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Keith UrbanAlbum Review: Keith Urban’s ‘Ripcord’

Keith Urban transcends genres on his eighth studio album, Ripcord. The singer has said the 13-track release was his “most exhilarating album to make, both musically and creatively” and it’s easy to see why. Urban worked with several new writers and producers for the release including Jeff Bhasker, busbee, Greg Wells and Nile Rogers as well as frequent collaborators Shane McAnally, Ross Copperman, Dann Huff and Nathan Chapman, allowing him to expand his sound by blending a mixture of inspirations and musical styles. As a result, Ripcord is a remarkably diverse album that pushes boundaries and furthers Urban’s evolution as an artist.

This albums journey began back in January 2015 and took me to a lot of unexplored people and places, Urban said. The end result was the recording and exploring of more songs then Ive ever done before and carving that down to what I felt constituted Ripcord.

The first taste of Ripcord was “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16,” which Urban released last June. The bass heavy track includes heavy drum loops, several time changes and a unique lyric which was just a hint of what was to come from the album. The song swiftly made its way to No. 1 on the country charts, marking Urban’s 19th career chart topper. The sweet ballad, “Break On Me,” followed suit and became another No. 1 for Urban. Meanwhile, nostalgic current single “Wasted Time” is also making its way up the charts thanks to its radio friendly appeal.

While many songs on Ripcord are highlighted with banjo accompaniment like the edgy opening track “Gone Tomorrow,” drum loops are also prevalent throughout Ripcord, allowing the tracks to cross genre lines. “Sun Don’t Let Me Down” which features Pitbull is easy to envision hearing on pop radio with dance floor beats and party anthem flavor thanks to guest raps from Mr. Worldwide himself.

Beat heavy “The Fighter” with Carrie Underwood is the other collaboration on the album and also sounds more like a pop anthem than a country staple. Make no mistake though, Urban is not leaving the country genre as there are plenty of country leaning tracks on Ripcord to satisfy his longtime fans. While the soaring “Gettin’ In the Way,” about a couple unable to pull away from a car makeout session, is not new territory Urban makes the song unique with his memorable vocals and added instrumentation which will likely have the listeners humming along long after the song is over.

Other highlights include the old school “Blue Ain’t Your Color” which is reminiscent of music from the 1950s with slowed instrumental accompaniment, bluesy guitar interludes and Urban’s singing style, and the soaring “Boy Gets a Truck” which follows the span of a relationship from a boy getting a truck as a teen to all of life’s big moments.

While the sexy “Habit of You” and “Your Body” were surely inspired by Urban’s wife, Nicole Kidman, the heartbreaking “That Could Still Be Us” showcases Urban’s ability to emote as he sings of a man remembering a lover who has moved on and the only time he sees her is in his dreams.

Overall a diverse release, Ripcord has much to offer listeners. Whether it’s slick beats, guitar slinging or vivid storytelling, Urban’s eighth effort launches the singer into uncharted territory exemplifying exactly why he is one of the most highly regarded talents within the genre.

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Tim McGrawTim McGraw’s ‘Damn Country Music’

Without a doubt, Tim McGraw has enjoyed one of the most successful careers in Country Music the past two decades. When you’ve been able to maintain a career like he has, the question becomes ‘How does one keep it up?’ After all, McGraw has scored with love songs, honky-tonkers, and even songs such as “Highway Don’t Care” that show how well the singer has handled the passage of time.

For his third disc under the Big Machine umbrella, McGraw comes up with his strongest collection in quite a few years. The interesting thing about Damn Country Music is how the singer pulls it off. With such a title, one might think the album is a move in a more traditional direction. And… to an extent, you would be right to make such an assumption. “Here Tonight,” which kicks off the disc, has a little bit of an Appalachian feel – with its opening notes. The track is also notable for the vocal debut of one Gracie McGraw – daughter of Tim and Faith. The teenager shows herself to have come by her vocal chops naturally. Needless to say, I don’t think it’s the last you’re going to hear from her.

“How I’ll Always Be” struck me as the type of song that Merle Haggard might have recorded – if he had gotten his start in the 1990s. McGraw handles the lyrics – about staying true to one’s self amidst life and culture’s changing seas – effortlessly, giving one of his greatest performances. The title cut does pay tribute to his heritage, but the singer best shows his roots on the masterpiece “Don’t Make Me Feel At Home.” It’s a piece of stone-country that would make a George Jones or Conway Twitty proud, with a slice of Keith Whitley – one of McGraw’s heroes – thrown in for good measure.

But, Tim McGraw has always demonstrated a flair for the contemporary, and there are several tracks on the album that fall under the category musically adventurous. “Losin’ You” is among the best in this vein, along with first single “Top Of The World,” the moody “Want You Back,” which should find favor with radio.

To further illustrate the point that McGraw is not an artist to be pigeon-holed, Damn Country Music closes out with two performances that swing in opposite directions yet are very much enjoyable. “California,” a collaboration with Big & Rich is 3:30 of pure fun – and should make a great video should it be a single, while “Humble and Kind” is a Lori McKenna-written masterpiece – one that wouldn’t have worked for McGraw the Rebel Rouser of 1995, but as a father of three, it works abundantly well now.

Just like a Conway Twitty or George Strait, who wrote the book on how to best evolve as an artist, Tim McGraw has taken a page from that playbook. Damn Country Music doesn’t make a huge artistic statement about the heritage or the future of Country Music, but the artist adheres to the golden rule in Nashville – It’s about the songs… and this collection will add several to that list!

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Vince GillAlbum Spotlight: Vince Gill, ‘Down to My Last Bad Habit’

With Down to My Last Bad Habit, Vince Gill introduces himself to a younger generation of country music fans without sacrificing the lyricism, integrity and compelling blend of styles he’s been known for for decades.
Gill is a Country Music Hall of Famer that, to anyone under 20, is just the guy who cries a lot and used to host that awards show. The format needs great, accessible songs from this 58-year-old like it needed Chris Stapleton‘s Traveller one year ago. At its best, Down to My Last Bad Habit feels as familiar as your favorite pair of jeans — comfortable, good for many occasions and rarely boring. It’s a thing of beauty, but never sexy. Almost never.

The chorus to the opening track (“Reasons for the Tears I Cry”) rings with urgency that’s replicated on songs like the swampy “Make You Feel Real Good” and earnest “I’ll Be Waiting for You,” a collaboration with Cam. This isn’t a driving record. In fact, if you’re feeling sleepy don’t put on this collection of 12, mostly mellow songs unless you’re hoping drift off to sweet dreams.

But not every album needs to hit like Red Bull. Down to My Last Bad Habit is an artist’s record, with eclectic sounds placed just so in an effort to present one long landscape portrait. “Like My Daddy Did” is a sweet love story that would make a great single in ’96, ’06 or ’16. Conversely “One More Mistake I Made” stings the heart with a mournful lyric and distant trumpet crying into the night.

A few like “My Favorite Movie” and “When It’s Love” — placed between “I’ll Be Waiting … ” and the George Jones tribute song “Sad One Comin’ On” — get lost in the emotion, but one could also argue they provide a place to breathe. The industry is going to need to rally for Gill like they did Stapleton to make Down to My Last Bad Habit a huge commercial success, but those that commit will come back often for years to come.

Key Tracks: “Reasons for the Tears I Cry,” “Like My Daddy Did,” “One More Mistake I Made”

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Sam HuntSam Hunt ‘Break Up In A Small Town’ – Single Review

Well folks, Sam Hunt is back with another single. For those of us who were hoping that he’d disappear from the country music genre, this is a huge disappointment. “Break Up In A Small Town” is the 5th single from Hunt’s Montevallo album. The question most people have about this new single is: “Is this finally an actual country song?” The answer is a definite NO. It’s not even close to sounding country. You could start right at the border line of the country music genre, get on a plane and fly for days, get off and onto a train, ride for a few more days, and you’d still be closer to country music than this single is. Now this isn’t exactly surprising, considering who the single is coming from. Sam Hunt has never been close to sounding country, leaving the majority of real country fans wondering why he chose to be in the genre.

“Break Up In A Small Town” is an R&B song, plain and simple. The song opens with Hunt talk-singing like he’s in a rap or R&B song, which I find all the more annoying, even more annoying than Hunt being in the country music genre to begin with. I mean if you’re going to be in a genre, you should at least make some sort of effort to sound country in some way. This single is so blatantly R&B. There’s no way, no matter how much you stretch those country music boundaries, that Hunt or his latest single fits into this genre. Why not just pull a Taylor Swift and make the transition to pop/R&B already? He should have just started out there in the first place.

The single finds the narrator, a guy, lamenting living in a small town after he suffers a break up with his girlfriend and ends up having to constantly run into her and see her getting over him with people he knows. It’s a small town, so everyone knows everyone. He clearly still has feelings for the young woman, but she’s moved on. He laments that, “There’s only so many streets/ So many lights/ I swear I can’t even leave my house” and concludes that “guess that’s just how it goes/ When you break up in a small town”. Lyrically, the song isn’t awful, it’s certainly better (again lyrically) than some of the so called “songs” on radio right now. That being said, the vocals and production ruin the single’s chances of being country.

Now, as much as it makes me want to choke on my own words, I have to admit that this single isn’t actually a bad song… give me a minute to recover from that sentence… No, it’s not a bad song at all, it’s a good R&B song. The only thing that makes it bad is the fact that it’s in the wrong genre and being played on the wrong stations. I’d be able to swallow this song a little easier if it weren’t for the fact that it’s being marketed as a country song.

I admit to having a lot of animosity towards Hunt’s music, and most of mainstream country in general (I’m looking at you Florida Georgia Line, Thomas Rhett, and Luke Bryan). What these artists are doing to country music is an extremely hard pill to swallow, and one that I flat out refuse to swallow without a fight! Country just doesn’t sound country anymore, and we have Sam Hunt to thank for that, as he just about single handedly ushered in the newest R&B trend that is plaguing country radio. You used to be able to turn on the radio and know immediately that you were listening to a country music station, nowadays you turn on the radio and you have no clue what genre you’re listening to… but I suppose that’s a rant for another day…

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Chris Young: Think of YouChris Young (Feat. Cassadee Pope) ‘Think of You’

If Chris Young’s voice asked me to marry it there would be no hesitation, I’d say yes in a heartbeat. Unarguably one of the best and sexiest male voices in country music, Chris’ baritone is what we’d imagine creamy Hershey’s chocolate would sound like if it could sing. Chris came onto the country music scene after winning the 2006 season of the now-debunked reality singing competition show, Nashville Star. From the very beginning, Young made quite an impression on country music, becoming known as the guy next door, sweet and lovable with a sexy-as-Channing Tatum-shirtless voice. Some can boast that they were fans of Young from the very beginning, while others jumped on board at one point during the last 10 years. I myself became a fan of Chris after hearing “Voices”, the lead single from his second record. Chris quickly became known for his romantic songs. From “Gettin’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)” and “Tomorrow”, to “Who I Am With You”, Young has had success with the steamier and sweeter songs, they really allow his voice to shine.

Young recently released his fifth studio record, I’m Comin’ Over in November 2015, and saw it hit #1 on the charts shortly after. The lead single and title track from the new record also saw success, reaching #2 on the charts. Now here we are with Young’s second single offering, “Think of You”, which features former The Voice contestant, Cassadee Pope. One thing I like about Chris is the fact that he generally sticks to his usual sound, production-wise, with only about one or two exceptions. The single finds the narrators lamenting over a breakup, and the lasting effects it has on the couple and those around them. Its production is upbeat and easy on the ears, featuring a strong drum beat. Chris and Cassadee’s vocals blend nicely together, complementing each other beautifully.

The song opens with the male narrator walking into his favorite bar, one he has haunted many a night, only to find that it feels like a totally different place now. The female narrator finds herself out with friends, but finds that there doesn’t seem to be anything to talk about, nothing feeling the same. The two voices come together on the chorus, as the explain, “We used to be the life of the party/ We used to be the ones they wish they were/ But now it’s like they don’t know how to act/ Maybe they’re like me and they want us back” and that, “It’s like there’s always an empty space/ Those memories that nobody can erase/ Of how bright we burn, well now it hurts/ But it’s true, when they think of me, they think of you.” Their mutual friends are affected by the breakup too, which just adds to the pain of the now broken-up couple.

The song carries power, mainly due to the vocal performance of both Young and Pope. The single is lyrically strong and just might do well on radio, considering it would have both fan bases (Cassadee’s and Chris’) backing it up. “Think of You” is a nice change of pace compared to other recent releases. I certainly hope it gets a chance at radio, but only time will tell. Have a listen and see for yourself.

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Toby Keith 35 mph townToby Keith Shows Off New Tricks (and Jimmy Buffett) on ‘35 mph Town’: Album Review

Radio hits by country’s leading men have been criticized for relying on the usual tropes of trucks, pretty girls and six-packs. While Toby Keith certainly has drawn from these subjects during his 20-year career, his 18th studio LP, 35 mph Town, bypasses the cliches and tones down his sometimes overbearing bravado. There’s real depth on “What She Left Behind,” about an ex’s “bottle of perfume left for dead” on his bedside table. But Keith doesn’t sacrifice any bonhomie: “Rum Is the Reason,” a steel-drummed tale about why pirates never ruled the world, sounds like a good Jimmy Buffett song for a reason -- the singer’s Coral Reefer Band provides backing. (Buffett himself appears on the wistful “Sailboat for Sale.”) “Good Gets Here” and “Ten Foot Pole” feature blaring horns, which bring an irrepressible bounce all too rare in recent country releases.

As Toby Keith was finally releasing his much-delayed new album 35 MPH Town, yet another one of the restaurants that bears his name was creating embarrassing headlines. Already scheduled to close on October 31st, the Rosemont, IL location of “Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill” decided to shutter early after employees started stealing liquor and memorabilia from the restaurant. It’s one of scores of locations that has either closed suddenly or never opened as promised, while hundreds of thousands of dollars in back rent and vendor bills from locations all across the country are making a pariah of Toby Keith’s name in local papers, even though Keith himself is only a partner of the restaurants in name.

But that’s about how things are going these days in Toby Keith’s world. His once high-flying Show Dog-Universal label has now emptied of talent after high profile exits by Trace Atkins, Randy Houser, and Josh Thompson. At the moment, the only artists left on the label have the last name “Keith,” and Toby’s daughter Krystal has never charted a Top 50 single. So much for challenging Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records blow for blow when the two entrepreneurs split in 2005. Borchetta now boasts a roster 34 strong, including the biggest music star in the world in Taylor Swift. Toby Keith has two artists left in his stable, counting himself.

There’s a song on the new album called “Rum Is the Reason,” which muses back through history and blames the failings of world leaders like Hitler and Stalin to their insatiable desire for alcoholic libations. It concludes, “Run is the reason pirates never ruled the world,” while Jimmy Buffett’s Corral Reefers play a calypso-style ditty. Match that up with the amount of mad patrons at a show in Indiana last year who said that Keith was too wasted away in Margaritaville to perform, and a pattern begins to emerge. “Rum Is The Reason” might be art imitating Toby Keith’s life. Oh how the mighty have fallen.

All of the singles from Toby Keith’s 35 MPH Town have pretty much flopped. “Drunk Americans,” which is the only song on the album not written by Toby would almost be poetic if it wasn’t so pathetic in how sad it seems coming from Keith (the song’s written by Brandy Clark, Bob DiPiero, Shane McAnally). At this point, Toby Keith is a relic. What talent he had was questionable to begin with, and he hasn’t ever really evolved for there. Time has passed Toby Keith by, and he doesn’t have the fluidity or desire to change with the times, or the quality it takes to be considered classic. He’d probably be out there criticizing acts like Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line, but his continued ownership percentage of Big Machine means those acts are making him more money than his own music is. Toby Keith is music’s wealthiest colossal failure at the moment.

35 MPH Town sold as many copies as the fellow Oklahoma-based Turnpike Troubadours did on their recent debut week. Jason Isbell sold twice as many albums as 35 MPH Town did upon its debut. Toby Keith fans don’t want to buy his records. They want to perpetually believe it’s still 2003 when their lives still mattered. Let’s kick Saddam’s ass! No wonder the title track to this album boils down to a “get off my lawn,” message and laments how the times have changed for the worse, while in truth crime statistics have fallen sharply.

But just as much as Toby Keith is to blame for the corner he’s painted himself in, so is the public perception of him. He could personally broker a lasting peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians, and he would still be known as that guy with the “boot in the ass” song. He comes in second only to Fox News as the go-to punching bag when you need an analogy of how dumb Americans are, and now that Donald Trump is running for President, Keith may be trumped out of that spot too. Rachel Maddow and others may have never had careers if it weren’t for Toby Keith, even though Keith was a registered Democrat during “The Angry American” era.

And despite making himself into an incredibly easy target and not doing himself any favors in the backsliding of his career and public image, 35 MPH Town is not an especially terrible album when you actually machete through all the distractions and reams of Toby Keith baggage to give it a listen. “Drunk Americans” at least tries, and the song “35 MPH Town” at least has the courage to tell the other side of rural life instead of portraying it as an endless tailgate party in a cornfield.

35 MPH Town includes a couple of full tilt rockers—“Good Gets Here” and “10 Foot Pole,” and though the horn sections felt a little extraneous (couldn’t we use that money to keep the lights on at one of the Toby Keith Bar & Grills?), these songs are kind of fun, though not country at all.

“What She Left Behind” is actually a really well-written and fleshed out tune, and it’s worth noting that while most major label acts these days rely on the “songwriting by committee” model, Toby wrote 70% of this album with just himself and songwriter Bobby Pinson. Keith also co-wrote the two other remaining tracks. “Beautiful Stranger,” which has been tapped for the record’s third single, is also a pretty good song, and is sung quite well too. “Haggard, Hank, & Her” is probably not as good as it looks on paper, but is not a bad effort at all.

But songs like “Sailboat For Sale” with Jimmy Buffett, and the aforementioned “Rum Is The Reason” are like boat anchors dragging down this effort, and “Every Time I Drink I Fall In Love” is just kind of stupid.

In 2003, Toby Keith was what was wrong with country music. When he released “Red Solo Cup” in 2011, he once again deserved that distinction. But 35 MPH Town? It’s a harmless, somewhat outdated-feeling, somewhat country sounding, innocuous mainstream country record with a few decent moments and a few stinkers. The world won’t pay much attention and they probably shouldn’t. But this album is far from the problem.

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