Album Review – Ashley Monroe’s ‘The Blade’

Ashley Monroe The Blade

Back in 2013 I came across a lot of great new music, specifically a lot of great country music. The most notable artists I came across were Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Kacey Musgraves, The Mavericks and Ashley Monroe. The most under the radar artist of the group was undoubtedly Monroe. To this point she was most well-known for being one-third of the Pistol Annies. That year she released her debut solo album Like A Rose and captured the attention of traditional country music critics and fans everywhere. It was certainly a favorite listen of mine’s from that year, so I was definitely anticipating her sophomore album. This time around her label Warner Brothers Nashville has been a lot more involved and it shows, something I’ll elaborate on later in the review. One good sign to see for this album coming in was Vince Gill and Justin Niebank producing it, as both produced Monroe’s first album. So this gave me high hopes, despite the lackluster lead single. So does The Blade live up to expectations? Well in some ways it does and others it does not.

Speaking of the aforementioned lackluster single, “On To Something Good” starts the album off, which I reviewed when it was first released. And my thoughts really haven’t changed on it. From my original review: “On To Something Good” is a song about….I’m not sure. It’s so bland and uninteresting that I find it hard to listen to. It doesn’t hold my attention and is the equivalent of elevator music. It’s just something to fill the void. So for as what the song is about, you can choose. I know I don’t feel like figuring it out because this song is just so boring and we all have better music we could be listening to. 

The sound of drums plays in “I Buried Your Love Alive,” a southern gothic inspired song from the theme to the instrumentation. The song has this vibe hanging over it throughout it. It’s a heartbreak song where the woman can’t get over her lost love and does everything she can to get rid of the memory. While the theme and southern gothic inspiration is good, I have a couple of problems with this song. First it’s overproduced, as the instrumentation is too busy and the occasional echoing of Monroe’s voice is annoying. Another problem with this song is Monroe doesn’t show enough emotion to make the song connect. Not to mention I feel she didn’t go deep enough lyrically. This is a decent song that could have been great. There are some similar problems on the next song, “Bombshell.” The premise of the song is intriguing, as it’s about a woman waiting and figuring out the perfect time to drop a bombshell on her boyfriend. That bombshell is she no longer loves him. The song kept building and building to this moment and when it came I felt underwhelmed. I was expecting an explosion of emotion, but didn’t get it. The storytelling was here, but not the emotion.

Monroe relies on Kacey Musgraves’ like platitudes on “Weight of The Load.” It’s a song about helping a significant other shoulder the weight of the load in a loving relationship. It’s a little too bland and polished for my tastes. What’s even more disappointing is that Monroe and Vince Gill wrote this song. I expect more when these two write a song. Also once again where is the emotional connection? This is starting to become a running theme on this album. The album’s title track follows this and finally we get a glimpse of the Ashley Monroe I enjoyed on her debut album Like A Rose. It’s a heartbreak song where the man has left his woman and the hook of the song describes the breakup perfectly. The end of the relationship is described as the swinging of a blade. As Monroe sings from the female perspective, “You got it by the handle and I caught it by the blade.” This creates the perfect imagery in the listeners’ head and credit to the songwriters Marc Beeson, Jamie Floyd and Allen Shamblin.

The piano and acoustic guitar driven “Winning Streak” is a fast-paced song about being stuck in a losing game. As Monroe sings, “If losing’s game I’m on a winning streak.” This is just a fun and simple country song. It should be noted that Monroe wrote this song with Jessi Alexander (co-writer of the Lee Brice song “I Drive Your Truck”) and Chris Stapleton and is one of two songs this trio wrote on the album. “From Time To Time” reminds me of something you would hear on 90s country radio. I want to say it’s the production that makes me think this, as I immediately got this vibe when I heard the song. It’s very easy to listen to upon the surface, but when you listen closer I’m just not sure what this song is going for. It’s vague and not sure what it wants to be. Monroe is once again joined by two notable songwriters on a song, this time Justin Davis and Sarah Zimmermann. You know them as Striking Matches. This trio also writes two songs together on The Blade.

Monroe goes back to the platitudes on “If Love Was Fair.” This is your run of the mill love song. Part of the chorus is from 1 Corinthians 13:4. You know the one bible verse that is repeated at every single wedding? I just don’t understand this light and breezy approach that a lot of the songs on this album take. “Has Anybody Ever Told You” though drops this approach and is one of the most serious songs on the album. It’s a love song with some actual punch behind it and something that will create emotion in the listener. Monroe’s vocals are allowed to shine and the instrumentation is brilliant between the piano and pedal steel guitar. This is my favorite song on the album. The second co-write of the album between Monroe and Striking Matches, “Dixie,” is next. Monroe sings about being sick of Dixieland and wanting to get the hell out of there, as her experiences there have driven her away. It’s an intriguing song and kind of bold, as you don’t hear many songs about being sick of the south, especially from mainstream country artists. Just for this alone I’m kind of impressed with the song.

“If The Devil Don’t Want Me” is the second Monroe-Alexander-Stapleton co-written song of the album. Monroe wonders throughout this song of where she’ll be going if the devil doesn’t want her and she can’t find the light. This is very much a traditional country song, from the lyrics to the sound. It’s right in Monroe’s wheelhouse and another highlight of the album. It’s a real big shocker that both Stapleton co-writes are good, huh? The traditionally arranged “Mayflowers” is another song that proves Monroe needs to stick with this sound and stay away from the pop country sound towards the beginning of the album. This is a sweet love song where the woman vows to bring the love back to their relationship and uses the metaphor of “April showers bring May flowers” to convey the point. It’s a song you have to hear for yourself to truly appreciate. The 13-song album comes to a conclusion with “I’m Good At Leavin’,” a song with plenty of fiddle and steel guitar (also co-written with Alexander and Miranda Lambert). Monroe sings about how she’s good at leaving and basically she’s a rambling woman who can’t stay in a relationship for too long. I’ve always wondered why female country artists never take on the rambling man theme that male artists always use and kudos to Monroe for doing it. It’s another solid song from the Pistol Annies singer.

Ashley Monroe’s The Blade is an up and down listen throughout. The album starts out with a lot of pop country songs that are lightweight all-around and make me wonder what happened to Monroe. Luckily, the second half is more in line with what we heard on her debut album and that’s a traditional country arrangement. While there were plenty of songs that caught my attention in a good way, this is a clear step down from Like A Rose. To me what ultimately sunk this album down was there were too many cooks in the kitchen on this album. Warner Nashville stuck their fingers in this album, whereas they let Monroe do her own thing before. I’m pretty sure they were the ones pushing for more pop country, as they’ve pushed her for radio play this time around and didn’t with Like A Rose. Not to mention this album is too long at 13 songs. I would’ve cut four songs from this album (“On To Something Good,” “Weight of the Load,” “From Time To Time” and “If Love Was Fair”) and then added a duet with Vince Gill as the 10th song. Seriously, he’s right there producing and you don’t have a duet with him? This is a missed opportunity. Really that sums up this entire album: it was a missed opportunity. The Blade is just good, but it could have been so much more.

Grade: 7/10

 

Album Review – Striking Matches’ Nothing But The Silence is an Energetic, Entertaining Debut

Watch out Florida Georgia Line. Why don’t you boys take a step aside and watch a brand new mainstream country duo do what you guys have never done, which is making worthy, entertaining music. Now, I know Striking Matches aren’t quite brand new; their self-titled EP back in 2012 was praised by outlets like NPR and the BBC. Not to mention the number of songs they’ve had recorded on the hit TV show Nashville. But their first full-length album, Nothing But the Silence, has now been released to the masses, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. With a radio market unwilling to play well written slow songs because they’re “tempo killers,” Nothing But the Silence offers 11 great, well-written tracks, many of which won’t kill the tempo of country radio’s constant party atmosphere. The duo, Sarah Zimmerman and Justin Davis, also act like a real musical duo. They trade the lead vocals on songs, verses, even lines within verses, and harmonize together at almost every moment. Together, their voices shine and deliver on this album.

Nothing But the Silence kicks off the rocking duet “Trouble Is As Trouble Does.” It’s a new relationship for the two of them, but he’s the bad seed that influences her to rebel a bit out of her well-behaved lifestyle. Yet, she can’t stay away from trouble. This up-tempo rocker is led by both Zimmerman and Davis’ acoustic guitar licks. Yes, acoustic guitars on this rocking, fast paced song. It’s a great track that shows what Striking Matches are capable of in both vocals and musicianship. Davis leads the way on “Make A Liar Out Of Me.” He’s been burned by love and vowed to never love again. Her love however is tempting enough where he encourages her to make him a liar; he wants her love. With a bluesy guitar in the forefront creating an infectious rhythm and a fantastic guitar solo on the song’s outro, “Make A Liar Out Of Me” stands out as one of the better tracks here.

The pair slow it down for the title track. Their relationship has fallen to a point where they aren’t speaking to one another. Davis leads the vocals here again, and pleads for communication to happen. “There’s nothing but the silence in between us that hasn’t already been broken…can we break it tonight?” Sarah Zimmerman’s harmonies on this track are a perfect fit behind Davis. Though the lyrics can get repetitive here, “Nothing But The Silence” still tells a great story. “Hanging On A Lie” is another one of the top tracks on this album. Zimmerman takes the lead on this song about calling out her man on his lies. She knows it’s over; she knows he’s a liar, and she simply wants him to spit out the truth before she leaves. The production on this song is fantastic: a grooving beat behind Zimmerman’s wonderful vocals creates a beautiful melody on this country rock tune.

“Never Gonna Love Again” is a solid mid-tempo track. A noteworthy percussion beat drives this song where Zimmerman sings of catching her man cheating on her. This breaks her spirit to the point where she believes she’ll never love again. Again, this a song that features a bit of repetition with the lyrics, but Zimmerman’s vocals are nearly flawless here. She sells the pain and anger of the situation presented on this song. And after an intense heartbreak song, Striking Matches brings forth one the best love songs I’ve heard in a while. “When The Right One Comes Along” was a tune featured on Nashville, but reproduced a bit on this album. A soft electric guitar and a simple drum beat behind Sarah’s beautiful vocals. The song discusses how you’ll know in your heart when you meet the one. “There’s no music, no confetti. Crowds don’t cheer and bells won’t ring. But you’ll know it, I can guarantee, when the right one comes along.” It’s a love song that tells a beautiful story without tired, clichéd bits from almost every other love song in existence.

“What A Broken Heart Feels Like” bring back the duets of Sarah and Justin. The two trade lines and harmonize well and talk about the aftermath of a breakup. Reminders from photographs and support from friends can’t change the immediate pain one feels after a relationship ends. On “Miss Me More” the relationship ends on a bit of bitter note. He ends it and tries to move on, and she calls him out on how much he’ll miss her afterwards. She doesn’t want him to crawl back to her though. This song features a great harmonies (have I mentioned that already?) on top of a simple, rocking upbeat production. Yet, the relationship on “Like Lovers,” while still ending, wishes to end of strong note. It’s a slow tempo ballad where the couple wants to walk away like lovers.

Up next is “Missing You Tonight.” As Josh wrote in his review of the song, “it’s a tad repetitive and I was really waiting for the climax of this song to blow me away. Instead it was kind of whimper. I could say the same of the instrumentation. They simply didn’t reach the full potential of this song.” There’s not a bad song on this album, but I’d say “Missing You Tonight” is the weakest of the bunch. The song, in it’s production and vocal performances, seems much more subdued than the rest of the album, especially compared to the first two tracks. The album ends on a slow note with “God And You.” It’s another love song, this time led by Justin Davis. He sings how he carries a hard heart and stubborn personality. Yet the only two who have been able to successfully challenge his personality and bring out his venerable side are God and his love. It’s another unique love song with great lyrics.

Overall, Nothing But The Silence shines as a great debut album. Producer T Bone Burnett brings out his signature style for Striking Matches. At times, the songs can find themselves to be repetitive. Lyrics are repeated over and over again, and the similar themes can find themselves a bit tiring. However, there’s a unique production among the songs; and the music is truly unlike what you hear on country radio. There’s an energy and life within this album, especially on the mid tempo and upbeat tracks. Striking Matches have a reputation for energetic performances, and it’s easy to see why after hearing this album. If country radio latches onto Striking Matches, than we’re in for a treat. They are one of the best country duos out there; miles better than the aforementioned Florida Georgia Line, Dan + Shay, and Thompson Square. Nothing But The Silence comes highly recommended: well-written songs and stories with a fresh, entertaining production.

Grade: 8/10

 

Review – Striking Matches’ “Missing You Tonight”

Throughout country music history there has always been a dynamic duo making country music. From Brooks & Dunn to the Civil Wars to Country Perspective’s 2014 Group of the Year First Aid Kit, you’ll certainly find no shortage of talented duos. Well there’s a new duo on the block in country music and their name is Striking Matches. The duo is made up of Sarah Zimmerman (guitar/mandolin/vocals) and Justin Davis (guitar/vocals). They are part of the newly revived I.R.S. Nashville label, which was brought back to life in 2013 by well-known Nashville music executive John Grady. To add even more intrigue to this duo, their upcoming debut album is going to be produced by famous producer T Bone Burnett, who has produced everything from Alison Krauss to Robert Plant to 2014 Country Perspective Album of the Year candidate The Secret Sisters’ album Put Your Needle Down. Today I look at the lead single from their debut album, “Missing You Tonight.”

The song starts off with a mid-tempo electric guitar and a drum beat. It reminds me a lot of late 70s rock music. The tempo and beat pretty much stay the same throughout the song. The bridge has some nice earthy guitar licks too. The instrumentation on this song is certainly interesting. As Striking Matches describes themselves on their site, they’re a combination of country, rock and blues. This song certainly supports this claim and it’s definitely different compared to other songs you hear from mainstream artists. Upon first listen I didn’t really know how to feel about it. After a few more listens the sound has grown on me more. I would like to hear some more country influences, but I also appreciate the bluesy rock feel they’re going for here.

As for the theme of the song, it’s about two lovers who can’t stand to be away from each other because they’re so in love with each other. The first lyrics sang in this song by Zimmerman are:

Don’t hang up/I just wanted to hear your voice/I know we said we would give it some time/I don’t want to start a fire and I don’t want to start a fight/I was just missing you tonight

Basically they’re afraid to be too aggressive in expressing their love to the other, but at the same time are also afraid they aren’t being aggressive enough in showing it. Think along the lines of Lady Antebellum’s “Need You Now.” I was definitely more impressed with Zimmerman’s vocals in this song and that’s probably what is intended, as Davis is more suited as the second fiddle in this type of song. I thought Zimmerman’s ability to express that desperation in her vocals made up for the lack of storytelling in the lyrics.

Speaking of the lyrics I think they’re just okay and could have been much more. It takes a few listens to not only interpret the sound, but the lyrics in this song. It feels like the line “I was just missing you tonight” is repeated over and over. Needless to say it’s a tad repetitive and I was really waiting for the climax of this song to blow me away. Instead it was kind of whimper. I could say the same of the instrumentation. They simply didn’t reach the full potential of this song and I put a big part of the blame on T Bone Burnett. Sometimes his production choices enhance the songs and in other cases, like “Missing You Tonight,” it hurts the song.

Even though it’s not a great song, I still find it to be decent and I applaud Striking Matches for bringing something different to the table. I definitely think there’s some potential with this duo. Their debut album titled Nothing But The Silence is coming out on March 24 and we’ll definitely be reviewing it here. I want this duo to succeed because they seem quite likable and they’re obviously talented. “Missing You Tonight” is not their best effort and I can’t really recommend it. However I do recommend keeping an eye on this duo because as I said above they have potential.

Grade: 6/10