Album Review — Taylor Swift’s ‘folklore’

You know a blog with country in the name reviewing a folk-influenced Taylor Swift album doesn’t seem so farfetched. But this is surprisingly the first time I’ve ever reviewed a Taylor Swift album. It’s not that I haven’t listened to Swift’s music. If you’re a millennial you hear her music whether you want to or not. The timing simply hasn’t worked out for me to review it, as this was an only country blog when she went pop and her last two albums were quite frankly forgettable and not worth talking about. But her surprise new album folklore is certainly an album I have a lot to say about.

The first thing of course that stands out about this album is the production, helmed by her longtime producer Jack Antonoff and the National’s Aaron Dessner. Both of their influences shine through in the music, but especially Dessner’s, as this album certainly embraces indie and folk aesthetics. It’s not an indie folk album as many have erroneously called it, but rather a pop album that incorporates elements of modern indie, folk, bedroom pop and lo-fi. Swift cherrypicks some of the more obvious and basic elements of these styles and makes them work with her style of pop for the most part.

That leads me to the obvious comparison for this album, which is Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell. While folklore may lack the subtlety of NFR and feels like a poor imitator of it to some listeners, I would argue folklore does a much better job in terms of memorable melody and catchy lyrics. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Swift has an established history of this while Del Rey is more of a niche sound and audience. The TL;DR for this album is Swift is taking a bunch of elements of several albums and popular styles in the indie world in recent years and putting on pop polish with her own style. This comes off as either too simplistic or an enjoyable compromise. For me it’s the latter.

“the 1” is a great opener to the album, as the song sets the overarching theme and that’s regrets, what-ifs and trying to learn from the loss of a meaningful relationship. I also enjoy how well Swift conveys both wistfulness and heartache, as it shows how caught between emotions you are when wondering what could have been. “cardigan” continues this theme, but it’s the first of a handful of songs on this album that just completely overstay their welcome and ultimately lead to a slightly longer album runtime than necessary.

“the last great american dynasty” took several listens to grow on me, as I kind of struggled to find the point this song is trying to make and what I come up with is it’s a critical commentary on wealth, privilege and sex. The middle class wife is solely blamed for the downfall of a wealthy family, even though there’s nothing to judge by this other than the snide judgements casted from onlookers. The song appropriately ends from the first-person point of view of the wife, who seems to sarcastically agree with the speculation. It’s great storytelling from Swift.

Bon Iver joins Swift on “exile” and while I normally don’t enjoy his voice, I think Bon Iver and Swift sound pretty good together. This song about casting away exes surprisingly works well as a duet and I enjoy the climactic build in the second half of the song as the duo harmonizes. “my tears ricochet” is about questioning how an ex can be so dishonest about the nature of the relationship and feeling like your emotions about the relationship don’t mean anything to them. The mental image of tears ricocheting off the ex is such an excellent metaphor, perfectly showcasing their heartlessness and disregard on the outside. But internally the ex is not okay and their former partner rightly sees their outward righteousness as hollow and insincere. Or at least they like to think this. This song is such a fantastic display of the complexity of emotions when in the immediate fallout of a relationship.

“mirrorball” is about being a mirror for your partner and while this is an intriguing concept supported by great lyrics, the production is the highlight of this song. The sweeping and relax, Enya-like sound is gorgeous and easy to get wrapped up in. “seven” is a brooding and meditative story of hanging onto love. The modern meets classical, string-driven sound gives the song an appropriately nostalgic feel. “august” is about realizing your relationship was never what you thought it was when you were in it. It was just a fun summer memory that leaves one side of the relationship feeling a mix of regret and fondness. I really enjoy the soaring nature of Swift’s voice and the production throughout and then concluding in a symphonic-like finale, much like the relationship described in the song.

“this is me trying” features some of the sharpest one liners I’ve heard from Swift. The obvious one of course is “So I got wasted like all my potential,” which is a sharp rebuke to the criticisms being lobbed at the protagonist. “I had the shiniest wheels, now they’re rusting” is another clever conveyance of the disappointment of the protagonist, who after what sounds like a long time of regret is at the front door of their ex and trying to fix what was done. The droning organ that lingers throughout gives the song a hypnotically melancholy sound and gives it such swelling emotion.

There are three songs on this album that I can hands down say are now amongst my favorite Swift songs and the first is “illicit affairs.” Again, Swift does so well at describing the fallout of a breakup. The beginning of the song is level-headed introspection about how the relationship failed and learning from it. It also features the superb use of “clandestine” and yes I’m a music nerd because I love when a song takes a rarely used word in songs and uses it perfectly (see also Eric Church with incandescent). The second half of the song is an enjoyable burst of righteous indignation and anger that comes in admitting that an ex has changed you as painful as it is to admit. The depth and maturity on display in this song is so good and it’s easily one of my most played songs on this record.

Remember how I said “cardigan” is one of a handful of songs that would have been better with a shorter runtime? Well “invisible string” and “mad woman” are amongst these songs. The concepts for these songs are good and they very much fit the theme of the album, but they’re not really necessary and the album would benefit more for their absence than their presence, as this album’s biggest flaw is it’s too long. If this album was a bit tighter, this album is maybe a challenger for Country Perspective’s Album of the Year. “epiphany” is a beautiful sounding song that’s contrasted by war imagery as the story is of a soldier who seeks a reassuring dream as they bleed to death on a hospital bed. It’s dark, haunting and tragic, capturing all the emotions of a solider of war. It’s one of Swift’s finest songs she’s ever written.

And of course “betty” is the third song that’s now amongst my favorites from Swift. I was hooked from the moment I heard the sweet sounds of the harmonica. Told from the point of view of a 17-year-old boy, he recounts over a summer how he hurt a girl he loved and lives with regret for months as he tries to figure out how to apologize. It’s a song about finding growth and learning how it’s okay to admit when you make a mistake. As everyone knows, Swift became a household name on songs about high school romance. Most of those songs made me gag for their immaturity, mawkishness and being completely out of touch with reality. But this song is the opposite of all these criticisms. And damn it’s so catchy too. Can Swift come back to country music?

“peace” is another production standout on this album. The combination of the Mellotron, bass and synthesizers is so smooth and infectious. It’s such an overall minimalist approach, yet it’s one of the most powerful sounding tracks on the album. Antonoff and Dessner hit a real home run and I think it would have been great to conclude the album here. It’s not that closing track “hoax” is bad though, as it’s actually quite good. It’s a somber piano ballad where all the sadness of a relationship being over is swallowed with crushing pain and aches. It’s the reaching of a total state of being broke with the only thing to show for now being the road ahead and a body and mind covered in scars.

Grade: 8/10

The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 4 — Margo Price, Jon Pardi, The Chicks & more!

Margo Price — That’s How Rumors Get Started

I really wanted to enjoy this album and there isn’t a single bad song on it. But yet after multiple listens not a single song sticks with me either. And it bugs the crap out of me how I can’t put my finger on exactly what it is that continues to be missing from Price’s albums. I’ve always been a fan of Sturgill Simpson’s production and while I think the direction taken with it suits Price’s style, it doesn’t necessarily work to her best either. I guess if I had to pick reasons of why this album just doesn’t work for me is it’s due to a lack of energy and presence of Price. She has a fantastic voice and yet it feels like she continues to be relegated to middling/softer vocal performances. So if it was up to me, I would like to see her go in a heavier rock direction and fully unleash her voice to see how the result turns out. 5/10

Jon PardiRancho Fiesta Sessions

Take this for what it is and you can find a lot of enjoyment in his small cover album. While the sound engineering isn’t the best and rawness of the recording exposes Pardi’s biggest weakness as a vocalist (sounding too thin at times), you can tell Pardi and his band really enjoyed recording this and this is infectious as a listener. It also further supports why I think Pardi needs to get away from his more traditional direction he’s been taking and get back to the more country rock sound of his first album. He just seems to enjoy himself more and it brings out his best too. Kudos to him having the guts to cover Prince too, as it is not an easy task and he actually does a solid job. 8/10

The ChicksGaslighter

This is one of my most disappointing listens of 2020. I’m still a big fan of the lead single and title track, as it’s energy is infectious. But this album becomes so tedious and monotonous to listen to thereafter. First off it feels less like a project from The Chicks and more of a Natalie Maines solo project. There isn’t enough harmonies. The “boat incident” is rehashed ad nauseam. But perhaps the worst thing about this project is the production. I’m a big fan of Jack Antonoff. Hell, he produced Country Perspective’s 2019 Album of the Year. But his production does not go well with The Chicks at all. It’s just too polished for this trio and pales in comparison to their previous sound. I had high hopes for the return of The Chicks, but this honestly feels like the Garth Brooks return all over again. 6/10

Tenille TownesThe Lemonade Stand

I come away from this album seeing a lot of potential in Tenille Townes. Her voice is distinctive and it sticks with you long after listening. And I think Jay Joyce is the right choice as producer, even though I think he can get a bit heavy handed with the production at times on this album. Townes is only going to get better as a songwriter too as she continues to get more experience. While there are a few too many moments where the songs just feel run of the mill, the moments that do work though are great, such as “Jersey on the Wall” and “Come as You Are.” 6/10

Mark ChesnuttNumbers on the Jukebox EP

The sound on this EP is just not mixed well at all. And I’m forgiving in this department when it comes to independent artists. But it’s just so jarring as the listener and I find it puzzling how live and studio recordings are intermingled. The songwriting is also a big step down from Tradition Lives, which is a great album. I expected a lot more from Chesnutt and this feels like a letdown.

Eric PaslayNice Guy

Man, what happened to this guy? He showed so much promise on his debut album. He’s a great live performer too. Then he released the terrible single “High Class” and it’s been steady down hill ever since. This mediocre batch of pop country only continues his descent. It just baffles me how an artist who seems to only be trending upwards to make such a sudden 180. Only Zac Brown Band and The Band Perry baffle me more when it comes to changing so suddenly.

RaeLynnBaytown EP

I’ve been enjoying the direction RaeLynn has been taking into more goofy, “kitchy” songs. This EP features even more enjoyable songs in this vein. “Judgin’ to Jesus” is really catchy and “Bra Off” makes me laugh at the new twist on a breakup song. “Fake Girl Town” doesn’t land for me as the tone just doesn’t fit RaeLynn nor the other tracks on the album. While the lighter side seems to fit RaeLynn best, “Me About Me” is a nice reminder of when RaeLynn wants to get more serious she can do quite well too. It honestly surprises me she hasn’t had more radio success because she has so many songs with great hooks and her charisma is infectious. But if you’ve been enjoying RaeLynn’s recent direction, this is an EP certainly worth your time. 7/10

Cassadee PopeRise and Shine

“I really want this record to sound like an acoustic Dashboard Confessional — like a country Dashboard record.” That’s what Pope says of this album and well mission accomplished. That’s not a good thing. It only makes me want to repeat again: Pope is not suited for country music. She has a great voice, but it is not suited for country. The pop punk of Hey Monday is where she needs to get back to, but we all know what’s more marketable and that’s what drives the decision making of most artists. It’s a shame.

Blackberry Smoke — Live Bandcamp albums

As always this band delivers and they deliver no better than when they’re in a live setting. These lives albums are admittedly not too different from their excellent 2019 live album Homecoming, but if you’re a fan of Blackberry Smoke it’s certainly worth checking out. If anything listen to the songs that aren’t covered on their previous live albums.

Albums from artists I’ve heard and will be covering soon:

  • Daniel Donato
  • Lindsay Ell
  • Duckwrth
  • CeeLo Green

Albums from artists I haven’t heard but on my to listen to list and will likely cover:

  • Caylee Hammack
  • Jacob Collier
  • The Mavericks
  • Tim McGraw
  • Josh Turner
  • Tucker Beathard
  • Taylor Swift
  • The Allman Betts Band

Album Review — Carly Rae Jepsen’s ‘Dedicated Side B’

She’s really going to do it again, eh? She followed up EMOTION with EMOTION Side B, which many argued the latter was better than the former. And now Carly Rae Jepsen is trying to do it again with the surprise release of Dedicated Side B. For those unaware, Carly Rae Jepsen has quite the prolific output of songs per album cycle (she writes hundreds of songs per album and she also has a “quarantine album” in the works). So with EMOTION she decided to release a Side B for it instead of just shelving the songs in a vault. Except that was an EP. This Side B is a whole new album! And once again she’s showing her “B material” is better than many artists’ A material.

One thing to say about this album upfront is it doesn’t quite have the thematic thread of Dedicated, which explored an emotionally complicated, roller coaster relationship. If I had to pick a theme for this album, it would be summer love songs, as it doesn’t have the tinges of heartbreak and doubt that were peppered throughout Dedicated. This is clear from opening song “This Love Isn’t Crazy,” a song about being self-assured of the love you share in a relationship. It’s bouncy, frenetic, soaring; the same fantastic pop production you can always expect from Jack Antonoff and Jepsen. It’s a fist-pumping anthem that perfectly sets the tone for the album.

“Window” does a great job of utilizing alternating hand claps and drum machines to create an infectious and driving beat. Jepsen’s deliberately staccato-like delivery gives impact to lyrics, making them feel instantly catchy and memorable. “Felt This Way” and “Stay Away” are really fun songs about the insatiable lust one can feel towards someone they love. But what the music nerd in me appreciates is how it gives a glimpse into the songwriting of Jepsen (it was a pretty conscious choice to put both of these songs next to each other). If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice each song song is rooted in the exact same line: “I can’t stay away.” It appears both songs started with this line (or variation) and each evolved into two completely different songs. Yes, thematically they’re the same. But I’m impressed by how Jepsen was able to take one simple line/idea and create two great songs from it. Each have their own feel too, as the first is slow and simmering while the second is upbeat and in your face.

Jepsen shows off her dynamic vocal range on “This Is What They Say.” She stretches her vocals into her uppermost range, specifically on the chorus, and it works to great effect. It puts a renowned emphasis on the hook, which in pop music is critical. Without a catchy hook, your music never sticks. But with Jepsen this is never an issue, as she’s clearly as I’ve said before a student of pop music. She just gets what makes a pop song great. “Heartbeat” is the softest and quietest moment on the album and again Jepsen utilizes her vocal inflections to great effect. Accented with spacey production, Jepsen’s vulnerable vocal delivery gives the song an appropriately delicate and smooth feel as she pours her heart out to the man she loves.

“Summer Love” could have easily been the album title track because as I said I feel this album embodies the idea of summer love: bright, cheery and full of hopeful optimism. This song in particular has an irresistible disco sound that makes you want to burn up the dance floor (or in a better music world, it would be a smash summer hit). “Fake Mona Lisa” seems to be an unfinished song, only clocking in just over two minutes. But I still love it and it only makes me wonder more how it would sound “complete.” Because even in this incomplete form it’s an addictive ear worm, utilizing sci-fi-like synths and drum machines to create a heart-pounding, steamy sex song.

The production on this whole album is amazing, but the production on “Let’s Sort The Whole Thing Out” in particular really stands out for me. The drumming is so damn tight and the instrumentation on this song reminded me instantly of The Go-Gos’ “Vacation.” And I wouldn’t be surprised if The Go-Gos had an influence in some way on Jepsen’s music, as her music unashamedly is inspired by 80s pop. But this instrumentation also perfectly complements the lyrics, as they tell the story of what it feels like to realize you’re in love with someone: the sudden burst of butterflies and feeling like you’re soaring above the clouds as you awaken to what’s in front of you.

The heavily synth-layered “Comeback” sees Antonoff officially accredited as a feature under his indie band name Bleachers. It’s a great choice to include his background vocals, as him and Jepsen harmonize well together in this song about rediscovering ones self in hopes they can win back lost love. “Solo” embraces the 80s pop mentality of go big or go home, as everything about this song is big and loud. This fits perfectly with a song about finding happiness in being single and not letting yourself get caught up comparing yourself to couples. Dance solo, don’t get so low as the song says.

“Now I Don’t Hate California After All” is a fascinating exclamation point to the album. I say fascinating because the production on this is immaculate: a balmy, tropical and soft melody that really reminds me of something Kevin Parker would craft on one of his album. It’s so different from the rest of the album and yet it feels like it still fits. It also makes me want to hear an entire beach-themed album from Jepsen. This song is so chill and relaxing that I can’t help but smile when I hear it and that’s the kind of impression you want to leave with a listener as they finish an album.

Dedicated Side B is yet another pop masterpiece from Carly Rae Jepsen. I can’t believe how she just continues to blow me away with fantastic project after fantastic project. Jepsen won Country Perspective’s 2019 Album of the Year with Dedicated and she’s putting herself in the unprecedented position to win it again in 2020 to make it back-to-back. It’s simply incredible. And oh yeah she still has another album on the way.

Grade: 10/10

Single Review — The Dixie Chicks Return with a Bang with “Gaslighter”

It’s been 14 years since the Dixie Chicks have released their last album. Country music hasn’t been the same since, as you can’t deny their leaving/dismissal and absence in the genre had a lasting impact in many ways. Well after years of rumors, they make their return with a new album coming out on May 1 and they’ve just released the lead single from it, the album’s title track.

Now normally in this new era of Country Perspective I don’t discuss or review singles because there’s just so many and I’m an album listener, not a singles listener. But I have to make an exception and break my own rule because this song is just too damn good for me to not talk about and review. Right away this song blasts you with the type of harmonies I’ve been wanting to hear and shouting from the rooftops about for years in review. Acts today just don’t utilize harmonies enough, but this is what makes the Dixie Chicks so great. They utilize their strengths to the very best and their harmonies are very much a strength.

The story the song tells is of a man who was a grand puppet master, successfully manipulating and controlling a woman for what sounds like years before she woke up and is now calling him out on his bullshit, a gaslighter. Each member of the trio takes their turn on lead, each adding another layer and detail to the story that gives you an exact look into this toxic relationship and the freeing liberation being experienced by the woman who’s finally rid of him. The production is big and soaring, an instant foot-stomper with thumping drums and an infectious hook. Collaborator Jack Antonoff definitely added his influence, as he’s known for bringing a stunning level of polish and catchiness to the music he touches.

I was already excited to hear the new album from the Dixie Chicks, but this new single just takes it to an even higher level. And the early reception of the majority of listeners seems to indicate the same. The Dixie Chicks are back and this is great not just for country music, but all music.