The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 2: Sara Evans and Mike & The Moonpies Cover Classics, Plus More!

When an artist covers a song or an album, it’s either feast or famine. It’s often the latter because the artist too often falls into the trap of recording a straight-ahead, exact replica of the original. And this quite frankly is boring. Why would I want to hear a cover of, let’s say Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks”, if you’re just going to do it exactly how they did it? I’ll just listen to the original instead.

No, the best covers are when an artist takes and reinterprets the songs, giving them a fresh coat of paint and reinvigorating them in the minds of the listeners. So while Sara Evans is an artist that I rarely listen to at times, her Copy That album that covers songs from multiple genres across multiple eras intrigued me when I came across it. I say she’s an artist I rarely listen to because of all the boring, vanilla radio singles that a lot of people seem to like. But they put me to sleep and I would much rather listen to her early career material, which better showcases her talent. Not to mention I didn’t forget her great performance on the country tribute album to The Doobie Brothers.

Evans picks the perfect opener in “If I Can’t Have You,” the disco hit made famous by the Bee Gees and Yvonne Elliman. Evans brings a ton of passion and energy to her vocal performance, feeling right at home on this yearning love ballad. “Come On Eileen” is one of those one-hit 80s rock songs that has always got on my nerves due to radio overplay and the cheesy nature of the delivery. But I just can’t get enough of Evans’ interpretation, as the hints of fiddle and Evans’ clearer take on the song makes it a catchy ear worm. I also enjoy how the bridge speeds up and crashes, giving the song an infectious frenetic feel.

Poco’s rock-country hit “Crazy Love” is a gem I didn’t know about and again fits Evans like a glove, as she keeps enough of the original’s feel while making it feel modern. Evans and Little Big Town’s Phillip Sweet beautifully harmonize on Kenny Loggins’ “Whenever I Call You “Friend”” and I would say like their version more than the original, has less of a soupy feel about it. Evans’ best vocal performances on this album are arguably her cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Monday Morning” and John Mayer’s “All We Ever Do Is Say Goodbye,” as she absolutely belts it on each track.

Old Crow Medicine Show appropriately joins her on Hank Williams’ “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry” and this is a combination I didn’t think I would enjoy so much, as their discographies are so contrasting. But they surprisingly work well. Finally, Evans once again wins me over on a classic rock song that gets overplayed on radio, The Knacks’ “My Sharona.” The blaring guitars being in front and center with Evans impassioned performance hooks me immediately and I would argue she once again surpasses the original of one of her covers.

If this album slipped through the cracks for you I would suggest checking out, especially if you’re like me and listen to multiple genres of music. It’s just a really fun album that you can tell Evans and her band enjoyed making and this is undoubtedly felt by the listener as they sing along to these familiar tracks.

Sara Evans though wasn’t the only band to recently make a great covers album, as Mike and the Moonpies dropped a surprise album of Gary Stewart songs. But Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart isn’t just Stewart songs, but previously unheard songs from the underrated country star. Being a fan of Stewart and Mike and the Moonpies coming off what I considered the best country album of 2019, I was eager to sink my teeth into this one.

It doesn’t disappoint, as Mike Harmeir and his band certainly do justice to the King of Honkytonks’ tunes. It doesn’t necessarily start off the strongest with “Bottom of the Pile,” as I would consider it one of the lesser songs on the album due to it’s repetitiveness. But second track “Smooth Shot of Whiskey” is an immediate favorite of mine. Harmeir is joined on vocals surprisingly by Midland frontman Mark Wystrach and they sound so good together. I say surprisingly because Texas country music doesn’t exactly like Midland due to their “lack of authenticity” and regularly like to compare the Moonpies and Midland. But if you pay attention on social media these bands have always been chummy with each other and they should because each fall into the same style of country music.

The album’s title track might be my most favorite on the record, as Harmeir stretches his vocal range to great effect. It adds the emotion that is much needed on this heartbreak drinking song, not to mention Harmeir’s higher notes are unforgettably good. It’s slightly disappointing there aren’t more country rockers on this album, as that’s what Stewart is most well-known for in his career. But it’s not surprising either, as these songs mostly come from Stewart’s 80s material, which is decidedly more mellow. But we do get one great rocker with “Dance with Barbara,” a rowdy honky tonker about wanting to hit the dance floor with the woman of everyone’s eye in the bar.

It should be said too for those unfamiliar with Gary Stewart’s work that many of his songs center around debauchery, drinking and the darkness that can accompany it, as these themes were very much part of his life. So in a way it can make listening to this album a bit repetitive to listen to at times. But if you’re in the mood for these type of songs, it has this in spades. “The Gold Barstool” and “Finished Product” are darkly humorous takes on over-drinking. But Stewart wasn’t a one-trick pony either, as “I’m Guilty” is a really enjoyable bluesy, soulful love song. While Harmeir delivers a great vocal performance here, I can’t help but wonder what Stewart would have sounded like on it with his trademark vibrato.

The most heartfelt song on this album is saved for last. “Heart a Home” is a devastating and haunting heartbreak song about a man yearning for an ex that’s unexpectedly walked out on him. I would love to know why Stewart never cut this song, as it’s so damn good. The lyrics painstakingly paint a vivid picture of heartbreak and Harmeir delivers a vocal performance that’s worthy of the lyrics.

Mike and the Moonpies continue to prove why many are quickly considering them one of the best acts in country music right now, as they’ve now released two great, back-to-back surprise releases. Not to mention the respect they pay towards Stewart is classy and a true homage to the late country star. If you’re a country music fan and not familiar with Stewart, I hope this urges you to dig into it because it’s a real joy. Also I recommend checking out my friend Zack’s recent piece on Stewart at The Musical Divide to get even more context on the career and life of Stewart.

While many acts struggle to release a good cover song, Sara Evans and Mike and the Moonpies both manage to release great cover albums. Check them out!

Sara Evans – Copy That – Solid 8/10

Mike and the Moonpies – Touch of You: The Lost Songs of Gary Stewart – Strong 8/10


And more…

  • The Last Bandoleros finally released an album available for listeners in the United States, a live album titled Live from Texas. It’s a solid mix of pop country and Tex Mex. But I still remain puzzled by how this act is marketed and positioned.
  • Another album released weeks ago I want to highlight is Thundercats’ It Is What It Is. This is my favorite release from him yet, mainly due to the fact it’s his most concise and tightest album yet (clocks in at 37 minutes). While I enjoyed his previous album Drunk, it’s admittedly a bit of a taxing listen. As Thundercat always does though, he delivers silky smooth beats and dark humor that elicits chuckles. “Dragonball Durag” in particular always makes me laugh when I hear it (you’ll know the line when you hear it that makes me laugh the hardest). But Thundercat also balances this album out with more sober, melancholy songs too, as he spends multiple songs addressing race issues in America and mourning the loss of his friend/rapper Mac Miller.
  • Grady Smith brought to my attention a surprising remix of Barbara Mandrell’s “Sleeping Single In a Double Bed” and even more surprisingly I really enjoy it. This new dance remix take by Dave Audé makes this classic song dancy, fun and decidedly modern. While it’s understandable that this is annoying and ruffles the feathers of some country listeners, this electronification of country music is only going to continue. And I know this may sound naïve, but I believe that this can help bring in more younger listeners to the genre and entice them to check out older country music. It happened with the country station on Grand Theft Auto V, so why not with this?
  • Cam has dropped yet another enjoyable song in “Redwood Tree.” This song is about reflecting on the passage of time and learning that you don’t truly appreciate things until you lose them. I cannot wait to hear another full album from her, as her debut album showed so much potential.
  • One last thing: I’m taking a break from the blog to spend time with my family and friends. I didn’t get to see or spend a lot of time with them during the quarantine, so now I want to focus on spending time with them. Thanks for understanding!

As always thanks for reading and be sure to weigh in with your thoughts in the comments below!

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


Album Review – Little Big Town’s Pain Killer Proves Tom Petty Right

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In an August 2013 interview with Rolling Stone, legendary rock musician Tom Petty was asked his thoughts on the state of country music after he told The Beacon it was “bad rock with fiddle.” His response (emphasis mine):

Well, yeah I mean, I hate to generalize on a whole genre of music, but it does seem to be missing that magic element that it used to have. I’m sure there are people playing country that are doing it well, but they’re just not getting the attention that the shittier stuff gets. But that’s the way it always is, isn’t it? But I hope that kind of swings around back to where it should be. But I don’t really see a George Jones or a Buck Owens or any anything that fresh coming up. I’m sure there must be somebody doing it, but most of that music reminds me of rock in the middle Eighties where it became incredibly generic and relied on videos. I don’t want to rail on about country because I don’t really know much about it, but that’s what it seems like to me.

The gist of what Petty says is that mainstream country music sounds like generic 80s rock music. This leads me to today’s review of Little Big Town’s new album Pain Killer. The four person group made up of Karen Fairchild, Kimberly Schlapman, Jimi Westbrook and Phillip Sweet were looking to go with a different style and approach with this album. From what I’ve gathered in interviews and the album cover before even listening to it was they were going for an edgier, “provocative” sound. In other words, they appear to be going to their dark side after years of bubblegum pop country music. Do they get edgy with this album? Well how sharp would you describe a butter knife? That’s how edgy they get. Also please keep that Tom Petty quote in mind while reading this review.

The album starts off with “Quit Breaking Up With Me,” a song about a troubled relationship. It sounds like it was lifted right out of the 80s. Also why does it sound like this is being sung out of a bathroom stall? Maybe it was. Then again Weird Al Yankovic’s first song “My Bologna” was recorded in a bathroom stall and it probably sounded better than this song. There’s way too much background noise and it’s more pop than country. This is followed up with “Day Drinking,” which now sounds pretty weird and sticks out compared to the rest of the album. In my initial review of this song I said this: “It immediately starts off with an annoying whistling sound and some light drum playing, signaling it’s a happy and upbeat song. The song starts off about getting out at five o’clock on a Friday and doing some day drinking after a long, hot day. The song then proceeds to repeat over and over throughout the following line, “Why don’t we do a little day drinking?” Mixed in are some lines about normal clichés that have to do with drinking, work and summer. The annoying whistling sound also reappears throughout the song.” After hearing this song so many times on the radio I wish I had given it an even lower score.

The next song, “Tumble And Fall,” is supposed to be a motivational song I guess? I can’t exactly tell because this song is overproduced so much. This is a pop song with banjos buried in the background. And a “country” song that talks about a trapeze? Not going to fly with this reviewer. The album’s title track is a catchy song about drinking your problems and pain away. It’s a pop country song with reggae undertones, almost a beach song. I have to admit the beat is easy to like, but when it comes down to it this is just another song that glamorizes drinking with repetitive lyrics. I’m sure country radio will eat this right up. “Girl Crush” is one of the more interesting tracks on the album. This song has a mysterious vibe and it took me a few listens to realize the theme of the song. It’s about a woman who has developed a crush on her man’s lover. In other words it’s a lustful jealousy towards the mistress. Karen Fairchild’s smokey vocals are actually quite good on this song. Looking at this song from a pop perspective, it’s a great song. But this is Country Perspective and this song isn’t country. What a shame too because this song actually has a unique theme.

As soon as I started listening to “Faster Gun,” I immediately got a Poison/Journey vibe from it. That’s because this is your generic rock song trying to pass off itself as country. You’re right again Tom Petty! If this song was properly classified as pop or rock, it’s not bad. But again this is a song trying to pass itself off as country. “Good People” is a bland, generic, adult contemporary pop song with rock influences and overproduced instrumentation. I have nothing else to say about this forgettable song. “Stay All Night” is a bland, generic, rock song with pop influences and overproduced instrumentation. I have nothing else to say about this forgettable song. The observant reader will point out that I was being repetitive here and you’re exactly right. Repetitive songs get repetitive criticism.

Let’s move onto the next song, “Save Your Sin.” This song starts out as a decent pop country song and turns into overproduced rock pop by the end of it. The theme of the song is sex I think? Let’s just put it this way: Like every other song on this album, it’s Little Big Town trying to convince us they’re edgier and racier with their material now. Insert eye roll and light chuckling here. “Live Forever” is a love ballad where the group actually seems to have good intentions with the song. It actually has potential to be more than generic pop music. The problem is the tone is too sleepy and doesn’t draw the listener in to feel anything. This song should be romantic and mysterious, but instead I’m just kind of bored and wondering if this is all they have to offer with this song. Compared to the rest of the album this is the best song so far, yet it isn’t a country song either.

“We Built This City!” “We Built This City!” “We Built This City on rock n’ roll!” That’s what I was hearing in my head as I listened to “Things You Don’t Think About” because this song gives that kind of vibe off. This is another generic rock song on this album. “Turn the Lights On” starts out with just instruments for the first minute and a half, leading me to believe the whole song would just be an instrumental song, but it’s sadly not. Instead it’s just more generic rock music. Man, Tom Petty you’re looking like a genius with your thoughts on country music. Finally we reach the last track on the album, “Silver and Gold.” My initial thoughts when I listened to this song: Hahahaha! First we get Florida Georgia Line using a cheesy pickup line in “Angel” and now Little Big Town is comparing love to silver and gold. If I want to hear a song about silver and gold, I would rather listen to this song. Little Big Town has got nothing on the snowman from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer! The snowman is even using a banjo in his song and not drowning it out with machines, making it more country than Little Big Town’s entire album. And of course this is just another generic rock song. Variety at it’s finest on this album.

So I guess this is the album where Little Big Town goes to their dark side. I would describe it more as the local theatre kids dressing in dark clothes and putting on a performance of The Outsiders, deeming themselves cool bad guys because neon signs and drinking dictates this. By the way I hate that movie even more than this album. Pain Killer labels itself as a country album, except it covers every genre except country. As Derek said in his review of Lady Antebellum’s 747 album, it wouldn’t be bad if the album was labeled pop music. I can say the same of this Little Big Town album. In fact this is pretty good pop music. If Little Big Town went to the pop genre like Taylor Swift I might actually enjoy this album. But this album calls itself country and I will treat it as such. I only recommend this album if you like vanilla, dull rock music. Otherwise stay clear of it.

Grade: 3/10