Here are some reviews of the new country, bluegrass and Americana records that I had the good fortune to listen to in October, 2007. ...It's not everything I heard, but it's a nice sample of stuff that either tickled my fancy or ticked me off... Also, check out my full Guide To Hick Music.
This month: The Austin Lounge Lizards, Brooks & Dunn, Deana Carter, Kellie Coffey, James Luther Dickinson, Mary Gauthier, Goose Creek Symphony, Jerry Kilgore, Collin Raye, Linda Thompson, Porter Wagoner, Whiskey Falls, Trisha Yearwood, Dwight Yoakam
The Austin Lounge Lizards "The Drugs I Need" (Blue Corn, 2007)
Ever crack up when you see some ad for a wonder drug and the list of side effects is longer than the Gettysburg Address? Yeah, the Lizards have noticed that as well. The title track here is a hilarious spin on that very theme... Sure, a lot of us have made the same joke but these guys actually have a record out. I often find AuLL's albums to be a hit-or-miss effort, but I liked this one. There are a lot of topical tunes and several songs that got me to laugh out loud, notably "The Drugs I Need," "One True God" and "We've Been Through Some Crappy Times Before," which tweaks the collective nose of those who fell into a deep funk following the Presidential elections of 2000 and 2004. Media consolidation, the health care meltdown, environmentalism and culturally targeted marketing campaigns are all on their radar... So is you funnybone! (Apparently they also produced several videos related to this album -- if you check out the band's website you can find some links...)
Brooks & Dunn "Cowboy Town" (Sony-BMG/Arista, 2007)
(Produced by Tony Brown, Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn)
Another nice one from Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn. This disc is a mixed bag that both plays it safe and pushes the envelope, embracing outlaw country and the brand of bouncy, Top 40 neotrad pop that they helped perfect over a decade back. The title track, which opens the album, is pure linedancing formula, an ode to some now-mythical land of boot wearin', truck drivin', America-lovin', middle-class, rancher-rodeo rider family men who rope steers and brand cattle on their coffee break after they change the toner cartridge on the office copy machine. The lyrics are practically a recitation of lines strung together from every hit B&D ever had. Sounds good, though. It's followed by "Proud Of The House That We Built," an on-the-nose anthem of praise for teenage lovers who stick together and build a family, while other kids are out partying and having fun. But just when you think, uh-oh, it's gonna be one of those too-slick, by-the-numbers albums, they loosen their bolo ties and start singing the praises of hardcore honkytonk and the Austin outlaw scene. The aggressive twang and thunder of "Johnny Cash Junkie (And A Buck Owens Freak)" seems a little forced, but their tribute to Jerry Jeff Walker (with the Scamp himself singing along) is a remarkably honest and believable homage to the stoned, stupified glory days of the indie-country scene of Texas in the 1970s. Completely out of left field and it made me see Brooks & Dunn in a totally different light. Then there are a couple of rowdy-livin' drinkin' songs that are in keeping with the current rash of Southern-rockish bad-boy country, that seem similarly uncommercial and unlike much of the duo's old catalogue... Good for them! They're big stars who aren't afraid to do whatever they want to. The album closes on a safer note -- "American Dreamer" and "God Must Be Busy" are the kind of cliche-heavy tearjerkers that Nashville lives and breathes by, but like everything else on here, they're also signs of Brooks & Dunn's continued mastery of country music, in all its forms and styles. There's a little something here for everybody, all across the twang spectrum, including the hits you'll hear on the radio. Keep 'em coming, guys.
Deana Carter "The Chain" (Vanguard, 2007)
Initially, Deana Carter made a career out of skating on the fine line between commercial country and rootsier Americana material, showing her savvy command of Nashville's modern sensibilities while letting fans know she had some real country roots. Then, on 2003's I'm Just A Girl, she went outright pop, throwing a lot of people for a loop, and continued on her poppy path for the follow-up, The Story Of My Life. Here, Carter takes some of the pressure off, not only by recording an album of cover tunes and classics, but also by bringing in a host of guest vocalists, including many of the original artists. It's an interesting set, not always what I'd like, but consistently engaging and intelligent, and Carter (thankfully) remains restrained and contained throughout, resisting the urge to showboat that often sinks similar projects. Highlights include a sober collaboration with Jessi Colter on "I'm Not Lisa," and a stunning, spooky reworking of "He Thinks I Still Care," with the ever-great George Jones summoning up one of the more striking performances of recent years. A duet with Kris Kristofferson, on his "Help Me Make It Through The Night," is also pretty solid, and Dolly Parton sails through her oldie-goldie "Love Is Like A Butterfly." There are a couple of misfires: it's nice to hear John Anderson's growly voice again, but "Swingin'" was never one of his best songs, and two musical dynasties prove tad shaky: Paul Simon's son, Harper, sounds just okay on "The Boxer," while Shooter Jennings demonstrates once again why he's really got to stop milking his dad's legacy: he just ain't got the mojo. Carter may be drawn to children of famous folks because she is one herself -- the concept behind this album is that it's a set of songs with artists that her dad, veteran session guitarist Fred Carter, worked with during his career. It's a nice idea, and these are great songs, although the handful of tunes where Deana sings by herself -- such as Neil Young's "Old Man," Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay," The Band's "The Weight" -- are some of the more affecting and mysterious tracks on the album. This one's worth checking out -- she offers interesting perspectives on these old songs, and also seems to be returning to her roots, if only for a little while.
Kellie Coffey "Walk On" (Duet Records, 2007)
(Produced by Wayne Kirkpatrick)
Although she made a big splash as a critic's darling with her 2002 debut, When You Lie Next To Me, Kellie Coffey languished in the middle rungs of the Top 40, and apparently got the boot for her troubles. Like many modern Nashvillers, she's sidestepped the major labels and gone indie, and thus her new record plays directly to her fans -- in this case to folks who prefer chick-centric emotional songs about relationships, heartbreak and dreams. Given the recent rash of redneck-gal rowdiness at the top of the charts, these soul-soaked femme-ballads seem a little dated, but it's solid work throughout, and if you like the style (or were a Coffey fan to begin with) then you'll definitely dig this album. Some songs are a bit much: Trina Harmon's "I Would Die For That" deals with infertility, which is a powerful subject, but the singlemindedly depressive focus of the song's narrator (and the tinge of peevish jealousy towards her friends) makes the song difficult to latch onto. Other songs, like "I Had A Dream" and the goofy satire of modern life, "Bandwagon," are more solid and less self-pitying. Almost all the songs were co-written with producer Wayne Kirkpatrick (of the band Little Big Town) and he adds a firm if formulaic hand to the sound... If you liked the Y2K-era soul-twang sound of Sara Evans, Trisha Yearwood, et al., you'll probably dig this one, too.
James Luther Dickinson "Killers From Space" (Memphis International, 2007)
Another weird, arresting and oddly abrasive album from veteran Memphis record producer/guitarist James Luther Dickinson. His last couple of records were smoother and more conventional; this one is crotchety and querulous, with enough axes to grind to stock a full lumber mill. Fake roots music, dying traditions, lying lovers, lying politicians... Dickinson apparently has a laundry list of things that kinda bug him, and plenty of mojo to help him project his 'tude upon the world, backed up by wicked, bluesy riffs and gravel-laced vocals that could peel all the paint off the side of a barn. He seems to be a sort of Swamp Dogg-type character: a talented Southern roots musician who has decided to be a big, old weirdo as well. The slashing blues and rhythm riffs give this music potency, although it's not the kind of thing you'd put on for recreational listening. But you'll also be hard pressed to find anything like it, as well -- if you heard this on the radio, you'd definitely sit up and pay attention. Well suited for Hasil Adkins fans, perhaps?
Mary Gauthier "Between Daylight And Dark" (Lost Highway, 2007)
So, like, is Ms. Gauthier in competition with labelmate Lucinda Williams to be the biggest, saddest bummer queen in Americana music today? I'm a big fan of Gauthier's skills as a songsmith, but while the quality of writing remains high here, the emotional tenor is unrelentingly and repetitively bleak. I found this a difficult album to get into -- the half dozen tracks that open it have ostensibly different topics, but the tone and the message is always the same: life is hard, life sucks, I'm not having fun and, really, neither are you. As the album title implies, the weary voices in her songs arise from Limbo, a joyless purgatory where nothing ever changes: life is hard, life sucks, I'm not having fun and, really, neither are you. It isn't until midway through that a sliver of hope appears, as she utters the words, "it's okay," and while the clouds don't entirely clear, at least the songs start to sound a little different from each other. The set closes with the album's most arresting song, "Thanksgiving," a bitter working-class dirge about a family's holiday visit to a convict in prison -- with the oblique sadness channeled into anger, it's actually one of the more uplifting songs on the album. Fans of well-crafted, highbrow Americana will appreciate this record, although the utter lack of levity or emotional reprieve may make it rough going for most of us.
Goose Creek Symphony "The Goose Is Loose" (Bo Records, 2007)
I was pleased to see that Goose Creek Symphony -- an old hippie-era experimental country/rock jam band from Arizona -- has a new album out, a 2-CD set taken from a 1994 reunion concert. Haven't heard it yet, but I'm quite curious. (There's more info at the band's website: www.goosecreeksymphony.com )
Merle Haggard "Bluegrass Sessions" (McCoury Music/Hag Records, 2007)
(Produced by Ronnie Reno)
Another fine record by ol' Hag... Despite the album title, he doesn't really cut loose and rip into some pure, old-fashioned truegrass (the way we want him to...!) but he does make the most of some top-flight acoustic musicians backing him up, and this is one sweet record. Scott Joss and Aubrey Haynie play fiddle, Ron Ickes in on the dobro, Carl Jackson and Marty Stuart kick in on guitar and mandolin... And lil' old Alison Krauss throws on a nice harmony on a weepy remake of "Mama's Hungry Eyes." Merle revisits some of his best old songs, and he finds time to lament on the sad state of American life on "What Happened?" Haggard closes the album with a wonderfully mournful, memorable version of the old Delmore Brothers tune,"Blues Stay Away From Me," as sure a sign as any that he remains faithful to his deep country roots. This is a fine-tuned, delicate album,the latest in a series of great, late-vintage Haggard sets... Well worth checking out!
Jerry Kilgore "Loaded And Empty" (Nic-Nic Neer, 2007)
Wow. Honkytonker Jerry Kilgore, who had a smidge of success in 1999 playing the Top 40 game, is back with a slam-bang album packed with one great song after another. As far as I'm concerned, this is what Nashville ought to have been doing for the last twenty years. The album opens with "What's It Take To Get A Drink In Here," a Kilgore original in which he wonders whatever happened to his bartender, and makes it known to the world that he is a man who definitely needs a drink, if anyone could be bothered to make it down to his end of the bar. The track is muscular and propulsive, a fiddle-drenched, alcohol-fueled Texas shuffle anchored by a thumping backbeat and a wicked sense of humor. It's the kind of no-holds-barred, straight-ahead, hardcore country that gets your blood pumping while you crank up the volume and start singing along. The next track is equally strong, and the shuffle beat continues through the first half of the album. On "Ain't Got One Honky Tonk (Under His Belt)", Kilgore takes his obligatory shots at the Nashville establishment, questioning whether any of those pretty boys you see on TNN could really take a punch if they were in a bar fight, while on "Both Be On Our Way," he asks a distant lover if it's time for one last tumble. The second half of the record is slower and sees Kilgore trying fancy stuff with his singing that sometimes gets in the way, but mostly sounds just fine. Along with the sizzling hard-country arrangements and Kilgore's rugged, leap-right-out-at-ya vocals, this disc is packed with Kilgore originals -- and the two tunes he didn't write come from the pens of Shawn Camp and Mark Sanders, who ain't slouches, either. If you're wondering where the vigor has gone in modern country music, look no further: you'll want to check this guy out! (Also available through Kilgore's My Space fan site )
Collin Raye "Selected Hits" (Star Pointe, 2007)
(Produced by Teddy Gentry & Michael Curtis)
It's interesting to see the continued diversification of how country stars deal with a rapidly changing entertainment landscape... Collin Raye, whose career peaked in the mid-1990s, has started up his own label and put out a new 6-song EP aimed straight for his hardcore fans, that so far is being sold exclusively through Walmart. There are two new songs, both weepers: the patriotic "Soldier's Prayer" and "Quitters," about a paraplegic man who refuses to give up hope, along with four old hits recorded live with the Salt Lake Symphony. There's also an amiable recorded message from Raye where he touts the creation of the Star Pointe label, and discusses each of the songs. Like many 'Nineties Nashville stars, Raye has apparently decided to do an end run around the country radio establishment and provide records directly to his fans. Sounds like he's having fun so far! (For more info, check out: www.collinraye.com)
Linda Thompson "Versatile Heart" (Rounder, 2007)
(Produced by Edward Haber & Teddy Thompson)
Bookended by two gentle instrumentals, this album showcases British folk doyenne Linda Thompson's continued mastery of her craft. Although this acoustic-based album isn't as giddily joyful or as puckish as her previous release, Fashionably Late, it is packed with finely crafted gems such as the sardonic title track, one of several new songs cowritten with her son, Teddy Thompson, and a number of intelligently wrought folksongs. The overall mood here is rather doleful and resigned, a reflection, perhaps, of the times, as Thompson references the Iraq war a few times, including in the moving Tom Waits-Kathleen Brennan tune, "Day After Tomorrow." Thompson makes the most of her connections in English trad scene, bringing in accordionist John Kirkpatrick, as well as Eliza Carthy and the Waterson clan (on "Bob Copper And Me," a lovely tribute to one of England's finest singers of traditional song). On a few tunes she also hosts Irish guitarist John Doyle, who is fast becoming his generation's version of bassist Danny Thompson, a seemingly ubiquitous player whose fluid style and solid reliability adds magic to every track he graces. This is another strong effort from Ms. Thompson, more on the traditional side this time around, but still a real treat.
Porter Wagoner "The Wagonmaster" (Anti/Epitaph, 2007)
(Produced by Marty Stuart)
I was greatly saddened to hear of the passing away of Porter Wagoner, one of the last, great true hillbilly musicians in country music history. His passing was made more poignant by his having recorded such a fine record before he went up to join that heavenly choir he kept singing about when he was in a gospel mood. Porter was in fine form here, as corny and as heartfelt as ever, and with a strong, sympathetic backing from Marty Stuart and his band. There are beautiful ballads, goofball novelty songs, over-the-top gloom'n'doom epics (like "The Agony Of Waiting"), lively instrumentals and between-song patter that recall the stage show that he'd performed for decades, on TV, at the Opry and on the road. There's even a lost gem written by Johnny Cash, "Committed To Parkview," a song about being in an asylum that fits in handily next to Porter's wacky classic, "The Rubber Room." In short, this album is archetypal Porter Wagoner, a delicious mix of the heartfelt and the maudlin, the serious and the silly. Porter's voice was expressive and strong -- he made another great record, just like the others he'd made over the years, and although he didn't cater to the rock'n'roll crowd the same way as Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn, there's still plenty here for the young'uns to latch onto, if they've got a hankering to hear real some country music. Rest in peace, Porter: we'll all be down here listening to your stuff for a long time to come.
Whiskey Falls "Whiskey Falls" (Midas Records/We Three Kings, 2007)
(Produced by Bill Brandt, Cliff Downes & Whiskey Falls)
The vocal harmony tradition of the Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, Shenandoah, and the like is alive and well, within the Southern rock-tinged country-pop of Whiskey Falls... The twin shadows of Poco and The Eagles also hover over their music, which is appropriate, given the band's California origins. It's good news for fans of the classic country-rock style, too, since these guys mostly strike the right balance between twang and thunder... Their sweeter songs are best, particularly the single that opens the album, "Falling Into You," and "So Much Better," in the middle of the disc, although a few of their rowdy tunes turn out to be unfortunate nods towards the current trend of swaggering, faux-outlaw Southern rock, ala Montgomery Gentry, Van Zandt, et al. Whiskey Falls is clearly a band whose strengths lie in a softer approach, although their clunky power-chord anthems are more fun to listen to than many of the top country acts they're seeking to emulate. All in all, a promising debut: plenty here for a variety of commercial country fans to groove out on. Definitely worth checking out, if it sounds like your kinda country.
Trisha Yearwood "Greatest Hits" (MCA Nashville, 2007)
A rock-solid best-of set that moves steadily through Yearwood's twang-ish 1991 debut through to her more soul-soaked efforts of the decade's end. As is the norm with greatest-hits collections nowadays, there are a couple of new tunes on here as well, Stephanie Davis's "Just A Cup Of Coffee" and "Nothin' To Lose," both produced by longtime collaborator Garth Fundis. "New," that is, taking in consideration that Yearwood and MCA parted ways recently, and this is actually stuff from the vaults. As a casual listener, I appreciate that this collection dwells on her older stuff, when she was more "country," and samples sparingly from the over-the-top pop-soul of later years. A worthy update of her previous MCA best-of, Songbook.
Trisha Yearwood "Heaven, Heartache And The Power Of Love" (Big Machine, 2007)
Dwight Yoakam "Dwight Sings Buck" (New West, 2007)
(Produced by Dwight Yoakam)
A lot of people have recently been busting loose with tributes to the late, great Buck Owens, who passed away in 2006... Few twangsters have as strong a claim to the mantle of the Bakersfield Sound as Dwight Yoakam, though: he brought the sizzling style back to life in the late 1980s, and even got Buck to come out of retirement and record some awesome new tunes. Here, Dwight pays homage to the master, with a super-twangy set of Owens oldies, made with the same live-wire, singalong fervor that Buck had back in the '60s. Yoakam also shares Buck's innate sense of how to mix rock and twang, although he's admittedly pushed it much further than Buck ever dreamt of doing. It's nice to hear dwight get back to his roots, though, and even with a little bit of over-the-top hick schtick that he just can't help throwing in there, this album is tailormade for cranking up and singing along. Mostly it's a high-tech update of the vintage Owens sound, though Dwight takes some chances that are pretty interesting, such as slowing the once-bouncy "Close Up The Honky Tonks" down to a morose, barstool crawl, dripping with slow, sad pedal steel licks and a rueful self-reflection that was absent in the boisterous original. If you these fellas, and the classic hard-country sound, you'll wanna pick this one up.
Hick Music Index
Shop Amazon, Support Slipcue