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

Album Review – Zac Brown Band’s Experimental ‘Jekyll + Hyde’ Is All Over The Place

ZBB Jekyll + Hyde

Complex. Diverse. Different. These are the words that most aptly describe the new album, Jekyll + Hyde, from Zac Brown Band. Never before have I heard a country album so diverse in sound. Thankfully it came early in the mail for me, which allowed me extra time to wrap my head around it. If I had to wait until today to hear, you probably wouldn’t have read this review until next week. I’m not going to waste time on an intro and jump right in, as this is the longest review I’ve ever written on Country Perspective (I probably could have written even more). I will say this before I begin: this is most difficult review I’ve ever taken on, for many different reasons. So grab a drink and sit in a comfy chair as I take you through this album.

This wild album begins with “Beautiful Drug,” where right away you hear something you thought you never would from Zac Brown Band. They’ve gone electric, as this is a straight up folktronica song. The song itself is about being in love with a girl. While these electronic sounds are upbeat and fun, what is the point of this? There was no reason for Zac Brown Band to do this other than chase radio play. While it will be a fun song to play this upcoming summer, nobody is going to remember it. Next is their new single, “Loving You Easy.” It’s again a song about being in love with a girl. Once again it’s also a new sound for the band, as it’s decidedly a Motown/country fusion. The instrumentation is upbeat and fun. The fiddle play throughout is nice too. But these lyrics are straight up fluff and in no way original. I can see why this is a single.

“Remedy” has the classic Zac Brown Band sound for the most part. Brown co-wrote this with Americana artist Keb Mo, Niko Moon and Wyatt Durrette. It’s a song about loving each other and how it’s the remedy to solving problems in the world. It’s a nice sentiment, but the opening lyrics are a tad hypocritical after hearing the first two songs. The opening lyrics:

I’ve been looking for a sound

That makes my heart sing

Been looking for a melody

That makes the church bells ring

Not looking for the fame

Or the fortune it might bring

In love, in music, in life

With the first three albums this seems to be true. But when you’re adding Motown and folktronica sounds to your arsenal on a country album I find this hard to believe. You’re admitting that you’re chasing trends, which leads to fame and fortune with these types of songs. Just thought I would point this out. I know they’ve been upfront about not being your prototypical country band, but this is still labeled a country album. The drums and gospel choir at the end of the song are also unnecessary, but don’t hurt the song too much.

I already discussed the lead single, “Homegrown,” which is one of the best tracks on the album. Check out my full review of that if you missed it. Moving on, the band tackles another completely new sound in “Mango Tree.” Err rather I should say Zac Brown, as the band feels completely missing on this song. This is a straight up big band song from the Sinatra era, which is cool and weird. Brown duets in the song with Sara Bareilles, a talented pop artist who has a great voice, as the song is pulled off well by the duo. It’s a good song, but why is it on the album? This will be okay if it stays an album cut I guess, but with the inclusion of Bareilles I don’t think this will be the case. Like I said this is a good song, but it doesn’t belong on this album and it doesn’t belong on country radio. The winding shifts of sounds in this album continues, as “Heavy Is The Head” is next. It’s a hard rock song and it’s the current #1 song on the Billboard Rock Airplay chart. Brown is joined on the song by Chris Cornell of Soundgarden. It isn’t very surprising that Brown can pull off rock music, as the band has balanced between country music and southern fried rock their whole career. Once again though I feel like the band is missing and it’s a Brown solo project. This is another song while good, does not belong on the album. It would’ve fit in much better on The Grohl Sessions, Vol. 1 EP.

Finally the group delivers a beautiful song that showcases their great talent in “Bittersweet.” It’s one of the best written songs on the album, as it’s about a man losing his wife to a disease and how he’s reflecting on the fact that tomorrow she won’t be there with him. The songwriting evokes great emotion in the listener and might even bring a tear to your eye. The instrumentation is equally good and I love the guitar and fiddles crashing in at the end of the song to really punctuate the song. This is the Zac Brown Band I know and love on this song. “Castaway” is a beach song and I don’t think I have to say anymore about what this song is about. I’ve said before that I feel Zac Brown Band pulls off these types of songs better than about anyone else out there, with maybe the exception of Jimmy Buffett. The instrumentation is a great blend of reggae and country. In addition Brown has enough charisma to make the song likable. But a part of me feels like the Zac Brown Band has outgrown this music. This song is also a perfect example of why some people can’t take them seriously. You’ll either love this song or hate it, depending on your outlook on beach songs.

Once again the group dives into folktronica on “Tomorrow Never Comes.” There’s also an acoustic version of the song at the end of the album. Listeners are going to automatically compare the two, but before I do I want to talk about the song itself. It’s pretty good and can paint of a variety of different images in the listeners’ heads. It has no specific theme, leaving the listener to decide. I enjoy these types of songs, as music is a subjective art. As for what version I think is better, it’s easily the acoustic version. While they pull off folktronica better on this song than on “Beautiful Drug,” it still feels too noisy and uncharacteristic of the group. The acoustic version is beautiful and maybe my favorite song on the album. It shouldn’t be the acoustic version. It should be the only version. There should never be an acoustic version of a song on a Zac Brown Band album, as acoustic is Zac Brown Band. They gave folktronica a shot, but ultimately I feel they should stay away from it. All country artists should stay away and leave it to the likes of Avicii in pop music.

“One Day” is the group’s spin on the R&B/funk influenced country. This is another song that is closer to the band’s true sound, as the R&B influence naturally blends with it. It’s a pleasant song about love, which at this point is starting to become a bit tiresome. This isn’t the great songwriting we’re used to hearing from Brown and the band. It might make for decent single on radio, but it’s honestly not very memorable. One of the first three songs released on the album, “Dress Blues,” is next. This Jason Isbell-penned song is the best on Jekyll + Hyde because of course it is. It’s a hauntingly beautiful song about the harsh reality of sending young soldiers to fight wars. I give kudos to Zac Brown Band for covering such a brilliant song and giving Isbell much deserved exposure (and some nice royalty checks). By the way if you’re wondering who the woman on backing vocals is, that’s the one and only Jewel. I thought she sounded pretty good. I enjoy both versions of the song, but if you must know which I prefer it’s Isbell’s version.

On “Young And Wild” I think I’m the most baffled at the production. There are production issues throughout this album, but it’s at its worst on this song. There are so many unnecessary sounds thrown in that bring the song down and make it hard to enjoy. This is on co-producer Jay Joyce, who I’m going to rant about here in a minute. The lyrics are once again too fluffy for my liking and are also too similar to other themes explored in the album. One of the most complex and intriguing songs on the album is “Junkyard.” It’s a gritty story about a child who lives with an abusive father, the junkyard man. This father is very abusive and controlling of not just the child, but the mother too. By the end of the song the child has had enough and murders the father with a knife. It’s an intense song and tells a great story. The part where the child has had enough in the song the electric guitars kicks it up a notch, signifying the shift in attitude brilliantly. This is one of the few moments on the album where Zac Brown Band tries something different and it works well.

“I’ll Be Your Man” (Song For A Daughter) is a song that is sung from the point of view of a father to his daughter. He sings about how he will always protect her and be there for her. For fathers listening to this song, you’ll connect really well with this song. For the rest, it’s a decent song. It could’ve been better, but it stretches on entirely too long and the addition of a choir towards the end is not needed. Once again it’s an overproduced song. The penultimate song on the album is “Wildfire.” It should be noted that Brown co-wrote this song with Eric Church, Clay Cook, Wyatt Durrette and Liz Rose. It’s once again a love song with laundry list lyrics. The instrumentation is pretty good, but I think the production is a little overdone. If that’s stripped back a little, this song sounds better. I’m baffled again too how fluffy the lyrics are and I’m left wanting something more.

Now I want to talk about producer Jay Joyce. When I saw fellow critic Mark Grondin of Spectrum Pulse point this out, I immediately realized why I had such a conflicted feeling about this album and why I don’t love it. For those unaware of Joyce’s track record, he was the producer behind Eric Church’s 2014 release The Outsiders, Little Big Town’s Pain Killer and Halestorm’s newly released album Into The Wildlife. You know what all of those albums had in common for me? They were overproduced, underwhelming and pretty disappointing. I’m left with pretty much the same feeling with Zac Brown Band’s Jekyll + Hyde. It isn’t a coincidence that Joyce was behind each of these albums and I didn’t like them as much as I thought I would. He’s a huge problem and is a monster that needs to be stopped. Stop ruining music, Jay Joyce.

When it comes down to it this is probably one of the biggest disappointments in country music in 2015 for me. Zac Brown Band’s previous album Uncaged was one of my favorite country albums in the last five years. They could have easily expanded off of that album. Instead Brown brings Joyce aboard so he can muck up the sound of a great band. It was only the talent of the band where they were allowed to shine that saved this album from being a mediocre mess and make it something decent and somewhat listenable. Shame on Zac Brown for bringing Joyce into the fold and going all Bono on this album. For the first time ever I felt like the ego and business acumen of Zac Brown hurt the final product. Many Zac Brown Band fans and I’m sure many critics too will eat this album up, just like Church’s album and Little Big Town’s album. It will sell really well and do good on radio. But the cold hard truth is that there are a lot more albums that will outshine this one by far. Ultimately I will forget about Jekyll + Hyde and remember it as lackluster effort. For now I’m left disgusted, betrayed, confused and disappointed with this album.

Grade: 6/10