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

Album Review — Ingrid Andress’ ‘Lady Like’

The first time I heard the voice of Ingrid Andress, I was intrigued. She simply brings a different style and approach to country music that I find refreshing. And her debut album Lady Like only reinforces this idea. Opening track “Bad Advice” immediately grabs your attention with it’s strings-driven and lush sound. Not only is Andress’ voice different, but the production feels a little different too (a credit to Andress, Sam Ellis and her team of producers). The song is about Andress continually following the bad romantic advice from people around her and not finding any luck in the game of love. But as she wise cracks, she’s getting pretty good at getting it wrong. It’s clever and memorable songwriting.

“Both” is my favorite song from Andress so far. The song is about Andress proclaiming to a friend they can’t keep blurring the line between being friends and romantic partners. The dramatic, tug-of-war nature of the production, Andress’ energetic vocal performance and the logical progression of the story and songwriting makes this song an all-around home run in my eyes. “We’re Not Friends” plays along this same theme of blurred relationship lines, but has a more happy nature of the realization that a friendship is more than that. And with this being one of the main themes of this short album, I have to say this is my least favorite take on the subject. It lacks urgency and is a bit sleepy for my taste, as it just doesn’t grab my attention.

“The Stranger” is another standout on Lady Like, as it’s a song about a couple recalling the story of how they met each other. All of the little details that are included and the wistful, nostalgic feeling conveyed by the production makes for a cool little story (the surprise pedal steel guitar in the bridge is a nice touch too). And it’s story songs like these that show why country music is so great. “Anything But Love” is about not being able to move on from a relationship, the feelings lingering and refusing to dissipate. Once again I enjoy the vibrant texture of the production, mashing both pop and country elements together well. Andress does a great job of conveying the desperate, frustrating feelings of the lyrics in her vocal performance too.

I didn’t really like the album’s lead single “More Hearts Than Mine” at first, but upon more listens it’s really grown on me. Despite the song being a bit predictable and check list-y, it has a lot of heart thanks to Andress’ vocal performance. The uplifting nature of the production also sucks you into the song and story being told. “Life of the Party” is about throwing yourself into partying and drinking to get over a breakup. Andress insists over and over that she’s fine and that she’s even the life of the party. But it’s not convincing, as Andress shows more frustration in her vocal performance as the song progresses and by the end is practically screaming. Despite the lyrics being a bit same-ish throughout, it’s this impassioned vocal performance that ultimately makes the song a solid listen.

The album’s title track closes the album and it’s an autobiographical song, as Andress proclaims who she is and how she may not always act like a lady in some ways, she does in other ways. In a way it’s appropriate after spending the entire album centered around relationships that she comes back to herself because she seems to shed the doubt and insecurity expressed in previous songs and is now showing her confidence. The song also returns to the opening track’s orchestra-driven sound, which is a nice call-back. It’s not an emphatic and amazing close to the album, but another solid pop country song nonetheless.

Lady Like is a great debut album from Ingrid Andress. The most important thing she accomplishes with this album is how she establishes her brand of pop country as a little different from the rest of the sub-genre. It’s so easy to get lost in this sea of sound, but Andress doesn’t have this problem at all. She brings a more vibrant sound to her production that respects both pop and country sounds. Not to mention she has a powerful voice that is distinct. I’m really excited to hear more from Ingrid Andress, as she is without a doubt one of the most exciting new artists to emerge in country music.

Grade: 8/10

Review – Dan + Shay’s “How Not To”

dan-shay-how-not-to

Dan + Shay is a duo I haven’t exactly clamored for in my reviews and comments regarding their music. Upon their arrival they just didn’t look or sound like a country duo. Their carefully curated looks combined with their slick, pop leaning music didn’t really fit the country mold. But upon the release of their sophomore album Obsessed, I’ve sort of turned a corner on these two. Maybe it’s because they don’t sound exactly like Rascal Flatts anymore, making some slight tweaks that have went a ways in improving their music. I think their newest single and third off Obsessed, “How Not To,” demonstrates this. Adding hints of steel guitar throughout the song, most notably in the intro is a nice little touch. While the production and instrumentation still leans more pop, this is pop country I can at the very least not dislike. In fact it’s kind of decent. The song itself is about a man who is coming off a breakup and can’t shake the memory of his ex off his mind. He just doesn’t know how to go on without her and struggles with this desperate wanting. The duo keeps it simple and it works really good. Not to mention the hook of the song is catchy and will stick with you. And hey this actually has some tempo! This immediately makes this song stand out amongst the rest of the snooze fest that is country radio right now. Dan + Shay’s vocals are still too slick for my liking, but that’s just something that isn’t going to change and part of their sound. While I still wouldn’t exactly say I’m a fan of this duo, for pop country these guys are alright. I’ll take songs like “How Not To” over the majority of singles sent to country radio. Dan + Shay won’t be winning over the traditional crowd anytime soon, but they’re carving out a nice spot amongst pop country fans.

Grade: 6/10

 

Recommend? – Yes, for pop country fans. No, for traditionalists.

Note: The music video is a compelling look at overcoming addiction. It’s fantastic and recommended to all. Great work by all of those involved in it and definitely could prove to be a worthy candidate of best country music video of the year at the award shows.

 

Written by Adam Hambrick, Paul DiGiovanni and Kevin Bard

Review – Rascal Flatts’ “Yours If You Want It”

rascal-flatts-yours-if-you-want-it

I’m going to be honest: I’m surprised Rascal Flatts is still relevant in mainstream country in 2017. I would have thought by now this trio, which has been formed since 1999, would be deemed too old by country radio to play. Usually when a country artist or in this case group approach their late 40s the clock starts ticking down on airplay time. Before their last single that looked to be the case, as both singles that came before it didn’t even reach the top 15. But the aforementioned last single “I Like The Sound of That” went #1 of course and served as a reminder that this group isn’t quite done yet. They’re now back with a lead single from a new album, “Yours If You Want It.” It’s a step up from “I Like The Sound of That” because this one doesn’t feature the laziest songwriting with an even more lazy name-dropping of Justin Timberlake. But on the other hand if you’ve heard one Rascal Flatts song, this new one sounds just like it. This group’s sound has pretty much stayed the same for the duration of their career: real light weight production with a token banjo and palpable pop influences to compliment the super clean vocals of the trio. This song also features their favorite trope: nice guy love song. It doesn’t really make me angry, it just really bores me. This song is so toothless that it would be silly to get worked up over it. This is just Walmart music: corporate, cliché and neatly boxed together to appeal for mass consumption. One good thing I can say is it’s really easy to review Rascal Flatts music as I can write the same thing every time because this trio never innovates or changes their sound. What’s disappointing is once upon a time they released some good songs (“Skin” and “Mayberry” come to mind), but now they’re content to release generic filler like “Yours If You Want It.”

Grade: 3/10

 

Recommend? – Nah

Written by Andrew Dorff and Jonathan Singleton

Review – Randy Houser’s “Song Number 7” is Essentially Luke Bryan’s “Play It Again”

To get fans excited for his new album, Fired Up, Randy Houser picked “We Went” as the album’s lead single. It’s a song with typical bro-country tropes to try to make Randy Houser look like a country boy badass. I criticized the song, but thought the album would yield a good balance of quality country and radio fodder, just like Houser’s previous album How Country Feels. Instead, Fired Up proved to be an album overloaded with stupid pop country songs jutting up into 17 tracks! As a mid-tier country bro, Houser’s producers clearly felt the need to give this album enough life to sustain Houser through tours and radio singles for a couple of years. We aren’t going to bother reviewing the 17-track album as the ready for radio playlist has nothing to offer as an album. However, as Houser releases singles, we’ll take a look at each of those. And the second single Houser is releasing from Fired Up is “Song Number 7.”

Is Nashville even trying anymore? We’re at a party with loud music and there’s one girl in particular who catches the eyes of the boys. As the party’s playlist continues, the girl gradually becomes more interested in the narrator. Once the seventh song comes through the speakers, she jumps and says “oh my god, this is my song! We’ve been listening to the radio all night long.” Wait, no. This isn’t “Play It Again.” But it might as well be. Randy Houser’s “Song Number 7” is a remake of Luke Bryan’s “Play It Again,” and writers Chris Janson, Ben Hayslip, and Justin Wilson somehow make the already terrible subject worse. Even the mid-tempo production with drum machines and generic guitars sound similar to “Play It Again,” primarily in the chorus. There was little attempt to separate this clone from the original.

Randy Houser doesn’t sing with any kind of charisma, and the chorus features some awkward, jarring vocal harmonies that strangely pop way after a natural echo would. The production of this song is crap with random intensified drums. I almost didn’t want to review “Song Number 7”, but it’s such a near copycat of Luke Bryan’s hit that it deserves to be put on this platform. Absolutely no effort went in to making this song even a little original. Instead of playing to Randy Houser’s strength as a vocalist and letting his traditional country-style expand, his label has decided to prop him firmly in the shadows of the A-List bros by having him record songs that continue mainstream country down a path of cutting the same, boring song. “Song Number 7” is terrible due to the fact that it has no originality whatsoever.

Grade: 2/10