EP Review — Khruangbin & Leon Bridges’ ‘Texas Sun’

Khruangbin and Leon Bridges are not exactly two acts on paper you would picture teaming up together to make music. The former is a modern instrumental trio who really don’t fit into a particular genre or sound, while the latter is a soulful artist who sits comfortably within throwback R&B. But they both hail from Texas and through touring came to know each other, leading to the EP Texas Sun. And I’m just going to throw out my biggest complaint right up front: why is there only four songs? I want to hear more!

The opening title track instantly puts you in mind of driving idly down a hot Texas highway in the middle of summer with it’s warm guitars, rhythmic drums and the subtle chimes floating in the background. Of course I also love the introduction of the pedal steel guitar mid-way through, as you can’t forget country influences when it comes to Texas. Bridges proves too that his voice can easily shine beyond soulful sounds, as he can pretty much fit his dynamic voice into any sound.

“Midnight” is about Bridges recalling a passionate romance of days past and I love all the little details of the relationship that Bridges packs into the song. The chorus in particular is just fantastic, not just for all the details (the midnight black of the car, the leather seats, the passion), but the way Bridges delivers the lines so smoothly that matches both the mood and lyrics. Throw in the swanky guitar tones of Khruangbin and I feel like I’m right there watching the scenes of this song play out. This is the first song of 2020 that has “wowed” me.

“C-Side” is another love song oozing with passion and charisma in both the lyrics and instrumentation. In particular I enjoy how the instrumentation in this song has this sweaty, swaggering, jungle-like vibe. Being an instrumental band, it’s not surprising how great Khruangbin is at creating a particular atmosphere for the listener. Bridges always nails the vibe on these type of love songs in his delivery with an almost flawless sense (listen to his latest album Good Thing to hear it for yourself).

The EP closes with “Conversion,” an indie rock meets gospel song about a man having a come to Jesus moment with a woman in their relationship. It’s about seeking forgiveness and learning the errors of your ways to appreciate the love you have. After the Saturday night feel of the previous two songs, this is the Sunday morning response and these two nail the other side of the coin too. The reflective nature, appropriately driven by the organ, tugs at the heartstrings and creates this genuine sense of remorse and redemption within as you listen. It’s what truly great gospel songs do.

Texas Sun is a truly brilliant little collection of music. As I said in the beginning, man I wish this was a full album instead of an EP. Khruangbin and Leon Bridges go together so well and come together to create a vibrant and colorful set of songs. It’s a true homage to the many sounds of Texas music that is fresh and invigorating. Do yourself a favor and listen to this exciting EP.

Grade: 10/10

Album Review — Marcus King’s ‘El Dorado’

If you’re expecting the same rocking sounds of The Marcus King Band in Marcus King’s debut solo album, you’re going to be a little disappointed. After all when an artist steps away from their band to release a solo record, I think it would be unrealistic to expect the same sound. Otherwise what’s the point of going solo? And while different can sometimes be bad (see Zac Brown with Sir Rosevelt), in this case it actually turns out quite good with Marcus King’s El Dorado.

The album doesn’t get off to the best start with “Young Man’s Dream” as the opener. Choosing such a mellow song to open the album doesn’t exactly invite you in to want to hear more. The theme makes sense with King looking back on the dream he set out to conquer when he left home years ago and realizing he’s still chasing it. But I’m a big believer in a higher tempo song as an opener. So I would have switched the second song “The Well” into the opening spot with it’s loud, guitar-driven sound, which is also more familiar to listeners who have followed The Marcus King Band. The bluesy and smooth rifts are instantly infectious and pair perfectly with the dynamic voice of King’s.

King really pours the soul on in “Wildflowers & Wine.” The heavy soul influence on this album is really what makes this album shine in my eyes, as King is just as comfortable with soul as he is with rock. The lyrics in this song, written by King, producer Dan Auerbach and Ronnie Bowman, do a fantastic job of describing the love and passion in a relationship and King delivers them with the kind of fire needed to really drive them across to the listener.

“One Day She’s Here” is about ruminating over an on and off love. Lyrically this is fine, albeit one of the weaker moments on the album regarding this aspect. It’s just a bit too repetitive for my liking. “Sweet Mariona” sounds like something The Eagles would cut with it’s easy-going country rock sound. The instrumentation is what makes this really shine with the shimmering pedal steel guitar and light acoustic touch, as it gives the song an appropriate reflecting feeling.

One of my favorite moments on the album is “Beautiful Stranger,” as it shows off King’s great falsetto voice. The lyrics sets the scene well of a man approaching a woman in a bar and wondering of the possibilities they could have if they’re no longer strangers. The secret sauce though of this song and really this album is the subtle country sensibilities that permeate it. This song after all was written by King, Auberbach and longtime country writer Paul Overstreet. While this isn’t a country album of course, El Dorado does take a lot of influence from the genre, as it’s molded with the sounds of rock, soul and blues throughout.

“Break” reminds me of the Michael McDonald era of The Doobie Brothers with it’s theme of heartbreak combined with it’s smooth sound and King’s falsetto. I’m glad that this song doesn’t go overboard with the production though (it avoids over-polishing the sound), instead allowing King’s voice to be more front and center. “Say You Will” is this album’s only other guitar-driven rock sound that is more in line with The Marcus King Band and of course it sounds great. While I enjoy the more soulful, bluesy detour of this solo album, King really does thrive within the more rock driven sound on songs like this one.

“Turn It Up” is great driving music. It helps of course with it’s chorus (“Driving 90 miles an hour down a dead end street/Cold steel under my feet” and “Testing my nerves, taking the curves”), but most importantly it’s swanky, swaggering funk-influenced sound makes me picture myself driving down the highway. I guess when it comes to driving music you know it when you hear it would be the best way to describe it. I said before this album has subtle country sensibilities. Well it’s not so subtle on “Too Much Whiskey,” with it’s honkytonk sound and name-dropping Willie Nelson’s iconic album Shotgun Willie (and the “Whiskey River” reference). King nails the classic country drinking song and I love the harmonica that pops up throughout.

I feel like “Love Song” is very much a love it or hate it type song, as I can see why some might find this song to be too saccharine for their taste. But I fall in the enjoy it camp, as I feel the lyrics have genuine heart behind them. And I think it’s King’s passionate delivery that makes this song work for me. The album closes out strong with another high point in “No Pain.” Written by King, Auerbach and Pat McLaughlin, it’s a short and simple song about what I perceive to be about acceptance in the face of death. It’s possible it was at the hands of alcohol addiction as the lines “I fall off of that wagon/Won’t be no last call” allude to. There’s not that many lyrics, yet it’s able to get across a clear and impactful story to the listener. It’s excellent songwriting and shows less is more can be a highly effective approach to storytelling.

El Dorado may not be the album you expected from Marcus King, but it’s without a doubt a great album. It shows another side of King and the range he has as an artist, being able to draw so effectively from a wide variety of genres. King and Auerbach not only craft this intriguing mix of sounds, but the songwriting is quite solid too. El Dorado is an album that can be appreciated by fans of several genres and most importantly shows Marcus King is a promising young artist who is poised to become even better with time.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Harry Styles’ ‘Fine Line’

Harry Styles made a promising debut with his self-titled album, showing at times he has the ear and vision to pull off classic sounds of rock past. But the biggest criticism I had for his first album was that the songwriting needed to get better, as it was completely forgettable at times. Two years later he’s back with the follow-up album, Fine Line. And unfortunately I find myself uttering the same criticism as I listen to it.

Opening song “Golden” sounds very pretty and fun, like something you would hear from Fleetwood Mac in their heyday of the 70s. But then you listen to the lyrics and they couldn’t be more basic and paint-by-the-numbers. For crying out loud the hook is Styles dryly singing “You’re so golden.” There’s just no creativity, true emotion and weight behind these lyrics. This is basically the running theme of a lot of songs on this album: great sound, ho-hum lyrics. “Watermelon Sugar” is easily the worst song on this album from a songwriting viewpoint, as the lyrics are so saccharine I want to gag as I listen to them. What the hell is watermelon sugar high? It sounds like something a 12-year-old would come up with.

“Adore You” is a solid song about begging for someone to let them love you. It does a good job of describing the sights and sounds of the woman Styles is pining for and getting across how much he wants her. The sound is bouncy and fun too with the electric slide guitars. “Lights Up” would work much better if it had more energy in the production and from Styles’ vocals. It comes off boring as it is, making it easy to skip over. “Cherry” sees Styles confronting his selfish attitude toward his ex and their breakup, struggling to accept she’s better now while trying to suppress his feelings of wanting her to come back to him. It’s a good song because the songwriting tells a relatable and interesting story, which I wish was more present on this album. The twangy, folk pop sound compliments the lyrics and mood of the song well too.

“Falling” continues the theme of Styles doubting himself and questioning his words and actions towards his ex. Once again, when Styles digs deep and incorporates emotion into his lyrics, he does a great job. Styles does especially good on piano ballads like this, as it suits his throwback style and voice. But he just can’t maintain a consistent level of high quality songwriting throughout an entire album, as “To Be So Lonely” and “She” go back to the bland and unmemorable songwriting that kicks off this album. The former is run-of-the-mill coffee shop pop, while the latter just rambles and rambles without anything to say.

“Sunflower, Vol. 6” is fantastic sound-wise, melding classic and modern to create a trippy and fun beat. Credit to producer Greg Kurstin. But these lyrics would fall under the category of what John Lennon would call Paul McCartney “granny shit.” Just like “Golden,” these are meandering mediocre lyrics that would fit nicely in a commercial for Tide. “Canyon Moon” perfects that 70s, Laurel Canyon sound and I hope Styles continues to pursue this sound. I also enjoy the lyrics, as a man recalls the times he spent with his love under a canyon moon. It’s light, fun and one of my favorites on Fine Line.

“Treat People With Kindness” is another highlight on the album. I love how the song opens with a backing choir and how they continue to interlude throughout. While the theme is a bit heavy handed in it’s delivery, it doesn’t cross the line and most importantly lets the piano and backing choir drive the rhythm and mood of the song. And unlike a lot of dance songs today, it doesn’t smack you over the head with overproduction. It’s smooth, easy-going music that’s quite likable. The album’s title track closes out the album, as Styles concludes there’s a fine line in his emotions towards his ex, even though he seems to be leaning more towards moving on from her. I wish this song would be fleshed out a bit more, as there’s a lot of repetition of “We’ll be a fine line.” But I guess it’s fitting the album closes like this.

Harry Styles’ sophomore album Fine Line is such a frustrating listen because you can hear the glimpses of greatness, but they get muddled by sub-par songwriting and half-built ideas. Styles clear has a knack for finding great sounds, but the songwriting still leaves something to be desired. I really wanted to like this album more, as I believe it’s going to take an artist like Styles to re-birth rock into the mainstream realm. This is certainly not a bad album. But it’s definitely a discontenting decent album, as I just can’t help but wonder how this album could have turned out if it was more complete.

Grade: 6/10

Album Review — Sturgill Simpson’s ‘SOUND & FURY’

For an artist that tries his damndest to avoid the public eye, Sturgill Simpson certainly generates a lot of discussion and opinions when he does show his face. Coming into his fourth album SOUND & FURY, it was to be expected after a long wait and his announcing that it wouldn’t be a country album. And this comes after he’s been living under a rock the last two and a half years.  A polarizing artist in a polarizing society causing reactions on both extremes of the spectrum. A real shocker, huh? With this review I hope to bring a different view of why I think this album is brilliant, but also try to make sense of the mischaracterizations being put forth too.

“Ronin” opens with the sounds of a speeding car and Joe Rogan doing a spot-on Alex Jones impersonation over the radio. This gives way to the cinematic and grooving sounds of Simpson on lead guitar and Chuck Bartels shredding on the bass (Bartels really breaks out on this record). It all sets the tone and lets you know you’re in for a rock and roll album. This segues right into “Remember to Breathe,” which intimately details an assassin getting ready to make a kill and then doing so. It’s one of the more sinister and dark songs from Simpson and the excellent drum play of Miles Miller provides that ominous, rumbling feel with Bobby Emmert on the synth giving it that “samurai showdown” feel.

Lead single “Sing Along” is probably the most “accessible” song, as it’s about a man watching the woman in his life walk away and leaving him feeling helpless. This features one of the most badass sounding lines I’ve heard from Simpson: “Tell em’ to carve my name in the barstool baby/You know I’m going to be here a while.” The imagery of this line and the way Simpson delivers it gives it a real jolt and makes for a memorable moment.

“A Good Look” is a funky and rocking tune where Simpson cautions other artists to stop worry about looking good and worry more about crafting a good hook. Simpson solely wrote every song on the album, except for this one, which he wrote with John Prine. As soon as I found this out, I tried to figure out which parts Prine wrote and in my opinion I think he wrote the opening biblical verse, along with the chorus. It just screams Prine. Not to mention, this is the first song Simpson has made you can actually dance to. But it’s still packed with the classic imagery and depth Simpson brings with his lyrics, from the descriptive second verse to him delivering the dismissive lines I imagine are from someone at the label said to him at some point (“How you gonna eat when you’re bitin’ the hand?”). It’s a really fun song that I imagine will be a big hit live.

“Make Art Not Friends” is one of the most revealing moments on this album. Simpson appears to be drawing inspiration from his exhaustion and anger on the road touring in 2017. Now a lot of people are focusing on the lyrics in this song slamming the industry and I can see how some view this as him being kind of ungrateful. But I see this more as Simpson showing regret in his actions, as the chorus details his ragged state. He sings “Never again, rather be alone,” which I interpret as him realizing the mistake he made in saying yes to touring in 2017 after he said he wouldn’t do so. Shortly after this he sings “I love saying no to all the yes men,” which seems to refer to his state post-2017 and coming to the realization that in his compromise to “play the game” with the music industry, he ultimately was the one who lost and now he’s swearing it off completely.

Simpson is conveying that he just wants to focus on music and not the people in the industry who think they have his best interests. It’s a fascinating look into his psyche after the Grammys and how it changed him. I think this song is more about growth and realization, not the “taking it to the man” anthem nor the grumpy asshole complaining about success many are interpreting it to be. Not to mention I really enjoy the timing and placement of the synths in this song, as they come in at just the right moments to add some gravity and emotion to the lyrics.

“Best Clockmaker on Mars” is one of the hardest rockers on the album and also Simpson’s obligatory love ode to his wife that he’s had on every album. It’s also a fun singalong with head-banging guitar licks throughout, but don’t overlook one of the most heartfelt verses: “Some days I hate everything I am/But your love holds a mirror to me/Show me a love I can understand/Make sense of the world I see.” I really enjoy the sci-fi synths, as it feels appropriate on a song with Mars in the title.

The next song “All Said and Done” is another glimpse into Simpson’s mind in 2017. Again I see this as Simpson accepting blame for the anger and sense of resignation he has towards the world and his career. This is about a battle playing out in his own head, yet he doesn’t even know why and acknowledges that he’s willfully letting his career slip through his own actions. It’s funny how this is the second time Simpson has said an album will destroy his career (he said the same thing with Metamodern), yet I think much to his chagrin this is only going to make him more popular. Simpson said this album is “going to hell” (step four of the five steps of the journey of the soul in Christian mysticism) and this feels like his lowest point during this span.

“Last Man Standing” sees Simpson beating his chest and proclaiming himself to be the last one standing, even though his hermit mentality seems to suggest otherwise. Now this song has prompted what I believe to be an unjustified criticism of this song and Simpson’s vocals on this album: people blaming the production for not being able to understand what Simpson is singing. And here’s my counterpoint: Was it easy to understand him on his other albums? I say no.

I had trouble understanding him on every single album upon initial listens and this one is no different, which shows to me that blaming production is misplaced. The production was clear as day on A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, yet it took me longer to figure out all the lyrics on that one compared to this album. When Simpson sings sometimes he turns into a mumbling marble mouth with an even thicker accent. To quote an old Skyrim meme: It’s a feature, not a bug. In other words, it’s completely fair to criticize not being able to understand the lyrics, but I don’t think it’s fair to say the production is to blame for it.

“Mercury in Retrograde” is the grand slam on this album: Simpson’s songwriting at it’s best and the sound at it’s most fun and catchy. It also reminds me of something that would have fit in perfectly on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, with it’s disco-influenced sound, the dour observation in the chorus and the biting honesty. At first I jumped to the conclusion that Simpson was taking shots other artists on this song, but I realized that’s never been his thing. Many seem to also think he’s taking aim at fans on not just this song, but other moments on this album. But again this is not consistent with his history. So I don’t know why some are interpreting the lyrics as such. No, instead it’s a boring answer: suits at labels and award shows, which George Strait to AC/DC have taken their shots at. It just ultimately makes for scathingly fun lyrics you want to jam out along with.

The closing song “Fastest Horse in Town” is that blazing, get the fuck out of town anthem to perfectly cap off SOUND & FURY. It’s Simpson’s fiery proclamation that he’s no longer going to neglect the things that matter most to him: his family and his craft. On top of that he throws in that Eminem influence he hinted at before the album, declaring himself as not the “next someone,” but the “first something.” It doesn’t touch any of the braggadocios lines on Eminem’s Kamikaze, but it’s an appropriate closing statement that recaps the hell Simpson went through to reach the conclusion he’s arrived at and who he wants to be moving forward.

SOUND & FURY from start to finish feels like one long song, as it’s both cohesive in sound and lyrics, telling several stories that tie into overarching theme of Simpson being angry at a lot of things in the world, but when it comes down to it he’s most angry at himself and what he let himself become. Each track explores the flawed thoughts and actions of a flawed man. I see a lot of people constantly saying it reminds them of ZZ Top or 80s rock, but I don’t hear this. Instead I think this sounds closer to early to mid 70s music and sounds like the eccentric, frenetic sounds of Jeff Lyne and Electric Light Orchestra meets the in-your-face, sneering lyrics of Creedence Clearwater Revival. Love or hate this album, love or hate Simpson, it’s undeniable that a lot of thought and emotions went into this album. The amount of care and detail given to every aspect makes this one of the best albums you’ll hear in 2019 and yet another excellent album from Sturgill Simpson.

Grade: 10/10