Album Review – James McMurtry’s ‘Complicated Game’

If you mention the name James McMurtry to anyone in the Americana world, they’re likely to respond with nothing but high praise. “He has that rare gift of being able to make a listener laugh out loud at one line and choke up at the next. I don’t think anybody writes better lyrics,” says Jason Isbell of the singer-songwriter. John Melloncamp has said, “James writes like he’s lived a lifetime.” And even author Stephen King has said, “The simple fact is that James McMurtry may be the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation.” With that kind of praise, you can imagine that expectations are high with each album release from McMurtry. And with his newest album, Complicated Game, being his first release in six years, James McMurtry doesn’t disappoint.

Complicated Game is a songwriter’s album. The production in each song has slight variations, but a majority of the album is met with simple acoustic guitar notes and light drum beats. The driving force of the album is the lyrics and stories that McMurtry has penned. “Copper Canteen” is one of a few songs that speak to the hardworking, little man. Times are rough in the small town, money is tight, and life’s unavoidable circle of old ones dying and new ones being born add to the weight of mom and pop shops closing up because of the invading big box stores. But there’s still time to enjoy the small offerings of life, like getting in that last hunt before the season ends, or drinks with friends at the local pub.

“You Got to Me” is a love song about a wedding. McMurtry reminisces of the two of them when they first started out while providing vivid details of the wedding and party around them. The song documents the maturing process of growing from a single, reckless man to a married, more subdued husband, and McMurtry himself may not quite understand what it all means yet. “I Ain’t Got a Place” is about a traveller. A drifter roaming from town to town, be it a musician or just a nomad, unsatisfied with each place he stays. McMurtry does a great job painting a poignant picture on this track.

“She Loves Me” deals, again, with a travelling man. In one particular town, he has a woman who loves him. Their relationship isn’t monogamous, and they’ll both do as they please while he’s away. However, once he’s back in town, she makes him top priority for her affections. There’s a bit of arrogance in the way McMurtry sings this song, and it’s fitting. “How’m I Gonna Find You Know” is a rocking journey. This man is looking for a woman he’s infatuated with. She’s a badass bartender, and he’s down on his luck with a beat up old car and broken cell phone. This man is hot and ready and made preparations for a passionate night, but after running late, he can’t find, but continues to look. From the banjo to McMurtry rattling off-line after line of great, hilarious details of a night going from bad to worse, this song just rocks, certainly making it an album highlight.

“These Things I’ve Come to Know” is another semi-love song. McMurtry sings of the things he’s learned about the woman he loves. These things seem to be more and more impressive to McMurtry as the song progresses. In “Deaver’s Crossing” McMurtry tells the fictional story of a hitchhiking man who’s hard life got even harder as his farm land was taken to make room for a national park. The story was influenced by Shenandoah National Park’s inception over old farm land, one of which was actually owned by a family named Deaver. McMurtry simply tells a heartbreaking story filling in the blanks himself.

In “Carlisle’s Haul,” James McMurtry tells an epic story of a struggling fisherman. The fisherman and couple buddies illegally fish and try to catch enough to feed themselves and sell to the market for some much-needed cash, all while trying to avoid the law. The seven-minute saga is excellent, fantastic storytelling. “Forgotten Coast” is a simpler, more classic country tune. McMurtry simply moves down to an old coastal town, leaving behind his life and love to fish, sit on a front porch and enjoy an uncomplicated life in solitude. “South Dakota” may be the most heartbreaking song of the collection. A soldier returns to his small South Dakota home after being discharged. But the struggles of the farm life aren’t glamorous: cows are killed by a blizzard, their hides won’t sell much, and there’s no oil or gas to drill for to get some cash. The soldier entertains the idea of re-upping for the army because at home “you won’t get nothing here but broke and older.”

“Long Island Sound” is about a man who moves to the big city to start a new life. As the years have gone by, the hustle and bustle of the big apple and family responsibilities take over, leaving times of growing up in a simple, small town nothing but a distant memory. It’s a memory McMurtry reflects on with a beautiful Celtic-inspired production and an easy sing-along chorus. “Cutter” ends the album with another heartbreaking, sorrowful tune. It’s a biting song that doesn’t beat around the bush. There are demons, painful memories, loneliness haunting this man, and the red ridges from cuts on an arm are the only physical sign of his emotional pains.

James McMurtry can write one hell of a story. The attention to detail he puts in every song is excellent. Old heartbreak songs, love songs, the everyman struggles of making ends meet, all these topics are explored in fresh, innovating ways. There aren’t many songwriters in music like McMurtry. While the production may not necessarily change much between songs, McMurtry’s detailed words and phrases along with the slight rasp of his voice help each song earn a place on the album. Complicated Game is a great songwriting offer from James McMurtry.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – John Moreland’s ‘High on Tulsa Heat’

John Moreland has spent most of his life writing songs and making music. He was in a punk band for a bit, but shifted his personal musical direction once he realized he wanted to sing songs that would hit listeners right in the chest. He wants to write and sing stories that were raw, emotional, and real. 2013’s In the Throes was Moreland’s breakout album, and he follows that heartbreaking collection of songs with High on Tulsa Heat. High on Tulsa Heat is equally as eloquent and poignant as its predecessor. Moreland wrote ten deep, heartbreaking songs about life’s toughest moments. These songs aren’t light, and the mostly stripped back production aids the songs in way that’s like John Moreland inviting his listeners into his soul.

The album begins with “Hang Me in the Tulsa County Stars.” The song appears to deal with dissatisfaction. Searching endlessly to find life’s calling and dealing with pain that you feel when life lets you down. Moreland describes this search with intense imagery; his word choice is excellent with some wonderful rhyme schemes. “This world will have the wolves outside your door, and make you leave all that you love to fight a war and never tell you what you’re dying for.” If you, like myself, hadn’t listened to Moreland before now, this is a prime example of the type of writing he delivers across the board. The production picks up a bit on “Heart’s Too Heavy.” The drums find a nice place behind the guitars, and it sounds like a faint steel guitar in the mix. The song deals with being weary on a journey. Love is dying, dreams aren’t panning out, and there’s doubt and pain weighing you down.

The album slows down again in “Cleveland County Blues.” Here Moreland deals with the pain of being left by his love. He compares her with a tornado, and even though he’s way up in Cleveland County, he won’t soon forget her. There’s some great acoustic country instrumentation behind Moreland’s vocals. Moreland writes of a different side of love on “White Flag.” The relationship in this story is one of endless devotion, possibly to a fault. Where she is struggling to get by with life, he is there to be her white flag. He’ll give everything he has to help her make it through. For my money, “White Flag” is the best song of the album: great writing, great vocals and a perfect production behind the lyrics.

“Sad Baptist Rain” is about being drawn toward temptation. Moreland grew up in the Baptist church, and speaks of how there were times of guilt with his actions and aspirations conflicting with the Baptist ideals. There’s a nice light rock production to this song that fits nicely. “Cherokee” is said to have been written about a lucid dream. The lyrics depict a search for a long-lost figure of wisdom, maybe a deceased father. Moreland engages the listener with vivid descriptions and details that tell a story while leaving interpretation up to the listener.

“Losing Sleep Tonight” finds Moreland dealing with the aftermath of a broken heart. She has left him cold, confused and searching for answers. Moreland simply ponders if she, like him, is losing sleep tonight over the end of the relationship. The melody picks up a bit on this track with heavier drums and guitar strums behind the vocals. “American Flags in Black & White” is another great track that allows room for the listener to find their own meaning. The title alone paints a great picture in your head, and the song uses that image to pine for a time of simpler ways. Life has gotten hard, blows have been dealt, and the characters long for the days from their old black and white pictures.

John Moreland shows a different side of relationships falling apart on the next track. “You Don’t Care for Me Enough to Cry” is about a relationship that’s gone cold. His old demons have gotten the best of him and allowed it to affect their life together. And while he continues to struggle, his actions have left her so burned that she can’t feel any sympathy for his pain. When Moreland describes his desire to punch people in the chest with his songs, this one is a prime example of that. The album ends with the title track. “High on Tulsa Heat” ties the album together in a sped up, but similar melody to the opening track. The theme of searching for a place to call home add to the songs paralleled similarities. Moreland grew up in Tulsa after moving from Kentucky, so it makes sense to have these two particular home-themed songs named after that city. The song works nicely to tie the album together and drive it home.

High on Tulsa Heat is about identity. It’s an album depicting some bad situations and how we can find out who we are in light of those challenges and struggles. John Moreland’s insight on this album is not something that you find in music much anymore. The lyrics all paint vivid, wonderfully imagery, and Moreland puts himself and the listener in the center of each story in a natural way. While fans get a further look into the complex mind of John Moreland, the lyrics also leave enough room for each person to gather their own meaning from the songs. That same praise will also be the dividing line between the casual music fan and those who pine for deep songs and gut punching stories. Moreland doesn’t write for the casual fan; he writes for himself and those who are willing to tag along on his journey.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – William Clark Green’s ‘Ringling Road’

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William Clark Green is one of Texas’ fastest rising stars. His 2013 album, Rose Queen, yielded three top-ten singles for Green on the Texas country charts. Among those top-tens were two chart toppers, including the award-winning “She Likes the Beatles.” The album prior to Rose Queen, 2010’s Misunderstood, sparked the fire for Green. And after Rose Queen’s success, people began calling William Clark Green the next big thing in Texas Country. The 28-year-old singer-songwriter doesn’t quite feel the same way, but the hype surrounding him doesn’t crack his focus. Green reunites with producer Rachel Loy and brings in a few extra guitar players to the recording session for his fourth studio album, Ringling Road. And the result of this fire power is an album that could add more fuel to William Clark Green’s blaze across the Lone Star State and beyond.

Ringling Road starts off with the autobiographical “Next Big Thing.” Here, Green address the hype head on, addressing his hardships of life on the road and still having no money, despite all this critical hype. “The next big thing, what’s that mean? Oh it’s hard to pay your dues when there ain’t no money in the bank. It’s a shame. I got to make to the show but there ain’t no gas in the tank.” There’s a heavy rock production to song, but it’s not as if Green is angry about the hype of his career. With that said though, that’s the type of songwriting you get from William Clark Green: brutal honesty in every situation. “Sticks and Stones” deals with small town gossip. The townsfolk spread rumors about Green and his life on the road, but their words don’t bother him because they’re “nothing but sticks and stones.” The upbeat, roots rocking production drive the song to quick end.

“Creek Don’t Rise” is the most country offering on the whole album. The songwriting here is sharp. The relationship has hit some rough patches, but they’re determined to get through it tonight, if the Lord wills it and the flood of a rising creek doesn’t interfere. The fiddle up front on the melody is a great touch on this two-stepping country jam. Up next is the polarizing title track. “Ringling Road” describes the dysfunctional circus in town: cocaine-addicted trapeze artists, the drunk clown, and the love triangle between the snake charmer, human cannon ball and tattooed man. William Clark Green really does describe a freak show in the truest sense. “Ringling Road” sits as an outlier track in an album of heartbreak tunes, small town life, and life on the road; and you’ll either love or hate this rocking, entertaining freak show song.

“Final This Time” hits you like a brick. In this heartbreaker, Green sings with the tune’s co-writer, Dani Flowers, about a relationship that’s hopefully done for good. The guitar is heavy and moody, a harmonica chimes in, and you can hear the agony in both of their voices as they plead for the end to stick. Flowers’ addition for the female role in the song is a great touch. The song moves slowly, but the development pays off as the pleas turn desperate. On “Fool Me Once” William Clark Green tells of a lonely man who jumps from woman to woman night after night. He doesn’t want to keep waking up alone, so he begs this woman to fool him once. Even if she’s lying, he wants to believe she loves him just to give him some temporary comfort.

“Sympathy” is the current single from the album, and shines as one of the top tracks. His ex-lover just got her own heart-broken by another man. Seeing her in pain brings Green some delight, and he’s not going to sympathize since she made him feel the same way. The song moves nicely between acoustic verses and rocking, anthemic choruses. “Sympathy” is more rock than country, but lyrically the song gets the karma point across without being brash or evil in its story. “Hey Sarah” carries a steel guitar in the production. The song is about getting over Sarah after the relationship ended. Whether it’s in a bar, in the arms of another woman, or at church, Green is determined to get over her.

On “Old Fashioned” William Clark Green takes the stage to complain about simpler times and ways of life disappearing. It begins as a nice sentiment with great imagery of how Austin is becoming like LA. “The interstate’s pumping just like a vein full of California license plates.” However, as the song progresses, Green becomes angrier with the way things have become and quite frankly, he gets rather preachy with his message. “Going Home” is about being excited about getting back home after being out on the road. He’s looking forward to seeing his love again, spending time with her in the bedroom, and simply just reuniting. There’s a light country/rock melody to the production that fits nicely with the lyrics. Finally, William Clark Green hits you hard with another heartbreaker to end the album. “Still Think About You” is as honest as someone can be in a song. He screwed up the relationship and knows it. He knows he may have led her on and is sorry that she “fell in love with someone you could never inspire.” It’s heartbreaking as he details how they first met to the eventual break up. The accompanying piano adds to the emotional brick of the song.

Even with the title track addressing the issue, Ringling Road is an album that won’t quiet the praises and hype of William Clark Green. He is a skilled singer and songwriter who conveys the emotion of the story perfectly. His voice, his lyrics, and the production of the songs work great in conjunction to create a mood that sticks with you. Ringling Road may be more southern rock than actual country, but the 11 tracks all come from the same roots. There’s a reason why William Clark Green has the praise he does, and Ringling Road could very well be the final push for the breakthrough his supporters have hyped up for the past couple of years.

Grade: 8/10

Derek’s Top 10 Country Songs – February 2015

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Two months into 2015, and we’ve had two months of great country music releases. I found February a bit easier to narrow down to ten song, but the music is still, nonetheless, fantastic. From singer songwriters to bands we have a multitude of country styles and songs. I have a diverse top ten list this month:

  1. “Jubilee” by Gretchen Peters – A beautiful song told from the point of view of someone on death’s bed. Reflecting back on what made life meaningful and looking onward with your head held high in acceptance, Peters knocks this one out of the park. “Jubilee” is not only, in my opinion, the best song off Blackbirds, but is also my favorite song of the month.
  2. “Out The Door” by The Mavericks – On an album chock full of energetic and unique productions, this song stands out with is old-school Doo-Wop melody. Even the more somber material of a broken love doesn’t bring down the fun groove of this song.
  3. “When All You Got is a Hammer” by Gretchen Peters – A rough song dealing with the horrors and anxiety that comes from PTSD. This song about a soldier returning home has great detailed writing with a nice, rocking beat that compliments the material well.
  4. “Slow Boat to China” by The Western Swing Authority – A love song about wanting to spend as much time as possible with the one you love. I applaud the band for taking an original approach to a love song. The vocals and melody shine on this track, not to mention a pleasing instrumental break in the song. My favorite off Now Playing.
  5. “Mutineer” by Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires – A love song told with pirate and maritime metaphors. What more can you ask for? I love the stripped down production of the song, and both vocal performances here are top-notch. The better offering off the two-song E.P Sea Songs.
  6. “What You Do to Me” by The Mavericks – Equally as fun and energetic as the other Mavericks’ song on this list, but a more light-hearted and positive love song.
  7. “52 Vincent Black Lightning” by Robert Earl Keen – This timeless song has been a favorite of mine ever since I first heard it a few years ago. An outlaw on a motorcycle falls for a girl, and leaves her his prized motorbike after his untimely death. A unique love story with great writing and rhyme schemes. Robert Earl Keen’s bluegrass rendition of Richard Thompson’s classic is well done here.
  8. “Blackbirds” by Gretchen Peters – The title track to Peters’ fantastic album cannot be overlooked. The intense guitar riffs combined with Gretchen Peters’ haunting vocal delivery and biting lyrics create a wonderfully dark, yet great murder ballad.
  9. Fence Post” by Aaron Watson – Songs that call out mainstream country are always a nice treat. The fearlessness and fun that Aaron Watson sings this song with are great. Watson is a true underdog, and he pulls no punches with this one. Plus, Watson does actual country spoken word on this song and not bogus R&B/Pop/Hip Hop spoken word.
  10. “Losing Side of Twenty Five” by American Aquarium – This is my favorite song off Wolves. As a man right around this age group, I like the way the story and life situations are presented in this song. It’s authentic and well told. Also, the guitar lick on this song is awesome.

That’s my top ten!  I’d love to hear some of your favorites from the month.

 

Album Review – Gretchen Peters’ Blackbirds is a Dark, Poignant Tale of Life

For nearly twenty years, Gretchen Peters has been thriving behind the scenes of Nashville. She found early mainstream success as a songwriter, with Faith Hill cutting Peters’ “The Secret of Life” and Martina McBride recording the award-winning “Independence Day.” While she didn’t quite break through the mold, she continued to write and record. In fact, Gretchen Peters was inducted into the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in October 2014. Now Peters is back with her eighth studio release. Blackbirds is the dark tale of life’s hardships. Gretchen Peters sings songs of death and broken hearts, but the reality grounded in each tale add an ironic sense of beauty to the darkness the album holds.

One of the things that stood out to me the most with this album was the production of each song. Whether it’s a slowed down piano ballad or a more upbeat rocking song, the instrumentation and production add to each and every song’s story and mood. Peters took the production reigns for Blackbirds alongside the album’s guitarist Doug Lancio and pianist Barry Walsh. The title track starts the album off with a haunting, heavy guitar lick production. It’s a murder ballad about killing an alcoholic, probably abusive, father. “Blackbirds” rightfully sets the tone for the whole album from the dark production to the biting lyrics, and Peters’ vocals are equally as haunting. “Pretty Things” is a heartbreaking tale of a woman who hates her beauty because everything materially beautiful eventually falls and is ruined. It’s presented from a view-point of a self-fulfilling prophecy where she believes her outer beauty won’t last.

“When All You Got is a Hammer” details the life of a war veteran back home dealing with PTSD. This has a more rocking, groovy production to the song. This is one of the better written songs on the album, in my opinion. Read the chorus: “they show you how to shoot and they show you how to kill.  They don’t show what do to with this hole you can’t fill.  So you dwell in the darkness of your soul like Jonah in the belly of a whale.  And all you got is a hammer, and everything looks like a nail.” Also, Jason Isbell provides some harmonies on this track, which is a nice addition. Following this song is “Everything Falls Away,” which is a despairing piano ballad about trying to move on after a loved one passes away.

“The House on Auburn Street” is another ballad track. This songs deals with the childhood home of the narrator burning down. Gretchen Peters sings how the town gathers around while the firefighters work to put out the flames, and she reflects on her life living and growing up in the house. The stripped back production and vocals add to the nostalgia embedded into the lyrics. “When You Comin’ Home” is a song about a woman pining for her man to return home. Jimmy La Fave adds vocals in this duet where the couple has grown apart, with lines about the physical home falling apart as a metaphor for the broken relationship.

“Jubilee” is perhaps the best song on the album. Told from the point of view of a person on their death-bed, this song focuses on final thoughts and gearing up to go to heaven. This is a beautiful, gospel like song, with a piano driving the song and excellent vocals from Peters. Also, “Jubilee” features one of the best lines I’ve heard in a song. “My body’s broken, but not my soul. You know it’s love and only love that’s made me whole.” It’s simply a beautiful song. “Black Ribbons” deals with a family in New Orleans trying to survive while hurricanes continue to pound the city. The man has too much pride in the house he built to move, and his fall seems to come in the form of losing his family to the storm.

“Nashville” is an acoustic tune about going home after leaving the one you love. Peters sings this from a first-person point of view. The song is quite introspective with Peters comparing her reckless actions to a train speeding down a mountain or a violent storm on a summer day. “Cure for the Pain” is another heartbreak song about watching a loved one dying in the hospital. The song moves from an angry, helpless perspective to acceptance of the inevitable. Peters’ vocals on top of an acoustic guitar shine on this track; she sells the pain of the situation well here. Blackbirds concludes with an acoustic version of the title track.

Overall, Blackbirds is dark and heartbreaking, but there’s an ironic beauty to the darkness. Gretchen Peters is a seasoned, award-winning songwriter. Her writing on Blackbirds is top-notch; with scenes and feelings described perfectly within each song while still driving the story forward. And as I mentioned before, the production on each track adds even more to the mood of the songs. Regardless of how dark the album may be, the consistency and focus put into making every aspect work in conjunction pays off. Blackbirds is a fantastic album.

Grade: 10/10

If you don’t do Spotify, you can listen to the album here off Soundcloud.