Album Review — Lindsay Ell’s ‘heart theory’

I feel like Lindsay Ell has been the classic example of a major country label having no clue what they have in an artist and therefore completely botching her presentation. More importantly, they have been pushing her in the wrong direction with the music she’s been releasing, specifically her last album The Project felt a bit directionless. With heart theory, it feels like they finally let Ell shine and release the album that feels like her breakout moment. heart theory is an album that finally showcases her at her best.

This is a great pop country album centered around the concept of a breakup and the five stages of grief. I feel like she does really well at nailing the various emotions one goes through in a breakup and her guitar playing is on display throughout, which is important because she’s a damn good guitar player. “Hits me” is an ideal opener, as it’s instantly catchy and carries a surprising amount emotional heft behind it. It reminds me of Lorde’s “Green Light,” in that it’s a song in the “crying in the club” vein. “i don’t lovE you” perfectly captures the unwanted feeling of wanting your ex back, even though you know deep down you don’t love them anymore. The Kane Brown co-write “wAnt me back” is a song I normally wouldn’t enjoy if it was a standalone song, as the arrogance and selfishness of expecting an ex to want you back is annoying. But within a breakup album it fits because this is an emotion that is understandable to feel during a breakup, as it’s a bit of a coping mechanism in the wake of feeling insecure.

“wrong girl” has that unleashed bluesy rock sound that I wish Ell would show off more, as this song just flat out rocks. The frenetic pace of the song is infectious and her label would be wise to make this a single, as I think this sounds like an absolute hit. “body language of a breakup” manages to articulate something that’s only learned after you’ve broken up in a serious relationship and that is the realization that you completely ignore the signs of a breakup before it happens. You get so sucked into the relationship that logic is essentially thrown out the window. And while this may not be the most ear-catching track on the album, it’s accurate psychology greatly aids the overall concept of the album.

The bittersweetness of “good on you” does a great job showing the complicated feelings of watching you ex “win” the breakup and having to accept that while you wish the best for your ex, you wish you didn’t have to see it either. “The oTHEr side” is about coming to the healthy realization that you don’t need an ex to live a happy life and that the relationship doesn’t define who you are. It’s the calming realization that you’re free from emotions that were holding you hostage and being back in control of yourself again. The mellow and smooth sound really aids this emotion and makes for an enjoyable listen too. “gO to” is a solid love song, but it doesn’t feel like it fits the flow of the album and it feels even more out of place when the album’s concluding song feels like it better captures the rediscovery of love.

I can say the same of “make you,” even though it’s an incredibly brave song that the world needs to hear. Written with Brandy Clark, Ell recounts in the song her traumatic experiences of surviving sexual assault and learning how to be a stronger person on the other side of this. It’s such a tragic song that’s unfortunately the reality for so many people and I’m glad that Ell is sharing her story to help other survivors. But I would be lying if I said this just doesn’t fit the rest of the album, just like I said of Dua Lipa’s “Boys Will Be Boys” on Future Nostalgia.

“ReadY to love” is a great conclusion to the album, as Ell has fully moved on from her breakup and is ready to love somebody again. After so much heartbreak throughout the album, it’s good to end the album on an uplifting note and moving forward with a positive attitude, much like one is encouraged do in their own breakup and officially completing the fives stages.

Overall I think Ell mostly nails the concept she’s going for with heart theory, with my biggest complaint of this album being just a bit too long. At the very least I would have trimmed this down to ten songs, possibly even eight (“how good” and “get oveR you” are not bad songs, but feel a bit redundant when there are other songs that cover the same themes better). I’m also not a fan of the all lowercase titles with random capital letters to spell out the album title, as it’s tacky and uncreative. It’s better to let the songs themselves spell out the concept of the album than literally spelling it out in the song titles.

Despite my criticisms though, Lindsay Ell gets a lot right on heart theory and it’s a big step in the right direction for her sound and style. Her guitar playing is great as always and producer Dann Huff, who’s production I haven’t always been a fan of, is actually quite complementary of her strengths and brings a compelling sound that grips me throughout. This album is a great achievement for Ell, as she manages to craft both a fun, yet thought-provoking pop country album in heart theory.

Grade: 8/10

Now is the Time for Country Music to Bring Back the Women

Source: Public Domain in Wikimedia Commons
Source: Public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

The lack of female representation on the country charts hasn’t gone unnoticed. There have been a total of nine solo female artists who’ve topped the charts in the past ten years; with three of those nine, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift, accounting for more than half of those number ones. To make matters worse, the explosion of bro-country further pushed women off the charts, even our beloved Queen-Bees.

However, bro-country appears to be in a decline. Most recently, Taylor Swift has officially gone pop with her new album due out late October. Let’s assume that the powers that be in country music accept Taylor’s departure and don’t play any of her new songs on country radio. Though with “Burnin’ It Down” on top and everything with Sam Hunt’s name climbing the charts, it’s possible Swift’s new single, “Shake It Off”, could find its way onto country radio. But I’m getting away from myself.

The point is with Taylor’s departure to the pop world, this leaves a gaping hole for country music female representation. For years now, it seemed the awards category for Female Vocalist of the Year, at any country award show, would consist of Taylor, Carrie, Miranda and a random assortment of other women who had a mildly successful hit or two in order to round out the nominations at five. Then Kacey Musgraves came in and rightfully earned a spot on the list next to those three, and we were only down to one random name. With the CMA award nominees to be announced in a few short weeks, we can guarantee to see Miranda, Carrie and Kacey on the list. But who else? The category has been weak for a while, and may even be the weakest category this year.

Now is as good a time as ever for Music Row and country radio to bring many fantastic female solo artists to the spotlight they all deserve. Each one of these women is more than capable of filling the void left by Swift.

  1. Kellie Pickler – An American Idol alumna who hasn’t found as much success as her Idol counterpart, Carrie Underwood. Kellie had early award show success with “I Wonder” and “Red High Heels” and cracked the top 10 on radio charts with “Best Days of Your Life.” But Kellie kept a strong classic country sound and didn’t let the pop-country wave become an influence in her music on future albums. It’s a shame Kellie isn’t a radio staple. Her last two albums, The Woman I Am and 100 Proof were raved by critics. Her sound is pure, her voice is strong, and she records and writes great lyrics. Kellie has certainly done more than enough to earn a spot at the table.
  2. Sunny Sweeney – Sunny’s recent release, Provoked, is a fantastic listen from start to finish; arguably the best country album of 2014. Her single, “Bad Girl Phase,” is slowly creeping up the charts and is the perfect female anthem to battle bro-country. Sharp songwriting, a truly unique voice, and a brilliant sound that’s traditional, yet surprisingly fitting in the contemporary country world. Sunny has all the makings to be one of, if not the, top country female artist.
  3. Brandy Clark – Brandy Clark has a few hits on her resume as a songwriter including “Better Dig Two” and the award-winning “Mama’s Broken Heart”. Not to mention other hits recorded by Reba and LeAnn Rimes. Last year, her album 12 Stories was met with critical acclaim and widely considered one of the top country albums from last year. She fits right in the mold freshly carved by Kacey Musgraves. Her writing has a hint of darkness, and she tackles tough subjects in her songs that go against the grain of feel-good partying, but Brandy’s talent is not one that should be ignored or hidden in the shadows.
  4. Keeley Valentino – Who? This San Francisco singer-songwriter is fairly unknown, but has a true talent as an Americana, roots musician. She recently debuted “Little Things”, her lead single off an upcoming EP. “Little Things” features the instrumentation of Zac Brown Band’s Clay Cook. Her EP will also feature more musical and production assistance from the ZBB camp including John Driskell Hopkins and newly added Matt Mangano. While Keeley is still too unknown to be a quick replacement, “Little Things” proves that Keeley Valentino has the potential to be a female leader in country music. And if she has members of the Zac Brown Band on her side, I’m sold.
  5. Holly Williams – Hank Sr.’s granddaughter. Her 2013 album, The Highway, was another critically acclaimed record alongside Brandy’s 12 Stories.  She’s a smooth singer-songwriter who evokes a great amount of emotion into each of her songs. While Holly has a great classic sound to her, she doesn’t have many upbeat tracks on her albums compared to the first two entries on the list, but her music is pure, raw and emotionally true. Everything country music should be.

These women have a more traditional country sound; a sound I think should be reintroduced to radio. However, there are many women who have a pop country sound that could also fit nicely at the top of the pecking order. Lindsay Ell, Leah Turner, Danielle Bradbery and Gwen Sebastian all show promise as successful solo female country artists. Yes, a more traditional sound of country music would be the best option, hands down, but solo female artists evoking a more contemporary sound, a sound that harkens back to even five years ago, would be a satisfactory, temporary solution. The fact of the matter is, now is the time for country music to open its doors back up to women and bring back a healthy, diverse radio sound to its fans.