Album Review – Dwight Yoakam’s ‘Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars…’

dwight-yoakam-swimmin-pools-movie-stars

It’s pretty simple: If Dwight Yoakam releases new music, you should pay attention. At least that’s how I feel about the iconic Bakersfield-sound country artist. When discussing the titans and legends of country music you’ll always (rightly) hear about Dolly Parton, Hank Williams, George Jones, Willie Nelson and George Strait. But you never hear Yoakam’s name thrown in with them when in my opinion he 100% belongs amongst the best in the history of country music. Thanks to him, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley, they brought style and tradition back to a genre in the 80s that sorely lacked the earmarks that had made the genre special and memorable. Yoakam’s incorporation of elements of rock into his brand of country music quickly made him a ton of fans and still has a pretty loyal following to this day. He really did introduce a lot of rock fans who didn’t bother with country before to the genre, something that often gets overlooked.

The last we heard from Yoakam was his 2015 album Second Hand Heart, released via Warner. It was personally one of my favorites from last year and found it to be a solid country album from start to finish. And unlike a lot of older country artists Yoakam has accepted that country radio won’t play him anymore. He certainly won’t ever be one to chase trends either. In fact he’s done the opposite with his newest project. Yoakam announced earlier this year he was going to do a bluegrass album that would consist of some of his best music, only in bluegrass form (plus a surprise I’ll get to in a second). That album, Swimmin’ Pools, Movies Stars…, is now here (released via Sugar Hill Records). If you’re a fan of Yoakam or bluegrass, you’ll certainly have a lot of fun listening to it.

While it’s jarring at first to hear iconic songs like “Two Doors Down” and “Guitars, Cadillacs” in bluegrass form, after a few listens they’re really fun and it’s cool to hear them in a different way that’s still great. They don’t top the original versions of course, but it’s interesting as a fan to hear Yoakam be able to craft such untouchably good songs into something different and still make the music sound great. What also impressed me about these bluegrass covers is Yoakam’s swagger and attitude really doesn’t disappear. When I think of bluegrass I think of a humble tone, yet Yoakam makes it sound cool because I think it’s impossible for Yoakam to not give his music a feeling of coolness. Of course while I’m impressed by the album as a whole, the track that undoubtedly stands out for me and I think a lot of listeners is Yoakam’s cover of the legendary Prince’s “Purple Rain.” The one-of-a-kind artist’s death earlier in 2016 undoubtedly sent shockwaves throughout the entire music world, as Prince’s music influenced and touched artists and fans of all genres. It was no different for Yoakam, who felt inspired to honor the artist’s late memory by covering one of his best songs he told People:

“I always loved the song. The first time I heard it, it stopped me in my car. It struck me as interesting and as unique an expression of love musically as anything ever in pop music,” Yoakam says. “I thought it spoke volumes about the honest willingness of the person who wrote it to bare his heart to the world through his music. Prince, I never really knew you, but I’m sure going to miss you.”

I recommend reading the whole interview he gave on recording it and deciding to put it on the album if you haven’t yet. One thing I love about Yoakam’s cover is that he keeps the rawness and passion of the song intact. That’s what makes the song standout so much for me, as Prince just puts all of his heart and soul into the song. Yoakam’s interpretation doesn’t match it because nobody can match it, but I’m glad I still felt those elements when listening to Yoakam’s version. It’s good the instrumentation was kept downbeat too, as this song is supposed to have a melancholy undertone to it. So many artists covered Prince after his death, but not many did him justice like Yoakam does here.

I always find it fun and exciting to watch legendary artists take on new and different musical side projects and Dwight Yoakam’s Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars… is no different. It’s yet another album for fans of Yoakam to enjoy, as well as a pleasure for anyone who enjoys bluegrass. Swimmin’ Pools, Movie Stars is one of those albums you can just throw on at anytime and enjoy.

Grade: 8/10

Album Review – Kasey Chambers’ ‘Bittersweet’

Kasey Chambers Bittersweet

The Australian country music scene deserves more attention. And I can’t stress this enough. A lot of people may not think of Australia when thinking about country music, but they’re a lot more country than you think. There are a lot of great Aussie country artists making music and if there’s one area of the country music world I wish I had given more coverage throughout the year to, it would be Australia country music. I’m going to start making up for it now though with this review. If you aren’t familiar with her, meet Kasey Chambers. She’s a 39-year-old singer-songwriter who has been making music for over a decade and has racked up multiple platinum albums in her home country. She’s signed with Warner Music Australia and she just recently released to the U.S. her new album Bittersweet through Sugar Hill Records. Australia received this album last year, so it’s not new to them. Although I’m very jealous they’ve been listening to this for a year because this album is full of great music.

Bittersweet begins with “Oh Grace,” a beautiful and poignant song. Chambers sings from the point of view of a man in this song, who’s in love with a woman. Her voice is stunning in this song, as it fits perfectly with the mostly banjo instrumentation. It’s very much a throwback song. Chambers sings about religion and believing in God in “Is God Real?” She seems to grapple with the concept throughout the song and it’s certainly an interesting commentary on the subject. Regardless of your stance, the songwriting is solid. “I Would Do” is a love song where a woman professes her love for her man. She would be willing to do anything for his love, as Chambers sings throughout the song. Once again her voice is just great and really something I thought to myself on every song on this album. It’s not only dynamic, but tells a story well and engages the listener.

One of the more rocking tunes on the album is “Hell Of A Way To Go.” It’s a song very much driven by the guitar play and has an infectious rhythm. Once again the great songwriting shines on “House On A Hill.” The imagery the lyrics inspire in the listeners’ heads is so vivid and clear. Her father Bill Chambers, a fellow country singer and her inspiration also joins Chambers on the song. The father-daughter duo sound great together and I’m glad she included him on the song. The oddest song on the album is “Stalker.” Yet it’s also arguably the most fun too. Chambers sings about stalking someone she’s obsessed with and the lyrics are really creepy. Upon first listen I didn’t know what the hell to think. But after several more listens the song is stuck in my head because it’s catchy as hell and the instrumentation is really fun. Maybe I’m just a sucker for these gothic inspired country tunes.

Chambers grapples with another religious related theme on “Heaven Or Hell.” As you can gather from the title, she wonders where you go when you die, to heaven or hell. Again the lyrics are catchy and easy to get stuck in your head, but getting good songwriting stuck in your head is never a bad thing. The album’s title track is the second duet on the album, as Chambers sings with fellow Australian singer-songwriter Bernard Fanning. This is my first exposure to Fanning and I have to say my first impression is a great one. His voice is as smooth as silk and when you combine it with a dynamic voice like Chambers’, you get magic. I can see why this is Chambers’ favorite song on the album. It’s fantastic and a must-listen.

“Too Late To Save Me” is a song about a prostitute living with herself and dealing with the effects of her actions. The mandolin and banjo play on this song first off is just amazing. It immediately made me engage with the song. Then you throw in equally great songwriting and Chambers’ voice. Just when you think you’ve heard the best song on the album, another makes you rethinks this. This is another gem on Bittersweet. With the penultimate song on the album, Chambers sings about…Christmas on “Christmas Day.” This really threw me for a loop, as you don’t hear too many songs about Christmas in the summer. It goes deeper than this, as Chambers recounts the story of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. She puts a spin on it though, as she makes it sound like a more romantic story. I have to admit I never looked at this story from this angle, but I’ll be damned it works. This is one of those songs you need to hear yourself, as I’m sure even my description leaves you a little puzzled.

The album closes out with “I’m Alive,” a song with plenty of harmonica and good ole fashioned picking, if you know what I mean. It’s a bluegrass tune about just being thankful to be alive, something I’m sure we’ve all thought after going through a crazy experience. It’s one of those simple life songs that after a long day, hits you just right. Chambers shows off her bluegrass style in this song and they’re just as impressive as the rest of her styles throughout this album.

If you’re not familiar with the name Kasey Chambers, you’ve picked the perfect time to do so with her new album Bittersweet. It’s an absolutely fantastic record that excels in every area throughout it. Her voice is definitely one of the best and a great throwback to the female country artists of days past. The instrumentation is rich and full of variety. I also must point out that the banjo is essentially the base instrumentation of the entire album, giving the album a very old school feel, which is a nice touch. This is an album that has something for everyone and one you need to hear.

Grade: 9/10

 

 

Album Review – Lee Ann Womack’s The Way I’m Livin’

The return of Lee Ann Womack to country music couldn’t have come at a better time. Female country artists are struggling to make a dent in mainstream country music in radio and older artists are being pushed further from radio every day. Womack falls in both of these categories, making her album even more significant. She’s also no longer part of a major label, joining bluegrass label Sugar Hill Records. With this newfound creative freedom and some extended time off, the anticipation for her new album The Way I’m Livin’ has certainly been high. I should note from the beginning that she did not write a single song on this album, but this is not a problem. Instead of writing her own songs, she went out and did something I’ve been begging mainstream country artists to do. She brought in an all-star cast of writers for the songs on this album. Garth Brooks has been rumored to do the same thing with his album. There are so many talented writers out there that deserve to be noticed and by bringing in these great writers, it allowed Womack to focus more on her vocal performance on this album (which shines brightly I might add).

The album begin with the prelude, “Fly.” It’s a soft song about Womack wishing she was in heaven flying above and seeing the whole world. Her vocals are absolutely stellar (get used to me saying this throughout the review). The writers for this song are Reed Foehl and Brent Cobb. If you recall, Cobb also co-wrote and performed the background vocals on “Poor Sweet Me” on Lucette’s debut album. This song was also a good way to transition into the second song on the album, “All His Saints.” It’s an upbeat song about Womack looking to get to heaven someday. The song is definitely Christian-oriented. The instrumentation on this is pretty good and the beat really draws you into the song. Mindy Smith was the writer of this song.

“Chances Are” is a song about a woman’s tough luck romantic life and this sets the scene for her in a bar where she wonders what her chances are with the guy across the room. It’s a heartbreak song that features strong country instrumentation. Womack’s twangy and dynamic vocals really shine on this song. Fellow country artist Hayes Carll wrote this song and it’s great to see Carll’s work featured on a big album like this one. I’m looking forward to his new album next year. This song is followed by “The Way I’m Livin’,” the debut single from this album. I already reviewed this song (click here for the full review) and here’s the main snippet of the review: “This song is a traditional country song without a doubt, but it feels fresh and new still. This is the kind of sound all country artists need to be striving for, which is honoring tradition and brining new elements in to make it fresh.”  I will say after hearing the whole album that this song doesn’t come off as strong as I originally thought because there are better songs on the album.

The next song on the album is “Send It On Down,” which is about a woman praying to God to help her get out of her hometown. She wants to escape for many reasons, from her father’s hardware store being out of business to the men in the town having the unrealistic expectation that women should be rich to be attractive. It’s a real soulful song and I like the inclusion of the piano in the song. Chris Knight and David Leone do a great job with the songwriting. The great song writing continues on the Buddy Miller penned “Don’t Listen To The Wind.” It’s a song about a woman getting over a breakup and having a hard time escaping the memory of her ex. Womack’s vocals are excellent and she shows such great emotion in her voice at the right moments. The instrumentation is great too. One of the best songs on the The Way I’m Livin’.

Womack gets even better on “Same Kind Of Different.” It’s a stripped down love song about two different people who are really not different and are actually quite the same. They may not have experienced the same things in their life, but the feelings from these experiences are the same and this connects them. Natalie Hemby and Adam Hood exhibit top-notch songwriting and Womack once again blows me away with her vocals. This song is really the whole package and is arguably the best on the entire album. “Out On The Weekend” and “Nightwind” are two solid love songs from Womack, but each have a distinctive sound. The Neil Young song “Out On The Weekend” has a more Americana sound and “Nightwind,” written by Bruce Robison, has more of a country sound. The latter was a little more complex too, as the metaphors used in the song make you really pay attention to the story being told.

The low point of this album I feel is “Sleeping With The Devil.” It’s a song about a woman sleeping with a man who she believes is the devil. I’m not the song is bad, but it’s a bit repetitive and the theme is cliché. Womack already sang about the devil in “The Way I’m Livin’,” so maybe that’s why it feels repetitive. It is well written though, so kudos to Brennen Leigh. “Not Forgotten You” is another Bruce Robison penned song and it’s about a woman who continues to remember a man in her past. I felt this song could have had a little bit more to it, but it’s solid nonetheless. Although I found both of these songs to be slightly underwhelming, Womack’s vocals and the instrumentation are great on both of them.

Womack caps off her album with a bang in the final two songs. “Tomorrow Night In Baltimore” starts off with the beat of a drum and acoustic guitar. The instrumentation used in this song gives it a fresh and modern feel, yet traditional. It really has a distinctive sound compared to the rest of the album. The song is about a man who is still in love with his ex-girlfriend, who is a singer, and he’s determined to win her heart back. Despite her fame, he continues his pursuit of her. The writer of the song, Kenny Price, tells a nice little story through the lyrics. The album closes with “When I Come Around.” The song is about a woman looking for a man she lost contact with several years ago and she continues to wait for him around the spot where they last saw each other, hoping she can find him again. Again it’s a well written song that tells a good story that draws the listener in. Mando Saenz shows just how fantastic of a songwriter he really is and I hope more artists take notice of his talent.

Womack took several well-written songs on this album and just knocked them out of the park with her outstanding vocals. I’m going to reiterate once again what a great decision it was for her to recruit these fantastic songwriters for her album. Her husband and producer of the album, Frank Liddell, deserves credit too for a well produced album. The instrumentation never overtook Womack’s stellar vocals, which is important. When you have a vocalist with the talent of Womack you should always go lighter on the instrumentation and just let the vocals do the heavy lifting. Womack’s album is already being met with critical praise and her lead single, “The Way I’m Livin’,” is receiving radio time. And Womack did it her way too. She didn’t sell out to a major label nor did she try to play to radio programmers with her music. She made the music she wanted to and in the end when you make quality music like this people are bound to take notice. This album lived up to expectations and I certainly thinks it’s a top ten country album of the year. The Way I’m Livin’ comes highly recommended.

Grade: 9/10