Album Review — Ashley McBryde’s ‘Never Will’

Ashley McBryde’s major label debut album Girl Going Nowhere was truly one of the most underrated albums of 2018. Unfortunately it was released at a bad time, as Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour released on the same day along with several other high-profile releases at the time. So it felt like that album and McBryde never got the proper attention and respect. But one thing I definitely took away from that great album was one day McBryde would release an album of the year level record. Well I didn’t think it would happen so soon, but that’s pleasantly the case with her follow-up album Never Will.

The album greets you with heartland rock guitars on “Hang In There Girl.” And I’m so glad she leans more into this sound on the album, as it fits her like a glove. The opening song is an anthem for young girls stuck in small towns with big dreams, telling them to hang on through the hard times until they reach their goals one day. It’s an uplifting and very real message that I imagine will resonate with so many young girls across the midwest of America. Lead single “One Night Standards” shows the excellent storytelling abilities of McBryde, as she vividly tells the story of a one-night stand involving a married man. It’s brutally honest about the nature of the situation, painting both of the people in the story in an appropriately not positive light. It also details the justification of the action’s of the woman in the situation, which is flimsy. But that’s how it’s supposed to be, as the line is blurred between who she’s really trying to convince: him or herself.

“Shut Up Sheila” is an interesting song about a family going through the difficulty of watching a woman’s grandmother dying, only for a “friend” named Sheila to be butting in with unnecessary comments. The overall theme centers around pushing back against judgmental people and standing up for doing things your way. And while I love this message, what really makes this song stand out is the sound. Jay Joyce centers it around a spacey, echoing sound that gives it an ominous feel before giving away to roaring guitars that really put an exclamation point on the song. “First Thing I Reach For” is classic country gold in every way, from it’s steel guitar-driven sound to the timeless theme of overindulging in vices. I particularly enjoy the line, “Another night of bad decisions/There’s one still laying in my bed/The bastard in me wishes/That he’d woke up first and left.” It’s both humorous and memorable.

“Voodoo Doll” has quickly become a favorite for me and for two reasons. One because I love the way it’s written and the amount of intricate details given to a woman being made to feel like a voodoo doll watching her man cheat on her. Two because the production matches the dramatic, whiplash feel of the lyrics with McBryde delivering the type of fiery vocal performance that once again makes me thrilled that there are more rock influences on this album. The guitars absolutely roar, I love the little mandolin interludes and it’s an absolute blast to sing along with the chorus. “Sparrow” is on the other end of the spectrum, a soft and somber song about the cold realities a musician experiences traveling on the road. While McBryde acknowledges the exhilaration of realizing a dream, it also comes with missing your loved ones. Once again I applaud McBryde for both her honesty and genuine heart that shines through in the lyrics.

“Martha Divine” is another rock-driven track, this time a cheating/murder ballad interestingly told from the perspective of the daughter witnessing her father in the middle of misdeed. Fueled by infectious and thumping drums that get the heart pounding, the daughter vows to hunt down and kill the mistress, Martha Divine. Which by the way the name is clever and appropriate in itself, playing on the Aramic meaning of Martha, which is mistress, and divine, which means relating to God (the daughter in this case seeing her interference as a god-like act). And yes the daughter is flawed for only going after the father, but the daughter is going to naturally have an emotional blindspot for the father. The song also wisely avoids endearing us towards these violent actions, but rather gives a neutral window look in.

McBryde goes back to classic country storytelling on “Velvet Red.” It’s about a forbidden love affair between a poor maker of wine and the mayor’s only daughter, resulting in a daughter who would be nicknamed after the very wine her unknown father made. Not only is this storytelling on point, but I love the surprise reveal at the end that the daughter is telling the story of her parents conceiving her. I don’t mind the filter the vocals are being put through either, as it doesn’t hurt the song. “Stone” is the most emotional moment on the album, as a woman comes to grips with the death of her father and realizing how similar they were, despite their rocky relationship. The song doesn’t shy from the complicated nature of the feelings involved and that’s why I enjoy the storytelling of McBryde. It feels real and truly resonates with the listener as a result.

The album’s title track is pure heartland rock, with it’s “Dancing in the Dark”-like guitars perfectly texturing this never-give-up anthem. It’s autobiographical, as McBryde recalls all of the doubters along her journey and how she never gave into this negativity. Personally I really connect with the lyrics, so it’s easily my favorite on the album. Also if McBryde wants to make a straight-up rock album, I’m totally down for it because she just gets the ethos of classic rock. McBryde makes a quirky and fun choice to close the album with “Styrofoam.” Unlike anything she’s ever released before, it’s bouncy, light-hearted track about her love of styrofoam cups and features her doing spoken word through like half of it. And I thought I would dislike it, but I love it. Usually these type of gimmicky songs grind my gears, but I enjoy the history lesson at the beginning and it serves as a nice dose of casual fun to balance out the serious moments on the album. Because as I’ve said before, we don’t need to be serious all the time.

Ashley McBryde delivers exactly what I had hoped for and then beyond with Never Will. She leans heavily into her natural heartland rock sound and combines it with traditional country to create an album I will remember for a long time. The songwriting is brilliant and varied, running the gauntlet of emotions and most importantly I think Ashley McBryde delivers a flawless presentation of flawed characters. They’re never framed as likable, but real and as they are, which can be hard to get behind as a listener. But just like Sturgill Simpson’s SOUND & FURY, it can be understandable to not want to listen to music about such real and flawed characters, songs where there are no heroes even. For me though this is the music that is truly intriguing and has a lasting impact.

That is why I believe this is one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2020 and maybe the best country album of the year.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review – Wynonna & The Big Noise’s Self-Titled Debut Album

After a long, sustainable career as part of a country duo then as a solo artist, Wynonna Judd has taken a new road: leading a band. Wynonna & The Big Noise is Wynonna partially stepping away from her country roots and making more noise. The band’s debut album features more rock influence in the music, while keeping her grounded in the genre that she’s called home her whole life. The album was produced by her husband Cactus Moser, who is also the band’s drummer. Two months into their 2012 marriage, Moser was in a motorcycle accident that resulted in him losing a leg. Wynonna stood by his side, caring for him and helping him get back to normal life. When it came to choosing songs for the album, it’s obvious that Moser’s accident influenced the direction of the album. Several of the songs deal with overcoming obstacles and loving devotion to one another, almost as if Wynonna & The Big Noise is Judd and Moser’s story. After all, Judd calls this album her “battle cry.”

The album kicks off with the rocking “Ain’t No Thing.” Wynonna sings of a relationship that’s just ended. But instead of feeling heartbroken and drawn to a bar to cope with the feelings, she shakes the bad news off. She informs her man that he shouldn’t expect her to mourn over their failed relationship. This bluesy rock piece was written by Chris Stapleton. This is followed by “Cool Ya,” a mid-tempo rock song with a unique production. The song builds nicely as occasional guitar riffs slowly develop into a full melody over the steady drum beat. Lyrically, the song reads sort of like a baptism, encouraging “fallen daughters” and “wilted flowers” to find comfort in the rain and the water while the “hallelujah flows right through.

Jason Isbell provides vocal harmonies on “Things That I Lean On.” Accompanied by acoustic guitar with a fiddle, Wynonna sings of the various things in life she turns to when she feels down or lost. From the 23rd Psalm to a timeless Conway Twitty song; from the shoulder of the one she loves to grandma’s words of wisdom. The song’s vulnerability gets a little lost in the list-y nature of the lyrics.

The theme of devoted love first shows up with “You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast.” There’s a vibe in the lyrics that maybe Wynonna is caught off guard by the strong feelings of love within her, but she likes it. This is a total rock song with screeching guitar riffs and a gruff vocal delivery. “Staying In Love” is a bit more country in its melody, but stays within the rock world. The song devotes itself to hard work of maintaining love in a relationship. The song’s production works nicely, building the song and delivering a catchy, anthemic chorus.

“Keeps Me Alive” is an encouraging song about maintaining an optimistic outlook on life. Dreaming and moving forward is what fuels their life and keeps them driving on. The slow-moving production is unique as it layers the acoustic guitar with an electric guitar. While the first half of the album is mostly rock music, Wynonna & The Big Noise, goes back to 100% country music over the next few songs, beginning with “Jesus and a Jukebox.” The song tells a story of an older man trying to cope with the loss of his long time wife by praying and listening to classic country music. Wynonna’s twang in her vocals sounds perfect with the steel guitar. This is without a doubt the album’s best song.

“I Can See Everything” deals with overcoming your own sadness finding joy within yourself. Wynonna sings the encouraging words to the one she loves and cares deeply about. She believes that better days around the corner. The steel guitar is present again among the acoustic guitar and simple percussion. The melody of “I Can See Everything” burns slowly and gets better as the song progresses, ending on a high note. Love is revisited with “Something You Can’t Live Without.” In this case, it’s her man who’s confused by his strong feelings. Wynonna tells him that’s how love should feel. The song balances rock and country nicely, with steel guitar ring among the rock production, which presents itself more on the extended musical outro.

After a strong start, the album sort of sputters to an end with the last three songs. “You Are So Beautiful” is a love song where she tells the man she loves why she loves him. The song’s redeeming quality is found in the bluesy rock production, but the lyrics are mostly cheesy. “Every Ending (Is A New Beginning)” is an inspirational song that also seems cheesy. As you can tell from the title, the story is one of encouragement, remaining hopeful that things will always improve and get better. The country production is noteworthy though, and it’s nice to hear another song with steel guitar. The final song deals with the same kind of message. “Choose To Believe” encourages one to react positively to life’s curve balls: choose to believe in love because we’re strong together. With the slow tempo piano and acoustic guitar, it seems like an odd choice to end the album. While these three songs may in fact be the most personal given the events that preceded the album, the songs sound like echos and repetitions from sentiments earlier in the album.

Wynonna & The Big Noise has a great blended production of rock and country, and neither genre felt out of place. Many of the songs have great, catchy melodies and some great stories. As great as her voice is for country music, I don’t think Wynonna Judd sounded out of place singing rock either, and it’s that comfortable versatility that ties the two genres together on this album. However, even at the average 12 songs, Wynonna & The Big Noise seemed to drag its way to a finish. Maybe it was the cheesier lyrics of the final couple songs, or maybe it was due to the fact that the album started much stronger with more captivating songs toward the beginning. That’s truly my only big complaint with the album, though. Moser’s production is well done, Judd’s vocals are excellent, and most of the songwriting works. Wynonna & The Big Noise perfectly introduces the new direction of Wynonna Judd, adding more rock edge into her music.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review – Brothers Osborne’s “Pawn Shop”

 

“I think people are tired of the bullshit and are ready for the real substance,”

John Osborne told that to Rolling Stone as new country music duo, Brothers Osborne, readied their second radio single, “Stay A Little Longer.” John (lead guitar) and his brother T.J. (vocals) are ready to go toe to toe with country’s hottest male duos like Florida Georgia Line and Dan + Shay. Osborne also said that we may be on the cusp of a country music era where songs will have longer shelf lives down the road. While that remains to be seen, Brothers Osborne seem poised to bring forth more organic music to country radio. The duo has a Grammy nomination for Country Group/Duo Performance for the Gold-Certified “Stay a Little Longer.” Riding the wave of a top five single and Grammy nomination, Brothers Osborne have released their first full length album with the help of producer Jay Joyce. Pawn Shop features 11 songs, all of which the brothers co-wrote with several of country’s hot shot writers like Jessi Alexander, Craig Wiseman, and Shane McAnally to name a few. I’d argue that Pawn Shop isn’t quite an album full of substance, but the Brothers Osborne certainly take country music a step in the right direction.

Brothers Osborne and Pawn Shop have already differentiated themselves from the pack with singles like “Rum” and “Stay a Little Longer.” But that’s taken one step further with the album’s lead track, “Dirt Rich.” A heavy picking acoustic guitar lays the ground for the melody before a simple percussion track joins the mix. The “less is more” attitude fits with this song’s production. Playing off the phrase “dirt poor,” the song encourages those blue-collar, down on your luck folks to embrace their situation. The appliances in the kitchen may be broken and the mailbox may be standing crooked, but that’s the way life goes sometimes. Brothers Osborne have more rock influence in their music than country, in my opinion, and “21 Summer” is one of the several songs on Pawn Shop that show the rock influence. The gentle beat of guitars and percussion set the mood for the nostalgic ballad. T.J. sings of the memories of the summer he turned 21 and the girl who made a man of him.

The album cut of “Stay a Little Longer” features an extended guitar outro that was cut from the radio edit. The song nicely strides the line between country and rock, fitting nicely into both genres. Brothers Osborne made a great choice with releasing the single to radio, because this is arguably the best song on the album. The whole package of lyrics, vocals, and production work together in “Stay a Little Longer.” “Pawn Shop” is a song where the heavy acoustic picking is in the forefront of the production mix. Sticking with the blue-collar themes of those just getting by, the song is an ode to pawn shops. Selling for some extra cash, finding what you need at a cheap rate, even if it isn’t the best. The deep, baritone vocals are a nice touch to the song with the production to help the song stand out. Even though the lyrical content is nothing special, the song is packaged nicely.

The duo’s lead single “Rum” comes next. As Josh wrote in the song review, “This is a song you listen to after a long day of work and just unwind to. The instrumentation used in this song is what really makes this song good. There are a lot of influences from rock, blues and folk mixed in with this country beat. Really the instrumentation is the star of “Rum.”” Brothers Osborne are joined by Lee Ann Womack for “Loving Me Back.” This love song finds a man happy with the fact that he’s found a woman who can love him back. The production of this song is top-notch. It’s simple with little guitar tracks. The production allows the vocals room to stand out, which is a good thing as T.J. Osborne and Lee Ann Womack harmonize together really well on the chorus of the song. The lyrics, though, of this song are a cliché pile of crap. “You get me high, you get me stoned, it’s a ride I ain’t never been on. It’s a binge, it’s a buzz, it’s a drunk I can’t find in no glass.” Sure the verses sort of set the stage about how this man has spent years loving his vices and things that bring him down, but to resort to a chorus with a lead line like that is major cop-out. “Loving Me Back” is a wasted opportunity for a collaboration with Lee Ann Womack.

“American Crazy” is a song that doesn’t help the cause of bringing real substance to country music. The song is basically “Drunk Americans” 2.0. Brothers Osborne sing in the chorus, “We’re lost, we’re found, we’re up, we’re down, we’re all just American crazy. We’re left, we’re right, we’re black, we’re white, we’re all just American crazy.” This song is nothing but two and a half minutes of stupid clichés that should have been left off the album. The blue-collar blues continue in “Greener Pastures.” The song finds our narrator down to his last resort after praying and working hard with nothing to show for it, so he moves onto greener pastures. In this case, though, greener pastures is marijuana. Growing and smoking weed in order to cope with life’s tough battle. Sure, it’s another country music song about pot, but there’s semblance of something deeper about the motivations for turning to pot. “Greener Pastures” also has a more country/rockabilly feel to the production, a great, modern callback to country’s early sound. While the content of the song will detract some, I think the song works because it’s packaged nicely in its story telling and production.

“Down Home” is another rock-like song. The electric guitar leads the way, showing no signs of trying to cater to the country side of music – save for the lyrics. “Down Home” is a party song in a small town. A bunch of buddies getting together and raising hell in a town where nothing much happens. “Heart Shaped Locket” is perhaps the most country song on the album. Noticeable banjo and steel guitar find its way into the mid-tempo production. The song finds a woman in a relationship ready to go out on the town. The man, already suspicious of her cheating, feels that his suspicions are confirmed by the way she’s dressed. He wants to know who’s in her heart-shaped locket, because he knows it’s no longer him. “Heart Shaped Locket” is another song that shows the full potential of Brothers Osborne; it’s the kind of modern, substance-filled song that country radio should embrace. Pawn Shop ends with “It Ain’t My Fault.” The narrator is out on the town having a good time, but it’s not his fault. It’s the band’s fault who played the song that fueled the party. It’s the ex’s fault that he’s drinking, and it’s his family’s history that he’s a wild boy. Essentially, the lyrics try to tell some story, but this is a song meant to get a crowd rowdy and having fun. The electric guitar leads the beat and drum kicks in this rollicking rock song.

Overall, Pawn Shop shows flashes of what the Brothers Osborne are capable of bringing to country music. They have an organic production that shows commitment to their own style away from the masses of their country music pop peers. The almost folk style of rock/country with the lone acoustic guitar like in “Dirt Rich” or even “Loving Me Back” is a definite musical niche for the duo. The lyrics, however, don’t do quite enough to bring more substance to country music. Several songs rely on overdone cliches and lazy tropes to tell the story. There are moments here, like “Heart Shaped Locket,” where if you let the brothers be who they want to be, they can bring some great country music. Pawn Shop shows nothing but potential for the Brothers Osborne. If Music Row can leave them alone and allow the duo to grow and progress as artists on their own terms, then we will be in for a treat with future albums. Pawn Shop isn’t anything special, but it’s worth listening to at least once.

Grade: 6/10

Album Review – The Yawpers’ ‘American Man’

The Yawpers American Man

One of the things I love about using the Americana label is it can encompass and mean so many things. It’s the perfect label to put on a band like The Yawpers. Here’s a group that combines the sounds of rock and roll, country, blues and even a little folk to create a unique and fun brand of music. The Yawpers are made up of Nate Cook (lead vocalist), Jesse Parmet (lead guitarist) and Noah Shomberg (drummer) and they’re based out of Denver. Upon first listen of their brand new album American Man, I was immediately hooked. It’s an album that country and rock fans can both love equally. If you love both genres, you’ll enjoy this album even more. But before you listen to it, make sure your ears are ready, as this is a loud and rowdy record.

The in your face “Doing It Right” sets the album’s tone right off the bat. The song starts off at normal volume and slowly increases as the song plays. By the end of it you’ll want to bang your head along with the beat of the music. The frenetic guitar licks are a real trademark of this song and the entire album. The album’s title track is a slowed-down ballad about what it means to be an American and what American life is like today compared to the past. It’s definitely a song that makes you think and I think everyone will take something different from it. Lead man Cook really shines vocally on this song. “Burdens” is The Yawpers take on growing up in a small town and striving to leave that town to realize your dreams. The boy in the song is 17 and already knows he needs to hit the road while he’s young, otherwise he won’t ever get out alive. This song definitely has a classic southern rock/country vibe about it that makes it easy to enjoy.

Gritty would be the best word to describe “Tied.” The theme and the instrumentation are a gritty combination of blues and punk rock that will make this song a fan favorite at concerts. The fast-paced and upbeat “Deacon Brody” follows. This is just a flat-out fun song, as the instrumentation is so weird, yet so great too. While The Yawpers may entertain me with their loud music, they impress me when they slow it down in songs like “Faith And Good Judgment.” It’s a song about finding that constant balance in life between faith and making good judgments. The production in this song is perfect, as it elevates the lyrics and conveys the right emotion in the listener.

“9 to 5” is definitely one of the highlights of American Man. The song is about convincing a drifter to take on the freedom of a 9 to 5 job, as it offers more stability. From the catchy hook to the infectious guitar licks, you’ll remember this song for a while after hearing it. Another standout on the album, “Walter,” is next. Cook’s vocals, Parmet’s guitar licks and Shomberg’s drum play are just so cohesive on this song and combine to make yet another song that is easy to enjoy. This is the kind of song you turn on and crank the volume up to 11.

The Yawpers embrace their bluegrass side on “Beale Street.” As good as they are at rocking out in their music, I would love to hear them do more bluegrass inspired music in the future. Next is “Kiss It,” which is basically just a punch to the face in the form of screaming guitars (in a good way of course). This is another one that will be an absolute thrill to hear live. “3 am” is the longest song of the album, as well as the darkest. It’s about a man dealing with inner demons and hoping for another day of sun. By the end of the song, he thinks about turning himself over to Jesus in hopes that will save him. Sonically and lyrically, it’s the most powerful song on the album. American Man closes out with “The Desert.” It just feels like an appropriate closer to the album, as you’ll know when you hear it. And of course the last you hear in the song is the banging of drums and the licks of an electric guitar.

The Yawpers’ American Man is one of those albums you just need to hear for yourself, as words don’t really do it justice. But it’s definitely the type of music where you’ll either take it or leave it. My suggestion is to take it. If you enjoy country music and rock music you especially need to hear it, as there is plenty of both throughout this album and many songs give you both. The instrumentation is practically flawless and the songwriting is sharp and on point. If you enjoy bands like Blackberry Smoke, Banditos and The Legendary Shack Shakers, you’ll enjoy The Yawpers too. This is a band that has just as much fun making the music as you will listening to it.

Grade: 8.5/10

 

Review – Jerrod Niemann’s “Blue Bandana”

Jerrod Niemann’s musical run last year was tainted by a disastrous single called “Donkey.” The auto tune drivel of terrible rap and spoken word proved to be too much alongside the ridiculous lyrics, and radio all but wrote Niemann off. But Niemann hasn’t written music off as he’s back in the studio gearing up for more releases. “It was fun to try out some different things and challenge myself in the studio, as a songwriter and producer, but this song is very much real-sounding with real instruments … and was something that was missing out there,” Niemann tells Billboard of his new single, “Blue Bandana.” He also says, “I wanted to get rid of all the effects and compression. We turned it all off and really deadened the sound like they did in the classic rock and Southern rock days. I feel that it really allows the record to breathe a little bit.” For the most part, I’d have to agree that “Blue Bandana” is more natural and organic compared to Niemann’s last few singles.

The first minute of the song carries a nice acoustic production to it. The first 30 seconds are just Niemann’s voice and an acoustic guitar before a subdued percussion track fills in. You can imagine Niemann with the guitar and a drummer on Djembe or other type of hand drum following along. It sounds great, and vastly different from the R&B styles infecting country music. However, any sort of originality in the song is wiped out when the first chorus ends as roaring electric guitars turn this acoustic country song into a generic mid-tempo rock anthem.

Lyrically, the song depicts a free-spirited girl who loves to follow her favorite bands from music fest to music fest across the nation. Writers Ben Goldsmith, C.J. Solar and Andrew Scott Wills tell a story similar to that of Kenny Chesney’s “Wild Child.” The big difference with “Blue Bandana,” however, is how the writers heavily rely on name-dropping nearly every well-known hipster music festival short of SXSW. The chorus begins with:

She’s a Bonaroo baby,
she’s Coachella crazy,
She’ll be folking out in Newport,
you’ve probably seen her before

“Blue Bandana” is a song that’s unique enough to standout among the backwoods party anthems and bedroom rendezvous ballads, yet it’s safe enough to appeal to the common listener. There are no risks taken with this song. This is the type of song you’d expect from someone who was all but kicked off the radio last year because of “Donkey.” There’s some good in “Blue Bandana,” but there’s a lot I could do without. The song relies too much on naming dropping festivals which takes the focus away from story of the girl in said blue bandana. While the settings and actions are different from many generic country songs, “Blue Bandana” is still a song that focuses on describing settings and images surrounding the characters, rather than actually telling any sort of story.

5.5/10  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯