Archive for the ‘ Country ’ Category

Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones – Foreverly (Music Review)

Foreverly cover

Billie Joe Armstrong & Norah Jones – Foreverly

I’ve seen some other reviews of Foreverly, and it seems that they all follow the same pattern. First of all, they point out the unlikeliness of the concept. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong is joined by Norah Jones to make a faithful track-by-track adaptation of an obscure Everly Brothers album. Then the review says that surprisingly, they do a good job of it: The unlikely duo harmonizes nicely, and the songs are good.

I think that this is maybe letting the performers off easily. These are wildly successful music stars, and “they don’t sound bad” is pretty faint praise. The Everly Brothers’ Songs Our Daddy Taught Us was itself a collection of traditional country songs, and not necessarily an inspired list of choices. They beat you over the head with the emotional manipulation that was a country cliché a few generations back: There’s the song about a little boy’s dying wishes, the song about the little boy traveling to visit his dying mother, the song about the dying mother hoping to find her son before she goes, and so on. If The Everly Brothers had recorded this album thirty years later, it would’ve been all “my woman left me and my dog died” songs, and today it would be truckin’ and country checklists. We’re looking back at this album a half century later, so it’s a little more palatable than the modern clichés, but it’s still too much.

They’re good songs. Not one is wrong for a mix like this, but including them all is a little much. I would have much rather seen Armstrong and Jones put together their own collection of country standards, including just a few of these. Their performance is heartfelt and pleasant, and it does do justice to the sensibilities of past generations. It also strikes a nice balance between the washed-out production of 1958 and the loud production of 2013. I’d be happy to see what else they could do in this vein, but the only justification for this particular choice of songs is reverence for an album that wasn’t even notable at the time.

I know I’m probably being a little harsh on Foreverly, maybe in response to the uncritical praise. It’s an improvement on Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, it successfully brings two music stars into a new genre, and it will introduce a new audience to some deserving songs. But compared to the many versions of these songs already available, there is nothing outstanding here, and it doesn’t make a good case for why this genre still deserves attention. It’s pleasant, I listened to it several times, and I like the way this team works together. I hope they make something more inspired in the future.

Grade: C+

 
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The Defibulators – Debt’ll Get’em (Music Review)

Debt'll Get'em cover

The Defibulators – Debt’ll Get’em

Well, this is a disappointment. YouTube is filled with videos of New York City country band The Defibulators, and a lot of them are great. But I bought Debt’ll Get’em, their sophomore album, and wasn’t very impressed. Probably the easiest way to right this review is to list the reasons why the album doesn’t work as well as browsing YouTube.

1. That “New York City country” thing

I’m no purist (and I’m a northern city person myself), so I can accept a bunch of New Yorkers singing country. But to do it, they need to figure out how to define themselves. A lot of the traditional language of country bands won’t work for them. Sometimes The Defibulators have this figured out: “Everybody’s Got a Banjo” admits to the trendiness of roots music and defends it as fun for everyone. (“If you mean it when you sling it, then you ain’t no fool.”) I find “Working Class” to be more troublesome, though. It’s a story of a privileged middle-class kid who was too lazy to get a good job. It’s witty, and I’m sure a lot of their audience loves it, but to me it feels inappropriate next to the great working class anthems it feels modeled after.

“Hee-Haw in Heaven” is a complete misfire. It’s supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, but it sounds like someone unfamiliar with country music trying to impress fans. There are also enough songs already about meeting country greats in heaven that this doesn’t sound clever or original. At times like this, it’s hard to forget any concerns about the band’s seriousness.

2. The energetic songs are lacking

Check out this live performance of “Go-Go Truck”. It’s a fun, wild song that gives Th’ Legendary Shack-Shakers a run for their money. Then listen to “Holy Roller” on Debt’ll Get’em. It’s styled like a religious revival and should be capable of matching “Go-Go Truck”. But the music is restrained and the back-up singers are minimized instead of let loose. It’s the sound of a studio band mimicking the hell-raising energy of another culture.

3. The quieter songs are easy to ignore

The band isn’t just about wild songs. They have plenty of sedate country crooners, and they aren’t necessarily bad. I certainly enjoyed the ones on YouTube. Here, I guess that I just don’t take them seriously coming from the singers of “Hee-Haw in Heaven”.

4. Not enough Erin Bru

The band has two vocalists: “Bug” Jennings and Erin Bru. Jennings is the wild frontman and is the soul of the band, but Bru’s smooth voice is a real gem. I’m not sure if she has the versatility to handle a band on her own, but her individual songs tend to be standouts. On YouTube, she seems to get almost have the time. On this album, she mainly sings duets and backup. She takes lead on the excellent “Pay for That Money”, the album’s one exception to the “boring slow song” rule. But that’s all.

Debt’ll Get’em has enough good moments to affirm that The Defibulators have skill. But they need to figure out what to do with it. This is a half-hearted effort.

Grade: C

 

Hank3’s 2013 Releases (Music Review)

Two years ago, Hank3 released four albums from very different genres. Some were much better than others. Now he’s back with two albums (one a double) that total almost two and a half hours of playtime. It’s not surprising that one of them is country (Brothers of the 4×4) and the other punk (A Fiendish Threat), but it is interesting to see that neither is very similar to what he was doing in 2011. Love him or hate him, it’s obvious that he’s always pushing himself and unwilling to play it safe.

A Fiendish Threat cover

Hank3 – A Fiendish Threat

Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: The punk album is disappointing. It’s not bad, but it rarely feels like his heart is in it, either. It became obvious with his last crop of releases that Hank3 has only a passing interest in lyrics and mostly focuses on constructing soundscapes. But punk has to be a lot more about the lyrics and less about the “construction”, so it mainly sounds like an imitation of a genre he’s interested in. Some songs use sped-up country instruments and rhythms, which add a unique twist, but otherwise this doesn’t stand out. Hank3 needs to find a producer and editor he can trust, rather than running everything himself, because someone else would have made this leaner and shorter. More importantly, Hank3 needs to figure out what he wants to say when he does this. It’s a good sound, but it’s not compelling punk.

Brothers of the 4x4 cover

Hank3 – Brothers of the 4×4

Brothers of the 4×4, on the other hand, is one of his best albums. He obviously isn’t beholden to the over-the-top rebellion he pioneered in the last decade, but he isn’t necessarily interested in returning to his early traditional music, either. That rebel is still part of him, but he doesn’t feel the need to press the issue. Songs here are more likely to be about complex relationships or his love of nature as partying and fighting. In fact, “Farthest Away” is a surprisingly introspective song about a relationship growing cold, and in “The Outdoor Plan” he sounds more excited about finding bear tracks than he used to be about drugs. He even talks about wanting to find a woman to settle down with. There’s no doubt that this is an honest slice of life from someone who refuses to be pigeonholed by anything in his past.

The songs are long, though. Almost half of them cross the six-minute mark, and album-opener “Nearly Gone” is eight and a half. The first time I listened to it, I was saying “this sounds good, but it’s a bit long” by four minutes. Long, repetitive refrains and instrumental breaks are used in almost every song.

They sound good, though, and I enjoy it now that I’m over the initial shock. Hank3 has written good songs, and he takes the time to play with each one’s sound. I wouldn’t quite call this his “jam band album”, but if I wanted to convince someone from that scene to try country music, this wouldn’t be a bad album to start with. Each song does have a distinct sound, from the electric riffs in “Hurtin For Certin” to the clawhammer banjo in “Possum In A Tree”.

The lyrics are still sometimes weak. I can ignore the repeated “Losing like a loser who’s got nothing to lose” in the otherwise-good “Deep Scars”, but “Held Up” is nothing but bad repetitive rhymes about visiting each southern state. (“Ain’t nothin’ like the feel of Virginia’s vagine.” Seriously?) Hank3 isn’t stuck in the trap of repeating themes from old albums, though, as he seemed to be in 2011, and so they are almost always new and interesting enough to carry the songs.

The 89-minute running time gives me plenty of chances to enjoy it and then to get bored. As with A Fiendish Threat, it wouldn’t hurt to have someone else to force Hank3 to pare this down sometimes. However, most of it is very good, and I think that almost every song on here will be someone’s favorite. Personally, I keep coming back to the catchy “Hurtin for Certin”, the freewheeling groove of “Dread Full Drive” and “Toothpickin”, and the depressed, human groove of “Deep Scars” and “Farthest Away”. “Looky Yonder Commin” is also a great song full of personality and confidence, which surprised me because the odes to his coon-hunting dog were the weakest part of his last country albums.

A lot of baggage and expectations always come along with Hank3’s new albums, but if you set all that aside and just look at the music, Brothers of the 4×4 may be his strongest country effort ever. He’s confident and experienced, and that rebel energy that could have driven him to an early grave has instead been harnessed to keep him experimenting with new sounds. This one has a couple songs that just need to go, and several more that should have been cut back, but there’s still more than one full album of great stuff here.

A Fiendish Threat: C

Brothers of the 4×4: B+

 

Lindi Ortega – Tin Star

Tin Star cover

Lindi Ortega – Tin Star

I can’t believe I only discovered the incredible Lindi Ortega at the start of this year. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and I picked up her new album as soon as I heard about it. Tin Star is different than Cigarettes & Truckstops in a lot of ways. Where that last album incorporated a goth-tinged blues and lounge sound, this one is pure country. Also, Cigarettes usually sounded like a performance, while Tin Star seems like a view directly into Ortega’s soul. Possibly because of that, it feels like the younger work of a person who would grow up to sing Cigarettes. Don’t think that means this is worse, though. Tin Star is the rare gem that reminds us why country is considered timeless. The entire genre is justified by the way it produces things like this.

Ortega’s voice is clear and soulful, with just a touch of smokiness that she can call on when needed. Her band sounds like, and may be, a collection of Nashville’s better sessions players who are thrilled to be finally working on the kind of music that drew them into the business. The tracks include a few songs about love and loss, but the dominant theme is Ortega’s career and love of music. The title track is a sad (and hopefully mistaken) acceptance that she’ll never become successful, while “All These Cats” is the ass-kicking answer to that: Ortega adopts a rockabilly style and tells the haters that they’ll never stop her. “Gypsy Child” and “Songs About” are also about the way she could never take music out of her life, and she sounds very happy despite the sadness in the title track.

I unironically and unthinkingly love this album. Ortega’s beautiful voice and personal-but-polished style makes it seem wrong to examine this critically. Part of me does know that absent her style, most of the songs would be generic country standbys. But how could I subtract the artist’s unique style from my calculations? Besides, she does have a dark sensibility that makes her unique in Nashville. That only shows up once here, on “Lived and Died Alone”, but that song is a stunner. It’s a disarmingly beautiful tale of necrophilia as metaphor for a lonely, overly-empathetic life. It’s not off-putting or gimmicky at all, and it gives Tin Star the twist that protects it from any claim of being filled with “standard country songs”,

I also can’t bring myself to proclaim this a classic, because I hope to hear about more than just her love of music, and also songs like “Lived And Died Alone” show us how much more Ortega is capable of. Every track on Tin Star deserved to make the cut, but I still expect to see a day when she’s gone even beyond those. I may wish that I’d discovered Ortega years ago in her fully independent days, but I can at least be glad that I found her while she was still on the rise.

Grade: A-

 

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward (Music Review)

Gone Away Backward cover

Robbie Fulks – Gone Away Backward

Robbie Fulks held an interesting position in the early days of alt country: He was justly regarded as a genius, but never quite fit into the scene. Fulks was just a little too authentic, and could be as dismissive of elitist alt-country poseurs as he was of brainless pop country culture. In context, it’s not too surprising that he would return from a years-long semi-hiatus with an album like Gone Away Backwards. This is a set of no-frills country songs that could be mistaken for a time capsule from half a century ago. Full of slow, mournful ballads and an old man’s sensibility, it has little of the commercial appeal that was peppered through his old albums. All his past releases mixed things up with a few gimmicky songs or sarcastic attacks on tradition, but there’s no change of pace here.

That’s not to say that Gone Away Backwards is disappointing. On the contrary, it may be Fulks’ masterwork. “I’ll Trade You Money for Wine” opens the album with one of the most philosophical drunkards I’ve heard in song, and the winding narration of “The Many Disguises of God” starts with a new father’s thoughts and proceeds through the world’s atrocities and sorrows. The dominant theme is that of an old man looking back at life with regret, and I hope that’s not entirely autobiographical. But the prevailing atmosphere is that of “the country”, and this album seems to be Fulks’ thesis on that oft-maligned concept. With deep lyrics and strong emotion, Fulks describes a culture that’s nothing like the one that the music industry wants to commoditize for us.

The themes of regretful life and country culture mix frequently, including “That’s Where I’m From”, the spiritual heart of the album. It sounds at first like one of those “country checklist” songs that pop stars like to sing to let you know exactly how to be like them, with lines like “that’s where I’m from, where time passes slower, that’s where I’m from, where it’s ‘yes, ma’am’ and ‘no, sir’”. But how many songs like that would close with “some place I can’t go home to, that’s where I’m from”? The song contains a real look at the things that may make someone try to leave the culture, and faces the fact that remaining “country” in the city is a mixed blessing. In contrast to songs that say “everyone should be this way”, Fulks sees his roots as a personal thing and only wants to explain, not convert.

This album was produced by Steve Albini, and he was a perfect choice. His gift for making musicians sound “like themselves” was exactly what this stripped-down performance needed. Fulks and his music are clear and crisp, with both the skill and imperfections laid out for the world. After this, it’s difficult to listen to Fulks’ last big album, Georgia Hard, without hearing heavy-handed studio effects. In fact, Gone Away Backward is Fulks’ return to Bloodshot Records, and I can’t help but wonder if even a label like Merge was too “big” to let him do something as simple and authentic as this. I’ve expressed conflicted feelings about Bloodshot on this blog before, but their (very light) fingerprint on works like this shows how beneficial they can be.

This may not be an immediately accessible album. The complex lyrics reward multiple listens, though, and without betraying the simple hillbilly sound that Fulks has embraced. Most importantly, though, this is exactly the album that he wanted to make. Gone Away Backward is a strong vision from an underappreciated artist, and there were no compromises in its creation.

Grade: A

Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing (Music Review)

The Value of Nothing cover

Eddie Spaghetti – The Value of Nothing

The last time I reviewed one of Eddie Spaghetti’s solo albums, I suggested that he stop doing so many covers and focus on original material. Well, he wrote all the songs on The Value of Nothing, but it doesn’t help as much as I’d hoped. He partially moves away from the country style he had been using, splitting the difference with the mature rock of Get It Together, Spaghetti’s most recent record with The Supersuckers. Get It Together was an excellent, underrated album, and Spaghetti just can’t duplicate that when playing with just a couple band members and straddling the line between country and rock. If his previous solo work suffered in comparison to the classic songs he was covering, this one can’t help but be compared to Get It Together.

This certainly isn’t all bad. Most notably, “Waste of Time” is a really fun swinging country song about being a lazy slacker. “You Get To Be My Age” is a love song with an unusual perspective, and the personal nature of songs like this make it easier to overlook some of the album’s flaws. “When I Go, I’m Gone” is a quieter version of a song that originally appeared in Get It Together. It’s arguable which is better, and they’re different enough to each stand alone, though this one isn’t exactly essential given that you should already own Get It Together.

Most of the other tracks are nothing special. With the added rock element on this album, it finally makes sense to see Spaghetti on Bloodshot Records. He sounds like yet another aging rock star playing with country sounds and unafraid to experiment, but also not necessarily aware of which experiments worked. He needed someone around to point out that the accordion on “People Are Shit” makes it sound like a bad polka song, instead of another interesting love story. And “If Anyone’s Got The Balls” is a weird, misguided attempt at bragging and some mild obscenity that sounds out of place. (On the other hand, “Fuckin’ With My Head” is a mostly successful use of over-the-top swearing. This is something that The Supersuckers have done well in the past. It may not compare to highlights like “Pretty Fucked Up” from Motherfuckers Be Trippin’, but it’s a decent song.)

Disappointingly, The Value of Nothing continues Spaghetti’s recent trend of fans-only albums that even the fans will enjoy sporadically. There are some good tracks here, but overall, this is the sort of album he can only get away with because he’s capable of doing much better things.

Grade: C

 

Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess (Music Review)

Bless This Mess cover

Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band – Bless This Mess

When I reviewed Jayke Orvis’ first album, I said that he needed to find focus in order to make the masterpiece he was obviously capable of. Now he’s back as part of an official band, with a bit more focus, but I wish I hadn’t said that. It’s All Been Said took a long time to grow on me, but it’s an amazing work. Think of it as a stoner mix tape tied together with a strong country music focus, and you’ll have an idea of how it worked. Now, with Bless This Mess, Orvis and The Broken Band have deemphasized that side of him to focus on the country music.

I still believe that Orvis should be able to put out an absolutely stunning album. I see him releasing a work as disruptive and ground-breaking as Hank3’s Straight To Hell, but one that builds on country foundations instead of gleefully tearing at them. Just listen to the opening instrumental of Bless This Mess, which layers traditional country instrumentation in a rich, complex way. Unashamedly country, but intelligent and forward-thinking, this goes far beyond not only from soulless modern pop country, but also from the classics he’s building on.

But an opening instrumental, no matter how strong, needs to lead into another strong song. Instead, only two of the first five tracks on Bless This Mess are originals. As much as I love the culture of traditional songs in country, Orvis feels limited when he’s not doing his own thing. Even the classics generally were not very musically adventurous, and these excellent composers are held back. These tracks are still done well, but the band can’t be entirely themselves. “West Wind”, that other original, is a relief. Thematically similar to the covers around it, it nevertheless lets Orvis mix a confident slacker persona into the upbeat country. Once again, the album brings us something powerful and unique.

After another (great) instrumental, the second half slips plays to their strengths. The charismatic loner of “West Wind” returns on “Crooked Smile” and “Long Way Home”, while “Slow Down” brings some introspection to the album. “Lead Me Astray” touches on that Hank3-style rebelliousness, but with a B-movie ending that feels unique to Orvis’ own tastes. And the sea shanty of “Black Ship” closes it with the sort of experimentation that defined Orvis’ last album. (While an untitled bonus track goes too far out into weird territory, that’s actually reassuring after the more traditional songs that came earlier.)

Bless This Mess suffers as an album by putting an early focus on the things that do not define the band’s strengths. Looking past that, though, this is still a great collection of songs, and The Broken Band is capable of backing up Orvis’ wandering moods. I’m still waiting for that classic album, but releases like Bless This Mess will tide me over nicely.

Grade: B+