Album Review — Caitlyn Smith’s ‘Supernova’

I gave high praise to Caitlyn Smith’s last album Starfire. Hence why I had such high hopes for the follow-up and put it as an album to watch out for in my inaugural Spinning All The Records feature. Unfortunately this album does not live up to the hopes I had for it. It would be hard to call this album anything other a disappointment from my eyes and that’s hard to say considering the immense talent of Caitlyn Smith. But that’s just it: Smith has an amazing voice and even better songwriting skills. And it results in Supernova. She’s just capable of so much more.

The album begins well enough with “Long Time Coming.” It’s a dramatic song about overcoming darkness to reach the light. Smith sings her ass off and delivers a belting performance that impresses. The production has an immediate gravitas about it and grips the listener. While the production works really well in in this song and other moments on the album, this extra emphasis on the production is the ultimate detriment of the album. “Damn You For Breaking My Heart” is another highlight on the album, a cutting track about having a hard time getting over a breakup. Smith adds so many nice little details to give the story texture, such as trying to hook up with a stranger and then feeling the instant guilt because she can’t get over her ex.

“Put Me Back Together” feels like a mainstream play, but it’s an enjoyable enough song, as I find it easy to sing-a-long with. Smith delivers a fun vocal performance. I think this song would be easier to enjoy if the rest of the album was better though. “All Over Again” is another song that contemplates lost love and the what ifs of the relationship. It’s just fine. Neither good nor bad, as nothing about the production nor the vocal performance stands out. It feels like playlist filler and this certainly isn’t the last instance of this on the album. “I Don’t Want to Love You Anymore” is great with it’s stripped down, airy production that allows Smith’s voice to carry the story of the song. Despite this being another song about not wanting to love someone anymore, it’s Smith’s vocal performance that really sells the emotions of the song and makes it connectable.

The album’s title track centers around the concept of time, how things can change so fast and trying to enjoy the moment. I really enjoy the songwriting and Smith’s eloquent, yet nuanced approach to time. But man do I find the sound of the clock hands in the background to be annoying and distracting. I get the inclusion of it, but as soon as I hear this the first time it bugs me every time I hear it the rest of the song. It’s just not necessary and it takes away from what should be a great song. To make matters worse this leads right into the playlist filler portion of Supernova. “I Can’t” sounds like a generic B-cut from a (insert pop star from the 2010s) album. “Rare Bird” feels like it drags on and on, as Smith has nothing interesting to say in this love song. “Midnight in New York City” has a cool aesthetic, but the lyrics are completely forgettable.

The monotony gets broken up on “Fly Away,” which is a fun love song. It’s catchy and the bounciness of the production gives it a lightness and carefree feel that fits the lyrics well. Although I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this feels like a lesser version of “Contact High.” I really enjoy “Feel That Way” at first. It’s soulful, swelling with emotion and utilizes Smith’s vocals perfectly. But it goes too long, as at about the three minute mark Smith’s repetition of the hook makes it a frustrating listen. It’s very similar to how in hip-hop when an artist repeats the hook one too many times, crossing from fun and catchy into terrible ear worm territory. The album concludes with “Lonely Together,” an admirable attempt at a heartfelt love song. The soft piano play sets the mood for this type of song exactly the way you would want it. But just like so many other songs on the album, the lyrics don’t stand out enough for me.

The tale of the tape for Supernova is quite simple: this album focuses too much on flash and not enough on substance. Smith seemingly forgets about her greatest strength on this album and that’s her songwriting. It soared and impressed on Starfire. On this album the songwriting is so lifeless and it feels like so many themes are used multiple times and recycled. There are some bright spots on this album, but they’re dominated by what I would describe as run-of-the-mill pop rock moments for the most part. I never thought I would levy this kind of criticism toward a Caitlyn Smith album, but the songwriting just isn’t good enough. Supernova is ultimately just an okay album.

Grade: 5/10

Album Review — John Moreland’s ‘LP5’

You would be hard-pressed to find many songwriters in music today better than John Moreland. His albums over the last decade contain some of the rawest and realest lyrics you’ll hear and his new album LP5 is no different. “Harder Dreams” opens the album, serving as a commentary on modern media, ads and the difficulty of realizing individuality in a world where everybody wants you to be something else. Right away you get to hear the new production approach Moreland and his producer Matt Pence take with this album, incorporating airy synths and drum machines. Just like Moreland’s last album Big Bad Luv, I love the different approach he takes with the production. And rest assured this isn’t the first time on this album I come away impressed by the instrumentation.

“A Thought is Just a Passing Train” has a catchy and bouncy feel thanks to some well-deployed drum loops throughout. The song though reflects on how dark thoughts can pass through your mind, but Moreland ultimately telling the listener to let their shame of this darkness go and to be easier on oneself. I enjoy the vocal effects used by Moreland too, as it gives the song a more ominous and serious tone. “East October” is another song focused on darkness, this time on what appears to be a fallout of a relationship and leaving the man questioning how he can continue on alone. Atmospheric guitars, drum loops and melodic pianos blend together to create a lush, sobering, mellow sound that set the perfect background to the lyrics.

“I’m Learning How to Tell Myself the Truth” is about a man recognizing the lies each person in the relationship is telling themselves. He then comes to the conclusion that he just wants to “move her” and seeing things more clearly than what he has been seeing. It’s a moving and honest song about…well honesty. But what makes this song so good is how Moreland’s lyrics dance around kind of vaguely throughout and at the end they all add up, leaving me as the listener with a sort of “a ha” moment of realizing what this song is all about. A lot of songwriters who use abstract lyrics fail to make them work because most listeners aren’t able to derive the message, but Moreland excellently deploys subtlety to tell this song’s story.

“Two Stars” is a peaceful and easy-feeling instrumental that shows another side to Moreland I’m happy to see. So many songwriters get hung up in the lyrics and don’t pay attention to the production, but Moreland is clearly not one of these songwriters. “Terrestrial” explores each sides of a relationship, the joyful beginnings and the sorrowful end. This might be my favorite on the album, as the lyrics are beautifully descriptive of each side of the relationship coin and the production is rich and textured. The mix of instrumentation in the bridge, largely driven by delicate plinking of the piano, gives me chills with it’s serene sound. My only complaint is I wish it was longer. Well done to Moreland and Pence.

Moreland once again does a great job of using abstract lyrics to tell a story on “In Times Between.” This one is about the crushing and lingering heartbreak after breaking up. The last lines in particular are so devastating, yet just drive the point of the song home so well: “But lately I’ve been feelin’ like I’ll never sleep again/I sit up in a satellite and watch the cold world spin/But damn it all to hell, but don’t it mean a thing?/The love we knew so well was barely hangin’ on a string.” After that dark note, Moreland lightens things up with “When My Fever Breaks.” It’s a heartwarming love song, a side I’m glad that Moreland opened up thanks to his newfound marriage on his last album Big Bad Luv. While it may not quite punch the gut likes his dark songs for many, I think he can write the love songs just as well too.

“I Always Let You Burn Me to the Ground” once again sees Moreland and Pence find a good balance of drum loops and synths to create an interesting and vibrant sound. It’s another love song that features solid songwriting, but doesn’t quite stick as well emotionally for me as “When My Fever Breaks.” Moreland delivers another enjoyable instrumental with “For Ichiro,” which I thought would be about the legendary outfielder. But Moreland said it was basically just a random shoutout. Damn. Still a funny little story behind the song though. The album closes with “Let Me Be Understood,” which features some well-placed, warm harmonica licks throughout. The song itself is about being accepted and understood for who you are, not who you once were. It’s a nice choice to end that album, as Moreland clearly seems to be drawing from his experiences of growth and change, reflecting on the man he once was and the man he is now.

LP5 is another fantastic album from John Moreland. He’s always been a great songwriter since his first album, but it’s the recognition to grow and experiment with his sound starting with his last album that’s taken him to a whole new level in my mind. Too many singer-songwriter artists think they have to stick to a stripped-down, folk-y sound for their lyrics to be taken seriously. At the same time, drum machines are dismissed as “not real instruments” used by pop stars. Well with LP5, Moreland proves both these claims to be moot.

Grade: 9/10

Review – Charlie Worsham’s “The Beginning of Things”

cw_thebeginningofthings-v19-copy_sq-7e21bcc8298d0ca423aba84c7a385d501472877d-s300-c85

Charlie Worsham is a name that more people should know in country music. His debut album, Rubberband, is an excellent singer-songwriter album with an eclectic sound, rich, heartfelt stories, and Worsham’s smooth, soft vocals. While he hasn’t seen much traction from the album, Charlie Worsham’s career is still young, as he’s set to release his second album this spring. To begin promotion for the album, titled Beginning of Things, Worsham has released the album’s title track for fans to hear. The song centers around William, or Bill, a man who only seems to enjoy the beginning of things. With unfinished home projects and unrealized life dreams, Bill settles down with his childhood love, Sam. Bill and Sam have a daughter, only for him to run out and become an estranged man in the lives of those two women. The song doesn’t resolve Bill’s story in a happy fashion, keeping with the status quo of the story Worsham has presented. In trying to tell a story that pretty much spans a lifetime, writers Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods, pack quite a bit into four minutes. The result is a rushed story with details quickly rattled off to get to the next place in timeline. The song itself doesn’t change much with the tempo over the duration, hovering in the mid-tempo range with the same acoustic guitar strum repeated. “The Beginning of Things” is a bold endeavor of a story song that doesn’t quite hit the mark for the intended wordplay or emotional effect. With that said, it’s exciting to hear new music from Charlie Worsham, and his upcoming album is one to look out for.

Grade: 6/10

Recommend? – Worth one listen

Written by Abe Stoklasa and Donovan Woods

Album Review – Mack McKenzie’s ‘A Million Miles’

mack-mckenzie-a-million-miles

Mack McKenzie came across the radar of Country Perspective in 2014. He released debut album One Last, One More late in year and it really impressed me. The Dayton, Ohio area based artist’s vocal style and approach evokes thoughts of Texas-based country artist Jason Eady. A lot of the songs on the album delved into darker matters such as depression and heartbreak, perfectly fitting of his gravel-y toned voice. I think what I enjoyed the most about his debut album was how confident and sure he was in his sound. You could just tell he knows what type of music he wants to make when he goes into a studio and thought behind it. So I was eager to hear how he would follow-up this solid debut with his new sophomore album A Million Miles. One thing that stands out about it immediately is it has a more cohesive theme throughout it. But it doesn’t necessarily always work on each song.

One of the standouts of this album is definitely “Drunk Over Your.” It’s your classic drink your sorrows away country song. This is the kind of song that fits McKenzie really well and can knock out with ease. The amount of sorrow and darkness in his voice really sets the perfect tone for the song. “Tell Me” sees a man pleading and hoping that his ex is missing him as much as he misses her everyday. He wonders if she wakes up from dreams in the middle of the night and if that she wants him back again. It’s a desperate, clinging hope for something that probably still isn’t there. “I Wonder” is very much along the same lines, but I think “Tell Me” gets this desperate hoping across better.

The desperation comes across great too on “M – 3.” The man just refuses to stop giving a damn about the woman he lost and he’s willing to wait a while for her to come back. This could mean him or her changing, but he refuses to give up on something that he feels so strongly about. It’s a really strong song and shows off McKenzie’s ultimate strength: expressing pain and heartbreak in his words and vocals. This theme is kind of reversed on “Where Do You Get Off.” Here the man calls bullshit on his ex saying she still loves him. But then realizes he still loves her too. In other words things are pretty complicated between the two. Neither can really come out and say what they want.

The biggest problem I seem to find with this album is that I find some of the songs over stay their welcome. That’s most exemplified on “Reasons.” It’s a perfectly fine song about a couple giving up on love while still together. But there’s no reason why it should be nearly eight minutes in length. If you’re going to make a song this long, it better be justified. It reminds me of what one of my old English teachers used to tell me: if you can say something in fewer words than what you’ve written, you need to do it. Otherwise you’re just filling space. McKenzie tackles romance and passion in “Give It To Me.” And as much as I want to like it, I just don’t. It comes off too schmaltzy for my taste. It’s not bad, but I just don’t think it fits him and his style. He’s at his best when he’s singing about grittier themes and this just seems a little too polished for him.

For the most part I think a majority of the songs on A Million Miles work well and I can see the idea McKenzie is going for with the whole album. But unfortunately he just doesn’t fully execute it to its full potential. The album kind of gets off to a slow start with its two opening songs, which I find are too broad and similar. Not to mention it doesn’t really hook you into the album like opening songs should do. It wasn’t until the third song that I really started to get into the album. The middle part of this album is where it shines brightest and found myself enjoying the most. McKenzie undoubtedly likes to dig deep with his songwriting, but I think he digs too deep on this album at times to the point where you lose the listener (I had a similar criticism with Jack Ingram’s latest album). What this album also lacked was taking risks and doing more with the sound. Despite my criticisms though, I still find A Million Miles to be a good album with some nice moments that make it worth checking out.

Grade: 7/10

 

Recommend? – Yes, if you like artists such as Jason Eady, Ryan Bingham and Corb Lund

Album Highlights: Drunk Over You, M – 3, Tell Me, Where Do You Get Off

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: A Million Miles, Anywhere But Here

Also the album artwork is fantastic! Kudos to the artist who made it.


You can preview and purchase Mack McKenzie’s A Million Miles at Amazon, Google Play and iTunes.

Album Review – Lori McKenna’s ‘The Bird & The Rifle’

Lori McKenna has been recording and releasing music for nearly 16 years, but with her songwriting success over the past year, now is as good a time as ever for her to release an album. McKenna co-wrote Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” with Liz Rose and Hillary Lindsey, a song which captured the attention of pretty much everyone. And most recently, Tim McGraw’s “Humble & Kind”, written solely by McKenna, topped the airplay charts and has gone onto be a career hit for McGraw. McKenna teamed up with producer Dave Cobb with The Bird & The Rifle, Lori McKenna delivers nine brand new songs as well as her own recording of “Humble & Kind.”

The Bird & The Rifle begins with the heartbreaking “Wreck You.” McKenna sings from the first person point of view of a wife struggling to find out why her marriage has been falling apart. She’s not exactly sure where things went wrong or what she needs to do to change and fix it, but she’s aware that something is definitely wrong. You can hear the pain in McKenna’s voice as she sings. This is followed by the excellent title track for the album. An acoustic driven story song, Lori McKenna sings of another troubled marriage. She compares the wife to a bird and the husband to a rifle, two things that don’t go together well. While the bird can sing beautiful songs that rifle loves, the bird has the urge to fly but seems to be held down by the rifle’s fear and anger. “Something about the bird her spreading those wings always seems to bring the rifle out in him.” It’s a tried and true story, but McKenna writes and delivers it with a new sense of purpose and heart.

Lori McKenna visits small town life with “Giving Up on Your Hometown.” A bit more upbeat song than the first two, but this song takes a solemn look returning to your hometown and not recognizing how it has changed. People have passed, old hot spots have been torn down, and the place simply doesn’t feel like home anymore. Even with a more slightly upbeat production, the song doesn’t drift any faster than a mid-tempo ballad. “Halfway Home” tells the story of a woman who’s stuck in relationships with men who are unreliable or around for only one night. The song encourages the woman to keep moving on because she’s halfway home, half of the way to finding the true love she deserves. “Halfway Home” is another excellent vocal delivery from Lori McKenna.

I like Tim McGraw’s recording of “Humble & Kind”, but Lori McKenna’s recording on The Bird & The Rifle is even better. Maybe it’s due to the fact that McKenna is the lone writer of the song, but she sings the lyrics with such a conviction that isn’t present in McGraw’s recording. “Humble & Kind” is a song with fantastic lyrics, and hearing Lori McKenna sing them is a gift for the listener. “We Were Cool” is another song of nostalgia. Lori McKenna reminisces about growing up and how she and her friends felt cool riding in the older brother’s cool car. With an album full of poignant heartbreaking songs (and following the excellent “Humble & Kind”), “We Were Cool” gets a little lost in the shuffle, but it’s still a fun song to listen to, and it doesn’t make it a bad song by any stretch of the imagination.

Another album standout is the brutally honest “Old Men Young Women.” For starters, this song has one of the best opening lyrics. “You can have him; I hope you have fun. I guess wife number three could be the one.” Lori McKenna, presumably singing from the perspective of wife number one, speaks to the young third wife, shining a light on the dark corners of the marriage. She’s the trophy and link to a past he’ll never experience again, and he has the material resources to provide for her. But at the end of the day, neither one is fulfilled emotionally and it’s only a matter of time before the relationship meets its inevitable end.

“All These Things” is an upbeat love song, perhaps the most upbeat song of the album. McKenna lists off several different things and situations that illustrate the strength to their devotion to one another. “Always Want You” is a song about trying to get over a break up. Just like water runs through the creek bed or church bells ring on Sunday, McKenna believes she’ll always want the one she can’t have. “If Whiskey Were a Woman” is another heartbreaking song about a marriage on the rocks. Again, Lori McKenna is singing from the perspective of a woman who has let her marriage fall apart. She knows she can’t love and comfort her husband like she should, and compares herself to the whiskey he clings to and drinks, and how she would be if she were the whiskey.

In a word, The Bird & The Rifle is excellent. Lori McKenna writes and sings great stories with a stunning conviction and honesty. These truly are McKenna’s stories to tell, and she sells you on that truth. Even with the slower and mid-tempo production, Dave Cobb helps keep the focus of the album on McKenna’s voice and words, which is where the strength of the album lies. Whether it’s a single word choice in the title track or the biting delivery in “Old Men Young Women”, Lori McKenna let’s focal point of the album shine. The Bird & The Rifle is a must listen and a must buy album. Lori McKenna delivers a stunning country, folk album.

Grade: 10/10