Album Review: Garth Brooks: Gunslinger
If you take a second to step back and analyze it, Garth Brooks has a lot of competition for concert tickets and radio airplay these days. Of course, competing with the likes of Carrie Underwood and Keith Urban are nothing new, as he vied with fellow Hall of Famers George Strait and Reba McEntire for attention back in the 1990s. So, he’s used to that. But, perhaps Brooks’ biggest competition is his own legacy, sewn in iconic fashion with hits such as “The Dance” and “Friends In Low Places,” which still get plenty of play on Country radio. How does one compete with that? Do you stick with what made you a legend – or try to appeal to the younger demo? A tough question to answer, for sure.
In 2014, Brooks returned to the music scene with Man Against Machine. A fine album in parts, “She’s Tired Of Boys” and “Tacoma” being two obvious highlights, the album failed to light any fires at radio. There are many reasons for this, but at times Brooks sounded on the fence – debating whether to adapt his sound to the current audience, or stay true to what brought him to the dance initially.
There are no doubts that Brooks hit that stride successfully with Gunslinger. From the start, you can tell that the singer is simply in a zone he’s comfortable with. “Honky Tonk Somewhere” brings to mind some of George Jones’ Musicor work. It’s by far the most traditional song we’ve heard from the CMA Entertainer of the Year, and it’s not making any social statement. It’s just fun – and the musicianship is as stellar as Brooks’ vocal approach. That traditional element is all over the disc.
“Whiskey To Wine,” a duet with wife Trisha Yearwood, might very well be the best pure Country performance that the singer has ever turned in. Of course, having Yearwood by his side doesn’t hurt. Earlier this month, the two performed versions of several classic duets on the CMA Awards. I have a feeling this one might get such treatment in about thirty years. “Cowboys and Friends” also scores with a down home approach. When he’s singing in that vein, there are few better.
But, he also has a way with ballads. “Ask Me How I Know” oozes with pain and regret about how pride can get in the way of making a relationship work. Brooks makes it work with one of his deepest performances. This has radio – but also that Brooks sound – written all over it. He also hits the right emotional chord with the stunning “He Really Loves You,” about a man who has trouble admitting just how deep his feelings go – until he thinks it might be too late. It’s one of those compositions that you have to listen to until the end, as the song’s climax features somewhat of a twist.
Of course, Brooks is already riding high on the charts with the first single, “Baby, Let’s Lay Down and Dance,” and the song has been a sonic treat on the airwaves this fall. Bottom line, it’s just fun. He also goes for the same feeling – and succeeds with the fiery “Bang Bang,” which is three minutes of pure thrills.
I don’t know, maybe I got Man Against Machine wrong. But, with Gunslinger, I think it’s evident that Garth has got his groove back. I think any of these tracks could work on The Chase, In Pieces, or Sevens, three of his finest albums of the 1990s, while also giving him a strong chance at picking up some more steam at radio to add to his already impressive résumé.
back to top
Album Review: Florida Georgia Line: Dig Your Roots
What do Ziggy Marley, the Backstreet Boys and Tim McGraw have in common? If you answered, "They're all guest contributors on Florida Georgia Line's third studio album, Dig Your Roots," go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back.
Though the duo of Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley technically lands in the country category, those two guys aren't afraid to blur the boundaries between their chosen genre and a whole bunch of others. Rock, rap and reggae stylings all find their way into Florida Georgia Line's hybrid sound.
If the group's sound is a smorgasbord of styles, however, the lyrical subject matter here is country through and through. Which is to say that on any given track, we might get a tip o' the hat to God, girls or gin.
"God, Your Mama, and Me" vows faithful, life-giving love: "Never gonna run dry, never gonna come up empty/Now until the day I die, unconditionally/No one's ever gonna love you more than/God, your mama and me." Elsewhere, the song mentions going to church and praying together. "Lifer" focuses on working through conflict to move to a place of deeper commitment in marriage: "I'm you're man and you my lady/Baby, I'm a lifer, I ain't goin' nowhere/Told you since day one I had to wife ya'." We also get another shout-out to prayer ("Make more time for prayer and the Man upstairs") as well as this poignant praise for who we become in marriage: "I believe I ain't me without you walkin' out in that white dress/Life without you is useless."
"While He's Still Around" will have you reaching for a box of tissues as a man describes his desire to make the most of the time he has left with his father: "While he's still around/I'm gonna take him out to fish/So we can catch up on those stories/That we ain't got to yet/ … 'Cause you never know when the phone is gonna ring/Sayin' heaven had it out to make you wings." "Grow Old" is next up on the tearjerker list, as we're treated to a litany of all the things a young husband is looking forward to as he ages gracefully with his beloved wife.
There's more of the same on the title track, "Dig Your Roots": "Fall in love, plant some seeds/Carve some names in the family tree/Raise your kids, love your wife/Put god first, just to live your life." The song also seems to reference someone's deceased father and grandfather: "Yeah, a good ol' boy, just like my old man/Every night when I'm singing/I know he's looking down/Up there next to Paw Paw/Get the best seats in the house."
"May We All" celebrates patriotism, perseverance and the glories of growing up in a small town.
Is a woman supposed to feel good about being compared to a horse, a famous singer, a car or jelly? Florida Georgia Line apparently thinks the answer to that question is yes on "Smooth," where a woman's curves evoke lines about a "Tennessee Walker," a "Sunday-morning Elvis," a "Caddy from Cali" and "blackberry jam." That combination prompts the guys to exclaim, "Girl, you're put together perfectly/Good lord almighty/Girl, you go down good/ … There ain't nobody/'A do me like you/The way you move that body/Girl, you're so smooth."
A man and a woman at a bar get handsy on "Island": "It's just me and you, back corner booth, we're sitting on the same seat/Got my hands all over you, and, yeah, girl, you're all over me/Like nobody's watching us, baby, let them all see." Similarly, "Summerland" combines drinking, smoking pot, skinny dipping and sex on a beach somewhere on the Gulf coast. Among other things, we hear that a man is "high as a kite," as he tells us, "With my hands where the sun don't tan/Don't you worry 'bout the sand/ … I'm gonna kiss you till tomorrow/And I'm gonna do it all night." The same combination of liquor, marijuana and sex turns up on "Heatwave."
"H.O.L.Y." stands for "high on loving you." The acronym alone is problematic, and the balance of the song is more so as it fuses spiritual themes to romantic, sexually suggestive imagery: "You're the river bank where I was baptized/Cleansed from the demons/That were killing my freedom/Let me lay you down, give me to ya'/Got you singing, babe, hallelujah." The chorus itself gets pretty close to one of the most beloved hymns in the Christian tradition when Florida Georgia Line repeatedly describes this woman like this: "You're holy, holy, holy, holy." Elsewhere, the otherwise inspiring song "Music Is Healing" overstates the power and influence of music when the band sings, "Your song is playin'/It's gonna save ya'."
"Good Girl, Bad Boy" could be heard as a cautionary tale. Still, it does involve a faithful church-attending woman falling for a drunken "bad boy": "And every time she's with him, all she wants to do kiss him/Starts thinking maybe she can fix him/He's thinking he'd love to let her try." Despite its commitment to marital unity, "Lifer" nonetheless repeatedly describes the conflicts a couple faces with the s-word. (Profanities elsewhere on the album include a few uses each of "h---" and "d--mit.") We also get some winking allusions to marital sex in "Lifer" as well as "Grow Old."
One of my favorite songs on Florida Georgia Line's latest album is "Grow Old," where we hear about a husband's tender hopes for a lifetime of marriage. But there's a line in that song that also gets at the paradox of the album as a whole: "Talk our babies through the bad dreams/When they get a little older, we'll tell them not to drink."
It's a great sentiment on a sentimental song. And it's hardly the only such weepy moment on an album that often exalts marriage, faithfulness, parenthood, God, church and family.
And yet like so many other country albums, one second we're getting nods to setting limits on kids' behaviors while the next we're wading through lyrics about getting stoned and drunk before having sex on a beach. Which means that if these guys take their own advice when it comes to what they teach their own kids about certain reckless behaviors, they may one day have some 'splaining to do.
back to top
Album Review: Jason Aldean’s ‘They Don't Know’
If ain't broke, don't fix it.
And there's nothing broke as far as Jason Aldean's huge country fan base is concerned. His seventh album, They Don't Know, is his second in a row to top Billboard's mainstream album chart. That suggests the market for so-called "bro country"—a more rock-fortifed, beer-fueled take on the genre's traditional themes—is just as strong as it was when Aldean's Old Boots, New Dirt, similarly stomped to the top of the charts two years ago.
As for the dirt in Aldean's lyrics this time around, well, let's just say you're still gonna need a goodly bit of detergent to get it all out of your overalls. And perhaps a painkiller for a hangover the next day, too, given the amount of booze that's guzzled throughout this album's 15 tracks.
"Lights Come On" celebrates hard work during the week ("You're a crack-of-dawn Monday morning/Coffee strong pouring everything you got/Into a paycheck on Friday night"). The title track also praises the quiet virtues of rural environs and the dignified farmers who live there: "They call us a two-lane, just-passing-by, slow-down town/ … They ain't seen the blood, sweat and tears it took to live their dreams / … Ain't just another field, just another farm/No, it's the ground we grew up on."
"This Plane Don't Go There" pines for a second chance to change the outcome of a broken romance ("Wish I could go back to that spot/The second right before we said goodbye/But this plane don't go there/This plane can't take me back in time"). We hear similar regrets on "First Time Again."
"Lights Come On" is about industrious folk blowing off steam at the end of the week by going to a concert—not a bad thing at all. But Aldean implies that such an event (which he also compares to worship) can't really be fully appreciated without drinking and smoking, too: "A hallelujah high from the floor to the ceiling/Yeah, the drink that we're drinking and the smoke that we're smoking/ … So come on, raise your cup."
Three songs (two of which are breakup tunes) focus almost exclusively on alcohol. "Any Ol' Barstool" involves a man telling an ex that if she wants to know how he's doing, "Ask any ol' barstool in this town." Later, he says he's drinking more ("Sure, I take more Jack in my coke now"), and apparently smoking marijuana, too ("A little more high in my smoke now"). Meanwhile, "Whiskey'd Up" describes how drunkenness dredges of memories of a woman, which leads to still more drinking: "When I get whiskey'd up, that wantin' you again/Starts kickin' back in, and I'm late night callin' you up/My heart starts hurtin' when that bourbon starts burnin'/And I can't help but touch that stuff." And on "All Out of Beer," Aldean admits that a woman he might otherwise say no to is more appealing after he's downed an entire case of suds: "If you'd a got here 'for my buzz kicked in/I'd a told you where to go/ … When I'm 12 [beers] in, helpless/The only time you show up here is when you're lonely/And I'm all out of beer."
Still more alcohol and suggestive sexual allusions mingle on "In Case You Don't Remember," "One We Won't Forget," ""Comin' in Hot" and "Bad." "When the Lights Go Out" is one of only a handful of songs that doesn't mention alcohol as Aldean's lyrics discuss a longed-for night of passion with a lover: "Baby, when the lights go out/I wanna hear that want-you sound/On your lips when I lay you down."
"The Way a Night Should Feel" reminisces about two high schoolers sneaking out at night and apparently making out while driving all the way to the Mexican border: "Do you remember when we snuck out of the house at the stroke of midnight?/ … Your daddy would have killed me if he'd seen me/ … Headed down to Mexico, you were kissing my neck."
If there's one constant in Jason Aldean's songs, its' alcohol. When life's good, he's drinking. When life's bad, he's drinking. When he's with someone he loves, he's drinking. When someone he loves has left him, he's drinking. When he's singing about hard-working fans at a concert, they're drinking. And when he's talking about some of the hard work they do, it—perhaps not surprisingly—includes hauling beer. ("King of Beers, 18-wheeler driving," he sings on "Lights Come On").
A handful of songs give an obligatory tip o' the hat to the solid work ethic and dignity of his country constituency in flyover country. Most of the time, though, Jason's just drinking.
back to top
Album Review: Justin Moore’s ‘Kinda Don’t Care’
I really hesitate to put Justin Moore in the list of “New Country” artists. There are a couple of reasons for this. For starters, he’s been on the charts since 2008 – almost a decade, and he’s also carved out a reputation as one of the most traditional based artists out there these days.
I’m glad to say that for this, his fourth studio album, most of the moments are still like that. There’s a little bit of a subtle shift in his sound on this album as opposed to his past work. I wouldn’t say it’s as drastic as what we’ve seen from Thomas Rhett as of late, but fans may notice a little bit of a slide toward a more contemporary sound.
However, that being said, when things do go a bit in a new direction arrangement-wise – just like with Billy Sherrill’s work with George Jones in the 1970s and strings – the Arkansas twang in his voice is even more pronounced. You can hear this combination loud and clear on songs such as “Hell On A Highway,” which is certainly one of the most adventurous tracks he has cut. But, it works because he makes no attempt to hide the Country sound in his voice. Truth be told, the song could actually wind up being one of his biggest hits. “Somebody Else Will” is also a song very much in this vein that works well, too, thanks to some killer harmonies from the divine Sarah Buxton.
But, a lot of this album will sound very familiar to his longtime fans. “Robbin’ Trains” has a wide open and care-free sound that pays tribute to a way of life the singer might have lived had he came up during the old West. “Put Me In A Box” is one of the most unique love songs I have heard in a while, and he hits the twang factor in fine fashion on the fun title cut.
The biggest surprise – and departure – for me as a listener to this disc comes with “Between You and Me.” It’s a romantic tune, but not in the flowers and candy tradition. Pretend for just a moment that Conway Twitty were a hit recording artist in 2016. He would have torn this song up. Moore does exactly the same. Possibly, because it’s because he’s never done anything this suggestive, but it works – damn well. If I were Valory, I would highly consider this as the follow-up to “You Look Like I Need A Drink,” which has been one of the most entertaining songs on the airwaves in 2016.
If any of this has you worried that Moore is going to be hanging with Timbaland and Drake anytime soon, don’t. “More Middle Fingers,” which features Brantley Gilbert is full of that smart-ass Southern swagger……that’s actually more true than some might tend to agree with. It likely won’t be a radio single, but I can only imagine the reaction this one will get live.
It wouldn’t be fair to expect any artist – Moore included – to release the same album time in and time out, and here, the singer seems like he is in a solid place with that evolution – one fans will (and should) appreciate!
back to top
Album Review: David Nail’s ‘Fighter’
There are few words that can be used to describe the talent of David Nail. When you hear him on a record – or better yet, see him live – you come away with a deep appreciation for his vocal talent. Simply put, one could make the argument that he’s not one of us. On a ballad, his vocals soar into the stratosphere, and on the up-tempo songs, he takes the ordinary lyric and arrangement, and transfers it into a tour de force.
On his fourth album for MCA, the Missouri native continues to develop his craft. There’s a mix of both styles on the album, with “Good At Tonight” and lead-off single “Night’s On Fire” showcasing the groove side of what Nail does so exceedingly well. Seriously, I don’t know if there is any style of music that the singer can’t master. He’s simply that good.
As usual, the slower material here serves as the “money” performances. And, when it comes to this, Nail can yell “Bank” all over the place. “Home” is a very emotional ode to a place that he is very familiar with, and he knocks it out of the ball park with a vocal where he reels it in from a restraint point of view – but only to dazzle with his commanding warmth as a vocalist. The presence of Lori McKenna also adds to the power of the cut. He also stands toe to toe with Vince Gill (who delivers a jaw dropping guitar intro) on the brooding and intense “I Won’t Let You Go.”
He also gives the listener a look inside at one of the biggest changes of his life over the past few years – fatherhood – with the sweetly sentimental “Babies,” which will stand as a highlight of the disc among any fan who is a parent. And, as the album cruises to its’ apex, Nail saves the best for the last.
“Got Me Gone” brings back the grooving side of Nail to the nth degree, with his voice cutting the through the arrangement as light as a feather – yet still as potent as can be. He collaborates with Bear Rinehart and Bo Rinehart of Needtobreathe on the masterpiece “Old Man’s Symphony,” and in perhaps the highlight of the album, he dazzles with the highly underrated Logan Brill on the seductive “Champagne Promise.” Gorgeous and stunning are two words you could use to describe their collaborative effort……and you still wouldn’t be doing it justice. It might be a little too heavy – or adult – for Country Radio, but it’s a true gem in every sense of the word.
So, David Nail has done it again. With Fighter, he delivers another sterling example of why industry insiders consider him to be one of the most effective vocalists in town. While radio has been behind him, giving him several hits over the years – hopefully this disc will jump him to the head of the class. After all, it’s a place that he deserves to be!
You won’t find much fluff on David Nail’s Fighter album. In fact, lack of levity is about all a country fan can complain about on the singer’s personal fourth studio album.
Brothers Osborne join Nail for “Good at Tonight,” a rocker that represents the best of the uptempo. It’s a waterfall of ballads after that, with lyrics that require focus to full appreciate. Find the meat of the album at the middle: “Home,” “I Won’t Let Go,” “Fighter” and “Babies” are personal notes to his hometown, wife, wife and kids, respectively. Here Nail strips naked to show his scars and vulnerabilities. At times it’s voyeuristic. But mostly one can identify his stories in his or her own life.
“Babies” is the album’s centerpiece. During this song he recounts he and wife Catherine’s struggle to conceive and how his life has changed since becoming a father to twins. The Vince Gill collaboration (“I Won’t Let You Go”) is equally personal, but more approachable. In some ways, the singer uses his voice like Gill does the guitar. Both are patient, expressive and artistic.
A melodic one-night stand song called “Champagne Promise” is the album’s unicorn — a break before “Old Man’s Symphony,” a ballad written to his father. No single will represent the depth and inward nature of Fighter, as the most vulnerable songs are those he’s very hesitant to perform live. The deep cuts rule on this much-anticipated project.
Key Tracks: “Good at Tonight,” “Home,” “Babies,” “Champagne Promise”
back to top
Album Review: Jon Pardi’s ‘California Sunrise’
Well known for his blend of traditional and modern country, Jon Pardi effortlessly combines the old with the new for his 12-song sophomore release, California Sunrise.
“I always want to have the traditional country soul while meeting the new standards of country music,” Pardi explains. “As a songwriter, we’re looking for a good story and we’re always looking to push the limits. I love having those lyrics that at first make you think it’s about one thing, but it’s really about something so much more.”
Songs like opening track “Out of Style” exemplify Pardi’s mix of traditional country with a modern day flair as he sings about learning the secrets of songwriting upon moving to Nashville. “Write about the things you know about. If there’s anything that you don’t know about just stick around and you’ll find out before too long,” he sings. A driving drum beat accompanies fiddle, pedal steel and electric guitar throughout the five minute jam.
Pardi teamed up with producer Bart Butler again in the studio and in order to capture the live energy on the album, they recorded each song with a full band.
“I’m a big fan of a live band recording and it was really important for me to get that sound on my record,” Pardi shares. “The heart of this record comes across with a live band. We used seven guys – one band, and there’s something special about that.”
The album itself is easy to envision in the live setting thanks to the seven-piece band. Songs like “Night Shift” include plenty of fiddle and pedal steel while the bass-heavy “Dirt On My Boots” begs to be danced to. Appropriately, dancing is a frequent theme throughout California Sunrise. Current single “Head Over Boots” has Pardi gushing about a girl who he has fallen for while on “Can’t Turn You Down” he finds himself dancing in his bedroom with said girl.
As in life and in country music, there is also some heartbreak. But for Pardi, that heartbreak also happens on the dance floor. On the appropriately titled “Heartache on the Dance Floor,” Pardi sings of a night that has him falling for a girl while she’s shaking her hips but he never catches her name or number. The beat heavy instrumental intro of the song combined with fiddle best showcases Pardi’s ability to meld modern and traditional.
Additional highlights include the emotional “She Ain’t In It” which has Pardi trying to get over an ex. While he’s ready to go out to the bar with friends after a month of sulking by himself, he hopes she isn’t there. The soaring string features and slowed acoustic guitar only add to the hurt.
A standout release, California Sunrise combines Pardi’s love of traditional country with a modern feel thanks to distinct percussion and electric guitar combined with pedal steel and fiddle, leaving the listener satisfied. Closing with the foot-stomping title track, which ends with nearly a minute instrumental jam, Pardi’s staying power is evident.
back to top
Album Review: Maren Morris’ ‘Hero’
Emotions run deep for Maren Morris on her major label debut, Hero. The Texas native co-wrote each of the 11 tracks on the versatile release, all of which showcase her honest songwriting and unique storytelling. Whether she’s letting down a man on the autobiographical “I Wish I Was” or transporting the listener to worship on her breakout single “My Church,” her vocal ability is undeniable.
“I’ve come such a long way from who I was in Texas, who I am as a writer, who I am as a woman today,” Morris said in a press release announcing her new album. “I think the message of this record is self acceptance and awareness, and that to me is heroic.”
Morris is heroic in her candor throughout the album. She says things we’ve all thought at one time or another but perhaps have not been brave enough to put out there ourselves. This can be seen on opening track “Sugar” where she asks a crush to be hers.
“I’m a cup of tea with a touch of cream but something’s missing / So I’m gonna put this nice and sweet / Baby would you be my sugar? Sugar you make my heart race,” she sings. “You’re what I crave, babe what can I say?”
Meanwhile, the tongue-in-cheek “Rich” has Morris singing about a man she just can’t rely on. If she made money from all the lies he has told her over the years, she’d be rich with a “Benz in the driveway, yacht in the water.” It’s a unique take on a relationship that begs the listener to sing along.
Other highlights include her standout single, “My Church.” The song features soulful belts from Morris, who has said that the idea came from the realization that music is her version of church.
“Right after I said it aloud I thought, ‘I should write that down!’ Everyone has that feeling when they are in their car by themselves, listening to music with the windows down. I wanted to capture that in a three minute song.”
Morris says the song embodies everything she represents as an artist and a writer and its success at radio is a testament to her ability as a songwriter and vocalist.
“I Could Use a Love Song” is another brutally honest track that has Morris trying her best not to be jaded about love. While she finds it difficult to remember a time when she’d see a couple and not roll her eyes at them making their relationship work, she remains optimistic about love despite being burned in the past. “I haven’t lost all hope yet,” she sings.
While “80s Mercedes” is a catchy, danceable track that has Morris singing of being a ’90s baby in her ’80s Mercedes, next song “Drunk Girls Don’t Cry” has her calling out a friend who refuses to move on from her terrible boyfriend. “There’s a fine line between an accident and an L-O-S-E-R,” she sings on the comical wakeup call.
It is on “I Wish I Was,” though, that best demonstrates Morris’ staying power. One of the standout tracks on Hero, “I Wish I Was” was co-written with Natalie Hemby and Ryan Hurd and is the most vulnerable song featured on the album. A song that has Morris telling a guy they’re not meant to be, it’s a breakup that is strongly felt.
“I’m not the hero in the story / I’m not the girl that gets the glory / ‘Cause you’re lookin’ for true love and I’m not the one / But I wish, but I wish I was,” she sings.
Songwriting at its best, “I Wish I Was” shows Morris’ ability to relate. It’s the sharing of a universal truth and an all too real human condition that is the heart of country music and Morris’ songwriting throughout Hero exemplifies just this. While Morris may admit that she was not heroic in songs like “I Wish I Was,” the singer’s honesty is what makes Hero such a strong release. Morris’ songwriting skills coupled with her powerful vocals and eclectic music style result in Hero being one of the most unique and enjoyable releases of 2016.
back to top