Album Review – Saints Eleven’s ‘Coming Back Around’

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Saints Eleven are a Red Dirt/Texas country group based out of Dallas, Texas. They’re a group who takes influences from Americana, folk, blues, bluegrass, rock and country in their music. An experienced group of the scene, they pride themselves on making authentic music and shun the polished sounds of pop country. Not to mention they tour relentlessly through their home state. The band is up of founding member Jeff Goodman (lead singer and guitarist), co-founder Jeff Mosley (upright and electric bass) and Alex Shepherd (drums and percussion). Recently they’ve released their third studio album Coming Back Around, which they teamed up with veteran producer Walt Wilkins to make. And they certainly stay true to their sound.

Right away you get a taste of this group’s rustic, no-nonsense approach to music on songs like “My Heart” and the album’s title track. The fiddles sound particularly great on the latter song and multiple other tracks on the album. It’s a real strong suit of the group. While I enjoy the instrumentation of “Heartbreak Songs,” it feels ten minutes long when it’s just a tick above four minutes. “Sunday Drive” is about approaching life with a more positive attitude, in spite of the obvious bad in the world. The twangy guitars give the song some real character. Saints Eleven cover the Buck Owens’ classic “Cryin’ Time” really well. It fits this group’s sound like a glove, not to mention it fits with the rest of the album. Who doesn’t enjoy a good old country song like this one?

The group sings of a man finding his way home on “Almost Home.” He promises to his family he’ll be home soon and promises to make this situation worthwhile in the end. This road lifestyle is something many artists have to put their family through, so I imagine this coming from a pretty real place. The best track on the album is definitely “Let Them Go.” It’s a song about a husband and father’s struggle with alcohol addiction, refusing to give up the bottle. Despite trying to go clean, he vows he won’t stop until he’s dead and that’s exactly what happens. The excellent Courtney Patton joins in on this song too and sounds great with Goodman. The album closes with “The Same,” a song about a couple getting away and changing things up. Despite the change in scenery, they vow to stay together and stay the same people. The smooth steel guitar makes this song really infectious and really puts a nice cap on the album.

Overall Coming Back Around is a good album from Saints Eleven. The end of the album closes particularly strong. They’re a group that knows their sound well, which is certainly popular in their neck of the woods. The instrumentation is definitely a strong suit of this group. I would have liked to have heard more variety overall on this album though, as at times some of the songs can kind of blend together. Goodman is certainly a talented vocalist and his voice has distinctive character. Coming Back Around will certainly appeal to those looking for solid Texas country music.

Grade: 7/10

 

Recommend? – If you enjoy Texas country, yes

Album Highlights: Let Them Go (feat. Courtney Patton), The Same, Almost Home, Cryin’ Time, The Heart

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: Heartbreak Songs, For Those That Came


Album Review – Jack Ingram’s ‘Midnight Motel’

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Whenever an artist goes on an extended hiatus from releasing new music, it’s not something that’s really noticed at first. You just assume they’re going to keep releasing music at the same pace they always have. Then more time passes and you start to notice it more and more. All of the sudden five years have passed and now you’re chomping at the bit to hear from them again. That’s the certainly the case with Jack Ingram, who’s last album was released in 2009 on Big Machine Records. A lot has happened in seven years, as Ingram left Nashville to head back to Texas where it all began for him. Like many Texas artists who try their hand on Music Row, it only takes a couple tastes of major labels in Nashville before you’re ready to get back to making the music you want. That’s the certainly the case with Ingram and his new highly anticipated album Midnight Motel. You can tell this is the exact album he wanted to make. I found this is for the better and the worse.

Midnight Motel opens up with “Old Motel.” The song is about love, with an old hotel representing this love. It can stand the test of time or it can be burnt to the ground when it’s gone. It’s a solid song that could have been better if the theme was expanded upon further. There’s also an acoustic version at the end of the album that I think sounds better. This is followed by “It’s Always Gonna Rain,” a ballad about hope. The song goes into detail about Ingram’s father and grandfather looking up the sky just like him, dreaming and praying for better days. But they also know there’s always going to be rain in life too. You deal with the bad hands dealt in hopes of a good one coming soon. It’s one of the most realistic inspiration songs I’ve heard in a while.

“I Feel Like Drinking Tonight” sees Ingram tackling demons and the unfairness of life. Ingram though sees the best way to get through your problems is sitting at the bar and drinking your sorrows away. The gritty guitar play makes for a great backdrop to the theme of this song. Perhaps the standout track of Midnight Motel is “Blaine’s Ferris Wheel.” The melancholy tune seems like the most talked about song of the album and for good reason. It’s about a promoter and friend of Ingram named Blaine, whose venue was in San Angelo, Texas. If you listen to the version of the album where Ingram talks about the inspiration of this song, he tells a story about Merle Haggard backing out of a gig at Blaine’s venue and getting Ingram to fill in. The song goes much deeper on many levels and you can hear this just in Ingram’s voice as he sings. This is one of those songs where you just need to hear it for yourself to appreciate.

The piano-driven “Nothing To Fix” is a song about learning lessons the hard way. It’s also about how if you’re not broken you can’t be fixed. If this sounds vague, then you’re correct. This song doesn’t really do anything to give these themes a meaning, no matter how well-meaning. The instrumentation though is quite good. Up next is “What’s A Boy To Do,” a breakup song. A man searches for the words he needs to say to win his ex back and make up for what he did to make her cry. Of course he really can’t and is left wondering what if as his love is now gone. It’s a solid, yet unspectacular take on losing love. “Trying” is one song that Ingram absolutely nails on this album. It explores the fears of dying, both literally and figuratively. A man dreams of dying, but wakes up to find he’s in an unhappy relationship and left saying he’s trying his best. It’s one of many moments on the album where the listeners have to search a little to find what the song has to say.

If I had to pick the most cliché song on the album, it would have to be “Champion Of The World.” The song is about a man always feeling like a screw up in life and being looked down upon by everyone; that is until he found his wife who makes him feel like a champion of the world. It’s a well-meaning song, but I’ve heard it so much before that it doesn’t really make much of an impact on me. The most upbeat song on the mostly downbeat Midnight Motel is easily “I’m Drinking Through It.” It’s one of those venting drinking songs you’ll be singing along with the moment you first hear it. After all we all have problems and lot of people get through it by drinking through it. This is probably one of my favorites on the album and also one of the few songs on it to have an infectious hook to it.

“Can’t Get Any Better Than This” suffers from the same thing that holds down “Nothing To Fix” too. It’s a vague song about appreciating what you have and realizing you can’t have life any better than what it is in front of you. It’s a feel good song and that’s all I have to say about it. One of the final songs on Midnight Motel is “All Over Again.” It’s sort of a nice bow on the whole album, as it goes through a little bit of everything that is explored on the album: life being unfair, making mistakes, love and dealing with it all. It’s all well and good and there’s nothing dishonest about the lyrics. It’s about the most honest take as you can find on this crazy thing called life.

Ultimately I found Jack Ingram’s Midnight Motel to be an album I just like and respect for what it strives to accomplish, but I wanted to love and enjoy it. There are moments on this album where I think the latter will happen, but it’s weighed down by a lot of songs that are just sort of there for me. It’s kind of hard to describe what exactly this album lacks. I guess I would say it’s purpose because a lot of the songs don’t do enough to really make me connect with them and rely on the listener to make it work. It just feels like an album that Ingram and his inner circle will get, but the rest of us are kind of scratching our heads trying to figure out. I would go so far to say this album gets too personal and almost forgets about the listener on the other end. This is a situation where a good producer would step in and bring some restraint to the album in this regard. In order for these gut-wrenching, personal songs to work, they have to try to form some sort of connection with the listener and this album fails to do this in multiple instances on the album. The instrumentation feels like an afterthought at times on this album too. It could really helped make some of these songs stand out better. I know this probably won’t be a popular review, especially amongst Ingram fans. But it’s hard not to express I was left wanting more. Midnight Motel is basically a 180 degree turn in comparison to Ingram’s last two albums, but not necessarily for the best.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review – Cody Johnson’s ‘Gotta Be Me’

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Without a doubt one of the biggest pros of the digital era in music is it has allowed the rise and success of independent artists. In country music, Cody Johnson is perhaps one of the best examples. Hailing from the Texas country scene, Johnson has raised his profile steadily in recent years. He has major sponsors, is a fixture on the Texas charts, has great streaming numbers and sells a lot of album. This is without all of the support of a major label or country radio. With his new album Gotta Be Me, he sold 23,000 copies in its first week. To really put this into perspective: Chris Lane just hit #1 at country radio with his pop song “Fix” and only sold just over 6,000 copies of his new album in the first week. Johnson’s sales should have been great enough to land him his first #1 country album, but thanks to Blake Shelton’s 99 cents album deal on Google Play he missed out at the accomplishment (Johnson had the perfect response to this). With all of his chatter around the album, I decided to re-listen to the album after initially deciding not to review it. After more listens it grew on me and I decided to give it a proper review because at times this album can shine pretty bright.

The album’s title track kicks it off and right away you’re greeted with the warm, welcoming sounds of country music. If there’s one thing this album absolutely nails, it’s the instrumentation. This is a true country album through and through. In this song Johnson sings about how he sticks to his guns and always stays true to himself. It’s a solid song to start the album. This is followed by “Grass Stains.” It was kind of predictable where this song was going from the beginning, as it’s about a couple having sex in the grass. It’s pretty close to bro country lyrics and the very least are laundry list and predictable. This isn’t necessarily bad, but the fiddles can’t cover up unimaginative songwriting. One of the better-written songs and one of my favorites on the album is “With You I Am.” It’s a song about a guy telling his woman about how he was never the quarterback of the football team or flashy guy. He was the humble guy who stayed in the background. But now with her in his life he feels like a more confident, better person. Unlike some modern country songs about love, this one actually takes time to explain why this relationship is so meaningful.

Johnson harkens back to 90s country on “Half a Song.” I say 90s country because everything from the lyrics to the instrumentation remind me of something I would hear on the radio in that era. If country radio still actually played country music all the time, I would say this would be a hit single. It’s a love song that you can dance to, but also has heart and connects easy with the listener. “The Only One I Know (Cowboy Life)” is another song where Johnson sings about the kind of person he is and the life he leads. Now when I see most country artists with a song that is about living the cowboy life, I roll my eyes because it feels disingenuous and false. But with Johnson it doesn’t. Not only because he used to be in the rodeo and is from Texas, but also you can hear it in his voice as he sings.

The slower, pedal steel guitar-driven “Walk Away” is next. It by far digs deeper than any other song on this album, as it’s a cheating song about a guy finding out his love is cheating on him. She doesn’t know that he knows, as he finds the guy she’s cheating on him with. He buys the guy a drink and calmly explains to him that he needs to walk away from this affair because he loves her and wants to give her a second chance. It’s rare to hear this in a cheating song and see the cheated person give the cheater a second chance. It’s kind of refreshing to hear another take on a cheating song and I applaud Johnson for it. I would say this is the best song on the album. Johnson swerves back into cliché/laundry list territory on “Kiss Goodbye.” It’s another cheating song with a more modern instrumentation feel and features some spoken word from Johnson. The spoken word isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s kind of awkward and doesn’t improve the song. This song is just sort of there for me.

“Chain Drinkin’” is another song that you can tell where it’s going by the title of it. But predictable isn’t always bad. While this drinking song isn’t bursting with creativity, it’s easy to enjoy and tap your feet along with as you listen. What helps is it doesn’t take itself seriously and errs more on the light-hearted, humorous side. While ballads and cheating songs are the bedrock of country music, you need these fun songs to break it up too. Johnson relies on the old trope, “If you love something, set it free,” on “Wild as You.” Just like “Kiss Goodbye,” it’s a lightweight song and one of the more forgettable moments on this album. The same can be said of the next track, “I Know My Way Back (Clara’s Song).” Again not a bad love song, it’s just okay and not something I would go out of my way to hear. “Billy’s Brother” is about a man getting drunk in bar and a man remembering not to fight Billy. This is because of Billy’s brother, who sounds like he could kick anyone’s ass. The entire song revolves around getting drunk and the man hoping he can keep his hands off Billy. Predictably he doesn’t and I’m assuming Billy’s brother won another fight. This is the type of song I can imagine connects much better live than on an album.

After a streak of lighter songs, Johnson digs back deeper again with “Every Scar Has a Story.” He sings about all of the scars on his body, both physical and emotional, all tell a story about something that has happened in his life. This is from going headfirst off a motorcycle to getting his heart broke. Again in a more just world, this song is a hit. “I Ain’t Going Nowhere Baby” is about a man reaffirming to his love that he isn’t going anywhere and that he’ll always have a shoulder there for her to cry on. With already numerous love songs on this album and the record being 14 songs long, you kind of run out of steam by this point (more on that in a second). Gotta Be Me ends with another highlight of the album, “I Can’t Even Walk (Without You Holding My Hand).” It’s an acoustic bonus track that features both of his parents and it’s a really touching song. Normally I don’t review bonus tracks in my album reviews, but this song is so great I had to include it. It’s probably one of the coolest outros I’ve heard on an album and ends the record on a high note.

Cody Johnson’s Gotta Be Me is a solid country album. Is it one of the year’s best? No. What ultimately holds this album back is the songwriting and the album length. While there are a few moments of a good songwriting, too many times there are songs that have a been there, done that feel. In the case of a song like “Grass Stains,” it reminded me a little too much of the not so distant bro country era. At 14 songs, this album is just too long and can drag towards the end. This album would have been so much better if you cut the four worst songs. It would be an easier listen and the songwriting would be more forgivable. I will say though that this is a step up from Cowboy Like Me and I think it’s the perfect album for a mainstream country fan looking to get into Texas and/or independent country music.

Grade: 7/10

Album Review – Sean McConnell’s Self-Titled Album

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It’s not too often that an artist with over 15 years of releasing music comes out with a self-titled album after nine albums and EPs, but that’s exactly what Sean McConnell has done. This new album is appropriately self-titled because the songs are about Sean McConnell. “It’s a real storyteller record, and it’s pretty autobiographical. I’m learning how to be more honest and understated in my writing, and I wanted to match that sonically and vocally. When I look at this collection of songs, I see a lot of nostalgia, and looking back on sacred moments,he says.  The ten songs touch on a variety of personal aspects in life from having kids, to reflecting back on the early days of marriage.

Sean McConnell begins with the pop/rock anthem “Holy Days.” McConnell’s never really been straightforward country, but his music and style fits with Americana nicely. “Holy Days” recalls the times of the band starting to gain some traction and meeting a woman along the way who steals your heart, if only for a short while. The catchy chorus, passionate vocals, and pounding drums set the mood for an upbeat, fun-loving album. On “Ghost Town,” McConnell revisits his old hometown and reflects back on the good times he and his friends had while growing up. As he walks around, he realizes this place isn’t the same place he once knew because the people are strangers and places have changed.

“Bottom of the Sea” is a re-release from McConnell’s recent B-sides EP. Instead of treading water and taking the easy road, McConnell sings “I’m going down to the bottom of the sea until I’ve found the deepest part of me. And if I drown, at least I know that I died free.” There’s a quiet banjo in the song mix, but this song falls under the same sort upbeat, pop/rock umbrella which grounds this whole album. “Beautiful Rose” has more country instrumentation with the mandolin and simple acoustic guitars. The song deals with how life’s unexpected turn of events can be a blessing, even if it’s something that you never planned. The second verse suggests that the song could be influenced by the birth of child, which makes the song’s hook much more impactful. “Hey Mary” is a quick number about falling in love with a girl. With a sense of maturity, McConnell sings about letting her stay the night in his room while he camps out on the floor, and makes her breakfast after she wakes up.

The theme of love continues with “Best We’ve Ever Been.” The song celebrates the anniversary of a husband and wife, who look back through old photographs of their time together thus far, and go out to relive their youthful spirit for a night. The song’s production fits with the happy, celebratory nature of the lyrics. The highlight of the album is the autobiographical “Queen of Saint Mary’s Choir.” The song touches on Sean McConnell’s musical past: parents who sang and played guitar, and a journey from Atlanta to Nashville chasing musical dreams. He sings of the parts of his parents he sees in himself to begin the catchy chorus, and keeps himself grounded in reality while pursuing his music.

Sean McConnell has never shied away from religious themes in his music, and “Running Under Water” is no different. He compares trying to overcome his struggles, externally and internally, with running under water – the feeling of drowning while working hard and going nowhere fast. “One Acre of Land” is a tender love song about wanting to build a beautiful life with the one you love, even if everything isn’t perfect. He may not make a lot of money or do physical labor well, but those qualities shouldn’t matter when you both love each other, have the essentials. The acoustic production allows the personal plea of the lyrics to breathe and come up front. Sean McConnell ends the album with “Babylon,” using the symbol of the ancient city as a metaphor for a crumbling relationship. The song builds as it progresses from the verses through the chorus and bridge, and hits the emotional peak with the last couple of lines. “Do you ever stop and think about me? Tell me how you even breathe without me? I don’t know how to go on without you.” It’s a great end to the album and shows off McConnell’s strength as a writer.

Sean McConnell’s self-titled album is excellent. He does a great job with composing catchy songs without sacrificing quality in the lyrics; he tells compelling stories and delivers them in an equally compelling way. This is the kind of musical quality you expect from a seasoned artist like McConnell. At ten songs, the album leaves you yearning for just a bit more, but the plus side of the short track list means one is hard pressed to find filler songs on the album. For years, McConnell has been a background player in music, writing songs for others like Wade Bowen, Randy Rogers Band, or David Nail. With that said, this is the kind of album that could capture a larger audience, and bring McConnell’s name into bigger, and well-deserved spotlight.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Dolly Shine’s ‘Walkabout’

When it came to producing their second full-length album, Dolly Shine took a different approach to the pre-production by having all their band members together for arranging and preparing Walkabout. Lead singer Zack McGinn says, “Walkabout is really like a spiritual realization and it’s about finding yourself. We’ve done a lot of traveling together as a group… and we’ve done a lot of growing together and a lot of learning.” When it came to Walkabout, the goal of the album was to highlight Dolly Shine as a collective unit – to highlight the band being a band. Joining McGinn are fiddler and co-founder Wesley Hall, drummer Johnny Goodson, guitarist Jerrod Flusche, and bassist Ben Hussey.

Walkabout kicks off with the southern rock guitar lick on “Blackbird.” This rowdy rocker tells the story of a young illegal trader over the Mexican border. This outlaw has avoided his capture and now serves as an urban legend throughout the area. The production doesn’t change too much save for a fiddle solo toward the song’s end. “Come Out Swinging” is a more natural country tune with acoustic guitars and fiddles providing the song’s melody. The song tells a story about a former couple who run into each other at a bar, and their anger and resentment toward one another have yet to subside. He knows it’s inevitable that old arguments and passion will flair up between them. A female voice pops in to provide some vocal harmonies during the chorus, which is a nice touch given the song’s content. Sour relationships are further explored in “Closing Time.” Hall’s fiddle shines on this track as McGinn sings about a relationship coming to an end, mainly because his woman never leaves the bar alone at closing time.

“Rattlesnake” chronicles the life of a drifter moving from town to town. The song has a darker production led by an acoustic guitar strum and fiddle notes that create a sound not too different from the sound of a train chugging along the tracks. Using the metaphor of a drifter, it’s not too farfetched to think that “Rattlesnake” is more autobiographical for the touring band. “Twist the Knife” is a mid-tempo break-up song. McGinn sings of a man who’s taking the end of the relationship poorly and having trouble moving on. “Anywhere Close to Fine” continues on this theme. The first verse paints a picture of man who never really felt love’s sting until she walked out on him. “Anywhere Close to Fine” mixes country and rock nicely with heavy drums and a prominent fiddle in the mix.

Dolly Shine tell the tragic story of a meth dealer in “Snakeskin Boots.” Sung from the first person point of view, McGinn sings of how he and his cousin cooked the drugs on their grandparent’s land, then his cousin left to sell it around the state, only to never come back. The dark song features a darker production and a great guitar solo to close out the track. Tales of the drifter life continue with the heavy rocker “Hitchhikin’.” This hitchhiker is running from the law throughout the south, trying to remain uncaught. The hard rocking production sounds good on this track, but the chorus of simply saying “Hitchinkin'” over and over gets old really fast. Walkabout comes to a close with “Old Flame.” A softer, acoustic driven song filled with nostalgia, and trying to extinguish the old flame of a past love.

Walkabout tells the tales and lessons learned of a drifter’s life. Not necessarily a clear, straightforward concept, but a more broad stroke story about reckless actions and the consequences of those actions. Dolly Shine jump between rock and country without missing a beat. The raw production of Walkabout fits with the heavier content of outlaw drifters and heartbreak. Dolly Shine set out to make an album that exemplifies the band’s sound as a whole, and that cohesiveness is evident as you listen to Walkabout.

Grade: 7/10