Album Review – Jack Ingram’s ‘Midnight Motel’

jack-ingram-midnight-motel

Whenever an artist goes on an extended hiatus from releasing new music, it’s not something that’s really noticed at first. You just assume they’re going to keep releasing music at the same pace they always have. Then more time passes and you start to notice it more and more. All of the sudden five years have passed and now you’re chomping at the bit to hear from them again. That’s the certainly the case with Jack Ingram, who’s last album was released in 2009 on Big Machine Records. A lot has happened in seven years, as Ingram left Nashville to head back to Texas where it all began for him. Like many Texas artists who try their hand on Music Row, it only takes a couple tastes of major labels in Nashville before you’re ready to get back to making the music you want. That’s the certainly the case with Ingram and his new highly anticipated album Midnight Motel. You can tell this is the exact album he wanted to make. I found this is for the better and the worse.

Midnight Motel opens up with “Old Motel.” The song is about love, with an old hotel representing this love. It can stand the test of time or it can be burnt to the ground when it’s gone. It’s a solid song that could have been better if the theme was expanded upon further. There’s also an acoustic version at the end of the album that I think sounds better. This is followed by “It’s Always Gonna Rain,” a ballad about hope. The song goes into detail about Ingram’s father and grandfather looking up the sky just like him, dreaming and praying for better days. But they also know there’s always going to be rain in life too. You deal with the bad hands dealt in hopes of a good one coming soon. It’s one of the most realistic inspiration songs I’ve heard in a while.

“I Feel Like Drinking Tonight” sees Ingram tackling demons and the unfairness of life. Ingram though sees the best way to get through your problems is sitting at the bar and drinking your sorrows away. The gritty guitar play makes for a great backdrop to the theme of this song. Perhaps the standout track of Midnight Motel is “Blaine’s Ferris Wheel.” The melancholy tune seems like the most talked about song of the album and for good reason. It’s about a promoter and friend of Ingram named Blaine, whose venue was in San Angelo, Texas. If you listen to the version of the album where Ingram talks about the inspiration of this song, he tells a story about Merle Haggard backing out of a gig at Blaine’s venue and getting Ingram to fill in. The song goes much deeper on many levels and you can hear this just in Ingram’s voice as he sings. This is one of those songs where you just need to hear it for yourself to appreciate.

The piano-driven “Nothing To Fix” is a song about learning lessons the hard way. It’s also about how if you’re not broken you can’t be fixed. If this sounds vague, then you’re correct. This song doesn’t really do anything to give these themes a meaning, no matter how well-meaning. The instrumentation though is quite good. Up next is “What’s A Boy To Do,” a breakup song. A man searches for the words he needs to say to win his ex back and make up for what he did to make her cry. Of course he really can’t and is left wondering what if as his love is now gone. It’s a solid, yet unspectacular take on losing love. “Trying” is one song that Ingram absolutely nails on this album. It explores the fears of dying, both literally and figuratively. A man dreams of dying, but wakes up to find he’s in an unhappy relationship and left saying he’s trying his best. It’s one of many moments on the album where the listeners have to search a little to find what the song has to say.

If I had to pick the most cliché song on the album, it would have to be “Champion Of The World.” The song is about a man always feeling like a screw up in life and being looked down upon by everyone; that is until he found his wife who makes him feel like a champion of the world. It’s a well-meaning song, but I’ve heard it so much before that it doesn’t really make much of an impact on me. The most upbeat song on the mostly downbeat Midnight Motel is easily “I’m Drinking Through It.” It’s one of those venting drinking songs you’ll be singing along with the moment you first hear it. After all we all have problems and lot of people get through it by drinking through it. This is probably one of my favorites on the album and also one of the few songs on it to have an infectious hook to it.

“Can’t Get Any Better Than This” suffers from the same thing that holds down “Nothing To Fix” too. It’s a vague song about appreciating what you have and realizing you can’t have life any better than what it is in front of you. It’s a feel good song and that’s all I have to say about it. One of the final songs on Midnight Motel is “All Over Again.” It’s sort of a nice bow on the whole album, as it goes through a little bit of everything that is explored on the album: life being unfair, making mistakes, love and dealing with it all. It’s all well and good and there’s nothing dishonest about the lyrics. It’s about the most honest take as you can find on this crazy thing called life.

Ultimately I found Jack Ingram’s Midnight Motel to be an album I just like and respect for what it strives to accomplish, but I wanted to love and enjoy it. There are moments on this album where I think the latter will happen, but it’s weighed down by a lot of songs that are just sort of there for me. It’s kind of hard to describe what exactly this album lacks. I guess I would say it’s purpose because a lot of the songs don’t do enough to really make me connect with them and rely on the listener to make it work. It just feels like an album that Ingram and his inner circle will get, but the rest of us are kind of scratching our heads trying to figure out. I would go so far to say this album gets too personal and almost forgets about the listener on the other end. This is a situation where a good producer would step in and bring some restraint to the album in this regard. In order for these gut-wrenching, personal songs to work, they have to try to form some sort of connection with the listener and this album fails to do this in multiple instances on the album. The instrumentation feels like an afterthought at times on this album too. It could really helped make some of these songs stand out better. I know this probably won’t be a popular review, especially amongst Ingram fans. But it’s hard not to express I was left wanting more. Midnight Motel is basically a 180 degree turn in comparison to Ingram’s last two albums, but not necessarily for the best.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review – Sierra Hull’s ‘Weighted Mind’ is a Beautiful Coming of Age Album

Sierra Hull was a child prodigy in bluegrass music. At age 11, Hull joined Alison Krauss on the Grand Ole Opry stage and soon thereafter signed with Rounder Records. Sierra Hull’s mandolin playing has earned her high praise and respect in the music world. Krauss even said of Hull, “Talent like hers is so rare, and I don’t think it stops.” Banjo master Bela Fleck says, “She plays the mandolin with a degree of refined elegance and freedom that few have achieved.” Sierra Hull released her first album at 16, and now, 8 years later, has released her 3rd full length album with Fleck serving as the producer. Hull’s Weighted Mind shows how her own songwriting has taken a step forward to match the maturity in her musicianship.

As suggested by the cover art and album title, Weighted Mind is Hull’s own, cluttered mind, weighing her down and she tries to make sense of her life. Like most people in their early 20s, Hull too was struggling to find her identity while transitioning into full-blown adulthood. The result is an intimate album with a simple production. Per Fleck’s recommendation, the songs were recorded without much of a backing band – only Hull’s mandolin along with Fleck’s banjo and Ethan Jodziewicz on the bass. No percussions, just a quiet production of strings allowing Hull’s voice to shine and lyrics to be heard.

The opening track of “Stranded” showcases the instrumental skills of Sierra Hull. The introductory track moves from a quiet calmness, gradually becoming a bit more chaotic and darker as Hull sings “dear 22, I’m stranded here” before transitioning right into “Compass.” Building off the lyric of feeling stranded, she sings of readying herself for a journey of self discovery. Feeling lost and sure, she throws away her old self, trusting that what is meant to be will be. “Choices And Changes” continues on the theme of this mental and emotional journey. “If you won’t go where I’m going, then I’ll have to go alone,” Hull sings with acceptance and confidence. There’s more urgency in her mandolin play, complimenting the lyrics of needing to move forward because the changes are necessary.

“Wings Of The Dawn” reads as if it’s a prayer for guidance. It’s a hopeful realization that she won’t feel lost forever. Hull’s higher vocals and mandolin picking are beautifully complimented with the lower bass and violin. With the extended solo in the song’s middle, the complex instrumentation takes a front seat on the song, showcasing Hull’s skills more, as well as Fleck’s production skills. “Wings Of The Dawn” is nicely layered with vocal harmonies on the chorus as well. One of the best tracks on Weighted Mind, in my opinion, is “Birthday.” Here Hull sings to what seems to be a former lover. She remembers that its his birthday, but after the break-up, he’s left angry and heartbroken. Hull still cares for him, and accepts that he would rather remain angry at her and ignore her because there’s nothing she can say to change the situation. Beautiful lyrics combined with Hull’s soothing vocals help “Birthday” shine.

Sierra Hull shows off more of her mandolin brilliance on the album’s title track. It’s the only instrument found on the track, and her solo toward the song’s end is executed perfectly, a way in which only a veteran player could. The lyrics feel like a commentary and explanation of the album as a whole. Hull steps away from herself for a song. On “Fallen Man” she sings from the point of view of a dying man. This is a man’s final thoughts as he drifts away into the afterlife; they’re his final thoughts about his process of dying. A quick song with simple strums, but beautifully sung by Hull. “The In-Between” again finds Sierra Hull commenting on her situation in life and finding motivation. “Life is a hanging sharp edge sword,” she sings in the second verse. Life may throw curve balls, but if you don’t let it get the best of you, then you’ll be bound to come out on the good side of the in-between. At 5 minutes long, “The In-Between” features another extended solo where Sierra Hull wows with her mandolin skills with the bass layered behind her to create a dynamic instrumental break before the song ends with one final chorus.

“Lullaby” finds Hull singing to her mother, pleading for love and comfort. Hull sings that she’ll never be too old to cry to her mom when she’s feeling down and dejected. The lyrics are reflective, honest, and perhaps the most vulnerable of the whole album. This is a song which she wrote by herself, which adds more authenticity to her heartfelt delivery. “Lullaby” is another one of Weighted Minds’ strongest songs. “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” is a song dealing with love and heartbreak. Lyrically, it’s a bit more traditional than “Birthday” in the sense that if her love leaves her, she’ll feel lost because “young men are plenty, but sweethearts few.” The song features several instrumental breaks where Bela Fleck joins in on the banjo alongside Hull’s mandolin and Jodziewicz’s bass.

Love has ended again in “I’ll Be Fine.” Sierra Hull sings to a man who has wronged her one too many times. She ends the relationship and tells him she’ll be fine in time. It’s a song of hope because this storm of heartbreak will blow over. The instrumentation shifts as the song progresses moving from a smoother, hopeful sound to more harsh picking in the middle, and returning to the hopeful, smooth mandolin strum as the song concludes. Hull’s dynamic vocal delivery on “I’ll Be Fine” is one of the best on the album. Weighted Mind concludes with “Black River.” On this emotional journey, Hull hasn’t quite found her way, but it’s hopeful that she will. As Hull sings in the chorus, “A thousand years is but a day, they say. And maybe in a thousand more, I will find my way.” A complex, but brilliant lyric portraying both doubt and hope. While not as instrumentally rich as other songs, “Black River” does have an excellent multi-vocal harmony in the final chorus, with Alison Krauss lending her vocals to the mix behind Hull’s. “Black River” is a confident end to the album.

It’s easy to see why Sierra Hull is held in such high regard as both a mandolin musician and a singer-songwriter. The vulnerability and honesty embedded in the lyrics show maturity in Hull that seems beyond what you’d expect from your average 24-year-old, but Sierra Hull is anything but average. Her skills and delivery on Weighted Mind are proof that she’s earned every bit of praise that’s come her way. Rich and complex, Weighted Mind is album for the listener. It’s not easy to pick up on the masterful intricacies at first, but that’s the beauty of the album. The closer you listen to the music and to Hull’s words, the more beauty you’ll find.

Grade: 9/10

Weighted Mind can be purchased through Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review – Della Mae’s New Self-Titled Album Is Full of Great Americana Music

Della Mae

One of the hot topics discussed on the site this week has been Americana. More and more country artists tend to be flocking to it, as country music continues to ignore their music. It’s an interesting development that’s certainly worth keeping an eye on. But remember at the same time there are many talented Americana groups worth pointing out. One of them is all female Americana group Della Mae. The group is made up of Celia Woodsmith (vocals & guitar), Kimber Ludiker (fiddle & vocals), Jenni Lyn Gardner (mandolin & vocals) and Courtney Hartman (guitar, banjo & vocals). The foursome teamed up with producer Jacquire King to make their newest self-titled album, which came out in May. I wish I had reviewed this sooner, as it’s a very solid album full of great bluegrass and Americana music.

A mandolin plays in the lead song, “Boston Town.” Right away we get a taste of the harmonies from the group, which are amazing. The song itself is about women being overworked and underpaid and finally getting fed up with it, demanding equal rights. I think it’s a good choice to kick the album off with this anthem-type song. The bluegrass-inspired “Rude Awakening” is about wanting a wake up call in life. It’s the type of song that will mean something different to each person who listens to it. Regardless the instrumentation and vocals on this song are great. The more subdued “Can’t Go Back” is next. The song seems to be about how if a person never leaves you they can never come back to you. It’s another song where the listener kind of figures it out. The harmonies at the end of the song really impress me and I wish the whole song had been like this.

The lyrics get even more poignant and deep in “For The Sake of My Heart.” The best word to describe it would be poetic. It’s very much a song you need to hear for yourself. The broadness of the theme could be annoying for some, but it’s hard not to appreciate the great lyrics. “Good Blood” is an upbeat tune about a woman seeking a better relationship with someone after some mistakes in the past. The mandolin drives the beat of this song and gives it a very free and loose feeling. I definitely would’ve liked more harmonies in this song though.

One of my favorite tracks of the album is “To Ohio.” It’s about a woman in Louisiana who lost the love of her life well before his time and is heading north to Ohio to get away from the heartbreak. Or so it seems at first. By the end of the song she’s hearing his voice in the “pines of Ohio,” which has seemed to call her to her new home. Everything in this song works together flawless and really makes for a great song. Della Mae tackles cheating and lying in “Shambles.” A man has lied to his woman and she finally has enough of it, causing her to leave him. When she leaves he finally apologizes, but it’s too late now and she’s left him to make sense of the shambles he has created. This is another one of my favorites on the album.

The upbeat “Take One Day” is one of the most bluegrass songs on the album. In other words, there’s a lot of picking and scratching, which is just right for this reviewer. The song is about just taking things one day at a time and enjoying them. It’s a fun, short tune. Della Mae’s darkest song on the album is “Long Shadow.” From the lyrics to the instrumentation, it’s a mid-tempo, southern gothic inspired track. The song is about a woman who is inspired creatively by the shadow of her mother, a painter who would paint from “night until morning.” The woman now does the same; only she’s singing music from night until morning. The fiddle play in this song is really good and adds even more to the song.

“No Expectations” is the longest song on the record and it’s another song where the theme of the song is quite vague. This works a couple of times, but when you go beyond this it starts to lose its effectiveness. Listeners don’t want to always be trying to figure out what’s happening with the lyrics and the story being told. The instrumentation and vocals are so strong though that it almost makes up for it in this song. The album closes out with “High Away Gone,” the best vocal performance on it by Della Mae. There’s very little instrumentation on it and it’s almost just the voices of the group. Once again I was wanting a little more in the lyrics department, but as I said the vocal performance is pretty good on this song.

Della Mae without a doubt is a talented group of female artists who have the ability to not only blow you away with their voices, but instrumentation. There are songs that are prime examples of this throughout the album. However the biggest problem I had with this album, despite bright moments in this area, was the lyrics. They just didn’t go deep enough for me at times and had the potential to go deeper. This lead to songs not having cohesive themes those listeners can easily connect with and feel. Luckily they’re such great artists that it helped mask it for the most part. Despite this I definitely would recommend checking this album out. Della Mae is a group to watch and this is certainly an album you can enjoy.

Grade: 8/10