Album Review – Sunny Ozell’s ‘Take It With Me’

Sunny Ozell Take It With Me

What is Americana? This is question I see posed fairly often and it can be a tough one to answer. Americana after all isn’t a concrete sound like (actual) country, rock or hip-hop. Americana is a melting pot of different genres that come together to create a true vision of artistry and music. But really I think the best answer to this question is this: you will know Americana when you hear it. And I can certainly hear it with Sunny Ozell. Not a big surprise when she says two of her biggest influences are Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, two Americana stalwarts. Ozell lived and breathed music from an early age, receiving classical voice training, studying the Suzuki method of classical violin and having music loving parents who listened to the likes of The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac and Janis Joplin. Ozell has been involved with various music projects in various genres throughout her life, playing a lot of jazz. But on her new album she wanted to explore everything, hence why it’s strictly covers of some of her favorites. It’s to lay the foundation for her next album.

“I’ve always written songs…and bits of songs,” Ozell says. “This first project represents me pulling together a band. It’s a very collaborative effort, and we really found our footing as a unit. It gave me a platform for my voice. I’m putting together the scraps and the ideas for the next album. The ideas I’m writing come in snapshots. I’ll have a phrase or rhyme scheme and build around that.”

Ozell really truly loves and has a passion for music, as her whole life revolves around it. Of course a lot of people know her as the wife of actor Sir Patrick Stewart. But as she embarks on her music career she’s trying to be known for her music too. If her debut album Take It With Me is a good indicator of what’s to come, then she’s well on her way to being known as an Americana artist too.

The breezy and easy-going Leon Russell song “Manhattan Serenade” opens up the album. The song is very much in the bluesy, jazz sonic range and allows Ozell to really show off her more bubbly side. One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Family Tree.” The Julian Velard song really suits Ozell’s voice well and allows her to flex her vocal range. The inclusion of the xylophone in the bridge really adds an appropriate reflective tone to the song. This is definitely one of the songs you must hear off the album. Next is “Move Along Train,” one of the iconic songs of well-known American Soul and R&B artist Pops Staples. I can see why Ozell would choose the song, but it doesn’t really seem to suit her style as well as other songs on the album. This song is more suited for an artist with a lower register. Ozell’s performance isn’t bad, but not one of the better ones on the album.

The softer “Louisiana 1927” is more in Ozell’s range. While I’m not that fond of singer-songwriter Randy Newman, I find this is one of his best songs and I’m glad Ozell chose it. For those not familiar, “Louisiana 1927” is about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 that left hundreds of thousands of people homeless. I really applaud Ozell for taking a country approach to the song, as the steel guitar throughout really goes with the lyrics perfectly. Up next is one of two original songs on the album, the Aaron Lee Tasjan-written “Git Gone.” Ozell tackles the song written by the folk rock artist with absolute gusto. It’s an upbeat, fun song that has a carefree nature that will easily hook you in. The dreamy “Kill Zone” follows. T Bone Burnett and Roy Orbison wrote this song together, weeks before Orbison died, and is believed to be the last song he wrote. Again Ozell takes a more country approach, as you can hear plenty of steel guitar throughout combined with the piano. This is one of Ozell’s best vocal performances on the album.

“Number One” is another Tasjan-written song. The song is about struggling to live with a spouse who spends more time doing stuff like smoking than loving their significant other. It’s a heartbreak ballad that slowly unwinds itself and the more I’ve listened to it, the more I’ve enjoyed it. It’s one of those songs that take time to grow, but once it does you can really connect with it. Ozell goes in a more pop direction on “Only in the Movies.” It’s a David Mead song, a pop artist based out of Nashville. The song is about how relationships in real life don’t make sense and end how they should, only in the movies. It’s a pretty straightforward song. The same can pretty much be said for “No One is to Blame,” a song by English soft rock artist Howard Jones. The song is about being attracted or in love with someone, yet you can’t do anything about it. Your attitude towards this song will probably be dictated by your feelings towards new wave music of the 80s, which most people either love or hate.

Ozell tackles the Hank Williams song “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You” next. British folk/alt-country artist Teddy Thompson joins her on the song. Thompson is the son of Americana artist Richard Thompson. As someone who has never heard a Hank Williams song he didn’t like, I of course enjoyed Ozell’s version. Once again this country/folk sound really suits her well and I think I would like to hear more from her in this vein. Take It With Me closes out with the Tom Waits song and album’s title track. “Take It With Me” is a soft, somber love ballad that really can tug at your heartstrings. It’s a Waits song, so of course it cuts deep. It’s a beautiful song that suits a beautiful voice like Ozell’s.

Take It With Me is the kind of album any music fan can pick up and enjoy. Ozell really does a great job picking some of the masters of each genre to cover on the album and proves to be up to the task in doing the songs justice. It should be noted too that the album has two bonus track worth checking out, Ray Charles’ “Come Back Baby” and Hanks’ “I Saw The Light.” You might not like every song on this album, but when an album jumps around to a lot of genres this tends to be the case. There’s something for everyone on this album, but really I thought Ozell shined best on the folk/country-driven tracks. I hope on her next album with original material that she goes in this direction, as her voice has that smooth, yet earthy tone that goes well with steel guitar. Sunny Ozell may be well versed in classical and jazz music, but she fits like a glove with Americana.

Grade: 8/10

 

 

 

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

 

The Hodgepodge: Mainstream Country Music Has Produced Big Disappointments in 2015

Thumbs Down

Coming into 2015, I had a pretty good feeling about the state of mainstream country music in 2015. Mickey Guyton was starting to get noticed. Jake Owen, Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay all had meaningful songs getting noticed by radio. Zac Brown Band’s new single “Homegrown” released in January was good, yet fresh. Several great artists were set to release new music that I looked forward to because of promising efforts in recent years. Things were looking so good back in January. Now I sit here a few months later around the first quarter mark of 2015 and I wonder what the hell is going on in mainstream country music. What’s causing me this wonder is how the chart seems to be regressing into the previous state of the genre has been in recent years with loads of party songs. The songs by Owen, Bentley and Paslay I mentioned are probably lucky to just sniff the top ten, as radio programmers don’t want to play them because they’re “mood killers.” Guyton has stalled on the airplay charts. Zac Brown Band continues to climb with “Homegrown,” but faces stiff competition from the bro country holdouts and Sam Hunt.

This is all discouraging enough, but what’s been most frustrating is the lackluster music released by artists I expected much more from. First, Ashley Monroe released her first single off of her upcoming sophomore album, “On To Something Good.” This song is bland and average. It’s by far worse than anything on her debut solo album Like A Rose in 2013. It’s radio-friendliness makes me quite weary of her new album. Many are giving her a pass because she’s a female artist and female artists are struggling to make it onto radio, but that just doesn’t cut it for me. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll save that discussion for another day. Speaking of female artists, Kacey Musgraves just released her lead single from her sophomore album too, which is called “Biscuits.” Again this is a pretty average showing from an artist who showed much more on her 2013 debut album Same Trailer, Different Park. Just because something isn’t bad, doesn’t mean it’s good. Average doesn’t cut it for me and shouldn’t cut it for you the music listener.

Reba McEntire released a pretty mediocre single in “Going Out Like That.” Not only is it below average, but it’s struggling on the charts. This does not bode well for her considering she’s the face of the Nash Icons label. That’s on top of making a comeback after being away from music for a few years. We have yet to hear any other music from Nash Icon artists too. The possible splitting of country music looks a lot bleaker now compared to a few months ago. Without this split, it’s more likely for artists to sell out to the popular sound. Speaking of that a group fans could rely on for decent music that just sold out is Eli Young Band. Just listen to “Turn It On” and you’ll be rolling your eyes 30 seconds in. The thing is they know the sold out and they don’t care. They don’t give a shit about quality.

The biggest disappointment though out of all these disappointments is Gary Allan and his new single “Hangover Tonight.” Allan was one of the “good guys” for all these years and even spoke out against bro country years ago when it got popular. Now he’s chasing the trends right alongside the likes of Swindell and Aldean, at least with this single. I mean I was holding out hope that this single was just an anomaly of his new upcoming album, but now I’m not so sure. This week in the Billboard Country Update there was a section about how Allan came about making this single. And it was pretty disheartening to read. I recommend reading it all, but I’ll tell you what stood out to me. It took six songwriters to make this song, which is red flag #1. The next thing that stood out was Allan is drawing music ideas from the same pool as Thomas Rhett, as Allan wanted to record “Crash and Burn,” which will be on Rhett’s new album. Allan doing anything similar to Rhett raises another red flag and quite frankly disgusts me.

Allan for over 20 years has made country music of at least good quality and stayed true to himself. This has all the similar makings to when Brad Paisley sold out last year. Ironically it was an interview with Billboard too that gave the first warning signs his album would be mediocre. “River Bank” and “Hangover Tonight” both have a pretty similar vibe and kowtow to radio. I really hope I’m wrong about Allan and that single is an anomaly. I very well could be. But I said the same thing about Paisley in 2014. Coincidentally, Allan has a show coming up in my area and I’m going to go see him live. Maybe I can find out more about his upcoming album that will help determine whether or not this single is a reflection of the album.

I haven’t even got around to mentioning Music Row’s newest project Michael Ray, who’s poised to terrorize country music with his On The Verge push. Sam Hunt is dominating so much now that it’s spawning Hunt-copycats, just like the bro country trend spawned bro country copycats. Luke Bryan is going to release another terrible Dallas Davidson-penned single that I will hate. Country music is in rough shape and shows no signs of improvement. Maybe we’ll get some quality releases from mainstream like originally intended to help balance out all of this crap. Ashley Monroe could very well release a good album still, as Vince Gill is producing it and I trust Gill. Musgraves album should still be good, as long as she doesn’t go overboard with songs like “Biscuits.” All my worrying could be for nothing. We can only hope. I know I have no answer and we can only wait. In the meantime I plan to review more independent country stuff that deserves to be heard instead of this garbage being put out by mainstream country.

Upcoming/Recent Country Music Releases

  • Steven Tyler is releasing a country record. Yes, this is the same Tyler who was the frontman for Aerosmith. Perfect timing with this Hodgepodge, huh? I don’t even know what to say about this news. Can mainstream country get any more embarrassing?
  • Striking Matches will release their debut album, Nothing But The Silence, next Tuesday. I’m not sure what to expect from them, as their lead single was just decent. T Bone Burnett is producing the album, so expect some interesting production choices.
  • Houndmouth, the alt country/indie folk group from Indiana, has released their second album Little Neon Limelight. I hadn’t heard of the band until this year, but I regret this. They’re damn good and I’ll have a review on their new album next week.

Throwback Thursday Song

Jamey Johnson & Lee Ann Womack – “Give It Away” – Now everyone has heard the George Strait version of this song and it was a massive hit of course. But I guarantee a lot of people haven’t heard Jamey Johnson and Lee Ann Womack’s version of it. Five years ago they performed this on the ACM Artist of the Decade All-Star Concert, as George Strait smiled in the audience at this great performance. Even Taylor Swift was enjoying it!

Non-Country Song of the Week

Kendrick Lamar – “i” – I’ve been wanting to get into Kendrick Lamar’s music for a while now and I finally dove into it this past week. I wish I did sooner because it’s fantastic. His latest single “i” won multiple Grammys and I’m not surprised. It’s funky influences make for a great beat. His upcoming album To Pimp a Butterfly was set to come out in a couple of weeks, but he just released it earlier than expected. And I’m just now enjoying his major label debut album good kid, m.A.A.d city. So I got some catching up to do on Lamar’s work.

Tweet of the Week

Isbell makes it here again, but not with his humor. No, this just makes me even more eager for his new album. Southeastern is amazing and for some people, the best country album released in 2013. So if this new album is indeed better, it will be a top contender to win Country Perspective’s 2015 Album of the Year.

An iTunes Review That Will Make You Face Palm

Stupid EYB Comment 1

This was a comment left under Eli Young Band’s new EP Turn It On. While there were mostly sell-out comments, there were a good bit of comments like the one above defending the group and their new metro-politan direction. I honestly don’t know how you can defend this turd of an EP. I’d say 90% of the comments I’ve seen on it are negative.

That’s it for the Hodgepodge this week! Be sure to sound off in the comments! 

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

Country Perspective’s Best Country Group of 2014 Nominees

Country Perspective has many year-end awards: Best Album, Worst Album, Best Male Artist, Best Female Artist, Best Song, Worst Song and this award Best Group. Each are challenging in their own right, but this award is arguably the toughest to determine. Four of the five nominees albums are up for Country Perspective’s Best Country Album of the Year. That’s insane! These groups are all fantastic regardless of what group ultimately wins and you should check out all of their music.

Derek and myself will ultimately determine who wins, but you the readers will also have a big say on who wins too. Your feedback and opinions in the comments below can and probably will sway who wins. So be sure to sound off on who you think deserves to win. Let’s take a look at the nominees for Country Perspective’s Best Country Group of 2014.

First Aid Kit – These Swedish sisters sing music that is wise beyond their years. Johanna and Klara Söderberg thrill with their haunting album Stay Gold. The album also makes you laugh, cry and reflect. It’s an emotional roller coaster that flows perfectly together. They also did a fantastic job covering Paul Simon’s “America.” Speaking of America, more people in this country need to hear this duo. First Aid Kit is also up for Country Perspective’s Best Country Album of 2014 and Best Country Song of 2014 (“Cedar Lane”).

 

Old Crow Medicine Show – If there’s one group you can consistently rely on to produce great music, this is the group. Old Crow Medicine Show hasn’t missed a beat since Willie Watson left the group to pursue a solo career and their album was great enough to be nominated for Country Perspective’s Best Country Album of 2014. Their emotional song “Dearly Departed Friend” was also nominated for Country Perspective’s Best Country Song of 2014. You know what else is great about this group? You can tell how much they enjoy making music.

 

Shovels & Rope – I’ll be honest with you: I never heard of this duo before this year. I heard a lot of praise for their new album Swimmin’ Time from people I respect in country music, so I gave it a listen. I’m sorry I wasn’t aware of this dynamic duo sooner. Husband and wife Michael Trent and Carry Ann Hearst combine for some of the best harmonies I’ve ever heard. Their chemistry and attention to detail make for one of the best albums of the year. They’re also up for Country Perspective’s Best Country Song of 2014 with “Coping Mechanism.”

 

The Secret Sisters – They quietly released one of the best country albums of 2014 with their album Put Your Needle Down. Really I was surprised by how little talk there was of this great album. Under the guidance of T Bone Burnett the duo delivered a deeply harmonic album. Derek did a great job reviewing this album and this snippet at the end of it I think sums up this group and their 2014 best:

This album is a musical time machine, taking it right into the center of each era of great music and The Secret Sisters flawlessly execute every song, delivering a quality that could stand up with each genre’s best. This is no sophomore slump. Laura and Lydia prove their songwriting prowess and establish themselves a strong base on which to build a strong, promising musical future.

 

Zac Brown Band – The best group in mainstream country music didn’t even release a new album this year and yet they did enough to be nominated for group of the year. What qualified them in our minds to be nominated for this award? Well first they released a great EP in The Grohl Sessions Vol. 1, which produced the great single “All Alright.” They also collaborated with several artists (Allman Brothers, Elton John, Foo Fighters, Doobie Brothers) to make great music and admirably cover classic hits. Another thing that made me respect this group even more was Brown picking Sturgill Simpson to open for him on select tour dates. This group simply respects country music and it shows through their music and actions.

 

Who should win Country Perspective’s Best Group of 2014 award? Let us know in the comments below.