Hey there! Welcome to my country reviews archive... This page covers records that came out (or were reviewed by me) in the year 2002. Other "new reviews" are archived here... Enjoy...!!
Mark Insley "Tucson" (Rustic, 2001)
Every once in a while I have the pleasure of hearing a new album that has -- gasp!! -- really good songwriting on it, and I get all warm and tingly. This disc has its share of well-crafted tunes, kicking off with some fun, uptempo, guitar-heavy numbers. The clincher, though, is "Did I Wake You," a slow and unsettling ballad wherein an estranged and somewhat inebriated lost lover calls his ex late at night to ask how things are in the new town and, hey, did I hear someone there with you? The song nails the forlorn moodiness of the material squarely on the head, and cements Insley in my mind as a fellow to keep tabs on. Plus, Anyone who covers the Gary Stewart classic, "She's Actin' Single, I'm Seein' Double" is alright by me. Recommended!
Mike Ireland & Holler "Try Again" (Ashmont, 2002)
While his first album was compelling, this one's a dazzler. Ireland has tightened up his neo-countrypolitan sound, retrenching to the golden days of early '70s country radio, where twangsters like Merle Haggard still mingled the string section set. While cover tunes like a version of the Charlie Rich classic, "Life Has It's Little Ups And Downs," tip you off that Ireland has been doing his homework, it's Ireland's originals that are most impressive. He overwrites his lyrics to just the right degree -- almost too high-concept, but with strong hooks and a cohesive songcrafting style firmly in place. Tunes like "Love's The Heardest Thing You'll Ever Do," "Sweet Sweetheart" and "Close Enough To Break Each Other's Hearts" show a dedication to the form that is all too rare today -- and a real joy to hear. I can easily imagine some of these songs being played on the air in 1973; hopefully they'll find some bandwidth in the new millennium as well. Trust me: you owe it to yourself to pick this album up. It's really, really good.
Jim & Jennie And The Pinetops "One More In The Cabin" (Overcoat, 2002)
It's hard to believe that these perfectly-crafted old-time-ish tunes were not in fact written by some mistily-remembered contemporary of the Carter Family or Grandpa Jones, but rather by a bunch of modern urban hipsters from Philadelphia who just happen to have an uncanny grasp of the oddball mountain music of the early 20th Century. They get the constrained emotionality and matter-of-fact narrative tone just right, as well as the subject matter -- song after song starts with a familiar set-up, and it's really only until you open the CD booklet that you can be sure that these songs were actually written by the band. These folks aren't hotshot superpickers, and they purposefully sing all raspy and off-key, yet unlike oh, so many of their twangcore contemporaries, the Pinetops don't come off as pretentious dilettantes. Rather, this is a band that is respectful and utterly in command of the genre they've adopted, and their material is emotionally resonant and entirely convincing. In fact, I'd say that if at least some of these songs don't work their way into the official bluegrass canon, something is seriously wrong in the world. Highly recommended!
Chris Jones "A Few Words: The Best Of The Originals" (Rebel, 2002)
A nice sampler of bluegrass picker Chris Jones' original work, gathered from four previous Rebel albums, along with a couple of nice new tunes. Jones tends towards the slicker side of the bluegrass singer-songwriter scene, but he keeps things simple and doesn't go off on flowery, over-poetic tangents like some of the higher-profile fusion-grassers. Plus, a bunch of high-power pickers are backing him up, includimng Rob Ickes, Dan Tyminski, Ron Block and others.
George Jones "The Rock" (BMG/BNA, 2001)
Ole George has adapted pretty well to the "young country" style, so much so that this slick new album is a little less striking than his last few albums, although it's still a lot of fun. One highlight is the Vietnam War tribute, "50,000 Names," which for George is an unusual dip into political material. There are some good weepers, too, but the uptempo material is generally the strongest stuff on here. I guess the "Beer Run" duet with Garth Brooks is doing OK on the Nashville charts... (yay, George!) Worth checking out, though a little on the slick side.
John Train "Looks Like Up" (Record Cellar, 2002)
Nice record. First off, the title is a reference to a blues lyric that Richard Farina copped in the '60s, and any twangcore-alty band that wants to reference Farina is alright by me. This album is an interesting mix of really good, really catchy melodic alt.country and more rock-oriented jangly stuff. Songwriter Jon Houlon has a nice way with a tune, although on a few tunes he does slide into lamentably spiral-binder, earnest folkie terrain (particularly on the long-winded and self-righteous "Did You Come By Your Bitterness Honestly?") But the handful of strong songs on here are definitely worth checking out. Recommended.
James Keelaghan "Home" (Appleseed, 2002)
The earnest, urgent folkie crowd has a long tradition of gravelly-voiced, old-man-ish crooners, those who prefer gruff utterances over sensitive guy warbliness -- Stan Rogers, Ewan MacColl and Roy Bailey all come to mind. James Keelaghan is currently one of the best practitioners of this style; his burnished, hushed tones have a pleasant timbre, and when combined with strong, tasteful arrangements, sound quite compelling. This album is one of his best -- the backup music is melodic and rich, it sticks to the backwoods/back porch side of things doesn't stray into New Agey synthiness or other musical goop. And the songs are also pretty good... there's the occasional forced moment, as on the political tune, "Nothing," but the preachiness is saved for the album's end, and by then Keelaghan should have won you over. If you're looking for a record to redeem your faith in modern folk music, give this one a shot.
Toby Keith "Pull My Chain" (Dreamworks, 2001)
(Produced by James Stroud & Toby Keith)
Filling the unrepentant tough-guy, total stud, good old boy niche that apparently must be filled in these days of touchie-feelie, chick-sensitive Nashville power ballads, Toby Keith plays the part of the sleazy but self-assured 'real man' that gals at bars just can't resist. Whatever. There are lots and lots of rock-tinged electric guitars and soul-derived organ licks that signal Keith's not-just-country leanings. The album opens with his strident ode to the one night stand -- the gal lucky enough to land this buckin' bronc of a man is subsequently treated to the cartoonish narcissism of "I Wanna Talk About Me," which is perhaps the most obnoxious testosterone-soaked tune of the decade. It also happens to be the albums Top Ten hit, which is a sad comment on the state of pop radio. I know, I know -- his swaggering sexism is partly tounge-in-cheek, but it's still not that interesting.
Bill Kirchen "Tied To The Wheel" (HighTone, 2001)
Over the years, Bill Kirchen has certainly racked up plenty of hours on the road, first as the hotshot lead guitarist for Commander Cody's hard-edged hippiebilly bar band, the Lost Planet Airmen, and then as the tireless roadhouse troubadour we know and love today... So when he sings of the lure of the highway on songs like "Roll Truck Roll," and "Hillbilly Truck Drivin' Man," you can tell the guy knows what he's talking about. Kirchen's band is also one of the tightest, most versatile outfits in the alt.country scene today, and this is one of their best albums in years. The trucking theme continues on the title track and on the humorously post-apocalyptic "Truck Stop At The End of The World"... My favorite track may be his perky cover of Merle Haggard's "Prison Band," where a jailbreak is thwarted by a talent show audition. With three decades worth of touring and recording under his belt, Kirchen shows no sign of slowing down or losing his sense of adventure, which is good news for country fans in every town on the Interstate. Check this one out!
Jim Lauderdale & Ralph Stanley "Lost In The Lonesome Pines" (Dualtone, 2002)
Jim Lauderdale "The Hummingbirds" (Dualtone, 2002)
Jim Lauderdale is a Nashville semi-outsider who retains an aura of alt-iness despite his phenomenal success as a Top 40 songwriter. His songs are structured a little off-center, they often seem ungainly, like they shouldn't work, but they do. One style he clearly has a magical touch with is bluegrass -- Lost In The Lonesome Pines is his second collaboration with the venerable Ralph Stanley, and it's truly fabulous from beginning to end. The band is, of course, solid throughout while Lauderdale's unique, slightly askew take on bluegrass and old-timey music is both wholly convincing and wholly original. It's also a bit of a mind-bender when you realize how unconventional these songs are, and yet how soulful and authentic sounding -- it's almost as if some Tom Waits-y bohemian oddball had been plunked down in the Appalachians a century ago, ala "A Connecticutt Yankee," and had rewritten the bluegrass canon, starting back in the year zero. For some reason, though, the accompanying pop-country album The Hummingbirds seems a little scattershot, and less resonany. Here Lauderdale bobs back and forth between styles -- Nashville neotrad, but with a spazzy urgency, indie-ish acoustic material, even a stab at swing ballads. I guess it strikes me as sounding too self-conciously craftsmanlike, and spread a little too far out over the map. It's impressive in parts, but might not measure up up to Lauderdale's best work. But check out that bluegrass album!
Tracy Lawrence "Tracy Lawrence" (Warner/Atlantic, 2001)
(Produced by Flip Anderson & Tracy Lawrence)
A Music City dude who sticks pretty closely to a hard country vibe -- which is to say, a Nashviller whose whole album I can listen to without having my blood pressure rise too high. He's poppy and calculated, but Lawrence mainly follows in the traditionalist path laid down by John Anderson and Randy Travis. He also traffics in the broadest, most archetypal knee-jerk sentiments -- small town memories, good hearted women who save ne'er-do-well boyfriends, outlaw wanderlust, etc. The most shameless song on here is "What A Memory," in which Mama's dying wish is that her boy should get a guitar, so he can follow his dreams as a musician... well, you see where this is headed... Still, slick as he is, Tracy Lawrence is a pretty listenable Top 40 artist... Worth checking out.
Kimberly M'Carver "Cross The Danger Line" (Prime CD, 2001)
The vocal (and stylistic) similarity to Dolly Parton is the very first thing you'll notice with this Houston gal... Debts to Nanci Griffith and Rosie Flores also seem likely. At any rate, even though her material is derivative, she has her moments. Tune like "Death and Texas" and "When I Hear Trains" may point to future greatness... who knows?
Roger McGuinn "Treasures From The Folk Den" (Appleseed, 2001)
Roger McGuinn had a twelve-string guitar, it was like nothing you'd ever heard... He still does, in fact, although these days he just as likely to be playing a six-string or a banjo, even singing a capella... This is a delightful, relaxed new album with the ex-Byrd and folk-rock pioneer sounding remarkably undiminished as he ambles through numerous traditional folk ditties, aided and abetted by an all-star cast including fellow old-timers Judy Collins, Jean Ritchie, Tommy Makem, Josh White and Pete Seeger, as well as super-talented UK newcomer Eliza Carthy. A lot of the songs are fairly obscure (recalling that charming '60s penchant for folkloric prowess as competitive display...) and the McGuinn versions are all pretty nice. This old feller sure knows how to tell a tale! Worth checking out!
The Meat Purveyors "All Relationships Are Doomed To Fail" (Bloodshot, 2002)
Honestly, I fail to see the attraction... I mean, yeah, with effort I can tell that these folks have some good songwriting going on... a little too WTS-y for me, but often some clever turns of phrase. Yet the music is so clattersome and hurried, and their vocals so raggedy and uneven, that my predominant experience as a listener is one of irritation. As I've said elsewhere, the "I'm not singing in tune on purpose, because I'm so punk!" ethos doesn't translate well between the worlds of electric rock and acoustic country. I could see being supportive of the band if they were friends of mine with a gig at some local club, but as a well-informed country fan living a continent away... I don't really get it.
Buddy & Julie Miller "Buddy & Julie Miller" (HighTone, 2001)
Although this husband/wife team have pitched in on one another's albums over the years, this is actually the first time they've released a record as a duo... And it's pretty nice. Still a little muscle-bound and house-rockin' for my tastes, but pretty damn catchy for that turf. Buddy Miller, whose day job is working as Emmylou Harris' guitarist, has considerable roots and country chops, and the mousy-voiced and mildly nutty Julie Miller has a rather distinctive tone as a songwriter. Some of their material is quite reflective, and tracks such as the Carter Family-flavored "Forever Has Come To An End" and "Rachael" are quite captivating. Even on the choppier, more rock-tinged material, the Millers have a way of commanding our attention... This is a strong effort, and well worth checking out!
John Miller "Popping Pills" (Shoeshine/Spit and Polish, 2002)
On his solo "debut," Scottish honkytonker singer John Miller, of the Glaswegian band Radio Sweethearts wrote all the songs and delivers them with a simplicity and conviction that infuses each tune with a compelling sweetness and honesty that makes this disc hard to resist. This is particularly true on high-class weepers such as "We Don't Care Anymore" and "Once Too Often Now," that reveal Miller as both a knowledgable devotee of American country, and as a master of the style. His understated delivery, thankfully shorn of the empty brazenness and rowdy affectations that plague the alt.country scene here in the States, may cause his music to fall under the radar of more trendy twang fans, but hey, that's their loss. If you're looking for a well-written, finely crafted, soulful country music album that helps bring the genre forward, then guess what? You should own this album. Miller has a gorgeous voice and golden pen, and wields them both with admirable skill and restraint.
Montgomery Gentry "Carrying On" (Columbia, 2001)
(Produced by Jon Scaife & Anthony Martin)
Here's one for the Confederate flag crowd... It took me a while to catch on that this was the name of a duo and not one guy... These beefy good old boys have a sizable Southern Rock streak to 'em... Very poppy, and full of soft-macho posturing, with a profound philosophical dilemma: straighten up my life, or hang out with the fellas down at the bar? Nothing, really, that blew me away here, but they do manage to rhyme "drink" and "think" in two separate songs... which is quite an accomplishment, when you stop to think about it.
Mark Newton "Charlie Lawson's Still" (Rebel, 2001)
Pleasant, melodic modern bluegrass which sticks to a pretty traditional vibe. Reminds me a lot of Ricky Skagg's pre-Nashville days, when he was still on Sugar Hill, with the emphasis on pretty picking and friendly vocals, and sweet harmonies. The songs are all pretty involving, tunes of broken hearts and backwoods whiskey. Nice stuff!
Joe Nichols "Man With A Memory" (Universal South, 2002)
An outstanding neo-traditional honkytonk album, aimed at a mainstream Top 40 audience. Nichols has a great voice, with a lot in common with Merle Haggard, particularly in his use of jazz-tinged, casual phrasing. He's also a great songwriter, with a penchant for penning catchy melodies and clever novelty lyrics that hearken back to the heyday of folks like Harlan Howard, Leon Payne and Melba Montgomery. If you're a hard country fan who likes hat acts, but wish they'd have more than two or three real, hard-edged old-fashioned honkytonk tunes per album, then this guy is for you. I enjoyed this album a lot.
Hick Music Index
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