The Current Pulse of Americana Music [June 4]

Chris Stapleton Traveller

It’s here! Each week I will take a look at the Billboard Americana/Folk Albums chart and grade the top 15 albums. The grading format I use each week is every album will receive either a +1, -1 or a 0. These will then be tallied up for an overall score, or pulse of the current top fifteen Americana albums, with the highest possible score being a +15 and the lowest possible score being a -15. How do I determine if an album is rated a +1, -1 or 0? The rating it received on the site or myself will determine this. If it hasn’t been rated yet, then I will make the call. Albums rated between 7 and 10 receive a +1. Albums rated a 5 or 6 receive a 0. Albums rated 4 or lower receive a -1.

The goal of this exercise is to evaluate the current state of Americana music and determine if it’s improving or getting worse. Let’s take a look at this week’s top fifteen…

  1. Chris Stapleton – Traveller +1
  2. Sawyer Fredericks – A Good Storm -1
  3. The Lumineers – Cleopatra +1
  4. Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide To Earth +1
  5. Hard Working Americans – Rest in Chaos
  6. James Bay – Chaos And The Calm +1
  7. Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats – Self-Titled +1
  8. Bonnie Raitt – Dig In Deep +1
  9. Ruth B – The Intro (EP) 0
  10. Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color +1
  11. Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Things That We Are Made Of -1
  12. Foy Vance – The Wild Swan 
  13. The Jayhawks – Paging Mr. Proust
  14. The Strumbellas – Hope
  15. Loretta Lynn – Full Circle +1

The Current Pulse of Americana Music: +6

The pulse debuts this week!

Albums That Dropped Out of the Top 15 This Week

  • N/A

Albums That Entered The Top 15 This Week

  • Chris Stapleton – Traveller
  • Sawyer Fredericks – A Good Storm
  • Hard Working Americans – Rest in Chaos
  • Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color
  • Foy Vance – The Wild Swan

Album I Predict Will Be #1 Next Week

  • Chris Stapleton – Traveller

Biggest Gainer This Week

  • N/A

Biggest Loser This Week

  • Mary Chapin Carpenter – The Things That We Are Made Of – Down 8 from #3 to #11

Thoughts

Not a bad start at all for the Americana/Folk Albums chart this week. As I expected Stapleton takes the top spot with Traveller and will chart on both country and Americana chart. Same for Sturgill Simpson and his new album A Sailor’s Guide To Earth. There are a couple bigger names I didn’t expect to see, which are Sawyer Fredericks and James Bay. Both are more along the lines of singer-songwriter/acoustic-based artists, however it is entirely fair to put them on this chart because they do fit the Americana definition. Alabama Shakes and The Lumineers are two acts that really define the chart and why we needed it. The inclusion of Ruth B is the only one that caught me off guard. Then again I’ve only heard one song from her, so maybe she fits the chart well.

As you can see I have not heard all of the albums on this chart, but that won’t be a problem moving forward and only be the case on this first one as the chart begins to define itself. Some of you probably thought I would never give a -1 on an Americana pulse and I prove you wrong on the very first one. I couldn’t even get through the Carpenter album because as I remarked on Twitter last week, it was just too dry throughout and had no variety sonically. It’s a shame because I was expecting big things from it, especially with Dave Cobb as producer.

It’ll be interesting to see what names will pop up each week on this chart and how long it will take before we hit a perfect score or a negative score. As always be sure to weigh-in below with your thoughts and let me know what you think of the format. I’m still tinkering with it and wouldn’t say it’s set in stone. This feature might also be on Tuesdays moving forward and only came out today because I’ve been debating myself on how to approach this. Anyway let me know your thoughts.

Update 1

I’m starting to slowly listen to each album without grades and I’m going to update as I go along.

Ruth B – The Intro (EP): The four song set has some nice piano arrangements, but all of the songs sound too similar. “Lost Boy” is a good song though. It’s a shame the other three don’t do more to stand out.

Sawyer Fredericks – A Good Storm: I couldn’t even make it all the way through with this album. It’s the definition of generic and fits the “white guy with a guitar” stereotype to a T. Also another reminder of why I stopped watching The Voice years ago because it churns out cookie cutter artists.

Album Review – The Lumineers’ ‘Cleopatra’

The Lumineers Cleopatra

About four years ago if you recall there was a big folk revival that took place. This was of course made possible by the previous folk revival around the turn of the millennium when the success of the soundtrack for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?, as it took home a Grammy and gave way to the rise of other folk acts like Emmylou Harris and Old Crow Medicine Show. The latter group is what inspired one of two bands that were central to the 2012 folk revival, Mumford & Sons. The other band at the center of this revival was The Lumineers. Many of you probably know them from their smash hit “Ho Hey,” which alongside Mumford & Sons’ “I Will Wait” captured people’s attentions everywhere. Fast forward to today and now Mumford & Sons have abandoned their banjo and went electric, something that really didn’t surprise people. But The Lumineers certainly haven’t abandoned the sound that caught everyone’s attention. And they show no signs of stopping either.

The Lumineers are made up of founding members Wesley Schultz (vocals, guitar) and Jeremiah Fraites (drums, piano), along with Neyla Pekarek (cellist, backing vocalist) who joined the band in 2010. Schultz and Fraites write all of the songs on their albums. And now four years after their successful self-titled album, they return with their sophomore followup, Cleopatra. Before you listen to the album there’s one quote you should remember when you listen to it and that comes from Schultz, who said this regarding it, “We want to focus on the core, not the illusion.” Trust me once you hear the album, you’ll understand.

Cleopatra begins with “Sleep on the Floor,” an adventurous song where a man urges his woman to pick up her stuff and travel the country with him. The Lumineers’ usual roots-y, folk rock, guitar-driven sound makes the song catchy and easy to enjoy. The whole album doesn’t really stray at all from this sound. The album’s lead single “Ophelia” follows. It’s a reflective, somewhat upbeat song about a woman who was once in the man’s life. Well on the surface it’s seem like, as on their site The Lumineers say it “personifies fame as a dangerous temptress.” The piano play by Fraites is great and really drives the song well. The album title track tells the story of a woman who has experienced tragedy in her life. Most notably it deals with how she was too late for the love of her life, letting life pull her away from someone she loved and wanted to marry. The inspiration for the song came from a woman Schultz met in the Republic of Georgia. She’s a cab driver who told her tragic life story to him. It inspired the group to write this song and make it their album’s name. The story and lyrics are so tragically beautiful, really personifying the whole album.

“Gun Song” is about a man discovering his father’s pistol after he died, unaware his father owned a pistol. The man himself doesn’t own a single gun, so it comes as a surprise to him. He then reflects on his life and hopes to be more than his father’s son someday. One of my favorites on Cleopatra is “Angela.” It’s a soft tale of a woman who left her small town to pursue bigger things, but now returns to it. This is despite the people in the town who like to sing her praises only to cut her down. But she returns to a man she loves, a place she can call home. It’s a story about finding what truly makes you happy. The instrumentation fits perfectly with the story, with its earthy, somewhat soaring tone.

This is followed by another beautiful song, “In The Light.” It’s about two people who can’t let go of the old memories of being together. They can’t stop thinking about each other until finally they meet again and they embrace, telling each other to never let go again. The acoustics and piano really blend together well and help tell this love story. “Gale Song” was part of the soundtrack for the movie, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and shows up again here. It’s apparently told from the point of view from a character in the movie named Gale. I’ve heard plenty about the books and movies for this series, but have never read or watched any of them. So it’s really hard to have some thoughts on this one. It does seem to fit the overall theme of the album, which is dealing with love and loneliness.

The rawest, emotional song on the album is hands-down “Long Way From Home.” It’s a sad story about a man who shares a hospital room with a man dying of a disease, probably cancer. He hopes the man can find his way home (die peacefully) soon. This happens, but not before the last words he hears from the man are moans for “more morphine.” It’s a haunting song to say the least. The eerie sounding “Sick in the Head” is next and it’s probably one of the more confusing songs on the album. It seems to be about seizing your own life and not letting others’ opinions control it. The song is quite short and as I said the theme isn’t that clear.

The waltzing “My Eyes” tells the old story of watching someone you care for make mistakes before your very eyes. You’re angry to see them get take advantage of, yet you feel betrayed they wouldn’t listen to you. It also ties into one of the main themes of the album of avoiding the corruption that fame can bring to a person. This is probably the most complete song on Cleopatra, as everything just works perfectly together. The instrumental “Patience” brings the album to a close. While an odd choice to end the album with this type of song, it makes a lot of sense after hearing the entire thing a few times because listening to this album is tiring. “Patience” allows your brain to unwind and to digest what you’ve just heard on the first ten songs.

Overall Cleopatra is a mentally exhausting album after you give it a really good listen, but it will reward you for the troubles. The themes explored throughout are complex and will send your thoughts reeling after hearing them. It’s definitely not the type of album you can pick up and immediately “get it.” One thing though that helps you digest these lyrics is the catchy instrumentation that is present mostly throughout. It’s really easy to get sucked into the album based just on the instrumentation, as it’s light and flawless. The piano play really flourishes when it shows up. The instrumentation draws you in and makes you stay, but the lyrics make you appreciate it even more. The Lumineers prove with this album that they’re here to stay and they’re more than some brief folk revival. They’re a band worthy of your attention and if you listen to Cleopatra, you will be rewarded.

Grade: 8/10

Review – Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids”

When I first heard this song, I was taken aback by it and really didn’t know how to feel about it. First off, it wasn’t a beach song. Chesney has been living off these songs for the last decade, so when it wasn’t a beach song I think my ears were startled because they’ve been trained to expect it. Chesney’s last hit single, “Pirate Flag,” was just awful and had been a while since Chesney has done something that made me think. Second, is that supposed to be hipsters on the cover of this single? Is this Chesney’s new angle? I digress. Compared to other blogs that strive for more traditional sounding country music, Country Perspective isn’t as hard on Kenny Chesney for his songs. They aren’t meant to be taken seriously and they’re certainly easier to listen to than Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan songs. And that is the case once again with “American Kids.”

The song starts out with an electronic/acoustic beat, evoking similar sounds to Sugarland’s “Stuck on Glue,” another song I absolutely can’t stand. But you’ll realize that this song isn’t anything like that one and comparing the two is kind of silly. Chesney then begins to sing and the lyrics are blatantly laundry list. Several brands are listed off and other clichés about growing up in America are named. Now notice I said blatantly because this song is meant to make the listener experience nostalgia. While some listeners surely will experience nostalgia from hearing “American Kids,” I really don’t experience any nostalgia. Others will probably feel this way too because you really can’t sing a song about nostalgia, which is what this song is all about. It’s got to be the subject of the song that evokes it. For example, Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” reminds me of my days of youth in the summer spending time with my friends. Nostalgia is a personal thing. You can’t sing about a bunch of clichés in hopes to appeal to everyone’s nostalgia because everyone is different.

Now if you approach this song with the attitude of being carefree and fun, it’s a pretty good song in this aspect. I was tapping my feet as I listened to it because it is a very likable song. The clapping and the shouts of “hey” are a little annoying, but I’m able to overlook it. The instrumentation in “American Kids” tries to be like Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, but it’s a light version of those respective bands’ sound. But that works because this is a party, summer anthem song that you dance to and aren’t supposed to find any significant meaning to it. I’m happy there isn’t any EDM or rapping involved. That in itself is an accomplishment.

I’m appreciative of Chesney trying to go outside the box. His last album Life On A Rock was a huge disappointment and didn’t garner a lot of attention. When making this next album apparently Chesney and his team had recorded and mixed the entire album when Chesney decided he hated it and they completely scrapped all of the material. They then made this song and the rest of his upcoming album. At least this shows Chesney cares about his music and isn’t trying to just makes “hits” like Jerrod Niemann admitted recently. “American Kids” is on fire on the iTunes charts and on Billboard. Expect to hear this play on radios for the rest of the summer.

Take this song for what’s it worth: A feel good song that is fun and light-hearted. It’s hard to hate “American Kids,” but I don’t love it either.

Grade: 6.5/10