Album Review — Old Dominion’s ‘Old Dominion’

Four years ago Old Dominion released their debut album and to say they didn’t make a good first impression on Country Perspective is an understatement. But still even in hindsight I can say they deserved every bit of criticism they got. They seemed to take notice of the criticisms they received from reviewers too because their sophomore album Happy Endings was a noticeable enough of a step up in quality that I’ve quietly been anticipating this band’s third album. I’ve been hoping that the great glimpses of potential they demonstrated on that album would lead to a good third album. So do they accomplish this with their new self-titled album?

The album’s lead song and single “Make It Sweet” lives up to it’s name: it’s a pretty sweet sounding love song that’s both catchy and heartfelt. It may be a bit saccharine to some listeners, but for me it’s just right and it’s breezy, simple feel makes it an instantly likable song. “Smooth Sailing” is about seeking the more peaceful side of life and remaining upbeat in the face of negativity. Again the simple, singalong nature makes for another solid song. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s not a sentiment that needs overthinking.

“One Man Band” is a song about a lonely man seeking love. The lyrics are downtrodden, yet slightly hopeful and this feeling is conveyed perfectly in this song with the crisp and clean electric guitar lingering through the song and a surprisingly effective snap track that keeps the flow going. It’s one of the band’s best songs to date. Speaking of their best songs, you can add “Never Be Sorry” to that list too. This song instantly hooked me with it’s smooth and infectious sound (another one to add to the yacht country list). And it’s catchy due to it’s minimalist approach, showing you don’t need to go big to make a danceable song. Big props to producer Shane McAnally and the band for coming up with not just a great sounding song, but crafting lyrics that are just as hooky too.

The hot streak for this band continues with “My Heart is a Bar.” It’s another song with great lyrics, as it poignantly lays out the frustration and heartbreak of a man who’s always used as a rebound and the shoulder to cry on, but never the heart that is taken by someone else. What I love most about the lyrics are the way it balances the cynicism and sadness, which really allows anyone who has went through these emotions to be able to connect with it. Matthew Ramsey delivers a fantastic vocal performance here too, showing his growth as a frontman. Also the glimmery piano gives the song an appropriate “tear in my beer” feel.

“Midnight Mess Around” is a smooth and enjoyable sex jam that avoids the creepy pitfalls so many of these types of country songs fall into and has the right amount of playfulness and charisma to make it endearing to the listener. It’s even a bit soulful, which is something new from Old Dominion. “Do It With Me” is about a man pleading to a woman to love and be with him. So here’s a sentence I’ve never typed before: this song really utilizes it’s use of synths and a harp well. It’s weird, but it works! That’s the best way I could describe this track.

“Hear You Now” is your classic heartbreak regret song, where the man is eating crow for letting love slip through his hands. Once again the band displays quality songwriting chops with lyrics like “You used to wake me with a whisper but now the only voice is the pouring rain/And the echo of goodbye just rattles through my mind like a midnight train.” It’s understandable to debate the sound of this album being country at times, but you can’t dispute the country quality in lyrics like the ones above. “I’ll Roll” puts you in the mind of rolling down a desert road. At least the sound does, as it’s got that trippy desert feel thanks to a twangy telecaster. But I feel like the lyrics are lacking a bit and could do a better job of putting you in the mindset the song is going for, as they play it a bit safe.

“American Style” is easily the worst song on the album, with it’s cliché and lazy lyrics that are a dime-a-dozen in the pile of dime-a-dozen country songs about America and small towns. This is basically a smooth version of Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids.” It’s not egregiously bad, but these type of songs just bore me so quickly. “Paint the Grass Green” is about a man vowing to do whatever he has to do to keep the love strong in his relationship. On paper this song definitely seems too sweet and cliché, but then I listen and it surprisingly works. Just like “Make it Sweet,” this song has heart that shines through with it’s tone and presentation that wins you over.

The somber piano ballad “Some People Do” shows yet another side of Old Dominion to cap off the album, this time their most serious side. It’s about hoping and seeking forgiveness from someone you did wrong. Ramsey once again delivers a praise-worthy vocal performance, showing great vulnerability with his falsetto and conveying the appropriate amount of emotional depth needed to connect a serious piano ballad with the listener. If there’s one song I had to point to on this album to demonstrate how far this band has come, this would be the song.

With their self-titled album, Old Dominion officially sheds the bro country moniker that once plagued them. Old Dominion prove they now deserve to be taken seriously. This album shows incredible growth, depth and a nice balance of both serious and fun songs. The production is varied and shows this band is capable of delivering multiple styles. Most importantly this band has undeniably improved in all facets and dare I say positioning themselves as one of the best groups in mainstream country music. This album isn’t good, it’s great.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Midland’s ‘Let It Roll’

Midland delivered a great debut album with On The Rocks and for their sophomore release Let It Roll, they improve in almost all aspects. Yet somehow, it’s a slight step down in album quality, which I attribute to the great strength of their debut album and putting just a few too many tracks on Let It Roll. Case in point is the opening song and title track, which is just a bad choice to open the album. It’s decidedly one of the weakest tracks on the album, lacking in both the vibrancy and lyrical catchiness in comparison to most of the other songs on the album. I usually skip this track when listening to the album and jump right into “Fourteen Gears,” which is a great track. It’s the ideal driving song, with both it’s lyrical theme of driving a long way to see your baby and it’s bouncy, 80s flavored melody.

The album’s lead single “Mr. Lonely” would have also been my choice for the leading track of this album. It’s just a flat out fun and catchy song about the lonely fool at the bar always there to be the rebound guy for lonely women. I love the music video with Dennis Quaid too. “Cheatin’ Songs” immediately hooks me with its smooth melody and has that same easiness about it in its lyrical approach like previous Midland singles “Burn Out” and “Drinkin’ Problem.” The same can be said about “Put the Hurt on Me.” Its your classic heartbreak country ballad that country fans can take to like a duck takes to water. I really enjoy the intertwining of the pedal steel guitar and Telecaster on “I Love You, Goodbye.” It’s what country rock is supposed to sound like.

“Every Song’s a Drinkin’ Song” is a fun singalong, but it can get a bit old after extended listens due to it’s predictable approach and a couple of forced wordplays. “21st Century Honky Tonk American Band” is a mouthful of a song title, but it showcases what this band is best at and that’s taking simple themes and making them feel fresh to the listener. The sights and sounds of a band always on the road is a common theme, but the lyrics and melody of this song make it engaging and interesting by not dwelling on a moment too long and keeping the energy moving. I also enjoy the switch in melody at the end, as it’s a different wrinkle within the album.

“Fast Hearts and Slow Towns” feels like something the Eagles would have cut and this is a great thing because that’s Midland’s lane. It’s a simple, reflective song on a lost small town love and once again this is such a common theme in country music, but I’m not screaming cliché because of Midland’s approach and the wise choices by producers Shane McAnally, Dann Huff and Josh Osborne. The trio clearly know how to position this band to sound their best. “Cheatin’ by the Rules” is fine, as it does nothing especially right nor wrong. So, it would have been fine being left on the cutting room floor too.

Midland’s tendency to inject catchy wordplay can do them in at times, but when they get it right, they can hit grand slams and “Playboys” is a perfect example. It’s all centered around the chorus and the words play and boys, which on paper sounds like a mess. Yet you listen to it and it just works. The best I can explain of why I like this song is that’s it’s playful, fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is the appeal of Midland in a nutshell. “Lost in the Night” sounds like it’s straight out of early 80s country with it’s sultry, R&B influenced sound. The cherry on top is the smooth sounds of saxophones that play the song out. You’ll either love or hate this track. Put me firmly on the love side, as this is a side of country music that needs to be shown more.

“Gettin’ the Feel” is another solid heartbreak song from the group, but it feels out of place on the track list. To me it just feels like it’s in weird spot on the album, especially since the album closes as weakly as it started with “Roll Away.” I understand how the band wanted to open and close with tracks with roll in the title. But it fails to have an impact when both songs are head and shoulders the weakest on the album, as both suffer from the same issues of just not measuring up in terms of lyrical and melody quality with the rest of the songs. You can’t put such weak tracks next to strong tracks because they stick out like sore thumbs. “Lost in the Night” would have been the perfect closer.

Despite my criticisms, Let It Roll shows this is a band that can pull off various sounds quite well and are far from the one-trick pony session players that some tried to paint them as when they arrived on the scene (they even contribute to all the writing on the album). Midland avoids the sophomore slump and delivers one of the better country albums you’ll hear this year.

Grade: 8/10

Review – Midland’s “Drinkin’ Problem”

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A traditional country band on a major label? Being pushed at radio? Yeah right. You’re pulling my leg. There’s no way this new group Midland is a traditional group, so let’s take a look at them. They’re a trio made up of Mark Wystrach (lead singer), Jess Carson (lead guitarist) and Cameron Duddy (bass player). Based out of Dripping Springs, Texas they came up with their name based off a Dwight Yoakam song. Some of their biggest influences they cite are Merle Haggard and Gary Stewart. Hold on a second. Stewart? Anyone who cites him as an influence must be the real deal (and good people to boot). After listening to lead single “Drinkin’ Problem” these guys prove they’re absolutely the real deal. This is straight up, stone cold, country music. It immediately takes me back to what country radio sounded like a couple of decades ago with all of the steel guitar. The song is your classic country theme of a guy at the bar drinking. Everyone is calling the situation a problem and something he needs to stop. But he assures it’s very much a solution and the real problem is heartbreak and a lot of thinking. Props to producer Shane McAnally for keeping the production restrained and letting the lyrics really drive this song. Wystrach’s delivers an all-around solid vocal performance. This is a group I can’t wait to hear more from. They’ve only released a self-titled EP so far and are currently working on a full album with McAnally and Josh Osborne. If that album is along the lines of “Drinkin’ Problem” and the rest of the EP, we’re in for a real treat. This is country music done right.

Grade: 8/10

 

Recommend? – Yes

Written by Mark Wystrach, Jess Carson, Cameron Duddy, Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne

Review – Sam Hunt’s “Body Like A Back Road”

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Sam Hunt has new music. Joy. I’ve been looking forward so much to hearing new music from Country Perspective’s Worst Song of 2015 winner. Hunt broke out three years ago with his smash hit “Take Your Time” and has become one of the biggest stars in the genre. Montevallo shocking got high praise from critics; of course not from us. Radio loves him and it’s pretty clear Hunt is sticking around for the long haul. And I’m still sticking to my thoughts on Hunt. He’s just not country, even though I will say he can be a decent songwriter sometimes. Basically I refer to him  as the Drake of country music. So with his new single “Body Like A Back Road” does he sound anymore country? Of course not. He appears to be doubling down on his sound. The first thing that sticks out is the ridiculous song name. It’s as dumb as it sounds, as Hunt compares a woman’s body to a back road with the most obviously cliché comparisons: curves, speeding, etc. To put it simply: it’s a sex song. A creepy one at that too because of lines like this: “Body like a back road/ Could drive it with my eyes closed/ I know every curve like the back of my hand.” Or where Hunt objectifies women even more: “The way she fit in them blue jeans/ She don’t need no belt / But I can turn ’em inside out / I don’t need no help/ Got hips like honey/ So thick and so sweet.” Add to the fact that I’ve said before Hunt can’t pull off romantic/sexy songs because he doesn’t have the charisma and charm, instead coming off like a sleazy bro at the bar. This is supposed to be fun apparently. Yes, it’s so much fun I’m sure for a lady hearing a bro go into creepy details about her body. The cheap “House Party” like sound with some really token drops of steel guitar and organ don’t help. This whole song makes me want to puke (also take a shower) as Hunt solidifies himself once again as one of the worst of country music with “Body Like A Back Road.”

Grade: 0/10

 

Recommend? – Nooooooooo waaaaaay

 

Written by Sam Hunt, Zach Crowell, Josh Osborne and Shane McAnally

Video – Caitlyn Smith’s “Before You Called Me Baby”

Caitlyn Smith is a name hopefully many of you are going to start hearing more soon. The longtime songwriter just inked a deal with the revived Monument Records this past week. Sony Music is the one who has brought it back to life and has tabbed Sandbox CEO Jason Owen and hit songwriter Shane McAnally to be the co-presidents of Monument. It’s going to be an imprint of Sony Music Entertainment. Smith along with Walker Hayes are the first signees.

Smith released a fantastic EP titled Starfire last year and I highly recommend checking it out. Smith recently performed a track off the album in a bank vault, “Before You Called Me Baby.” Give it a watch and get a glimpse of an artist I believe to be one of the next big deals in country music.