode to the working class person. The protagonists of the song are a woman and a man who both work their asses off. The woman has to work three jobs and feed four kids. She finds it hard to be a good wife, good mother and good Christian (I like to think this last part has a little snarky sarcasm). The man is trying to work his way up the ladder in the world, as he’s the first from his family to go to college. Both are clearly tired. Neither drink or smoke, but wouldn’t mind a drink or smoke break. Now some might imply this as literal, but I think the songwriters here (Underwood, Chris DeStefano and Hillary Lindsey) are implying it’s just an expression. I’m sure many of you have heard someone utter the phrase after a long day at work, “I could use a stiff drink” or “I could use a smoke.” I don’t really do either, yet I’ve probably uttered both phrases many times. It’s just something you spit out after a frustrating day or week.

While this isn’t a serious song like the last two singles, I think it’s a nice change of pace for Underwood. She was due to release a more relaxed and fun song. I think it’s a song many people can connect with and relate to, especially the working class person. On top of that Underwood keeps the sound very much rooted in country rock, something right in her wheelhouse. When she went with a more pop sound for a while, I was disappointed as it not only sounded worse, but it didn’t sound like it fit her well either. I’m glad she’s going with something that suits her again and let’s her big voice shine. “Smoke Break” is just the type of song that I’ve been wanting to hear on country radio. I definitely recommend this song and I’m looking forward to what Underwood has to offer on her new album Storyteller.

Grade: 8/10