Album Review — Miranda Lambert’s ‘Wildcard’

It’s been a lengthy break since Miranda Lambert released The Weight of These Wings and a lot has changed for her. But now she’s back with her new album Wildcard. One thing that immediately stands out about this album is the production, as it’s something I feel that is important to address up front. On her last album the production was headed up by Frank Liddell, while this time Jay Joyce takes over producer duties. Joyce’s production is something I’ve had my fair share of criticism for in the past, but lately I’ve largely enjoyed his work. Well you can put me back off the wagon because the production on this album is a mess.

It’s apparent right away with opening track “White Trash.” It’s a clunky mishmash of country, rock and pop, not quite deciding what it wants to be. Lambert’s voice sounds too clean and almost robotic. It becomes a running theme for a large part of this album: on paper this sounds interesting and good, but the execution and presentation is completely lacking and at times downright bad. This falls on Joyce. To make matters worse for this song the lyrics sounds like mediocre leftovers from a Gretchen Wilson album. It’s a been there, done a lot better type song.

“Mess with My Head” elicits pretty much the same criticisms. The lyrics are subpar and not interesting. Lambert’s voice is once again overproduced. It’s a shame because there’s elements I really enjoy in this song: the heavy reverb and the crunchy guitars in the bridge followed by the weird effects done to the steel guitar. “It All Comes out in the Wash” is Lambert’s kitschy side and this grinds my gears quickly. The laundry imagery evoked in the lyrics isn’t clever nor catchy. This reminds me a lot of “Little Red Wagon,” another song from Lambert I don’t like.

“Settling Down” features more mediocre production. It’s another song that just can’t decide on it’s sound and it feels like it’s just bouncing all over the place. It’s about Lambert trying to figure out where she stands in her relationship and unfortunately nothing of interest is offered in this questioning. It’s just a lot of clichés one goes through when having doubts in a relationship. I’m not really sure what “Holy Water” is about to be honest with you. Maybe salvation, yet the church is selling snake oil? I don’t really understand what this song is going for and if you have a clue feel free to enlighten me in the comments. And I’m not trying to be cynical here, but I just flat out don’t understand what it’s about.

Maren Morris joins Lambert on “Way Too Pretty for Prison” and it’s a song about women contemplating murdering their husbands for cheating on them. But they insist they won’t since they’re too pretty for prison. I’m of two minds with this song: On one hand I like the tongue in cheek nature and the funny lines (fifteen women having to share a bathroom and the “waxing situation”). I think Morris is a great feature choice too. But on the other hand I’m burnt out on these type of songs becoming hits for like a decade (mostly from Carrie Underwood, who usually went ahead with killing the man in the song). I wouldn’t mind this topic being retired for a while.

Now I know up to this point I’ve spent a lot of time tearing this album apart, but fortunately this album mostly takes a turn for the better in the second half, starting with “Locomotive.” It’s a really fun and playful love song about Lambert’s husband loving her, regardless of her reckless lifestyle at times. The rocking guitars and the bluesy harmonica, along with Lambert’s rapid delivery in the chorus make this an instantly catchy head nodder. “Bluebird” is about Lambert keeping her head up and using the hurdles of life being thrown at her as motivation. It’s a really well written message song and I enjoy the shimmery strings that are interluded throughout the song. It shows that when the production is properly executed on this album, it really lands well.

“How Dare You Love” is a bit saccharine for my taste and this is coming from someone who’s a sucker for sappy love songs. From the weak metaphors to the lacking hook, this song just sort of passes over me. “Fire Escape” is a love song that features some obvious influence in it’s sound from 80s rock ballads. That’s a good thing, as I really enjoy the rocking side of Lambert when it’s not overdone. The song has an almost smokey feel about it, which is appropriate for a song that frequently references fire.

The next two songs showcase Miranda Lambert at her worst and best respectively. “Pretty Bitchin'” is pretty terrible. What’s the woman version of bro country? Because this is it. The lyrics are extremely lazy, objectify looks and at times are just straight up filler and non-sensical. “Yeah life’s pretty weird, life’s pretty great/Life’s pretty good if you live it/1, 2, 3 Mississippi/Sitting pretty, damn pretty.” This is just complete bullshit. I expect better from Lambert. But then she delivers better with “Tequila Does.” In fact, it’s my favorite song on the album. It’s a catchy and clever song about Lambert’s love affair with cold drinks being stronger than any romantic relationship. I love the western influenced, yet funky sound, making it easily danceable. “All hat, no cattle” is also one of my favorite quips I’ve heard from Lambert.

“Track Record” is another classic rock influenced sounding song that Joyce nails. It reminds me of Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” with it’s synth-y feel. The lyrics I dare say are even better, as Lambert candidly addresses her “checkered” track record with love and relationships, as she embraces who she is. This genuine honesty makes for a great song and why a lot of her last album really connected with a lot of people. Closing song “Dark Bars” is another great one. Lambert pours her heart out as she pours one out in a dark bar. The amount of detail of the bar and the mood hanging over it really immerses you in the setting and allows you to put yourself in Lambert’s shoes. It’s an enjoyably dark song that ends the album with a bang.

Wildcard basically lives up to it’s name, as it’s all over the place in terms of quality and style. The first half of this album is bad, while the second half is largely good. The production is very hit and miss, even though I can appreciate the attempted risks from Miranda Lambert and producer Jay Joyce. Overall the album is also too long and could have easily been culled down to ten tracks. It would have definitely helped the overall quality because when you weigh the good and bad against each other on this album, you’re ultimately left with a middle-of-the-road effort from Lambert.

Grade: 5/10

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


Album Review – Brandy Clark’s ‘Big Day in a Small Town’

Brandy Clark’s debut album, 12 Stories, was a critical darling, and instantly made her a singer to watch. When Clark finally announced her second album with high anticipation, she also revealed that she was working with producer Jay Joyce on Big Day in a Small Town. Admittedly, I was taken aback by the news as I haven’t enjoyed when Joyce has produced country albums in the past, most notably Little Big Town’s Painkiller. And after hearing the album’s debut single “Girl Next Door,” I was even further discouraged by Joyce’s production. However, “Girl Next Door” appeared to be a radio friendly single to appease her label because Brandy Clark delivers some quality country music with Big Day in a Small Town, even with a production that has a little edge.

Brandy Clark also said the album will have a bit of a concept to it. Big Day in a Small Town isn’t a straight forward concept album with a cohesive story from track 1 to track 11, but rather an album that follows a theme with unconnected scenes that provide a snapshot into the harder, yet more realistic side of life in small town. “Soap Opera” sets the theme and style for the album. Everyone has their own relationship issues from ex-spouses to nosey in-laws, and the song focuses on the local hairdresser and bartender who hear the bulk of these complaints from their customers. Clark works a few TV soap opera titles into the lyrics. The production follows a typical upbeat country-style with banjo plucks, guitars and a nice organ ring throughout the song. My only complaint with this song is that I hear a little too much of Jennifer Nettles in Clark’s twangy vocals, which doesn’t suit Brandy as a singer.

A tambourine shake fades into the snare of “Girl Next Door,” which is a great transition. While the songs aren’t related in content, that kind of focus on transition details adds an element of cohesion to the album and virtually ties the songs together. While I like the lyrics of “Girl Next Door,” the production sounds like a dance-remix of what used to be a country song. In the mix of the whole album, though, the production of “Girl Next Door” is an outlier. The acoustic mid-tempo “Homecoming Queen” follows. The song looks at local high school heroes who haven’t had the same type of pomp and glamour in their life after graduation. The popular homecoming queen is now a mother of three living down the road from her own mother. The song sends a message of how life doesn’t quite work out like one planned. “Broke” is a look at a farming family who is, well, broke. Brandy Clark provides several humorous lines in the song, providing a light-hearted take on poverty. “The white left the picket, the fleas left the hound. And even the crickets have moved into town.”  “Broke” has fitting upbeat production with heavy guitars in the melody.

Following is a standard country ballad in “You Can Come Over.” With a piano leading the production, the song carries a bit of blues influence. “You Can Come Over” tells a story of unfinished love. Told from her point of view, the woman gets a call from her ex who wants to meet up. Knowing full well if they get comfortable with a glass of wine that the lustful tension will grow, she tells him that he can come over but can’t come in. It’s a good approach to the common “we still have feelings for each other” type of song. The final piano note reverbs into the next song, “Love Can Go To Hell,” as another great transition ties the two songs together. And moving from trying to get over someone into a full fledge heartbreak songs further connects these two songs. “Love Can Go To Hell” takes the approach of personifying and cursing the feeling of love. The lyrics are great as Brandy uses that point of view on love to write an excellent heartbreaker, sung beautifully with a catchy chorus.

The album’s title track takes a more grand look at a few different scenes from the soap opera of a small town life. Dealing with darker topics like teenage pregnancy, drunk driving, and a married man wanting to spend some time with “a jailbait checkout queen” at Walmart, Brandy Clark pulls no punches as she fearlessly breezes by the situations with a touch of black humor. Being the title track of a thematic album, the chorus feels quite anthemic with several voices chiming in on the harmony. Another album standout is “Three Kids No Husband.” This solemn song tells the story of the hurdles the single mom jumps through. She has trouble making rent and keeping the house clean, all while trying to keep the kids on track in school and working at the local diner. It’s a well told story, with a production and style that fits right in Brandy Clark’s wheelhouse.

Brandy Clark takes a humorous approach to heartbreak with “Daughter.” After getting worked over by a smooth talking guy, Clark wishes for karma to catch up with him. “I hope you have a daughter, and I hope that she’s a fox. Daddy’s little girl just as sweet as she is hot. She can’t help but love them boys who love to love and leave them girls, just like her father.” “Daughter” has great throwback country production, and Kacey Musgraves provides vocal harmonies during the chorus. It’s a fun, light-hearted song with a catchy chorus and some great lyrics.

Clark keeps the traditional country going with “Drinkin’, Smokin’, Cheatin’.” The song takes a traditional country groove with an acoustic guitar and cranks it up with an electric guitar during the chorus. It’s country music with some rock edge mixed in, and it sounds great. Big Day in a Small Town ends with “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven.” Clark sings from the point of view of a woman who’s just lost her father. She worries about her mother will adjust to life alone, her brother has fallen off the wagon, and the economy’s crash hasn’t been easy on them. Clark ties the song together by saying “since you’ve gone to heaven, the whole world’s gone to hell.” “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” exemplifies the country music notion of three chords and the truth.

Brandy Clark is committed to not only making great country music, but moving the genre forward. For those who defend crappy Nashville pop as country music evolving, Big Day in a Small Town is a truly great example of country music evolving. With the help of Jay Joyce, the album has songs firmly planted in country’s traditional styles, yet they’re given room to explore and reach to different heights and areas. Big Day in a Small Town is the best example of a modern country album. With a great production and songs that standalone well, yet fit into a nice, cohesive theme, Brandy Clark has followed up a great debut album with an even better album.

Grade: 9/10

Review – Brandy Clark’s “Girl Next Door”

Brandy Clark hit the country music scene like a train crashing through a wall at full speed. Her 2013 debut album, 12 Stories, was released to critical acclaim and considered one of the best albums of the year. Clark’s traditional approach to the songs’ production was noteworthy and her no-nonsense writing set her apart from most other country songwriters. Brandy Clark has been a critical darling since 12 Stories‘ release, and it’s fair to say that her eventual next album has been highly anticipated. While most details for the album remain hush-hush, we finally have a taste of what’s to come with her first single from the new album, “Girl Next Door.”

“Girl Next Door” is a big shift for Brandy Clark because the song abandons any semblance of country music in exchange for a dance beat melody and pop anthem production. The opening chords of an electric guitar combined with a percussion beat that sounds like it came out of a computer program set the stage in the first 10 seconds of the song. That beat holds throughout the verse and then gets cranked to eleven for the chorus. “Girl Next Door” is an over produced pop dance song produced by the one and only Jay Joyce. The production drowns the rest of the song. Clark’s voice is almost unrecognizable as she screams over the music of the chorus.

The real shame of the production is that it distracts from Clark’s signature, no bullshit sass in her lyrics. “When you took me home, you knew who you were taking. Not some Debbie Debutante standing in an apron, frying up your bacon. My house and my mouth and my mind get kind of trashy. I’ve never been to jail but hell I wouldn’t put it past me.” That is 100% Brandy Clark. As the song continues, she tells this man to accept that she isn’t the girl next door, or to leave for good and go next door. She’s not Marcia Brady and she’s not sorry about it, so take your pick. “Girl Next Door” is a well written song, but you can’t catch the lyrics right away because of the overproduced mess.

I’m not quite sure what to expect with Clark’s upcoming album, but “Girl Next Door” doesn’t get me excited for it. I wasn’t a fan to read that Jay Joyce was her producer, and this song confirms some of my worry for the album. Go listen to “Stripes” and hear how a sassy song like this can be upbeat and country. This “edgy” production doesn’t suit Clark’s voice. She’s really at her best with a simple production behind her, best exemplified in “Hold My Hand.” I hope the rest of her album isn’t like “Girl Next Door” and features some actual country music, but at least Clark didn’t abandon all her roots for this song. “Girl Next Door’s” lyrics are a saving grace; the only good thing about this song.

Grade: 5/10

Album Review – Brothers Osborne’s “Pawn Shop”

 

“I think people are tired of the bullshit and are ready for the real substance,”

John Osborne told that to Rolling Stone as new country music duo, Brothers Osborne, readied their second radio single, “Stay A Little Longer.” John (lead guitar) and his brother T.J. (vocals) are ready to go toe to toe with country’s hottest male duos like Florida Georgia Line and Dan + Shay. Osborne also said that we may be on the cusp of a country music era where songs will have longer shelf lives down the road. While that remains to be seen, Brothers Osborne seem poised to bring forth more organic music to country radio. The duo has a Grammy nomination for Country Group/Duo Performance for the Gold-Certified “Stay a Little Longer.” Riding the wave of a top five single and Grammy nomination, Brothers Osborne have released their first full length album with the help of producer Jay Joyce. Pawn Shop features 11 songs, all of which the brothers co-wrote with several of country’s hot shot writers like Jessi Alexander, Craig Wiseman, and Shane McAnally to name a few. I’d argue that Pawn Shop isn’t quite an album full of substance, but the Brothers Osborne certainly take country music a step in the right direction.

Brothers Osborne and Pawn Shop have already differentiated themselves from the pack with singles like “Rum” and “Stay a Little Longer.” But that’s taken one step further with the album’s lead track, “Dirt Rich.” A heavy picking acoustic guitar lays the ground for the melody before a simple percussion track joins the mix. The “less is more” attitude fits with this song’s production. Playing off the phrase “dirt poor,” the song encourages those blue-collar, down on your luck folks to embrace their situation. The appliances in the kitchen may be broken and the mailbox may be standing crooked, but that’s the way life goes sometimes. Brothers Osborne have more rock influence in their music than country, in my opinion, and “21 Summer” is one of the several songs on Pawn Shop that show the rock influence. The gentle beat of guitars and percussion set the mood for the nostalgic ballad. T.J. sings of the memories of the summer he turned 21 and the girl who made a man of him.

The album cut of “Stay a Little Longer” features an extended guitar outro that was cut from the radio edit. The song nicely strides the line between country and rock, fitting nicely into both genres. Brothers Osborne made a great choice with releasing the single to radio, because this is arguably the best song on the album. The whole package of lyrics, vocals, and production work together in “Stay a Little Longer.” “Pawn Shop” is a song where the heavy acoustic picking is in the forefront of the production mix. Sticking with the blue-collar themes of those just getting by, the song is an ode to pawn shops. Selling for some extra cash, finding what you need at a cheap rate, even if it isn’t the best. The deep, baritone vocals are a nice touch to the song with the production to help the song stand out. Even though the lyrical content is nothing special, the song is packaged nicely.

The duo’s lead single “Rum” comes next. As Josh wrote in the song review, “This is a song you listen to after a long day of work and just unwind to. The instrumentation used in this song is what really makes this song good. There are a lot of influences from rock, blues and folk mixed in with this country beat. Really the instrumentation is the star of “Rum.”” Brothers Osborne are joined by Lee Ann Womack for “Loving Me Back.” This love song finds a man happy with the fact that he’s found a woman who can love him back. The production of this song is top-notch. It’s simple with little guitar tracks. The production allows the vocals room to stand out, which is a good thing as T.J. Osborne and Lee Ann Womack harmonize together really well on the chorus of the song. The lyrics, though, of this song are a cliché pile of crap. “You get me high, you get me stoned, it’s a ride I ain’t never been on. It’s a binge, it’s a buzz, it’s a drunk I can’t find in no glass.” Sure the verses sort of set the stage about how this man has spent years loving his vices and things that bring him down, but to resort to a chorus with a lead line like that is major cop-out. “Loving Me Back” is a wasted opportunity for a collaboration with Lee Ann Womack.

“American Crazy” is a song that doesn’t help the cause of bringing real substance to country music. The song is basically “Drunk Americans” 2.0. Brothers Osborne sing in the chorus, “We’re lost, we’re found, we’re up, we’re down, we’re all just American crazy. We’re left, we’re right, we’re black, we’re white, we’re all just American crazy.” This song is nothing but two and a half minutes of stupid clichés that should have been left off the album. The blue-collar blues continue in “Greener Pastures.” The song finds our narrator down to his last resort after praying and working hard with nothing to show for it, so he moves onto greener pastures. In this case, though, greener pastures is marijuana. Growing and smoking weed in order to cope with life’s tough battle. Sure, it’s another country music song about pot, but there’s semblance of something deeper about the motivations for turning to pot. “Greener Pastures” also has a more country/rockabilly feel to the production, a great, modern callback to country’s early sound. While the content of the song will detract some, I think the song works because it’s packaged nicely in its story telling and production.

“Down Home” is another rock-like song. The electric guitar leads the way, showing no signs of trying to cater to the country side of music – save for the lyrics. “Down Home” is a party song in a small town. A bunch of buddies getting together and raising hell in a town where nothing much happens. “Heart Shaped Locket” is perhaps the most country song on the album. Noticeable banjo and steel guitar find its way into the mid-tempo production. The song finds a woman in a relationship ready to go out on the town. The man, already suspicious of her cheating, feels that his suspicions are confirmed by the way she’s dressed. He wants to know who’s in her heart-shaped locket, because he knows it’s no longer him. “Heart Shaped Locket” is another song that shows the full potential of Brothers Osborne; it’s the kind of modern, substance-filled song that country radio should embrace. Pawn Shop ends with “It Ain’t My Fault.” The narrator is out on the town having a good time, but it’s not his fault. It’s the band’s fault who played the song that fueled the party. It’s the ex’s fault that he’s drinking, and it’s his family’s history that he’s a wild boy. Essentially, the lyrics try to tell some story, but this is a song meant to get a crowd rowdy and having fun. The electric guitar leads the beat and drum kicks in this rollicking rock song.

Overall, Pawn Shop shows flashes of what the Brothers Osborne are capable of bringing to country music. They have an organic production that shows commitment to their own style away from the masses of their country music pop peers. The almost folk style of rock/country with the lone acoustic guitar like in “Dirt Rich” or even “Loving Me Back” is a definite musical niche for the duo. The lyrics, however, don’t do quite enough to bring more substance to country music. Several songs rely on overdone cliches and lazy tropes to tell the story. There are moments here, like “Heart Shaped Locket,” where if you let the brothers be who they want to be, they can bring some great country music. Pawn Shop shows nothing but potential for the Brothers Osborne. If Music Row can leave them alone and allow the duo to grow and progress as artists on their own terms, then we will be in for a treat with future albums. Pawn Shop isn’t anything special, but it’s worth listening to at least once.

Grade: 6/10