Album Review – The Black Lillies ‘Hard to Please’

The Black Lillies raised the funds for their fourth studio album, Hard to Please, with the help of Pledgemusic. The goals were met, the studio time was booked, a producer was hired, then life threw the band a curveball: two of the band members left, leaving the remaining three in a tight spot. Frontman Cruz Contreras ultimately decided to move forward with the recording as scheduled and wrote the album in two weeks. Session players Bill Reynolds from Band of Horses on bass, Matt Smith on pedal steel and Daniel Donato on guitar joined the Black Lillies (Contreras, Bowman Townsend on drums and Trisha Gene Brady on vocals) for the recording of Hard to Please alongside prouder Ryan Hewitt.

The album kicks off with the title track, a rocking number about a man lamenting over the fact that his woman is impossible to please. The guitars play a key role in the instrumentation with Contreras singing lead while Trisha Gene Brady provides some great harmonies. The Black Lillies fuse country and rock together seamlessly throughout the album, and “That’s the Way It Goes Down” is a prime example of that fusion. A song about moving forward and learning from the mistakes you make, “That the Way It Goes Down” has a driving production that builds to a roaring guitar solo.

The Black Lillies explore love on the next few songs. The bluesy, gospel-like “Mercy” finds two people who are shamelessly in need of one another. Contreras and Gene Brady sing the song as a duet, brilliantly using both singers’ vocal power to deliver the emotional punch of the song. “The First Time” is a mid-tempo heartbreak song where Trisha takes the lead on vocals. Here she sings of consistently falling for a man who continues to let her down and leave her heartbroken. “The First Time” uses what appears to be the pedal steel within a rock setting, and it sounds great out of its usual country element.

“Bound to Roam” chronicles a dysfunctional couple in their last moments together. Contreras sings as a rambling man, Willy, who believes he’s bound to roam and travel, while Gene Brady sings as his love, Sarah, who doesn’t want him to leave her alone and heartbroken. Sarah uses Willy’s devoted love to her to manipulate him into staying by her side forever. It’s a story you should hear for yourself, aided by a great acoustic country production. The Black Lillies sing of a happier love in “Dancin’.” Fittingly, it’s an upbeat country dancing number loaded with steel guitar and a driving guitar and drum beat. The song details a couple who look to reignite their passion and love by going out dancing: the one area in their life where they constantly shine together. It’s a well done song from the lyrics to the production, but I feel like “Dancin'” is too long as the outro of the song gets rather repetitive.

Contreras sings solo in the acoustic “Desire.” He holds onto the love and desire he feels for the one that stole his heart, even he’s been left alone and broken. The country fans reading this will love the steel guitar solo found in “Desire.” The music gets cranked up on the rocking “40 Days”, a song influenced by the band’s first national tour where they played 40 shows in 40 days. It’s the ups and downs of life on the road with an old-time rock n’ roll production led by a piano and electric guitars.

Cruz Contreras wrote “Broken Shore” about his grandfather, who fought in Iwo Jima. This country rock epic is led with a mandolin with heavy guitars and pianos chiming in at various times. “Broken Shore” is a song where the lyrics introduce the settings and feelings of our character, but it’s the production that tells the story. The production rises and falls, moving from simple to chaotic, keeping a song with few lyrics moving forward. It’s another one of those songs that needs to be heard to fully appreciate what The Black Lillies accomplish with it. Hard to Please ends with “Fade.” This piano ballad steadily builds as Contreras sings to his love not to fade away from him. The relationship is facing a rough patch and he doesn’t want to see them give in to the pressure of the situation.

The Black Lillies have accomplished a lot within their short, six-year lifespan. Their previous album, Runaway Freeway Blues, was an Americana staple back in 2013, and it’s hard not to consider Hard to Please in the same way. In spite of all the challenges the band faced before going into record the album, The Black Lillies still deliver a great Americana album with perfect fusions of rock and country with some blues and gospel influences splashed in. Even with songs that are decidedly rock and decidedly country on the same album, every song has a place and purpose on Hard to Please.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – The Honeycutters’ ‘Me Oh My’

The Honeycutters are a roots country band from Asheville, North Carolina. Tal Taylor plays the mandolin, Rick Cooper the bass, Josh Milligan plays the drums for the band, and Matt Smith offers his skills on the pedal steel, electric guitars and a dobro. But the driving force of The Honeycutters is founder, primary songwriter, and singer Amanda Platt. She brought the band together in 2007 and led the way for the band through two albums. On this third album, released by in April, Platt also took the production reigns, taking full control of the creative direction of Me Oh My.

Platt says, “The new album is the one I’m most proud of to date…I took much more of a driver’s seat in it’s making, and the process has forced me to do a lot of growing up… I feel like I’ve really found my voice.” She worked alongside assistant producer and engineer Jon Ashley to deliver the 14 tracks found on album. The country roots are firm, with the ring of the pedal steel and the pluck of the mandolin noticeably behind Platt’s vocal delivery on nearly every track.

Me Oh My kicks off with a western swing in “Jukebox.” Here we find two down-on-their-luck people alone in the bar. Platt provides first person narration of asking the lonely man to dance with her. The moving production inspires the listener to dance along and is a great choice for an album opener. “All You Ever” finds a prideful man being knocked down a few pegs. This conceited fellow wants all eyes on him in the public, but in the privacy of his home, he’s been humbled. He doesn’t know how to cope with not being the center of attention.

The title track is a commentary of the modern woman. Unlike in our parents and grandparents’ age, women have children out-of-wedlock. They don’t all settle down for marriage. “Me Oh My” suggests the central character may be acting out in the wake of losing a child. It’s a hard-hitting song with honest lyrics, and that’s how Platt likes to write. “Me Oh My” is one of my favorite songs from the album. “Edge of the Frame” deals with a famous “friend” who simply uses people as he or she sees fit. Platt sings in the chorus, “Why you make a beggar out of your best friend? You pull me in and you push me away, ’til I’m standing on the edge, standing on the edge of the frame.

The Honeycutters touch on marital affairs in “Ain’t it The Truth.” Here, Platt sings of a woman in small town where everyone, including said woman, knows her husband is unfaithful. Judgments from the townsfolk are passed because this woman stays with her husband despite his actions. “Carolina” is a love story involving a rambling man. The wanderlust and call for the road is too much for him to stay, and she holds on, despite knowing how hopeless her love is. The theme of love continues on the ballad “Texas ’81.” This is a husband who travels frequently and keeps coming back. Together, they reminisce on their beginning and she yearns for him to stay, for their moments together to not end before he has to leave again. It’s a heartbreaking song punctuated by a great production that captures the passion and hope described in the lyrics.

“Little Bird” carries a theme similar to “Jukebox.” The song describes two people who are flawed and lonely, and that vulnerability allows them to let their guard down to the other person, just for the night. The two are scared of the morning, broken and hiding in the darkness. “Not That Simple” is another song exploring the topic of a cheating husband. In this case, the woman is hurt that he won’t love her, and that she’s fallen for someone who can’t love her. She tries to cope but simply shies away from everything until she simply can’t cry about it any longer. It’s a song about coming to terms and accepting his lies as a truth in her life.

With all the cheating and heartbreak songs, The Honeycutters offer up a song with a positive take on love. “Wedding Song” is about a bride thanking her husband for his love. When they met she was broken and hurt. Through his love and passion for her, he’s helped rebuild that heart and shown her happiness again. “Wedding Song” is a nice, bluegrass inspired love song. The following song, though, finds a marriage falling apart. “Hearts of Men” deals with a father and a husband who’s unhappy with this life. The sacrifices he made to build his family cause him angst. He desires some freedom and independence from his responsibilities, and his children simply want their father back.

“I’ll Be Lovin’ You” is a song of one lover’s encouraging. Life has brought them down and he’s not handling it well. She’s devoted to keep on loving him while he feels like he can’t love himself. At almost six minutes long, “I’ll Be Lovin’ You” has an excellent extended musical outro. “Lucky” finds a girl who continually makes mistakes in the relationship. However, her husband continues to forgive her time and time again, and she ponders how she got so lucky. The album ends with the love song “A Life For You.” It’s not your typical love song, as we see a Bonnie and Clyde type couple that are on the run from the cops. The woman, knowing that her husband is a better person than she, encourages him to save himself. She’s continually dreamed of a better life for him, and wants him to live that out. It’s a touching song that hits you hard. You really just have to hear it for yourself.

Overall, Me Oh My, is a pleasant album. The country rooted production and bluegrass styles in some of the songs are great. Amanda Platt’s lyrics are honest and deep, and she provides a good vocal delivery. My only complaints with the album are that the length of 14 songs is a little much, especially since none of the songs drift above a mid-tempo beat. Me Oh My drags a bit with the high song total. However, Platt’s sharp story telling and production do help make up for the drag, as the last couple songs do make the wait worth it. This is an album country fans missing the roots will love.

Grade: 8/10