Album Review — The Highwomen’s ‘The Highwomen’

The Highwomen are country music’s newest supergroup comprised of Brandi Carlile, Natalie Hemby, Amanda Shires and Maren Morris. With the group’s aim to shine a brighter light on women in country music, along with the undeniable amount of talent the group exudes, their self-titled debut is an album that’s been on my radar for a while. The title track opens, which plays on the same template The Highwaymen had used for their self-titled song back in the 80s. On paper this sounds hokey and contrived. But this song is anything but that. It’s fantastic, as it tells the story of various women throughout history and how they suffered untimely fates. I especially love the surprise appearance from Yola, who sings the story of a freedom rider. Hemby sounds great on her verse too. This is how you open an album!

“Redesigning Women” is another amazing song from the group. It’s a song that promotes all types of women and what makes them great. The lyrics are clever, relatable, catchy and meaningful. The harmonizing, especially in the bridge, is that powerful moment that drives the song home. It’s no hyperbole when I say this song is perfect. “Loose Change” has the misfortune of following it, but it’s no slouch either. It’s a great song about a woman feeling used and under-appreciated in a bad relationship. She likens herself as loose change to him and I love the visual this creates, as it perfectly conveys to you the emotions she’s feeling. Again, it’s clever and relatable songwriting from this group.

“Crowded Table” is a down-home country song that’s impossible to listen to without coming away feeling warm and happy. The song is about family and bring everyone together around the table. The harmonies on this song are excellent, showing the chemistry and cohesiveness of these four artists. Kudos to producer Dave Cobb for building the ideal sound around the harmonies too (warm, powerful and not letting the production overpower it). “My Name Can’t Be Mama” is a fun singalong about women choosing not to be a mom, at least for today. I enjoy all the vocal performances on the song, but I particularly enjoy Morris’ performance, as this style of song really fits her voice.

“If She Ever Leaves Me” is classic country storytelling with a modern twist. Written and primarily performed by Carlile, it’s about a woman watching a man eye a woman on the dance floor, only for him to be informed that she belongs to her. While she may one day leave her, it certainly won’t be for him, as the punchy hook reminds you. Carlile’s passionate vocal performance on this is stunning, especially as she hits the high notes. It’s without a doubt a highlight on an album full of them. “Old Soul” is another great vocal performance from Morris and I enjoy the soaring, clean sound of the song. But man does it drag for far too long. You could easily cut three minutes from this and it would still get the point of the song across. Less is more in this case, especially with a well-worn topic.

“Don’t Call Me” is a fun ditty about telling a man to piss off. I enjoyed this the first few listens, but it just doesn’t have the same effect with repeated listens, as the lyrics on this song are decidedly less clever than other moments on the album trying for this effect. “My Only Child” is an ode to children who grow up without brothers and sisters. I’m impressed alone for just covering a rarely covered topic, but then the group also covers it with tact and grace. The song does a great job focusing on the love shared between the child, parent and the special bond between them, really forming a connection with the listener, even if you can’t relate to the lyrics.

“Heaven Is a Honky Tonk” is a feel-good singalong about the legends of country music passing on to heaven, which the group imagines to be like a honkytonk. It’s a fun song, especially when the group hits the high notes. “Cocktail and a Song” is a real tear jerker and is Amanda Shires shining moment on the album. Shires wrote the song about her terminally ill father, as the song is from the point of view of a daughter watching her father slowly die. It’s a beautifully tragic song and Shires delivers it with such powerful emotion, as you can feel the crushing ache and pain every second she sings. It’s the best she’s ever written.

The album closes with “Wheels of Laredo,” which is my least favorite track on the record. The reason I don’t like it is the songwriting is so boring and outdated and relies on scenery tropes that are overused in country music. If the themes and images were presented more livelier, I could get into it. And I know for sure I didn’t like this song when I didn’t like the Tanya Tucker version either. On an album full of fresh songwriting, it’s a shame it ends with a song on the other end of the spectrum.

At it’s brightest The Highwomen’s self-titled debut album screams album of the year (and maybe one of the best of the decade). But unfortunately, they can’t quite keep this up for the whole album. It’s still a great album though and definitely worth your time if you’re into country music at all. I hope this is the first of many great albums from The Highwomen, as the world needs to hear more.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Little Big Town’s ‘The Breaker’

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Let’s be honest: I wasn’t exactly a fan of Little Big Town’s last album Pain Killer. I went back and re-read it. I was actually quite brutal with my remarks. Man, did I go in on the 80s rock comparisons. In my defense though these comparisons weren’t off and I can honestly say I only remember two songs from that album, “Day Drinking” and “Girl Crush.” The latter of course went on to become Little Big Town’s biggest hit yet and racked up tons of awards. So at least the best song went on to earn the most praise. Coming into this veteran group’s new album The Breaker, I was kind of cautiously optimistic based off the Taylor Swift-penned lead single “Better Man.” But in the back of my mind I still remembered the previous album being a disappointment. After all Jay Joyce returns as producer, who was a big part of why the last album was underwhelming and forgettable. Well after listening to The Breaker, it’s definitely a step up and into the right direction for this group.

The opening song “Happy People” really establishes the overall tone and vibe of this album. It’s a very easy-going, light, roots-y type sound that permeates throughout this song and album. The song is about doing whatever floats your boat and how happy people do a lot more than unhappy people in this life. It takes a few listens, but the lyrics kind of subtly impress. It’s no surprise considering two great songwriters in Lori McKenna and Hailey Whitters wrote it. One of the more upbeat tracks on this album is “Night On Our Side.” It’s catchy, but the song itself really doesn’t have much to say and is greatly aided by the vibrant instrumentation. Moody and mellow would best describe “Lost In California.” This might be the most different song I’ve heard from Little Big Town, as this song is very much driven by tone. The song is a love ballad and features some illustrative songwriting that really paints a picture in your head, a credit to the famous troika of Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and McKenna. Then we have the production, which perfectly compliments it with it’s dreamy, almost hazy like feel. It might be Jay Joyce’s best work he’s ever done.

This is before we get to what I would deem the best track on the album, “Free.” I knew right away that McKenna helped write this, as it just has the markings of her best work. The song is instantly feel good, along the same lines of “Humble and Kind.” It’s about how the things we want most in life are free and some of our best qualities are free too (how we get our sense of humor from a parent, our eye color from a relative). The harmonies are also perfectly timed. This is one of Little Big Town’s best songs it’s ever released and deserves to be a single. “Drivin’ Around” is a breezy, summer song you play with the windows down as you well drive around. I enjoy how the harmonies drives this song, but I wish the production were toned back a bit to let the song be more breezy and less overbearing at times (“Rollin'” is along the same lines). Nostalgia will determine how much you love “We Went To The Beach.” Most of the time nostalgia songs usually don’t work for me, but this one does because well I can relate to the first part of the song. If you can connect with a part of the song, it’s enjoyable. If not, it’s probably just okay. I also have to say Phillip Sweet was a good choice for lead vocals here, as his voice suites the overall mood of the song.

Kimberly Schlapman takes the lead on “Beat Up Bible.” It’s about the meaning of a Bible that’s been passed down through a family. The memories it holds and the lessons learned are what make it so special, even though it’s nearly fallen apart. Usually these types of songs devolve into cliché territory quickly, but this one has heart and comes across sincerely. Schlapman is a great choice for lead vocals, as her sweeter, more restrained voice suits it. Little Big Town do a really job tackling heartbreak on “When Someone Stops Loving You.” The song explores the feelings you go through after a breakup: having to trudge through the normal routine, forced to face life without that person and a little part still hoping they come crawling back. It’s well written and Jimi Westbrook really shines on lead vocals. The album’s title track closes the album out. With Sweet on lead vocals, the song is about a man who thought he would be the man of his woman’s dreams. But he ends up turning out to be the one to break her heart in the end. I enjoy the concept of this song, but I think it would have been even better if it were a duet between the man and woman, explaining each side. It would have really added some depth, but as is it’s a decent song.

Little Big Town delivers a pretty solid album in The Breaker. It’s a nice rebound from the group and mostly a return to where this group shines: more organic, restrained, harmony driven songs. Everything on this album is a step up, most notably the songwriting. Five co-writes from Lori McKenna, along with contributions from the likes of Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose and Hailey Whitters is likely to help an album in the songwriting department. Overall I like the sonic direction this album takes and the themes explored, but I felt like if it could have been taken further this could have been a great album. It felt like some potential was left on the table, but hopefully the group stays on its current path and takes these steps on the next album. Little Big Town should be proud though of their effort on The Breaker, as I think this will be one of the best albums from mainstream country in 2017.

Grade: 7/10

 

Recommend? – Yes

Album Highlights: Free, Lost In California, When Someone Stops Loving You, Happy People, Beat Up Bible, Better Man

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old; Night On Our Side


Country Perspective’s Best Music Reviewed in January

This is the monthly recap post of all the great music we reviewed on the blog in case you missed it or just came across our humble, little blog. So check this music out if you haven’t already.

Albums

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Natalie Hemby – Puxico

Natalie Hemby delivers a really solid debut record in Puxico. I think she does well exploring the album’s main theme of small town living, which can be easy to fall into traps when writing about. She keeps a real attitude towards it, acknowledging both the real problems of them and the sentimental feelings we can hold about them too. The instrumentation is pretty good and in some cases really adding something to the song. I’m hopeful we get to hear more from her in the future, as I think Hemby is capable of delivering even better music than what she gives us on Puxico.

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Dale Watson & Ray Benson – Dale & Ray

Dale & Ray is an album I instantly grew to love. Both Dale Watson and Ray Benson sound as great as ever, showing no signs of slowing down anytime soon. It’s no surprise these two deliver such a thoroughly great country album, as it’s what they’ve been doing their whole careers. This is also further proof of why we need more collaboration albums like this one because when you put together two highly talented artists like Watson and Benson you get something you’ll certainly remember. Dale & Ray is a really fun album and something any country fan should love and appreciate. 

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The Band of Heathens – Duende 

Overall I find Duende to be a great album. It features rock solid instrumentation, which is a real strong suit of The Band of Heathens. The second half of this album in particular is really enjoyable and is the band shining at their best. The whole album has a great variety of both fun and thoughtful songs. There’s a real smoothness about everything this band does and this really resonates with the listener. Once again The Band of Heathens deliver great music and make Duende an album definitely worth your time.

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Blackie and The Rodeo Kings – Kings and Kings

Overall, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings make the most of their talented guests, playing to each of their respective strengths and sounds, to create an authentic sounding roots album. Kings and Kings is the perfect example of why Americana is such a tough genre to define because a variety of sounds and styles all work under that umbrella. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings provide music fans with an album that epitomizes the genre, with great collaborations from the most respected singers of country and Americana music.

 

Songs

Album Review – Natalie Hemby’s ‘Puxico’

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Undoubtedly I would say the most under-appreciated people in the music business are songwriters. They are the lifeblood of the industry and most of the time they don’t get their due recognition for writing all of the hits you hear on the radio. While there are many big stars in country music who will gives thanks to their writers, they still don’t get their own spotlight to shine themselves. Last year I think Lori McKenna opened up a lot of people’s eyes to this (Stapleton the year before too). So I was pretty anxious to hear the debut album from Nashville songwriter Natalie Hemby. She’s helped penned numerous songs for the likes of Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Kacey Musgraves and most notably Miranda Lambert. Not only she helped write some of her hits, but had a big hand in writing some of the best songs (“Ugly Lights” and “Keeper of the Flame”) on Lambert’s new album The Weight of These Wings. Hemby now gets a chance to show her own music to the world with her debut album Puxico, named after her hometown of Puxico, Missouri.

The album opens with the upbeat “Time Honored Tradition,” a song that espouses looking for a nice small town where traditions and memory making still exists. The guitars really give this song infectious warmth. “Grand Restoration” is definitely a standout on Puxico, as the song is about changes and traditions that are carried from generation to generation. It’s really the main theme Hemby explores on this album, as many of the songs deal with balancing old memories and new sights. The old is certainly remembered on “Cairo, IL.” It’s a song about the city of the same name, which is located near both the Mississippi River and Ohio River. It’s a place where many leave for greener pastures, a shell of what it once was in its heyday. Cairo is a microcosm of many small towns across America and the complicated feelings those have that are attached to a small town. I would argue this is the best track of the album, as it’s an excellent and real look at small towns.

On “Ferris Wheel” Hemby likens life to…well a Ferris wheel. As she says, the views best at the top while waiting at the bottom we dream of reaching the top. It’s really clever songwriting, not to mention I really enjoy all of the steel guitar too. “Worn” celebrates the tried and true things in life. I’m not crazy about the drum loop on “This Town Still Talks About You.” It can also feel like the song drags a little bit. I do enjoy the steel guitar though and the lyrics do a good job of creating a nostalgic feeling, as the song is about reminiscing about an old friend who left town. Puxico really closes out strong with “Return.” As I said before Hemby had a big hand in writing songs on Lambert’s latest album and this song sounds like something you would hear on it. The song has a real lively feel and I really enjoy Hemby’s vocals in particular. This song also experiments with the sound a little bit more than the rest of the album, which I always appreciate when an artist tries something different and makes it work. “Return” is certainly a memorable song to my ears.

Natalie Hemby delivers a really solid debut record in Puxico. I think she does well exploring the album’s main theme of small town living, which can be easy to fall into traps when writing about. She keeps a real attitude towards it, acknowledging both the real problems of them and the sentimental feelings we can hold about them too. The instrumentation is pretty good and in some cases really adding something to the song. I’m hopeful we get to hear more from her in the future, as I think Hemby is capable of delivering even better music than what she gives us on Puxico.

Grade: 8/10

 

Recommend? – Yes

Album Highlights: Cairo, IL, Ferris Wheel, Return, Time Honored Tradition, Grand Restoration

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


Album Review – Miranda Lambert’s ‘The Weight of These Wings’

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Making a great album is a tough challenge. Making a great double album, though? You’re taking on an almost impossible task that many of the best artists can’t even pull off. I’ve made my stance on album length quite clear, with simple math telling us that the longer an album is the more chances you have of making mistakes. The biggest challenge with taking on a double album is finding enough great content to fill it up from start to finish. Most artists can’t put together 10-12 track length album because writing songs is hard. So when I heard Miranda Lambert’s new album would be a double at 24 songs long, I was worried about it. While no doubt the heartbreak and turmoil she’s experienced over the last couple years while also beginning a new chapter of her life would certainly give plenty of inspiration, I was skeptical if she could find enough for a double album. There would undoubtedly be great songs on it, but there could also be ample bad songs that could drag the good down. Not to mention I’ve lost track of how many different albums from major labels have been wrecked by bad production choices. On the flip side the names involved with the project inspires a lot of positive thinking. So with all of this in mind I dug deep into the mammoth-sized double album, The Weight of These Wings.

The album is broken into two 12 song parts, with the first part being called The Nerve and the second part being called The Heart. I’m going to review the first 12 songs together first and the second set after because this is how the album is intended to be listened. The ominous “Runnin’ Just In Case” opens it up and sets the tone for the album perfectly. Written by Lambert and Gwen Sebastian (who is part of writing some of the best songs on the album), the song is about running from the pain of love or love itself, not exactly sure of which it really is. What really captivates me is the raw emotion on display from Miranda, something that happens a lot on this album.

The decidedly upbeat “Highway Vagabond” is bound to be a future single and I’m surprised it wasn’t the follow-up to “Vice.” While the nature of the song is kind of kitschy, it’s also fun-loving and doesn’t take itself seriously, which is why I think many have already gravitated towards it. The album’s second single “We Should Be Friends” is another upbeat song, which Lambert wrote entirely herself. It’s a clever song about Lambert identifying who she has a friend in, from the frankly honest to the heartbroken. She keeps the song simple and it works. I’m not sure if country radio will get behind it though. I have to say I’m glad there are some upbeat songs on this double album because if it were just entirely heartbreak and dark songs it would be a draining listen. Also by having some lighter songs it acts as a great contrast and helps the darker songs stand out even more.

Lambert sings of helping a friend get out of a bad relationship in “Getaway Driver.” Written with Hemby and her boyfriend/Americana artist Anderson East, it’s a somber Bonnie & Clyde type song. Instead of gleefully riding into the sunset guns a blazing like in the movies, we get something real. Lambert duets with East on “Pushin’ Time.” It’s a song about falling in love, which I imagine is based on these two falling in love. Even if you had no clue these two were together when you listen to this song, you can feel the genuineness and love shine through in every aspect of the song. The steel guitar work by Spencer Cullum goes fantastically with the lyrics. This is hands-down one of the best songs of the album.

The Muscle Shoals-influenced “Covered Wagon” is one of those feel good songs that’s easy to sing along with. “Ugly Lights” sees Lambert incorporating a garage country like sound that Aubrie Sellers really brought to light with her debut album. It really suits both Lambert and the song, which is a sort of gritty and dark tune about hiding in a bar with your broken heart. The lyrics do an even better job of capturing this feeling, which doesn’t surprise me considering Lambert wrote it with Natalie Hemby and Liz Rose. The bluegrass-tinged “You Wouldn’t Know Me” speaks to the truth of not knowing a person just by asking them how they’re doing. A person can change everyday, so you really don’t know someone. It’s one of the simpler, more overlooked songs of the album, but it’s definitely one of my favorites on The Nerve.

There’s a couple of songs on The Nerve that get away from this simplicity and make things too complicated. “Smoking Jacket” is a straight up sex song. This itself isn’t bad; I’m just calling a spade a spade. What else can be gleaned from the line, “every night he makes his magic on me”? That being said this song just doesn’t do much for me, perhaps due to it being too long. One of my least favorites of the album and the worst on The Nerve is “Pink Sunglasses.” The production on this song is just way overdone and self-indulgent. Not to mention the song feels like it drags. It feels like six minutes when it’s only four. This all takes away from the theme of the song, which centers on the sentimental value and confidence one can gain from simple objects.

The final track of The Nerve is “Use My Heart,” which serves as the perfect transition into The Heart. The reason being is the song revolves around the phrase of “I don’t have the nerve to use my heart.” To boot it’s a great song, as Lambert sings of dealing with the inner demons of trying to move on and reconcile with what has happened. Lambert wrote the song with Ashley Monroe and Waylon Payne. I point this out because this is one of two songs this specific troika wrote on the album and both songs are excellent.

Kicking off The Heart is “Tin Man,” probably the most heartbreaking song of the album. It’s about Lambert and the tin man of the Wizard of Oz, who famously always wanted a heart, discussing the merits of having one. She explains to him how he doesn’t know what kind of pain he’s asking for when he asks for a heart and it’s not worth the trouble. By the end of the song she offers to trade her heart, which is shattered into pieces and covered in scars, to him in exchange for his armor. Written by Lambert and Jack Ingram (who is quite proficient in the art of writing about heartbreak), this is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard from Lambert.

Lambert’s sassy happiness shines through on “For The Birds.” It symbolizes her re-awakening so to speak after her breakup, wanting happiness and sunshine back after going through so much darkness. It’s finally finding that light at the end of a long tunnel. “Good Ol’ Days” is about Lambert willing to go back to where it all began for her to rediscover herself and her truth. It’s about re-examining everything and figuring out just where to go from where you’re at currently. The song does a great job of capturing the humility of the subject, which doesn’t surprise me because Brent Cobb and Adam Hood wrote the song with Lambert. “Tomboy” is a personal anthem from Lambert about her and everyone like her. She’s a proud tomboy who does it her way and this is her way of telling young girls it’s cool to be this way too. For this reason I think this would be a great choice for a single.

If you feel like you need more steel guitar in your life, just listen to “Things That Break” and “Well-Rested.” It’s as thick and infectious as molasses on each song. These are classic heartbreak country songs in every sense. There are a lot of great songs I enjoy on this album, but if I had to pick the best one on this expansive double album it would have to be “To Learn Her.” Written by the praised above troika of Lambert, Monroe and Payne, this song is pure country music. If you asked me to define country music, I would point to a song like this one. The heavy steel guitar makes me smile from ear-to-ear. This song is Lambert at her very best.

The other songwriting trio I absolutely enjoy on this album is Lambert, Hemby and Rose, who get their shining moment on “Keeper of the Flame. “ I didn’t even have to look at the credits to know these three wrote this because their fingerprints are all over it. The very best of these three come together to create this soaring love anthem that you just want to listen to over and over again. I even surprisingly enjoy the synthesizer on this song, which gives the song some real energy and urgency. “Bad Boy” is the weakest track of The Heart, but even it isn’t a bad song. It’s the fact that rest of it is so strong that a just solid song doesn’t quite stand out. While the song relies on the predictable trope of falling in love with the bad boy, I really enjoy the instrumentation. The song starts off with a harder rock edge before giving away to twang pedal steel guitar towards the end.

I really applaud Miranda for going completely outside the box on “Six Degrees of Separation.” I love it when an artist tries something completely different and takes risks and this song is a perfect example of why. The vocal layering combined with the grungy guitars and snappy lyrics make for an infectiously great song. Lambert’s ode to the sun “Dear Old Sun” shows a more subdued soulful side of her. It’s probably the most spiritual Lambert gets on the entire album, as you can really feel the heart in her voice as she sings. Then again Lambert bared her entire self in every part of this album.

The Weight of These Wings closes it’s story with “I’ve Got Wheels.” It’s where Lambert finally moves on from her demons. As she sings, she’s got wheels and now she’s using them to get away from the heartbreak that haunted her for so long. It’s that sobering feeling that you’ve finally picked up all of the pieces and can move on with your life to something after being consumed by something old for so long. And that itself is another chapter that won’t be easy, but Lambert at least knows she’s moving forward now.

After thoroughly listening to The Weight of These Wings from front to back and over again several times, Lambert accomplished something I’ve seen for the first time while running Country Perspective and that’s releasing a great double album. This is an amazing accomplishment that should make her proud because this is nothing to scoff at. If I had to pick the best side, it would definitely be The Heart. There’s not a single bad song on this part of the album, while The Nerve is hampered by the only three missteps of the entire album.

Lambert put every bit of her talent into this album; there was no holding back from her. She utilized some of the best songwriters in country music today, while also showing off her own songwriting chops. We not only get to see her at her most country, but she even takes some risks and pulls them off well too. Frank Liddell, Eric Masse and Glenn Worff for the most part did a great job producing this album and not falling into the usual mainstream pitfalls. Miranda Lambert did something many artists have trouble with and that’s channeling pure, raw energy into beautiful art. The Weight of These Wings is arguably the crowning jewel of Lambert’s entire career.

Grade: 9/10

 

Recommend? – Yes!

Album Highlights: Tin Man, To Learn Her, Ugly Lights, Runnin’ Just in Case, Vice, Pushin’ Time, Use My Heart, Good Ol’ Days, For The Birds, Six Degrees of Separation, I’ve Got Wheels

Bad Songs: Pink Sunglasses & Smoking Jacket

Wallpaper: None