Album Review — Brothers Osborne’s ‘Skeletons’

Now this is what I’m talking about! Those who have been following me as a music reviewer for a few years know that I’ve been more critical of the Brothers Osborne than many and that’s because I feel they haven’t lived up to their potential. Their debut album Pawn Shop was decent, but they definitely hit a sophomore slump with Port Saint Joe, a largely forgettable beach album. But with Skeletons they hit their sweet spot, a thumping and fun album that’s a good time from start to finish.

“Lighten Up” is a light and playful ode to finding silver linings in the chaotic world we live in and “All Night” is an absolute ear-worm with it’s catchy hooks. “All The Good Ones Are” has enjoyably slick guitar work with a cheeky theme of finding the most fun in the most dangerous situations. “I’m Not For Everyone” screams hit to me with it’s easygoing, sing-a-long nature and relatable premise. The album’s title track is fun, although it wears a bit quicker than the other fun tracks on the album, as it has one of the weaker hooks. Jay Joyce really excels with the production on this album, as it feels like he’s found the right sound for this duo and that excites me moving forward on future projects.

While this album has plenty of fun songs, it tackles other themes quite well too. “Back On The Bottle” is your classic country drinking song of finding joy in heartbreak through the bottle. And while it’s become a bit tiresome to have celebratory drinking songs in modern country, this song has enough charisma to win me over. “High Note” is a pleasant song about leaving a relationship on good terms and going out on a high note with one last hurrah. The soaring and smooth nature of this song is a nice breather too on an album full of “twangers” (country’s version of bangers).

The duo really surprise me when they drop an exciting instrumental in “Muskrat Greene.” It reminds me of when Brad Paisley would regularly sneak an instrumental onto the album and I wish more artists would do this. This instrumental segues nicely into “Deadman’s Curve,” a funny, yet serious song about trying to avoid falling in love with a woman who’s guaranteed to break your heart. “Make It A Good One” is admittedly a bit saccharine, but I can’t help but enjoy it’s sentiment. Not to mention I enjoy the lingering background synth in the chorus, as it really adds some emotion to the lyrics.

“Hatin’ Somebody” is a bit on the nose, but once again Brothers Osborne bring enough charisma to the table in both their vocal delivery and funky instrumentation that the message mostly sticks the landing. It would have been nice though to here some more depth behind this message beyond be nice and mindful of others. Closing song “Old Man’s Boots” is the only song on the album I skip most of the time, as it’s a mawkish, done-to-death theme that the duo fails to elevate and captivate my attention with.

Skeletons is easily the best album delivered by the Brothers Osborne so far. This duo at their best in my mind is the modern day version of Brooks & Dunn. What both of these duos excel at is delivering accessible, yet “smarter” versions of fun country music that doesn’t delve into mindless drivel like bro country nor does it feel forced like pop country. Then sprinkle in a few serious songs to give you a nice breather in between all of the partying and this is the perfect formula for the duo to follow. This is a really enjoyable album and definitely one of the top ten country albums you’ll hear in 2020.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review — Ashley McBryde’s ‘Never Will’

Ashley McBryde’s major label debut album Girl Going Nowhere was truly one of the most underrated albums of 2018. Unfortunately it was released at a bad time, as Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour released on the same day along with several other high-profile releases at the time. So it felt like that album and McBryde never got the proper attention and respect. But one thing I definitely took away from that great album was one day McBryde would release an album of the year level record. Well I didn’t think it would happen so soon, but that’s pleasantly the case with her follow-up album Never Will.

The album greets you with heartland rock guitars on “Hang In There Girl.” And I’m so glad she leans more into this sound on the album, as it fits her like a glove. The opening song is an anthem for young girls stuck in small towns with big dreams, telling them to hang on through the hard times until they reach their goals one day. It’s an uplifting and very real message that I imagine will resonate with so many young girls across the midwest of America. Lead single “One Night Standards” shows the excellent storytelling abilities of McBryde, as she vividly tells the story of a one-night stand involving a married man. It’s brutally honest about the nature of the situation, painting both of the people in the story in an appropriately not positive light. It also details the justification of the action’s of the woman in the situation, which is flimsy. But that’s how it’s supposed to be, as the line is blurred between who she’s really trying to convince: him or herself.

“Shut Up Sheila” is an interesting song about a family going through the difficulty of watching a woman’s grandmother dying, only for a “friend” named Sheila to be butting in with unnecessary comments. The overall theme centers around pushing back against judgmental people and standing up for doing things your way. And while I love this message, what really makes this song stand out is the sound. Jay Joyce centers it around a spacey, echoing sound that gives it an ominous feel before giving away to roaring guitars that really put an exclamation point on the song. “First Thing I Reach For” is classic country gold in every way, from it’s steel guitar-driven sound to the timeless theme of overindulging in vices. I particularly enjoy the line, “Another night of bad decisions/There’s one still laying in my bed/The bastard in me wishes/That he’d woke up first and left.” It’s both humorous and memorable.

“Voodoo Doll” has quickly become a favorite for me and for two reasons. One because I love the way it’s written and the amount of intricate details given to a woman being made to feel like a voodoo doll watching her man cheat on her. Two because the production matches the dramatic, whiplash feel of the lyrics with McBryde delivering the type of fiery vocal performance that once again makes me thrilled that there are more rock influences on this album. The guitars absolutely roar, I love the little mandolin interludes and it’s an absolute blast to sing along with the chorus. “Sparrow” is on the other end of the spectrum, a soft and somber song about the cold realities a musician experiences traveling on the road. While McBryde acknowledges the exhilaration of realizing a dream, it also comes with missing your loved ones. Once again I applaud McBryde for both her honesty and genuine heart that shines through in the lyrics.

“Martha Divine” is another rock-driven track, this time a cheating/murder ballad interestingly told from the perspective of the daughter witnessing her father in the middle of misdeed. Fueled by infectious and thumping drums that get the heart pounding, the daughter vows to hunt down and kill the mistress, Martha Divine. Which by the way the name is clever and appropriate in itself, playing on the Aramic meaning of Martha, which is mistress, and divine, which means relating to God (the daughter in this case seeing her interference as a god-like act). And yes the daughter is flawed for only going after the father, but the daughter is going to naturally have an emotional blindspot for the father. The song also wisely avoids endearing us towards these violent actions, but rather gives a neutral window look in.

McBryde goes back to classic country storytelling on “Velvet Red.” It’s about a forbidden love affair between a poor maker of wine and the mayor’s only daughter, resulting in a daughter who would be nicknamed after the very wine her unknown father made. Not only is this storytelling on point, but I love the surprise reveal at the end that the daughter is telling the story of her parents conceiving her. I don’t mind the filter the vocals are being put through either, as it doesn’t hurt the song. “Stone” is the most emotional moment on the album, as a woman comes to grips with the death of her father and realizing how similar they were, despite their rocky relationship. The song doesn’t shy from the complicated nature of the feelings involved and that’s why I enjoy the storytelling of McBryde. It feels real and truly resonates with the listener as a result.

The album’s title track is pure heartland rock, with it’s “Dancing in the Dark”-like guitars perfectly texturing this never-give-up anthem. It’s autobiographical, as McBryde recalls all of the doubters along her journey and how she never gave into this negativity. Personally I really connect with the lyrics, so it’s easily my favorite on the album. Also if McBryde wants to make a straight-up rock album, I’m totally down for it because she just gets the ethos of classic rock. McBryde makes a quirky and fun choice to close the album with “Styrofoam.” Unlike anything she’s ever released before, it’s bouncy, light-hearted track about her love of styrofoam cups and features her doing spoken word through like half of it. And I thought I would dislike it, but I love it. Usually these type of gimmicky songs grind my gears, but I enjoy the history lesson at the beginning and it serves as a nice dose of casual fun to balance out the serious moments on the album. Because as I’ve said before, we don’t need to be serious all the time.

Ashley McBryde delivers exactly what I had hoped for and then beyond with Never Will. She leans heavily into her natural heartland rock sound and combines it with traditional country to create an album I will remember for a long time. The songwriting is brilliant and varied, running the gauntlet of emotions and most importantly I think Ashley McBryde delivers a flawless presentation of flawed characters. They’re never framed as likable, but real and as they are, which can be hard to get behind as a listener. But just like Sturgill Simpson’s SOUND & FURY, it can be understandable to not want to listen to music about such real and flawed characters, songs where there are no heroes even. For me though this is the music that is truly intriguing and has a lasting impact.

That is why I believe this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020 and maybe the best country album of the year.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Eric Church’s ‘Desperate Man’

(Note: This was originally published in Oct. 2018 on Fusion Country, which is now closed. It is being reposted here for reader availability. Plus I really loved talking about this album, which is fantastic and one of the best released in 2018.)

Eric Church has always did it his way. It’s a cliché thing to say in the music industry. So many artists love to say it in press releases and interviews. But very few are being genuine. It’s just another marketing phrase. When it comes to Church, he’s one of the few being sincere. Not only has he done it his way, but his sound has evolved and changed with his life along the way. Each album shows more growth in his music and artistry. On Mr. Misunderstood, I thought Church delivered his best album yet. I didn’t think he could top himself on Desperate Man, but he does. Church delivers more on Desperate Man than I could have imagined.

Church delivers a real statement with opening song “The Snake.” It’s a stripped-down, appropriately sinister sounding song about a Copperhead and a rattlesnake. I’m not sure how others interpret it, but for me it’s a scathing commentary on American politics regarding the two major political parties. It tells of how each work together to continue eating the mice (who represent the people) and keep their power, each out for themselves and not the people they represent. “And the whole world’s burning down,” as Church wisely sings.

Church then does a complete 180 with the fun and upbeat “Hangin’ Around.” It’s probably the most danceable song Church has ever released, as it’s impossible to not want to move your head and feet along with the beat. The bass, drums, clapping and electric guitars chug along in unison, creating an infectiously funky sound. “Heart Like A Wheel” is a slice of bluesy country goodness that puts the guitars front and center. It’s about a love that can’t be stopped and keeps rolling on. Church delivers the lyrics with a real passion that make them really resonate over the listener.

“Some Of It” is the perfect marriage of Church’s past and present styles. The lyrics of the song are classic Church, with his deftly simple message about finding wisdom in life. It pairs up well with the new rich, heavily textured sound of Church. To me it’s a no-brainer, future single. The next song “Monsters” sounds like a single too. For many I imagine this is the center-piece of the album and I don’t blame them. The song’s writers Church and Jeff Hyde cleverly weave together a story of the monsters in life. When you’re a kid, they’re under the bed and you kill them with a flashlight. When you’re an adult, you realize they’re all around you and even in your head. In the case of Church, you pray them away. Whether you’re young or old, we all have our demons and we all have our way of dealing with them. You know you’re hearing a special song when we can all relate to it, as it unites us through its message.

Church fondly looks back on his upbringing and life on “Hippie Radio.” Specifically it was the sounds of rock radio that were always there through many milestones, marking each moment in his mind. It’s a song that celebrates the meaning of music and the influence it has on us. It’s a great song that’s probably the least memorable on the album, but that’s a testament to the sheer amount of quality throughout this record. “Higher Wire” shows a completely different side to Church. It’s a bare, soulful tune that Church sings almost entirely in falsetto. Like many I didn’t know what to think of it at first. It reminds me a lot of when I first heard “Like a Wrecking Ball,” which I originally didn’t like. But just like that song, “Higher Wire” grows stronger on you with each listen. My main takeaway: It’s so much damn fun to sing along to the chorus!

I covered the album’s title track when it first released and I still stand by what I said. It’s a great song and it’s appropriate it’s the title track because it perfectly captures the spirit and sound you hear throughout the album (not to mention Ray Wylie Hubbard gets some shine with a co-write). “Solid” immediately gives you a ’70s vibe thanks to the undeniable presence of the electric guitars. Not a surprise, considering Church has cited many influences from the era. Church sings about the many things in his life that keeps him grounded and allows him to have a solid foundation in life. By the end he takes it back to where he grew up and the upbringing by his parents, the appealing emotional closer that ties it all together.

The shimmery feeling “Jukebox And A Bar” sees Church once again fuse his classic lyrical style with his new production style. The theme is a staple of country music, but it’s Church’s lyrical approach that makes this song so good. I particularly enjoy the line, “We got pinpoint GPS, all you need is an address/But her love is the one thing I can’t find.” I enjoy it because despite all of the technology we have and all of the problems it can solve, ironically it still can’t heal a broken heart like the camaraderie of a bar. Plus the use of words like “phosphorescent” and “incandescent” have never been used better in a country song.

The album closes out with “Drowning Man,” taking the album back to where it began with the headache of politics. Church is the voice of many, as he doesn’t want to think about the problems of the world and would rather drown in whiskey. He doesn’t want to hear about your “beach” or “mountains” either, which can be interpreted as the endless chatter from each side on social media. The drowning is a sea of words. “Save your breath, I don’t want to hear about it” are the final words from Church, as he carefully expresses the exasperation of many.

Desperate Man is a fantastic album. Church’s songwriting has never been better and the production choices made by him and Jay Joyce blow me away. Just like Kacey Musgraves with Golden Hour, Eric Church shows us just how innovative and exciting country music can be when you throw out the “rules” and just create your sound. It’s not about giving people what they want, but giving them what they didn’t know they needed until they heard it. Eric Church did it his way on Desperate Man and his way is excellent.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Brandy Clark’s ‘Your Life is a Record’

Brandy Clark’s last album Big Day in a Small Town initially really impressed me, but eventually I found it to be a slightly above average album. And one of the big reasons was the production was all over the place. It just lacked cohesion and I also felt Clark didn’t do enough lyrically to elevate the tired small town themes of country music. So coming into this new record I was a bit unsure of what to expect, although with Jay Joyce returning as producer I continued to expect different sonic choices. And that definitely is the case with this album. But Your Life is a Record is also a much rawer and more personal record from Brandy Clark, which I would argue is definitely beneficial to this album.

Opening track “I’ll Be the Sad Song” lets you feel right away the pure somberness that fuels much of this record (Clark broke up with her partner of several years, inspiring many tracks on this album). And a big part of what helps drive this feeling is the sweeping and gorgeous strings throughout the chorus. It fits the reflective nature of looking back on a lost relationship really well. There’s no bitterness or anger, just a sad realization of what will never be again. “Long Walk” is on the other end of the spectrum, a fun sing-a-long that wishes bad things upon a person you don’t like. The kicker lines of course are “So take a long walk off a real short pier/Take a cinder block with you as a souvenir.” Out of the context of the song this is overly dark and vengeful. But the playful melody and Clark’s tongue-in-cheek delivery make for a whimsical, silly response to a person who’s clearly agitating.

“Love is a Fire” is a smoldering love song that shows off Clark’s passionate side and to excellent effect. I really enjoy the spacey, drifting feeling created by the strings and piano. The lyrics do a great job of painting that imagery of love being this blazing, out of control fire in the listener’s head too. “Pawn Shop” shows how vivid of a storyteller Clark can be, as she tells the duel stories of a woman pawning off her wedding ring and a man pawning his guitar. Each reflect on the loss these items represent and the ending of dreams. But then Clark reminds you that somebody else will buy them, starting dreams anew for somebody else. It’s a really clever look at the duality of life and death, how each are constantly playing off each other and how each gives the other value.

“Who You Thought I Was” is about striving to be a better person after falling in love with someone. The bouncy juxtaposition of the horns, mandolin and flute gives the song an enjoyably fun melody. As for the lyrics, they’re solid, clearly getting across the change in heart of the person who’s fallen in love. “Apologies” has an enjoyable flute and horn section, but the song meanders too long for me. It just feels like this song never leaves second gear and doesn’t ever reach anywhere with it’s message. The lyrics just sort of glaze over you after a couple of listens.  Randy Newman joins Clark on “Bigger Boat” and I just have to be flat-out honest: I do not like Newman’s voice. It annoys the shit out of me. The song has an admirable aim of pointing out the absurdity of the disagreements that run through social media and society nowadays. But it’s just too hokey for my taste. That’s a shame because I do enjoy the production on this track.

I have the same issues with “Bad Car” as I did with “Apologies.” And the other thing that bugs me is I feel like I’ve heard this song done so many times in country music. There’s just nothing that stands out to make it different from every other song that personalizes and gives emotional meaning to a vehicle. It’s not a bad song per se, it’s just fine and I won’t remember it. “Who Broke Whose Heart” fortunately does not have this problem. In fact this is probably one of my favorite songs I’ve heard from Clark, as it’s instantly catchy lyrics and melody hooked me. The production actually reminds me of Electric Light Orchestra in the way it utilizes the strings, horns and guitar. It’s just a really fun song with a surprising amount of bite.

“Can We Be Strangers” is a devastatingly great heartbreak song. This relationship has soured to the point of where the narrator just wishes they had never even met each other in the first place. And the way Clark delivers the chorus is painstakingly and soulfully beautiful. The horns and strings perfectly complement this song too, not taking over and instead adding dramatic gravitas that only enhances the emotions. “The Past is the Past” wraps the album up in a nice bow, with Clark reaching the point of letting the past go and moving forward in her life while still letting herself feel the heartbreak from the situation. As I said it’s a fitting and mature conclusion after the myriad of emotions Clark expresses throughout the album. Lessons have been learned and now a new life begins.

Despite a few hiccups, Brandy Clark takes a big step up from her last album with Your Life is a Record. I think the production is the biggest improvement, as it flows together really well from start to finish. I really enjoy the incorporation of the flutes in this album, as it’s something not really utilized as much in country music. The songwriting stumbles in a few spots, but for the most part is pretty good and at times great. There’s a surprisingly nice mix of emotions on an album centered around a breakup too. Most importantly, Clark rewards you for listening to the whole album, giving you the emotional journey with the fittingly positive, yet realistic destination.

Grade: 8/10

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