Country Capsule Reviews: Neo-Traditionalists

Today, I have a few quick reviews of new country albums from people who stick carefully to old styles. This can work well, as there is a lot of emotional depth left to explore in traditional country, but being too strict can also become a straightjacket. All three of these artists are people I’ve reviewed before, but surprisingly, my opinion of each one has changed since then.

Ride cover

Wayne Hancock – Ride

Wayne Hancock – Ride

Wayne Hancock’s old-time swing style has been a source of both inspiration and restriction. 2009’s Viper of Melody, for example, bridged the gap between the Great Depression and hard times of today. Too often, though, he sounds like he’s repeating himself and has no new ground to cover. His new release Ride has two tracks whose name ends in “blues” and one with “boogie”. In a fourth song, to describe a bar fight gone bad, he says “they did the shotgun boogie”. In other hands, much of his material and delivery could be treated as parody. In Hancock’s, though, they’re something arguably worse: Affectation. Emotions and interesting stories take a back seat to his authenticity.

Hancock is good at what he does, fortunately, and Ride is pleasant to listen to. It’s his first album after a divorce and rehab, and these songs have a slower, bluesier vibe than in the past. That gives this album a place of its own in Hancock’s repertoire. The songs don’t often sound inspired or driven, though. Only one is worth noting: “Best To Be Alone” is a rejection of love that has the same timeless truth of a Hank Williams song. Plain-spoken but cutting, it shows that this old style can still speak to us today. It’s a pity that he doesn’t have more examples of this, or branch out into other styles if he can only write songs like “Best To Be Alone” once per album.

Grade: C+

More Raw Stuff cover

Ray Lawrence Jr. – More Raw Stuff

Ray Lawrence Jr. – More Raw Stuff

I’ll admit it: I was wrong about Ray Lawrence Jr. I dismissed his last album as simple and disappointing, and said that he wouldn’t amount to anything until he moved beyond acoustic one-man performances and branched out from bitter songs about women. More Raw Stuff repeats that formula, but this time it works much better. His guitar playing, though still simple, now feels like more than an afterthought, and some of his writing is simply stunning. With his aged voice that conveys a lifetime of hurt, he turns out some great country ballads.

Lawrence still needs to branch out. This album’s short length helps to hide the repetitiveness, but other than the funny closing track (“Dickens’ Cider” – say it out loud until you get it), these are consistently about cheating and bad relationships. It’s actually a relief when he sings about crippling alcoholism. Sure, he blames it on a woman, but at least he has some hobby to distract him from the next cheating heart. In addition to the very funny (and annoyingly catchy) “Dickens’ Cider”, check out “Homeless”, which ties a real-life experience of Lawrence’s to the idea that love makes a home. “Steel Reserve” is about drinking to give yourself strength, and it sounds amazingly strong despite the bleak message. And “A Time that I Loved in Vain” is one of those life-encompassing songs that a singer hopes to create once in a career – and Lawrence has already managed a few of those.

The other songs are also consistently good on their own, but do suffer from the repetition on this album. I’m very happy with Lawrence’s accomplishment here, but my old concerns still stand: He made a great album this time, but will need to find new subject matter soon.

Grade: B+

El Rancho Azul cover

Dale Watson and His Lonestars – El Rancho Azul

Dale Watson and His Lonestars – El Rancho Azul

Though I complain about the way country has turned pop over the past generation, it’s important to remember that classic country had its share of clichés and easy, emotionally manipulative topics. Dale Watson can be a great songwriter, but he falls victim to those old traps sometimes in El Rancho Azul. More or less half drinking songs and half sentimental family fare, Watson is not one to question the templates set by the stars of the 1950s through 1970s. And while it’s fun to hear him sing “Give Me More Kisses” or “I Can’t Be Satisfied”, nothing here stands out. Two songs about weddings, especially, sound like ideas he wanted to write about even though he had nothing to say. Of those sentimental topics, the only one that makes a worthwhile song is “Quick Quick Slow Slow”, a heartwarming story about a woman teaching him to dance. But that’s immediately followed up with “Slow Quick Quick”, an alternate version based around a different dance. Either one of them would make a fine album track, with the other deserving to show up as a B-side down the line. Putting them back-to-back on the album makes what could have been the highlight into a padded-out waste of space.

The highest Watson achieves here is perfectly hitting the templates for drinking songs. The opener “I Lie When I Drink” is a crowd-pleasing gimmick (“I drink a lot… I only drink when I’m missing you”) with some clever lines but not much heart, though later tracks like “I Drink To Remember” provide the pathos that a drinking song should. The album ends with “Thanks To Tequila”, the kind of song that people would sing along to at frat parties if Watson had a major label pushing him on the radio. It’s a shame he doesn’t, because the formulas he applies here are a nice change of pace from the formulas you do hear on the radio today. These songs still don’t stand out when compared to the ones that inspired them, though.

Grade: C

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