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

Review – Kristi Hoopes’ “In My Own Sweet Time”

Kristi Hoopes

It’s always exciting to come across a new and promising country artist just as their career is beginning. A few months back we got the opportunity to feature a country artist like that in the form of Kristi Hoopes. She’s from Parker, Colorado and is only 17 years old, yet sounds like she’s been making music for a while. Derek took a look at her debut single back in April, “At Least It’s Something,” and came away impressed. From his review: “At Least it’s Something” is decidedly country in sound and subject manner. It’s an acoustic, slow tempo song with a prevalent fiddle and a bit of a steel guitar ring within the chorus. In fact the fiddle leads the instrumental solo of the song. It might be just a tad over produced in some areas, but overall the production and instrumentation of this song is excellent. It’s not a pop country anthem; it is a tried and true country heartbreak ballad.

I completely agree with Derek, as it was a refreshing song to hear after listening to some of the stuff from mainstream country. So when I found out Hoopes just came out with her second single, I was eager to give it a listen and review. It’s titled “In My Own Sweet Time” and it takes on a happier tone than the first single. It’s a mid to fast tempo paced song about living life at your own pace and taking things in the way you want to take them in. It very much fits with Hoopes’ age, as the song has a youthful and fun vibe. The songwriting is definitely a little more formulaic on this single compared to her last single, but then again I also think it has more of a direction and theme. The reason it might feel a little more formulaic is the songwriters behind it. Those songwriters are Jessi Alexander (who co-wrote several songs on Ashley Monroe’s new album), Jon Randall and Jennette McCurdy. These songwriters have been involved a lot with the bigger names in Nashville and write more within the Nashville formula. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing of course.

It’s also worth pointing out that this is the first song Kristi Hoopes has ever recorded that she didn’t write herself. Now anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I think it’s important for artists to write a lot of their music, as it allows them to connect to it easier and this manifest itself in the song. On the other hand though there are several great songwriters out there who have great material that deserves to be recorded by talented artists and it’s something all artists should consider. Hoopes clearly did this here, as I think this is a good song and something that fits her well. While this song maintains a fun attitude, it also maintains a clear country sound too with plenty of fiddle throughout it. There are some touches of mainstream country influence, but it helps the song rather than hurt it.

While I liked Hoopes’ first single a little bit more, “In My Own Sweet Time” is still a solid song that I enjoy. It’s an encouraging sign to see Hoopes hook up with and record songs by some notable names so early in her career. She’s clearly catching people’s attention and for good reason. Hoopes is a talented artist with a load of potential and room for even more growth. She is currently pushing to be a Highway Find on Sirius XM The Highway and I think she has a good chance. This is a song I could see getting some radio play on satellite radio and launching her career. Clare Dunn took a similar path and is now with a major label. I think it could happen for Hoopes too.

Grade: 8/10

 

Album Review – Ashley Monroe’s ‘The Blade’

Ashley Monroe The Blade

Back in 2013 I came across a lot of great new music, specifically a lot of great country music. The most notable artists I came across were Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, The Mavericks and Ashley Monroe. The most under the radar artist of the group was undoubtedly Monroe. To this point she was most well-known for being one-third of the Pistol Annies. That year she released her debut solo album Like A Rose and captured the attention of traditional country music critics and fans everywhere. It was certainly a favorite listen of mine’s from that year, so I was definitely anticipating her sophomore album. This time around her label Warner Brothers Nashville has been a lot more involved and it shows, something I’ll elaborate on later in the review. One good sign to see for this album coming in was Vince Gill and Justin Niebank producing it, as both produced Monroe’s first album. So this gave me high hopes, despite the lackluster lead single. So does The Blade live up to expectations? Well in some ways it does and others it does not.

Speaking of the aforementioned lackluster single, “On To Something Good” starts the album off, which I reviewed when it was first released. And my thoughts really haven’t changed on it. From my original review: “On To Something Good” is a song about….I’m not sure. It’s so bland and uninteresting that I find it hard to listen to. It doesn’t hold my attention and is the equivalent of elevator music. It’s just something to fill the void. So for as what the song is about, you can choose. I know I don’t feel like figuring it out because this song is just so boring and we all have better music we could be listening to. 

The sound of drums plays in “I Buried Your Love Alive,” a southern gothic inspired song from the theme to the instrumentation. The song has this vibe hanging over it throughout it. It’s a heartbreak song where the woman can’t get over her lost love and does everything she can to get rid of the memory. While the theme and southern gothic inspiration is good, I have a couple of problems with this song. First it’s overproduced, as the instrumentation is too busy and the occasional echoing of Monroe’s voice is annoying. Another problem with this song is Monroe doesn’t show enough emotion to make the song connect. Not to mention I feel she didn’t go deep enough lyrically. This is a decent song that could have been great. There are some similar problems on the next song, “Bombshell.” The premise of the song is intriguing, as it’s about a woman waiting and figuring out the perfect time to drop a bombshell on her boyfriend. That bombshell is she no longer loves him. The song kept building and building to this moment and when it came I felt underwhelmed. I was expecting an explosion of emotion, but didn’t get it. The storytelling was here, but not the emotion.

Monroe relies on Kacey Musgraves’ like platitudes on “Weight of The Load.” It’s a song about helping a significant other shoulder the weight of the load in a loving relationship. It’s a little too bland and polished for my tastes. What’s even more disappointing is that Monroe and Vince Gill wrote this song. I expect more when these two write a song. Also once again where is the emotional connection? This is starting to become a running theme on this album. The album’s title track follows this and finally we get a glimpse of the Ashley Monroe I enjoyed on her debut album Like A Rose. It’s a heartbreak song where the man has left his woman and the hook of the song describes the breakup perfectly. The end of the relationship is described as the swinging of a blade. As Monroe sings from the female perspective, “You got it by the handle and I caught it by the blade.” This creates the perfect imagery in the listeners’ head and credit to the songwriters Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin.

The piano and acoustic guitar driven “Winning Streak” is a fast-paced song about being stuck in a losing game. As Monroe sings, “If losing’s game I’m on a winning streak.” This is just a fun and simple country song. It should be noted that Monroe wrote this song with Jessi Alexander (co-writer of the Lee Brice song “I Drive Your Truck”) and Chris Stapleton and is one of two songs this trio wrote on the album. “From Time To Time” reminds me of something you would hear on 90s country radio. I want to say it’s the production that makes me think this, as I immediately got this vibe when I heard the song. It’s very easy to listen to upon the surface, but when you listen closer I’m just not sure what this song is going for. It’s vague and not sure what it wants to be. Monroe is once again joined by two notable songwriters on a song, this time Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann. You know them as Striking Matches. This trio also writes two songs together on The Blade.

Monroe goes back to the platitudes on “If Love Was Fair.” This is your run of the mill love song. Part of the chorus is from 1 Corinthians 13:4. You know the one bible verse that is repeated at every single wedding? I just don’t understand this light and breezy approach that a lot of the songs on this album take. “Has Anybody Ever Told You” though drops this approach and is one of the most serious songs on the album. It’s a love song with some actual punch behind it and something that will create emotion in the listener. Monroe’s vocals are allowed to shine and the instrumentation is brilliant between the piano and pedal steel guitar. This is my favorite song on the album. The second co-write of the album between Monroe and Striking Matches, “Dixie,” is next. Monroe sings about being sick of Dixieland and wanting to get the hell out of there, as her experiences there have driven her away. It’s an intriguing song and kind of bold, as you don’t hear many songs about being sick of the south, especially from mainstream country artists. Just for this alone I’m kind of impressed with the song.

“If The Devil Don’t Want Me” is the second Monroe-Alexander-Stapleton co-written song of the album. Monroe wonders throughout this song of where she’ll be going if the devil doesn’t want her and she can’t find the light. This is very much a traditional country song, from the lyrics to the sound. It’s right in Monroe’s wheelhouse and another highlight of the album. It’s a real big shocker that both Stapleton co-writes are good, huh? The traditionally arranged “Mayflowers” is another song that proves Monroe needs to stick with this sound and stay away from the pop country sound towards the beginning of the album. This is a sweet love song where the woman vows to bring the love back to their relationship and uses the metaphor of “April showers bring May flowers” to convey the point. It’s a song you have to hear for yourself to truly appreciate. The 13-song album comes to a conclusion with “I’m Good At Leavin’,” a song with plenty of fiddle and steel guitar (also co-written with Alexander and Miranda Lambert). Monroe sings about how she’s good at leaving and basically she’s a rambling woman who can’t stay in a relationship for too long. I’ve always wondered why female country artists never take on the rambling man theme that male artists always use and kudos to Monroe for doing it. It’s another solid song from the Pistol Annies singer.

Ashley Monroe’s The Blade is an up and down listen throughout. The album starts out with a lot of pop country songs that are lightweight all-around and make me wonder what happened to Monroe. Luckily, the second half is more in line with what we heard on her debut album and that’s a traditional country arrangement. While there were plenty of songs that caught my attention in a good way, this is a clear step down from Like A Rose. To me what ultimately sunk this album down was there were too many cooks in the kitchen on this album. Warner Nashville stuck their fingers in this album, whereas they let Monroe do her own thing before. I’m pretty sure they were the ones pushing for more pop country, as they’ve pushed her for radio play this time around and didn’t with Like A Rose. Not to mention this album is too long at 13 songs. I would’ve cut four songs from this album (“On To Something Good,” “Weight of the Load,” “From Time To Time” and “If Love Was Fair”) and then added a duet with Vince Gill as the 10th song. Seriously, he’s right there producing and you don’t have a duet with him? This is a missed opportunity. Really that sums up this entire album: it was a missed opportunity. The Blade is just good, but it could have been so much more.

Grade: 7/10

 

Review – Will Hoge’s “Middle of America”

Nashville singer-songwriter Will Hoge achieved critical and commercial success with his album, Never Give In, last year. It reached #1 on the Billboard U.S. Top Heatseekers Albums chart and even reached #23 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. His single “Strong” was featured in a Chevrolet commercial, garnering him a lot of new fans. 2013 was a pretty good year for Hoge. Now he’s gearing up to release the followup album later this year and has released the first single from it, “Middle of America.” Hoge though almost didn’t record this song for himself. From an interview with Rolling Stone:

“I wasn’t expecting to write a song for me. We were just trying to write a great song and as it went on I started getting more and more attached to it. There’s always that moment of, ‘Do I want to keep this song for myself because I think it’s really great, or do I want to send it to Blake Shelton and make a whole bunch of money off of it? Maybe he’ll want it.’ It’s a strange place to be, but I’m pragmatic enough to know that sometimes that’s the right play,” says Hoge.

It’s good he kept it because a producer from a mainstream country camp would probably butcher this song into something entirely awful. “Middle of America” was written by Tommy Lee James, Jessi Alexander and Hoge himself. The song is about the everyday life and happenings in rural America. And you regular readers know my thoughts on songs about small towns. They’re done to death and you really have to distinguish it from the rest of the pack to make me pay attention to it. In this case, Hoge does enough to make me listen to it and even like it. Why? The lyrics for once in a song about a small town are actually honest. Basically the picture of rural America that Hoge paints in the listeners’ heads is it isn’t perfect, but that’s just the way things are in rural America.

“Middle of America” is a well-written song, but there are some moments where you feel like the lyrics are kind of cliché, which isn’t uncommon in these type of songs. But the instrumentation and authenticity of the mood of the song make up for it. At least it’s not trying glamorize it to be one big party or throw down like bro country portrays it. Speaking of the instrumentation of the song, there’s a guitar, drum and piano that plays throughout it. This song is one of the most country Hoge has produced, but like all Hoge songs it isn’t purely country. There’s also rock and Americana influences throughout it.

I think “Middle of America” is a solid, new single from Hoge. If this song ever got a shot at radio time, I think it would do well. Perhaps with Hoge’s writing credentials and connections with mainstream country he could get a shot. But that’s being a hypothetical optimist. Hoge though is now more known by the country music listening audience and I think he’ll do even better on the charts with his new upcoming album. He’s dedicated to his music and you know you’ll always get honest music from him. His new single is a good listen and I recommend checking it out if you haven’t done so yet.

Grade: 8.5/10