Country Capsule Reviews: 2012 Catch-Up

Though I reviewed plenty of country music throughout 2012, almost none of it was actually new that year. To catch up on what I missed, I went to Saving Country Music’s nominations for the best albums of the year. I don’t always agree with Trigger at SCM, but he makes a great guide. From his seven nominees, I picked out the four that were available on physical CDs. (My preferences are falling out of step with modern times, and nowhere is that more obvious than in the indie country scene. It seems like half of the albums that Trigger loves are only available electronically.) Here are my opinions of those four.

Cabin Fever cover

Corb Lund – Cabin Fever

Corb Lund: Cabin Fever

It’s difficult to talk about country music without taking “authenticity” into account. This may seem like a problem, but I’ve come to terms with it. By its very nature, Country is supposed to be personal and revealing, and it fails if a believable personality doesn’t come through. There are a few approaches an artist can take to the country culture, from embracing it to pandering to self-aware parody. The awkward thing about Corb Lund’s Cabin Fever is that he seems to try all those tactics. Lund is an excellent performer, but it’s difficult to get a consistent impression from all this. The disaster-obsessed “prepper” of one song and the gun collector shot by his own weapon in another come from two very different social narratives.

Sometimes, Lund’s wide-ranging approach sabotages his songs. “Cows Around” is a fun, brilliant song in the style of Shel Silverstein, but by the end, its winking message about wanting farm life despite its hassles turns into a mean-spirited condemnation. Or take “Bible On The Dash”, another humorous song (this time about faking faith to get out of speeding tickets) that kind of goes off the rails when it ends without resolving the plot. On the other hand, Lund has plenty of successes in different styles, as well. “The Gothest Girl I Can” is a great rockabilly song in touch with modern subcultures, while “Drink It Like You Mean It” embraces classic country culture with no irony.

Lund has an easy-going singing voice and a versatile backing band. This is an album full of very good songs, but it rarely feels like a good album itself. There’s just no consistent personality to tie everything together.

Grade: B-

100 Proof cover

Kellie Pickler – 100 Proof

Kellie Pickler: 100 Proof

When talking about cultural signifiers in country music, it’s difficult to avoid mentioning how badly modern pop country has screwed them up. Their combination of desperate pandering to a cultural checklist and stubborn attempts to separate themselves from their past has poisoned the scene so much that I wasn’t sure if I could still appreciate a good pop country album. Kellie Pickler’s 100 Proof may be the best possible test case for this.

Pickler has a beautiful voice that mixes a pop star’s poise with disarming sentiment, and 100 Proof makes a valiant attempt to bridge the difference between “good” country and pop country. Sometimes, she succeeds. “Where’s Tammy Wynette” makes a great opener, and is arguably daring in a time when country stars dismiss older music as being for “old farts and jackasses“. But it’s difficult to be sure that this isn’t still a calculated pose, as the album has plenty of perfectly poised, schmaltzy sentiment to go around. Maybe the best summary of 100 Proof is found in the single “Tough”: It’s a solid country song about a hard childhood shaping Pickler’s life, and it would sound very good coming from the right singer. But it’s difficult to listen to an American Idol alum sing “my edges have always been rough” alongside clean, big-budget production and an album sleeve full of glamour shots. That’s not to say that those things preclude someone from performing good songs, but they make a glaring contrast to the persona that Pickler tries to put forward in her songs.

100 Proof is a surprisingly decent album hidden in the mainstream music scene. It doesn’t escape the traps that come along with trying to please such a wide audience, though. There are good songs here, but no matter what kind of country you like, you’ll also find something to dislike.

Grade: C+

Cigarettes & Truckstops cover

Lindi Ortega – Cigarettes & Truckstops

Lindi Ortega: Cigarettes & Truckstops

Lindi Ortega is a pleasant surprise, though. As poised and slick as Kellie Pickler in her own way, Ortega has a sultry voice and a band that mixes country with the atmosphere of a smokey lounge. But on Cigarettes & Truckstops, Ortega’s personality is unrelentingly consistent and honest, with songs that cover everything from murder ballads to longing and sin. In fact, “longing” is the dominant theme here, with Ortega taking full advantage of the way she sounds when she claims to be desperate and lonely.

“The Day You Die” is the only unabashedly country song on this album, and on a first impression, the rest could easily be mistaken for Americana or poppy Blues music. Despite those trappings, though, country music is definitely the foundation of her style. She doesn’t just feature murder, but places it in a lonely cornfield. The bottle is a constant temptation, and God only appears when she worries about redemption. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on how Ortega should be categorized, or imply that her music is only worthwhile if it’s legitimate country, but instead to point out just how much crossover appeal she should have. Where Pickler seemed trapped by her understanding of both traditional and modern country styles, Ortega is beholden to no strict rules. The result will appeal to just about every scene.

Grade: A-

Goodbye Normal Street cover

Turnpike Troubadours – Goodbye Normal Street

Turnpike Troubadours: Goodbye Normal Street

The Turnpike Troubadours are a difficult band for me to review, because they sound so perfectly normal that it’s hard to describe what makes them unique. While Goodbye Normal Street isn’t the best country album of 2012, it’s the example I’d point to if someone wanted to know what independent country sounded like in that year.

Of course, the band does have their own style. With a simple but emotional voice and a propensity for the storytelling school of country, “troubadour” is a fitting name for them. The songs are mostly about relationships, but that includes family, friends, and country alongside the romantic ones. There’s a genuine quality to the stories that make all those feel like aspects of one rich life. Characters are described clearly and efficiently, demonstrating an obvious intelligence behind these simple songs of  everyday life. And while most of these songs end badly for the singer, there’s still something uplifting in their simple truth.

The songs on Goodbye Normal Street are consistently good, but the album offers no real standouts. Still, I can’t complain too much when it establishes such a strong baseline of quality.

Grade: B+

  1. November 9th, 2013

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