The Endless Music Odyssey, Vol. 1: Hot Country Knights, Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers, and more

The Hot Country Knights deliver even more than I expected with their debut album The K is Silent. You can spend a lot of time analyzing all of the puns and hilarious references (some time will be spent on this of course). But in my opinion the best thing to sum up about this album can be found in the music video for the lead single of this album, “Pick Her Up.” In this clear parody of bro country (as well as 90s country too), the video opens with the modern country male concert goer in his flannel shirt and vest. It’s a little detail, but it struck me because of it’s accuracy because this is literally how the vast majority of guys I see at concerts dress. At The Cadillac Three concert I attended back in February (what will highly likely be my one and only show in 2020), pretty much every dude at show looked like the guy in the music video.

Now to why I point this out and to me it’s symbolism for modern country. Every thing looks and sounds the same just like the listeners who consume it. I don’t mean this as a shot at these listeners or anybody at all, nor did Dierks Bentley and his band mean to make this some sort of symbolism. But for myself I couldn’t help but make the connection. I just found it fascinating how so much of popular modern music makes things so cookie cutter to the point even the listener is a cardboard cutout. It shows the cascading effect art and culture can have on people. As the saying goes, you are what you eat.

Back to the Hot Country Knights and the video, they give the guy a 90s makeover (or 80s?) and set him up with a souped up truck to impress his date. It’s completely corny, out of style and yet brimming so much with the personality that lacks in country music today. It doesn’t feel like calculated marketing and it’s just being itself, which easier said than done in today’s world. Yes, this album goes on to point out how even 90s country was formulaic in it’s approach and relied on copy and paste imagery for songs. But it was fun and didn’t take itself so seriously, yet it could also find balance with serious songs occasionally too. It felt natural and had an accessibility about it that could resonate with the average person because it didn’t try so hard to be cool or appeal to certain demographics. Of course I will fully admit too that nostalgia makes me see things slightly through rose-colored glasses. But it’s the fun-loving spirit of this album that resonates mostly with me and how it’s not afraid to go “out there” and be a little weird and kooky.

The features on this album are perfect with Travis Tritt and Terri Clark each shining brightly in their roles. “Asphalt” is non-stop chuckles with it’s non-stop ass-based references (and another hilarious music video). “Moose Knuckle Shuffle” actually makes me want to dance and do the Moose Knuckle Shuffle while also doing a perfect parody of the line-dancing phase of the 90s. The highlight of the album for me though has to be “Then It Rained.” At first I was like wait a minute this is familiar and then I realized it was a dead-on take of Garth Brooks’ “The Thunder Rolls” and I absolutely lost it. It’s quite “Seinfeldian” as my friend Zack at The Musical Divide perfectly puts it, with it’s take on the average boring moment followed by rain. This type of humor is right up my alley. The best line is “I ordered up a hot dog and a glass of chardonnay/Somewhere I thought I heard George Strait/And then it rained.” It’s just so randomly hilarious!

The album’s title track rhymes whiskey with whiskey, which feels like the ultimate meta reference to how asinine modern country songwriting can be at times while also referencing how critics like myself can never help ourselves in pointing things like this out in reviews. “Mull It Over” is both funny and manages to incorporate a mullet reference right under your nose (while lines throughout reference the hair style too). “You Make It Hard” is the ultimate dick joke song. Finally you have “The USA Begins with US,” which casually and flawlessly mocks the absurdity that is so many patriotic country songs and how some artists inauthentically pander so hard with the USA stuff in their music (think songs like “Chicken Fried”).

While this was just a “casual” side project for Dierks Bentley and his band, you can tell a lot of love and work went into this fun idea. And I hope this isn’t the last we’ve heard of the Hot Country Knights, as the cornier, fun side of country music is something we need again. Speaking of more fun country music, Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers returned with another collaboration album, Hold My Beer, Vol. 2. The first addition got high praise from yours truly and I flipped when I saw the news that they were coming back with another edition in May.

While I really enjoyed this album for the most part, I unfortunately have to point the huge flaw in this project before getting to what I enjoy. And I have to point it out first because I was enjoying it so much upon initial listens and then I finally did my “deep” listen of it. The huge flaw I discovered was “Her.” Now I know I pointed out above that music today should have a more casual nature about it and not be so overthought. But it’s hard not to come away from “Her” as anything but disappointing. A song about a guy getting his friend drunk and stealing his girl away is just not something I can get behind, no matter how “fun-loving” it tries to come off. This song is no different than the horrible Old Dominion song “Break Up with Him.” It’s just in bad taste all-around and unlike Ashley McBryde’s new album Never Will, this song doesn’t try to view the flawed characters as neutral or bad actors, but rather quite the opposite.

So after making this discovery it felt like I had just eaten a piece of delicious chocolate cake only for the chef to come up to me afterwards and whisper in my ear that there was a fly baked into it. Nevertheless, the rest of this album is the kind of fun traditional country I can get behind and put on repeat. While there are no true highlights that resonate with me like on the first volume, there was still several fun moments. “Rodeo Clown” is an hilarious song about a guy being left by his woman for a rodeo clown. While it’s an embarrassing and sad thing for the guy, it’s quite a funny image from the outside looking in. While at first “Rhinestoned” and “Speak to Me Jukebox” felt a bit on the nose, I’ve ultimately come to really enjoy these little homages to country music and previous standards that so many country listeners enjoy.

“Am/Fm” is admittedly a bit too close to the very songs these two mocked with “Standards,” but damn if it isn’t admittedly catchy too. So I can understand anybody who decidedly falls on either side of the fence with this song. “Let Merle Be Merle” can kind of come off a bit tone deaf upon first listen of the chorus, but I realized upon more listens the message is really about letting people be what they are. Particularly with country music the song is saying to let the past be the past, don’t try to be the next Haggard. And these are messages I can get behind. “Ode to Ben Dorcy” surprised me as I was greeted by the welcoming voice of Waylon Jennings. And I found the song to be even more cool when I read about the origins of it, as it pays tribute to the long-time roady who supported so many artists.

“Mi Amigo”, even with the nice feature of Asleep at the Wheel, is a bit generic and forgettable. “Warm Beer” is a bit cliché, but I’ll admit I can enjoy it too for it’s easy-going nature. “Hold My Beer” is definitely better and is the kind of song that encapsulates the entertaining, buddy-buddy personalities of Bowen and Rogers. I wish “Her” could have been replaced with another song like this one. Or another song like “This Ain’t My Town,” which I would have to pick as the best on the record. It’s a poignant commentary on the gentrification of towns like Austin and Nashville, stripping away the soul and characteristics that made the places once resonate with the city’s original residents who now feel like strangers. It’s a nice balance also with the fun moments on this album, much like how “El Dorado” served on the first volume.

Hold My Beer, Vol. 2 is a really solid album that shines for the most part, despite the flaws. Although I would be remiss if I didn’t take the opportunity to make an observation of this album and The K is Silent. Each album shares multiple writers (Jon Randall, the Beavers brothers), despite the fact that some Texas Country supporters will insist that Wade and Randy’s album is much more authentic and country. But I would make the argument that these albums are essentially the same, as each have the same fun attitude and themes throughout.

The only difference is packaging and marketing. One is trying to be “serious” and the other is a “parody.” But you could argue both for well both. The point I’m ultimately trying to make here is how hung up in perceptions us listeners can have when it comes to music and the perception we think we give by listening to a certain type of music. Really at the end of the day it’s just a matter of how it makes you feel and if you enjoy it. The other stuff is just noise artists, labels and industry people trying to suck you into this fake us vs them plot to sell more music and tickets. And unfortunately this fuels the divides that exist in music too. In the words of the Doobie Brothers, just listen to the music and you can’t go wrong.

Hot Country Knights – The K is Silent – Strong 8/10

Wade Bowen & Randy Rogers – Hold My Beer, Vol. 2 – Light 8/10


And more…

  • After enjoying the Hot Country Knights album, it actually prompted me to re-listen to Dierks Bentley’s The Mountain. And I’m glad I did. Originally I was in the very small minority of not enjoying the album. But now you can count me in the camp of liking it. I’m not sure why I originally didn’t enjoy it, and while I wouldn’t put it as one of Bentley’s best (such as Modern Day Drifter, Riser, Up on the Ridge), it’s a really solid album full of great messages that deal with overcoming fears, anxiety and finding love. “Burning Man” is the perfect opener and the Brothers Osborne are the ideal feature for this type of song. The album’s title track feels like a good summation of this album, “You Can’t Bring Me Down” is an uplifting anthem and “Son of the Sun” is where you can really tells Dierks lets his inspiration from Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives’ Way Out West shine through. And his collaboration with Brandi Carlile on “Travelin’ Light” is so enjoyable. I’m not sure I’ll ever warm up to Black, but The Mountain is an album worthy of recommendation from yours truly now.
  • Run the Jewels is dropping RTJ4 on June 5 and I am pumped! All three albums they’ve released have been great (RTJ2 in particular is one of the best albums of the past decade), so I’m quite confident that this will be another can’t miss record from the dynamic duo of El-P and Killer Mike. I got even more excited when I saw the all-star features list for the album, including the likes of 2 Chainz, Zack De La Rocha, Pharrell Williams and Mavis Staples. I’ve only listened to small snippets and plan to not listen to any of the full songs before the album to go in completely blind. Needless to say this is an album that on paper has a great shot of making my top albums of the year list.
  • I just reposted my review of Kenny Chesney’s great Songs of the Saints album. But unfortunately his new album is right back to the generic garbage I’ve come to hate from him. I didn’t even make it halfway through before shutting it off. It’s a shame how his mediocre stuff is what always ends up as hits while his better material never seems to resonate with listeners as much. Then again when you condition your audience into coming to concerts to get blackout drunk and trash venues up, it’s not really that surprising I guess.
  • I recently started to explore the discography of the Carpenters and I wish I would have done so sooner. Their melodies are gorgeous and Karen Carpenter has to be one of the most underrated artists of all-time. It’s a shame her life was cut so short. Close To You is the standard recommendation with this duo and for good reason, as I enjoy it front to back. The love songs like “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “They Long To Be Close To You” easily standout thanks to the beautiful voice of Karen and their different take on the cover of “Help” holds up right next to The Beatles.
  • I gotta say I’m not a fan of the COVID-19-inspired songs being released. It’s bad enough to be profiting off a deadly virus, but then the songs themselves are so boring and uninspiring. I don’t really think anybody needs another reminder of it either. Country music in particular seems to be releasing the most songs about the topic and it reminds me so much of immediate post-9/11 country music. Luke Combs has the most popular song with “Six Feet Apart.” It’s just decent and for me it’s starting feel like all of his songs have the same cadence and feel about him. They just sort of blend together, so I hope he plans for more variety in future songs. Brad Paisley though has released the worst with “No I in Beer.” It’s so lazy, the pandering is tacked on at the end and it feels like a watered down conglomeration of his past songs. Please start doing better, Brad.
  • I don’t really pay a lot of attention to country radio nowadays, but I glanced through the chart the other day and I was happy to see LOCASH’s “One Big Country Song” is rising up the charts and becoming a hit. I’ve never been a big fan of the duo, but this song really caught my ear when I heard it last year. While the topic of the song is quite overused in country music, LOCASH manages to pull it off thanks to the fun, singalong nature and the catchy guitar licks.

Thanks for reading the first edition of The Endless Music Odyssey! This will be not necessarily a weekly feature, but a regular feature for sure. I will still do regular reviews when I have a ton to say about the album, but otherwise my thoughts will be in this feature. Josh’s Jukebox Journal will still be a feature and I plan to reveal at least one more feature very soon. I hope you enjoy my new approach to writing as much as I do! As always be sure to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments below!

Raise a Glass of Holiday Cheer or Bah Humbug?: “The Christmas Song”

Welcome to a brand new Christmas feature of Country Perspective! Now in the past long-time readers may remember me passing on reviewing Christmas songs because well I didn’t really know the best way to approach them and I also felt the need to cover what I felt like everybody else wanted me to cover instead of covering what I want. But obviously things change, as I just did my very first Christmas review.

Now my new feature is quite simple: I’m going to take a look at and categorize the different versions of a Christmas song into one of two categories. The good category is Raise a Glass of Holiday Cheer, whether that be egg nog, hot chocolate, or whatever other holiday concoction you prefer (just be responsible of course). The bad category is Bah Humbug, named after the famous retort of Ebenezer Scrooge (the Disney version of it is the best, don’t @ me). The main point of this feature is to have some holiday fun! And maybe you’ll find a new version of a holiday classic to stick in your own playlist. Also please throw your own recommendations in the comments!

The first song I’m going to take a look at is “The Christmas Song,” which you probably remember as the song that involves chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Well that’s the line I remember the most. The song was written in 1945 by Robert Wells and Mel Tommé (the latter actually admitted he doesn’t even like the song). But here’s a fun fact: The song was actually written on a hot summer day! Isn’t that crazy? There’s a little bit more to the story too, so I encourage to click the link above to read it. The song was originally recorded by The Nat King Cole Trio in 1946 and King went on to record several versions of the song in his career, as it became one of his biggest hits. It’s also the most performed Christmas song according to BMI, which is something I did not know either.

Raise a Glass of Holiday Cheer

  • Nat King Cole

The original and gold standard of course must be at the top of the good list!

Or as most of you probably remember it as: A Charlie Brown Christmas music. You really can’t get much classier and respectful when it comes to Christmas music than what you get from Vince Guaraldi Trio. Their entire Christmas discography is great, as even listeners who normally don’t check out jazz music can find enjoyment and Yuletide relaxation from it.

I’m hit and miss on the Jackson family when it comes to their Christmas album, but this is one of the songs I enjoy on it. It respects the classiness of the original version, while still making it feel like the era they recorded it in (1970) and making it their own too.

One day I’m going to write a piece (or pieces?) on how much I enjoy and respect Motown artists. Phil Spector and his artists really knew how to craft melodies and smart, catchy hooks. And The Temptations version of this song is no different, as it’s got a decidedly R&B feeling that makes it feel like a more “adult” version because grownups need Christmas music too.

Alan Jackson’s Let It Be Christmas album is one of my all-time favorite Christmas albums and I encourage anyone who hasn’t listened to it to do so. Jackson’s deep baritone and gentlemanly nature just makes him perfect to record really any Christmas song. It’s safe to assume you will always see him on the good side of this feature.

Bah Humbug!

  • Thomas Rhett

Thomas Rhett’s version of this classic is too smooth and overproduced. I’m so shocked! Not really of course, as it follows a pattern of the majority of his music. This is like the last version I want to hear of this song. As I said in my Bowen review, it’s amazing how modern artists can screw up holiday songs.

Okay, so you might be surprised to see Crosby show up here instead of above. After all he’s performed so many great renditions of Christmas songs and most of the time he will end up on the good list. But this one of his misses in my mind: this is too slow, boring and doesn’t feel like Christmas. Crosby is practically yawning his way through the song. It’s the music equivalent of paint drying. While most older versions of Christmas songs are better, this is an exception to the rule.

When I don’t enjoy an Aguilera song, it’s because she’s overdoing it and going too over-the-top with her lyrics. And that is the case here, as it starts off well enough. But she just can’t help herself by the end of the song.

Just like Bing Crosby, I usually enjoy a lot of Fitzgerald’s versions of Christmas songs. But this song makes a big mistake with it’s thin, jingly production. It feels like a cabaret, bar room lounge rendition of the song. And that’s a shame because Ella Fitzgerald can belt it, so I don’t understand why you would have her record this type of version of the song.

I take it back: Thomas Rhett’s version of “The Christmas Song” isn’t the worst. She & Him’s version is the worst. Also I finally get my opportunity to put this (digital) pen to paper: She & Him are absolutely awful. They’re one of the most annoying acts in music. From the general vibe they give off in their music to their album covers, they come off as snobby, pretentious and overwrought. The only thing they’re missing is fedoras. I openly gag when I hear their music. Just like Alan Jackson being a lock for the Holiday Cheer list, She & Him are a lock for Bah Humbug.

Album Review — Wade Bowen’s ‘Twelve Twenty-Five’

Every year modern artists will release their interpretations of classic Christmas songs, whether via singles or even an entire album. And maybe they’ll even sprinkle in a few originals if you’re lucky. But the problem is most of them don’t stand out in any way. You’ll listen to it once, say “that’s neat” and then go right back to listening to the same old songs you always listen to around the holidays. Occasionally though someone will actually release something worthy of earning a spot in your Christmas songs rotation and this year that’s Wade Bowen’s new Christmas album Twelve Twenty-Five. I had a great feeling about the Texas country artist’s first Christmas album when it was announced, and it went beyond even my own expectations.

Bowen opens with his rendition of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” and he knocks his performance out of the park. It’s infectious, fun and gets the Christmas energy on this album kicked off perfectly. And I’m happy the production doesn’t go over the top like it usually does when other artists cover this song. “O Holy Night” is next and this is admittedly one of my favorite religious Christmas songs. That’s because I feel it truly captures the joy and meaning of Christmas through the Christian lens and Bowen’s performance truly does justice to it, which isn’t surprise considering he released a great gospel album.

“Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is next and I can tell that Bruce Springsteen’s version of the song influences Bowen’s own version. It’s got a more rocking feeling rather than the classical approach many take and even banters in the song like Springsteen. But Bowen pulls it off so much better than Bruce because he doesn’t over sing it (stay tuned for further elaboration on why I hate the Boss’s take on the song), and the guitars and pianos don’t blast the listener. Less can be more. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” showcases why I enjoy Bowen in more stripped-down songs. His voice just fits these piano ballads and the song also properly captures the feeling I look for in the covering of this song: mostly somber, but with bits of optimism and hope.

Bowen’s son Brock joins him on “Holly Jolly Christmas” and I must admit I usually hate children singing. But I actually enjoy this performance because it’s endearing, and Bowen goes full dad in the bridge of the song. It’s hilarious while also avoiding being corny and feeling forced. It feels real and as the listener I can appreciate and enjoy this. When I think of “Please Come Home for Christmas” the first version I think of is The Eagles’ version, as I believe it to be the best. And while I don’t think Bowen’s version tops it, it’s still pretty damn good, as he captures the yearning and wanting needed in his vocal performance.

Bowen is joined by another one of his sons, Bruce, on the Irving Berlin classic “White Christmas.” This performance is much different than the other one, as both take this song more seriously and Bruce sounds pretty good. Their harmonies sound great too. You can tell the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree, as he may one day follow his father’s footsteps. It’s a heartfelt and enjoyable performance from the father and son duo.

I have to say I was surprised to see Wade Bowen cover the Mariah Carey classic “What I Want for Christmas is You,” as the song’s high popularity and sterling reputation amongst critics and listeners alike makes it a challenging song for other artists to tackle. Not to mention it requires some serious pipes to pull off. But he does a fantastic job! It’s a different take that I think is worthy of being in anybody’s Christmas playlist. Again, if you’re like me and you get sick of Christmas songs going a little too far with production at times these more minimally produced Christmas songs are a fresh change of pace. If you don’t want to spend time with this whole album, this is one of a few songs that should absolutely be heard.

“Til The Season Comes Round Again” is great to hear covered, as this song is a classic that often gets overlooked. It’s a warm blanket next to the fire type song that Bowen along with the soulful feature of Sean McConnell cover really well. The addition of McConnell harmonizing with Bowen is really the cherry on top to make it a memorable performance. Dolly Parton’s “Once Upon a Christmas” is covered next and I will never complain about a Dolly song showing up. While this is one of the my less favorite takes on the album (it has the unenviable task of living up to Dolly and Kenny Rogers), it’s still solid and I like the Texas influences that are incorporated into the song.

The great Cody Canada joins Bowen for a rendition of Merle Haggard’s brilliant “If We Make It Through December.” I remember growing up I found this song to be kind of depressing and it is, but it’s also important that this unpleasant and for some people, really real look at the other side of Christmas be presented. It shows that Christmas doesn’t always go like it does in the movies and that reality and what you want don’t always align. In other words, why we love country music: it’s real.

Bowen goes to the other end of the spectrum with his cover of Wham!’s “Last Christmas.” And for some this might be sacrilegious to say, but I find Bowen’s cover to be better than the original by George Michael. The reason is 1) I hate the excessive synth on the original and 2) Bowen’s more stripped-down version allows the great lyrics to shine. Both these points play into each other, as the synths and overall cheesy feeling of the original really takes away from the quality of the lyrics that tell the complicated story of love lost around the holidays. This was easily an immediate standout on this album. Appropriate, the album closes with “Silent Night.” It’s just a natural closing song for a Christmas album and Bowen delivers a stirring and soulful rendition of this Christmas staple.

Twelve Twenty-Five is a modern Christmas album done right and I applaud Wade Bowen for accomplishing something that surprisingly so many modern artists screw up. Bowen takes classic songs and instead of trying to add some “twist” to make it stand out, instead just delivers them through his own voice with a country flavor while respecting the original takes on them. And don’t dismiss this as just a great country Christmas album. This is a great Christmas album against any genre.

Grade: 9 candy canes out of 10

Album Review – Rob Baird’s ‘Wrong Side of the River’

Rob Baird Wrong Side of the River

One of the things I pride myself on is keeping up with all of the best artists in country and Americana. I do my absolute best to review and cover all of the best and yet there’s always some artists that fall through the cracks. There was one artist in particular I kept hearing about from readers and around the independent country community. I’ve been wanting to cover him for a while and with the slow down in releases this month I finally get to. That artist is Rob Baird. Hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, he started out in 2010 with Carnival Recording Company founded by Frank Liddell in Nashville. After releasing two albums under this label, he’s now on his own. Baird released his third studio album earlier this year titled Wrong Side of the River. For this album he got outside of the Nashville bubble and headed west to Austin, Texas for inspiration. And I have to say the Red Dirt influence shines bright on this album.

You can really hear the Texas influence from the start on “Ain’t Nobody Got a Hold on Me.” A prominent guitar gives the song a real catchy melody throughout and really allows Baird’s voice to shine. It’s a subtly smooth song that draws the listener right in. The steel guitar-laden “Mercy Me” sees Baird tackling heartbreak. He questions why he runs and the things he’s done in his life, holding him back from finding love. And I did mention there’s a lot of steel guitar? If you love steel guitar, this song has plenty. “Pocket Change” has a more hard rock influence about it. It’s another heartbreak song and features some of the best instrumentation on the album. The roaring electric guitars and the lingering organ in the background really make for some fun music. In other words, it fits perfectly in the Red Dirt scene.

The quieter, subdued “Run of Good Luck” shows a softer side to Baird’s voice. The song is about a man and woman knowing it’s time for them to leave their town of Abilene and “roll the dice” in their lives. They know what they’re doing is a risk, but at the same time they don’t have much to lose either. This is definitely one of the standouts of Wrong Side of the River, as Baird’s vocals and the instrumentation blend together perfectly. The album’s title track begins with some eerie guitar play, giving the song an almost psychedelic feel. It’s one of the most intriguing openers to a song I’ve heard this year. The whole song really features some stellar instrumentation. If there’s one thing this album just nails, it’s this aspect.

The outro for “Wrong Side of the River” bleeds right into “Oklahoma.” Baird sings of the traveling musician being on the road and feeling lonely without the woman he loves in his life all the time. He wishes she was with him and that they weren’t apart all the time. It’s a pretty solid track. Baird draws upon his experiences as a rancher out west on “Horses.” The song is about how he watches the horses live and makes him ponder his own life. It’s one of those reflective songs that pulls you in and reminds you that you need slow down in this fast-paced life. The song is a very relaxing listen. “Mississippi Moon” is a song title that upon first listen might make you think of bro country, but I assure there’s no bro country here. At the same time this heartbreak song doesn’t stand out that well lyrically compared to the other heartbreak songs on this album.

Baird sings of his own mortality on “When I Go.” The somber, yet definitive reflection in his voice as he thinks of his mistakes and what lies ahead for him really resonates with you. It’s one of the lyrical high points on this album for sure, as the emotion of it really makes it stand out. While Baird does a great job with the faster paced, more fun songs, it’s these softer songs where you can really feel his talent shine the brightest. Wrong Side of the River ends with “Cowboy Cliché.” Baird is preparing himself for the impending breakup coming his way and wants it come so he can start living the clichéd cowboy lifestyle. He knows he will drift around and live with the skeletons that haunt him in his closet. It’s yet another solid heartbreak tune on an album full of them.

Overall Wrong Side of the River is a pretty good album with some impressive instrumentation. This is the absolute best part of the album, as I really don’t have any complaints in this regards. It’s catchy, it’s fun, it sets the tone perfectly on the sadder songs and it’s very country. Rob Baird’s voice really impresses me on this album too. It’s very smooth and emotive. The comparison I instantly thought of was Wade Bowen, which I know is high praise, but Baird is most certainly worthy. If I were Baird I would stick around Austin because I think he would fit in well next to the likes of Bowen and other Red Dirt artists. The only thing this album needed that it lacked was a few more “wow” moments. Other than that I think it’s a great album and I’m excited to hear what Baird has in-store next. He certainly shows a ton of potential with Wrong Side of the River.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Sean McConnell’s Self-Titled Album

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 3.44.22 PM

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