Review – Tim McGraw’s “Neon Church”/ “Thought About You”

It’s been too long since we’ve received new solo music from Tim McGraw. His last album Damn Country Music was pretty good and really his last few albums have all have been of high quality. What I love most about McGraw recently though is his ability to remain true to his sound while also pushing the sonic boundaries. His new singles pick up right where he left off in his more experimental moments on Damn Country Music. “Neon Church” is a declarative, anthemic song for the broken-hearted and lost looking for answers at the bar. But as McGraw espouses through the song, it’s less a bar and more a place of healing and escapism from their pain. The hook of the song is infectious and the blending of steel guitar, organs and electric guitars create an eclectic sound that really sticks with you. As much I enjoy this song though, I actually enjoy the B-side single “Thought About You” even more. It actually kind of reminds me of McGraw’s cover of “When The Stars Go Blue” because of the soaring atmospheric vibes the instrumentation conveys. The bridge emphasizes this sound even more. It shows the importance of interesting production, as it takes well-trotted lyrical material and elevates it into a great song. This kind of production from Byron Gallimore and McGraw has me excited to hear what else they have in-store for the rest of the album.

Grade: “Neon Church” – 7/10 ; “Thought About You” – 8/10

Songwriters: Ben Stennis, Ross Ellis Lipsey, Ben Goldsmith, Brett Warren, Brad Warren, Lee Miller 

Review – Billy Currington’s “Bring It On Over”

It feels like Billy Currington has been one of the longest tenured artists in the mainstream country scene without anyone noticing. His last album Summer Forever came out in 2015, but it feels much longer. At the time it felt like it didn’t sell well, but looking back his numbers for that album were better than most of the new artists being pushed by radio nowadays. He also had a true hit with that album in the solid heartbreak song “It Don’t Hurt Like It Used To.” Currington now makes his return with new single “Bring It On Over.” Much to my welcome surprise, Currington decides to dip his toes into disco country. It’s an instantly infectious song that also incorporates electronic influences that remind me of Tyminski’s album released last year. Many will complain that the lyrics aren’t deep, but they aren’t trying to be. This is a catchy sex jam that isn’t trying to be anything more than it, so it accomplishes what it sets out to do. With the parade of non-catchy and boring ballads being released as singles in country music nowadays, this is a breath of fresh air. If you’re looking for something that’s fun, catchy and a little different from the rest, “Bring It On Over” has this in spades.

Grade: 7/10

Songwriters: Rhett Akins, Dallas Davidson, Ben Hayslip & Jesse Frasure 

Album Review – Willie Nelson’s ‘My Way’

Willie Nelson proved long ago he is one of the greatest artists of all-time. Yet every year he continues to release multiple projects into his 80s. He has nothing to prove and makes music at this point simply because he’s damn good at it and enjoys it. It’s pretty amazing to watch a proven artist put out more music trying to prove himself than modern artists who never write like they’re trying to prove something and just play it safe. On Willie’s latest project My Way he’s chosen to cover his old friend and legendary Frank Sinatra’s classic songs. It’s sort of a follow-up to Nelson’s classic album Stardust, where he proved how well jazz and country can be fused together. The album is so appropriately titled, as Willie Nelson exemplifies as much as anyone the importance of doing things your own way.

The album opens with the springy and upbeat “Fly Me to the Moon.” The horn section and the piano along with Mickey Raphael’s signature harmonica play make for the perfect sunny day song. “Summer Wind” feels like the perfect song for this time of the year, as the season turns from summer into fall. Songs such as “One For My Baby (And One More for the Road)” and “Blue Moon” don’t feel much different from Willie’s numerous heartbreak drinking songs over the years. The commonalities between country and jazz are quite apparent when you break it down and you realize while two genres can sound the same, both can do a beautiful job of conveying something.

Willie does an admirable job keeping up with the jaunty “A Foggy Day,” crooning with ease along with the bright horns and melody. Credit to producers Buddy Cannon and Matt Rollings for nailing the jazz country sound that compliments Willie’s voice well throughout the album. “I’ll Be Around” and “Young at Heart” feel like songs that would have fit well on his album Last Man Standing he released earlier this year, with their stark takes on more somber subjects. Willie brings the enthusiasm and tenderness to give a real light to the love song “Night and Day.” He also sounds great with Norah Jones on the love duet “What Is This Thing Called Love.” This isn’t the first time the two have sang together, as they covered “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in 2010. With Jones being a successful jazz artist herself and Willie having a lot of experience with the genre, it’s no surprise they pair together well. The album’s conclusion with the title track couldn’t be a more perfect bow on the album. The songs reflective nature and acknowledgement of a life lived just fits Nelson in this time of his career like a glove.

Like Frank Sinatra, Willie Nelson has certainly done it his way. I think “Ol’ Blue Eyes” would be pretty proud of the job Willie has done with My Way, doing Sinatra’s songs the justice they deserve. With the silly boycotts some have staged against Nelson for his support of Beto O’Rourke in Texas, it’s actually brought the album even more attention and sales. I’m glad because this is an album you shouldn’t dismiss due it being covers. Any time Willie Nelson releases new music, it’s worth listening to and My Way proves this yet again.

Grade: 8/10

Album’s Top Highlights: My Way, Summer Wind, Fly Me to the Moon, A Foggy Day, What Is This Thing Called Love, Young at Heart

Producers: Buddy Cannon & Matt Rollings

Album Review – Dee White’s ‘Southern Gentleman’ (Side A)

Usually within the first couple of listens to an artist, I can tell if they have the “it” factor. I can tell if there’s something different from your average artist and it’s an exciting feeling to come across an artist like this. After listening to Dee White, he’s most definitely this type of artist. His voice reminds me a lot of the late, great Roy Orbison (tender, yet soulful). White’s approach and style of music is a modern take on the countrypolitan/Nashville sound of the 1960s, which is something I’ve been dying to see in modern country music. White has released his first bits of music, albeit an unusual approach, Side A of his debut album Southern Gentleman. So with this different type of release, I’m going to do a different type of review. I’m going to review Side A today and the second part/conclusion of the review will happen when he releases Side B in 2019.

Southern Gentleman opens up with “Wherever You Go,” a love ballad and ode from a man to his woman that he’ll follow wherever she goes and be by her side. It’s a solid love song and opener. White though really delivers a great one in “Rose of Alabam.” The song is about leaving the comfort of his current woman in Georgia (which he likens to a daisy) for the lust he thinks is love of a woman in Alabama (which he likens to a rose). The comparisons really do a good job demonstrating the complications of leaving love for another love and the differences between the way he views both women. It’s hard to leave something you’re familiar with, but the temptation of the unknown and new is irresistible too.

I enjoy every song on Side A and it can be hard to pick a favorite. But if I have to pick one, it would be “Bucket of Bolts.” The songwriting on this is excellent and speaks to the true talent that White possesses. The opening lyrics just immediately hook you: “Things meant more when I had less/That’s the way it goes I guess/The more I have, I must confess/The more I need.” The lines are so simple, yet are so insightful and resonating with the listener. The song centers around a man’s old car and all of the memories he made with friends in it from years past. And even though he never sees them anymore, he knows he’ll always have those memories. All while he keeps his old car, which symbolizes all of the experiences and emotions of his past. The sentimentality of vehicles and nostalgia are stale topics in country music, but White takes these topics and makes a fantastic song.

“Crazy Man” is a song about a man becoming a better person thanks to the love of his life. He’s shed his wild ways and is now living better. It’s very much along the lines of Chris Stapleton’s “Up To No Good Livin'” and in a different era of country music, this song is a big hit. It’s really these final two songs on Side A where White reminds you of Orbison as he hits the higher notes. “Tell The World I Do” really nails the countrypolitan sound with its lush and orchestral feel, yet also decidedly modern feeling (credit to producers Dan Auerbach & David Ferguson). Too many acts that incorporate a retro sound into their music fail to make it feel modern and it’s a blatant copy and paste of a previous sound. I also don’t get bored when listening to White like other acts that incorporate retro sounds. This song is so smooth and fits White like a glove.

Dee White delivers a great slice of music on Side A and I can’t wait to hear the rest of Southern Gentleman in 2019. White is an artist that you need to keep an eye on, as he truly shows a lot of promise in his first glimpse of music.

Grade (So Far): 9/10

Album’s Top Highlights: Bucket of Bolts, Rose of Alabam, Crazy Man, Tell The World I Do

Producers: Dan Auerbach & David Ferguson

Songwriter: Dee White

Album Review – Kenny Chesney’s ‘Songs For The Saints’

I have to be honest. I did not see myself chomping at the bit to discuss new Kenny Chesney music in the year 2018. Take it back two years ago when Chesney released Cosmic Hallelujah, an album I absolutely ripped to shreds for its lazy and uninspiring content. I remember declaring that Chesney would have to make one hell of a turn around to get me to ever take him seriously again. And well here we are, as Chesney delivers one of the most surprising albums I’ve heard this year in Songs For The Saints.

It’s important to know this album is inspired by and revolves around the Virgin Islands and the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma on the islands in 2017. Chesney has a home on one of the islands, Saint John, and felt compelled to give back to a place that’s meant a lot to him. Not only is this album about the islands, but all proceeds for the albums are being donated to relief funds that help rebuild the islands. It’s an incredibly classy and heartfelt move by Chesney and his label. While Chesney’s legacy is defined by beach and island songs at this point, I don’t think I’ve heard this much passion and drive from Chesney in his music in years. His beach music is usually on the casual/party side, but this is the most mature take he’s ever done on this sub-genre of country music.

The album’s opening and title track is a direct ode to the islands. The saints in this song refer to each island, as they were each named after a saint. It’s the perfect opener, as it establishes what this album is all about and that’s the people of the islands, who clearly mean a lot to Chesney. “Every Heart” is a soft and sentimental song about the general struggle everyone shares in life. It’s a little sweet, but a nice message. I really enjoy the little touches in instrumentation in this song, particularly the bouzouki and organ. The lead single of the album, “Get Along”, is my least favorite track of the album. While I can appreciate the message of peace and happiness, I still don’t like the “buy a boat” line in the song. It’s just so consumeristic, although it doesn’t sound as bad I guess in the context of the rest of the album and can be interpreted as more of a throwaway line rather than some subliminal message.

Chesney has recorded several pirate-themed songs over the years, but “Pirate Song” is his best take on the theme yet. I particularly enjoy the details Chesney goes into as he fantasizes the life of a pirate sailing the open seas. By setting the scene well, you as the listener can really picture the life being painted in the song. This is what makes atmospheric songs work. Chesney collaborates with Ziggy Marley on the reggae-influenced “Love for Love City.” Love City is the nickname for St. John, Chesney’s home in the islands. Chesney and Marley sing of the people coming together in good times and need, highlighting the tight-knit nature of the communities on the islands no matter the situation. It’s a peaceful and easy-going song that makes you feel good in many ways.

I thought Carrie Underwood and Ludacris would be the most unlikely collaboration of the year, but Kenny Chesney and Lord Huron top it. Chesney covers the indie rock group’s “Ends of the Earth” and it’s one of my favorite tracks on the album. The song is about the endless thirst for adventure and exploring the unknown. The soaring, spacey production of the song is immediately infectious and memorable. This has my vote for a future single. “Gulf Moon” is another standout on Songs For The Saints. The John Baumann-penned song gives you a look inside a little town along the gulf coast and the lives of the people who inhabit it. The storytelling in this song is absolutely great, as the little details of the surroundings and the people put you right there in the town with them. It’s great to see Chesney give an artist like Baumann a spot on this album and for Chesney it’s a legacy-type song.

“Island Rain” is about the relief and therapeutic attribute of an island rain. It goes on to relate it to general relief from an uncomfortable situation in everyday life. It’s yet another song on this album that does such a great job of relating to the everyday person. This track is a breath of fresh air to a person having a rough day. The touches of steel drum and organ throughout add even more to this peaceful nature. Beach country’s most recognizable face Jimmy Buffett joins Chesney on a cover of Buffett’s “Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season.” The song is about the stress and anxieties of anticipating the impending hurricane season, a regular preparation for those who live in the islands and coasts. While they tire of this yearly happening, they continue to live and deal with hurricane season. It’s another good cover pick from Chesney, as it fits the theme of the album well.

The sing-a-long “We’re All Here” is about finding escapism from the troubles of everyday life, something Chesney has perfected many times in songs and does so again here. These are the kinds of simple songs that may not offer much variety, but it’s a comforting familiarity to many. The album’s closing track “Better Boat” is perhaps one of the best songs Chesney has ever recorded. Written by Travis Meadows and Liz Rose, the song is about getting better at coping with the everyday struggles and stress of life. This is likened to learning how to build a better boat, which is such an apt and fitting metaphor. Chesney is joined on the song by a wonderful vocalist in Mindy Smith, who adds another layer with her harmonies with Chesney. There’s so much heart and truth in the lyrics that you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t connect with this song. It’s a small reminder of what country music is all about.

Songs For The Saints will go down as one of Kenny Chesney’s best albums at the end of his career. On this album he casts away the lazy tropes and paper-thin depth that has plagued his career at times and delivers an album full of songs about love, happiness and finding peace after destruction. This album’s biggest strength is its songwriting, as it’s rooted in a place of reality of real people and places, highlighting the ups and downs of life. The production of this album is pretty good too, as it’s varied and does a wonderful job of weaving reggae, island and pop influences throughout. Kenny Chesney should be quite proud of this album, as he delivers a real gem in Songs For The Saints.

Grade: 8/10

Album’s Top Highlights: Better Boat, Gulf Moon, Ends of the Earth, Island Rain, Love for Love City, Trying to Reason With Hurricane Season

Producers: Kenny Chesney & Buddy Cannon

Songwriters: Kenny Chesney, Tom Douglas, Scooter Carusoe, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne, Ross Copperman, Jon Randall, Ben Schneider, John Baumann, Mac McAnally, Jimmy Buffett, Casey Beathard, David Lee Murphy, Travis Meadows, Liz Rose

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.