Review – The Black Lillies’ “Midnight Stranger”

The Black Lillies are a band that haven’t been afraid to try new things and incorporate new sounds into their music. Their music has always been a blend of various genres: country, rock, blues, etc. The Black Lillies last released a new album in 2015, Hard To Please, which I found to be a fun and interesting listen. After nearly three years the group is back with the lead single “Midnight Stranger” off their new upcoming album Stranger To Me. The country rock sound is immediately infectious, but the lyrics don’t appear to be much upon the first listens. In fact one might think they’re not much different from what you hear in pop country based on the chorus. But then you read that the lyrics are inspired by the style of Steely Dan and the lyrics become infinitely more interesting.

For those not familiar with Steely Dan, their songwriting was often cryptic and veiled in meaning. It essentially takes multiple listens to put all of the pieces of the puzzle that are the lyrics together to find what the song is about. “Midnight Stranger” is about a guy who regularly hooks up at a bar with women, having no intention to move beyond some quick and meaningless sex. Lyrics like “Dirty dancer, you’re the answer, never fancy, always free” and “love and leave ’em, so easily” allude to the short-term nature of the relationships. The group even has another hallmark of Steely Dan’s songwriting with the mentions of a specific type of alcoholic drink. It’s a surprising throwback to a style of songwriting that isn’t common that they pull off quite well. Combined with their always great production, it’s a great lead single and I’m looking forward to hearing the rest of the album.

Grade: 8/10

Songwriters: Cruz Contreras, Bowman Townsend, Sam Quinn, Dustin Schaefer & Chyna Brackeen 

The Poison Pen, Volume 1: Because Lazy Songwriting Needs Called Out

Critical music reviews are something I’ve constantly gone back and forth on throughout my blogging experiences. They’ve been essential and cornerstone or how it’s been on this blog up to this point, no negative reviews. I’ve simply been ignoring the fusion country music I find to be bad and subpar. I think though I’ve realized that you ultimately need to have balance. While I’m going to continue to put most of the focus on the music I find to be good and share it with you through reviews, I’m now going to start sharing more critical views of music through a new feature called The Poison Pen. It’s really quite simple: this is where I’m going to share my negative reviews. They won’t be near as long as full reviews, but at the same time long enough to properly convey my points. So without further ado, here are some albums I do not like.

Brothers Osborne – Port Saint Joe 

I’ve seen a lot of praise for this album, but there’s no way I can get on board with it. I will give credit to the production on this album, which is quite good. But let’s get to what I can’t stand about this album and it’s the songwriting. It’s just flat-out mediocre, flat and at times pure lazy. The most egregious example is “Drank Like Hank.” The main hook of this song is “party like the Possum and we drank like Hank.” To the people who love this album: how is this acceptable? I guarantee Florida Georgia Line would be shredded for just blatant and forced name-dropping. But the Brothers Osborne apparently get a pass? Is it because of their lovable attitudes? Their politics lining up well with the country music press? I have zero issues with them expressing their politics and all artists should share their thoughts on important issues. But when the critics and writers are so blatantly giving free passes to certain artists and overreacting to other artists when they do the exact same thing, it kind of grinds my gears. There’s no consistency and great proof of the lack of integrity in music journalism today.

“Shoot Me Straight” is barely a song, three minutes of cookie-cutter lyrics and then a few more of some admittedly jam-y guitar play that saves it from being a complete waste of time. “Weed, Whiskey and Willie” is such a great theme and I love the imagery invoked by the lyrics. But then you get to the lazy hook that ruins it. I mean I get why they make such lazy hooks because so many marks eat this shit up. But if you want to be taken seriously in country music, name-dropping past legends isn’t going to do it. It’s just trite and meaningless. “Pushing Up Daisies” is the only well-written song on the album, as it actually has layers and a message. The rest of this album though? It’s just plain forgettable, in one ear and out the other. Sure I can listen to these songs, but they pass through me like air. The Brothers Osborne are capable of so much more than this album shows. But I don’t have faith of seeing improvement when so many people are endorsing this run-of-the-mill songwriting.

Ashley Monroe – Sparrow

Boring, boring, boring. That’s all that comes to mind when I think of this album. And not just boring, but there are multiple songs about making love and romance on here that are boring. I never thought sex songs could sound so boring until I heard this album. The songwriting wears thin quite quickly on this album, especially on a song like “Rita.” It feels like an endless loop of Monroe singing “Where are you Rita?” over and over and over. On Monroe’s last album she chased radio and pop country to mixed results. She tried to appeal to all and appealed to very little. On this album, she chases Americana to even worse results. In fact I would slap this album with the “Genericana” label. I have to question why she even went this route, as the Americana crowd is snobby, even harder to impress than pop country fans and even more dominated by boring white male artists. I wish I could get more into specifically why I don’t like this album, but it’s best summed up like this: you listen to it a few times and you have zero desire to revisit it. I hope Monroe can get back to the sincerity and quality of her debut album.

Tami Neilson – Sassafrass! 

This one might come as a shocker, especially after I praised the lead single of this album. But I just can’t get into this album. What this album ultimately challenges is the great balance between art and entertainment. While the themes of gender inequality and sexism in society are topics of great importance that need to be discussed and issues I wholeheartedly agree with Neilson on, she fails to make this album an interesting listen. My problems are largely focused around the production, which feels like hasn’t progressed since Dynamite. It’s the same old retro, throwback sound that is so tiring and old, especially in country music. I especially don’t like the jazzier songs that are essentially audio NyQuil. It shouldn’t feel this arduous to get through an album. Political and social commentary are essential topics that should be in music. But if it feels this forced and repetitive, it ultimately fails to accomplish what it sets out to do and that’s getting people to listen and think about it. It’s an admirable effort from Neilson that unfortunately fails to land.

Dierks Bentley – The Mountain

This might be the stalest and one of the most disappointing albums I’ve heard in 2018. It felt like it had so much promise with the mountain theme, a Brandi Carlile feature and Bentley raving about the inspiration he got from the excellent Way Out West album from Marty Stuart. In the iTunes review of this album, it says this album was written by a “team of Nashville songwriters” in a cabin studio in the mountains. It sounds like it. For an album like this to be effective, it needs to feel personal and immersive in the mountain setting. Instead this is the same old processed songwriting we’ve heard out of Nashville with the mountain setting copy and pasted in. The only redeeming song on this album is “Burning Man,” ironically with the Brothers Osborne as a feature. I love the energy of the song and it’s the perfect opener.

This rest of this album is riddled with the most paint-by-the-numbers lyrics I’ve heard this year, with the most egregious offender being “Goodbye in Telluride,” the kind of song where you know exactly what you’re getting 30 seconds in with a lame hook to boot. “The Mountain” is a generic motivation song with obvious mountain clichés. I thought “Woman, Amen” would sound better within the context of the album, but it’s still just as inoffensive and sterile when first released. Bentley somehow manages to waste a Brandi Carlile feature on “Travelin’ Light,” the kind of song that feels substantive, but then you listen closer and realize there isn’t much being said. “My Religion” is so saccharine that I gag when Bentley utters the line “your love is my religion.” So original! I could spend more time breaking down how bad this album is, but it would be a waste of time on such banal and vanilla music. This might as well be a Chris Young album.

Feel free to inquire in the comments for more clarification on my thoughts on any of these albums.

Review – Eric Church’s “Desperate Man”

Eric Church is one of a few artists in the major country music scene who possesses something quite precious: freedom. Church is free to create whatever music is on his mind, thanks to years of great music that made genuine connections with listeners and made them lifelong fans. His packed concerts and fervent fan support is proof. His last album Mr. Misunderstood was one of his best albums yet, but that surprise record came out way back in 2015. Needless to say fans have been impatiently waiting and now he’s back with new single “Desperate Man.”

Once again Church reinvents himself with the infectiously funky sound of this song. It has a decidedly 70s flavor in a multitude of ways: it has the soulful influence of Al Green, but also the bluesy rock influences of The Rolling Stones. This meshing of sounds is so perfectly blended and clearly comes from a true student of music history. The song itself is about a desperate man living recklessly after his woman left him, leading to him be dismissed as hopeless. But he owns the chaos that has come over him in an almost trance-like way. It’s a subtle story, but one Church and co-writer Ray Wylie Hubbard get across well. Church playfully sings “boo boo boo boo boo boo boo” throughout the song, which I dare you to not be able to sing along with. It’s one of the catchiest songs Church has ever recorded and undoubtedly has me excited for what’s in-store on his new album this fall.

Grade: 9/10

Songwriters: Eric Church & Ray Wylie Hubbard

Review – Dan + Shay’s “Speechless”

Dan + Shay don’t deserve the flack and criticism they’ve received. When this duo entered the scene a few years ago, perhaps some of it was earned, as their debut album was quite a rocky listen and they seemed to lack an identity. Their sophomore album was better, but still had some noticeable issues in finding an identity. The duo has admitted this themselves in interviews. But on their new self-titled album, Dan + Shay have clearly found themselves and it’s their best effort yet. One of the highlights of the album is their new upcoming single “Speechless.” It’s a uplifting, soulful love ballad with a ton of heart. The chorus of this is instantly infectious, with the soaring harmonies creating a sense of warmth and connection with the listener. It’s perhaps one of Dan + Shay’s best vocal performances so far in their career. The electric guitar solo in the bridge adds even more texture to the song. I also like how the song gets straight to the point and doesn’t try to get too cute to turn the song into another saccharine country love song. Dan + Shay have come a long way and “Speechless” is fine proof of their growth as artists.

Grade: 8/10

Songwriters: Dan Smyers, Shay Mooney, Laura Veltz & Jordan Reynolds 

Album Review – The Wild Feathers’ ‘Greetings from the Neon Frontier’

This sounds a lot like the Eagles. That’s what I imagine The Wild Feathers hear a lot when someone first comes upon their music. While this is a tiring and obvious observation, it’s hard not to compare this country rock band to bands like the Eagles, Poco, Gram Parsons and Pure Prairie League who rose to prominence during the early 1970s. But don’t get hung up on the past, as these guys bring a modern take to a classic sound. The Wild Feathers are Taylor Burns, Ricky Young, Joel King and Ben Dumas and together they make the kind of melodic, guitar-driven music that quite frankly is missing a lot in today’s music. On their new album Greetings From The Neon Frontier, they deliver a warm and breezy sound that takes you away and makes you wish would come back.

The album greets you with the anthemic “Quittin’ Time.” It’s a thumping and head-banging rocker that perfectly sets the tone for the album and has you singing along by the end of the first listen. “Wildfire” is a song that immediately stands out on the album. It’s an easy-going, mellow song that you want to play when driving down a seaside highway. Its carefree tone immediately endears you. The harmonies from The Wild Feathers are fantastically infectious and appropriately the centerpiece of the song. “Stand By You” is a song about togetherness and standing alongside the one you love through thick and thin. It’s a simple love song that avoids the pitfalls of being too saccharine or paint-by-the-numbers, but at the same time it’s missing something to make it emotionally stand out better.

One of the clear strengths of The Wild Feathers is their sound, as they clearly know who they are and what their strength is as a band. I think “No Man’s Land” is a great demonstration of it. It’s about wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and getting away to the peace and quiet of the countryside. Now this theme is nothing new, but it’s the instrumentation that gives this song a liveliness that sticks with you. Particularly the jam-y outro of the song with the extended guitar solos really gives it a punch. The fiddle-driven “Two Broken Hearts” is the quietest moment on the album. The song is about the heartbreak of a failed relationship and the regret of letting a special love slip, as the line “And I’ll always regret never buying you that ring” alludes. The production of this song does a great job conveying the heartache, as the slow and tender fiddles paints the picture of a man drinking in the dark over lost love. It’s a pretty good song, although sonically it doesn’t fit the rest of the album.

The B-side of this album might be one of the strongest I’ve heard all year. While this album is great throughout, it’s the second half of this album that really show The Wild Feathers at their best. Nostalgia and reflection are the topic of “Golden Days.” It’s about not truly enjoying and appreciating what you have in front of you until it’s gone. The song puts you in mind of the end of a long summer full of memories, but realizing you’ll never get them back. It’s a happy and sad feeling all at once.

“Big Sky” has the same quality of breeziness about it as “Wildfire.” It’s the perfect summer driving music with its hazy, atmospheric guitars playing throughout. “Wide open spaces/Cool mountain breezes/Reaching down to save my soul/Take these city blues away” really do take you away to that very scene in your mind. It’s really important on atmosphere-based songs (and albums) to establish that scene in the listener’s head; otherwise the words don’t connect with you. And as The Wild Feathers demonstrate throughout this album, they are quite good at this. The harmonies really shine again on “Hold Onto Love.” It’s about a long and loving relationship that has plenty of rocky moments, but it’s the resolve and strength of love that carries them through the hardships. Sometimes you’re just holding onto each other for dear life and it’s these moments where you realize how important it is to have each other. This is a song that relies on heart to reach you and I think everything in this song works together well to accomplish it.

“Every Morning I Quit Drinkin’” is about not being able to give up the sins of drinking and partying. While the party is fun at night, the regret in the morning is even worse (I imagine the hangover is too). It’s a broken solution to a never-ending heartache. The ominous outro of the song adds to the emotions of the song, with the hazy instrumentation putting you in mind of someone lying on the floor after a night of drinking. The album closes with the upbeat and fun “Daybreaker (Into The Great Unknown).” It’s a mantra to life on the road, living life to the fullest and always chasing your passion. The rocking energy of this song makes it a great closer that not only ends the album with a bang, but also makes you want to revisit it all over again.

The Wild Feathers impress me with their brand of country rock on Greetings From The Neon Frontier. This band has a tight, cohesive sound that borrows from the late 70s era of country rock while also sounding fresh and modern-day. What this band absolutely excels at is their ability to paint a picture in your head with their music. Their lyrics are descriptive, engaging and cleverly composed while the instrumentation compliments the words well and add to the scene of the song. Their others strength is their soaring harmonies, which they shouldn’t be afraid to let shine more. Greetings From The Neon Frontier is a memorably fun album of country-flavored rock and roll that can be enjoyed both quietly and at full volume.

Grade: 8/10

Album’s Top Highlights: Wildfire, Big Sky, Hold Onto Love, Every Morning I Quit Drinkin’, Daybreaker (Into The Great Unknown), No Man’s Land


Producer: Jay Joyce

Songwriters: Ricky Young, Taylor Burns, Joel King, Jeffrey Steele, Kevin Douglas, Bill McCorvey, Allen Sostrin

Review – Maren Morris’ “Rich”

In recent years country music has clearly had issues attracting younger listeners. Once the bro country era ended, the genre has been searching for answers. But there are answers right in front of their faces, as there are clearly a handful of artists in the genre who interest younger listeners. One of those is undoubtedly Maren Morris, who burst onto the scene with her debut album HERO in 2016. It brought lots of praise from critics and a few jeers from the traditionalists in the peanut gallery. She’s just released what will probably be the final single from the album, “Rich.” It’s an instantly catchy ear-worm that plays on the phrase, “If I had a dollar every time…” In this case it’s every time she’s sworn her man off, every time he’s lied to her and how many promises he broke, she would be pretty damn rich. It’s the timeless country heartbreak theme with a modern coat of paint. I’m glad it was chosen for a single because it’s not only too catchy to be left to an album cut, but it’s the direction modern country should be taking. It’s still country, but bringing a fresh approach that will resonate with the new generation of country fans. “Rich” has a wealth of qualities and deserves to be a summer hit.

Grade: 8/10

Songwriters: Maren Morris, Laura Veltz & Jessie Jo Dillon 

Review – Ward Thomas’ “Lie Like Me”

Across the pond is a country pop duo that too many American country listeners are sleeping on. That duo is Ward Thomas, a duo composed of Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas. Hailing from Hampshire, England, this duo has been delivering great country pop since their 2014 debut album From Where We Stand and have quickly established themselves as one of the best in the UK country scene. They’re now back with the lead single of their new upcoming album in the fall, “Lie Like Me.” It’s an instantly catchy tune that tackles the fakery of social media culture. It poignantly exposes the fake lives people love to portray on social media to prop themselves up and make others feel envious. Now I’ve already covered multiple songs that deal with this theme, but none of them touch the starkness of the lyrics in this song. Lines like “Every story testifies I’m terrified to be myself,” “God forbid you see the things I don’t want you to see” and “I don’t even wanna buy what I’m selling” just smack the point of the song right across your face. This is the song you want to play for that friend who just can’t stop tweeting or posting pictures on Instagram. Everything about this song is so refreshing and timely. “Lie Like Me” may just be one of the best songs Ward Thomas has delivered so far in their young career.

Grade: 9/10

Songwriters: Catherine Ward Thomas, Lizzy Ward Thomas, Jessica Sharman & Rebekah Powell