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Carrie UnderwoodCarrie Underwood Mixes Country's Past and Present on 'Storyteller': Album Review

Don't look now, but Carrie Underwood, at 32, already has a decade of stardom behind her. Much has changed in the country landscape during that time, its center nudged noticeably closer to pop by hitmakers lifting vocal styles and production values from R&B, EDM and hip-hop. Underwood, though, always has been something of a throwback to the country-pop ’90s, when Reba McEntire, Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride reigned the airwaves with ample lung power, arena-rock bombast, industrial-pop sheen and, no less importantly, narrative juice. “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” the American Idol alum’s early signature hit, was a story-song, as were some of the biggest numbers on her 2012 album Blown Away.

But Storyteller -- her first album in three years, and her first as a mother -- hard-sells her love of narrative and country past like never before. She has spoken of it as a return to the plot-unfurling Nashville used to be known for; on the album cover, she looks like a retro-boho singer-songwriter in a peasant dress. But even as Underwood waxes nostalgic, Storyteller also strives to extend her commercial dominance into a second decade, one that looks a lot different from the one in which she emerged. To update her sound, she split production duties between longtime studio partner Mark Bright and two hot outsiders: Jay Joyce, known for applying brooding, modern-rock shading to country, and Zach Crowell, who steered Sam Hunt’s mellow small-town jams up the charts. The new sounds bring out a new Underwood. On past recordings she has taken a direct, full-throated, rhythmically on-the-nose approach to singing, which can grow fatiguing over an album; on Storyteller, it’s striking to hear her respond to varied musical textures by expanding her repertoire, toying with inflection and phrasing, and bringing new wrinkles to the characters she’s inhabiting.

There’s a touch of coolly casual, R&B-inflected syncopation to her delivery in “Heartbeat,” a Crowell track with a vocal harmony from Hunt and glassy layers of guitar and synths draped over a brittle beat. She’s slyly threatening in “Dirty Laundry,” a Joyce production with spectral electronic whooshes and cavernous reverb. Underwood glides into skittery vocal patterns during the good-riddance anthem “Chaser,” and ornaments her performance of “Relapse,” a deftly delusional over-him number, with supple melisma. It’s impossible not to hear Miranda Lambert’s influence on the album’s first single, “Smoke Break,” which features Underwood bearing down on populist lyrics with vinegary toughness. (If it seems risky for one of country’s only two female superstars to emulate the other, consider that Lambert already stepped into Underwood’s wheelhouse with the arena-rumbling duet “Something Bad” in 2014 -- the admiration seems mutual.)

Unlike newer country acts who can sound like they’re merely co-starring with their own faddish production, Underwood commands the spotlight, balancing the well-established extremes of her onstage persona -- Midwestern girl-next-door and imperious diva -- within these freshened-up aesthetic frames. If it weren’t for several songs’ worth of forgettable filler (the half-baked outlaw escapade “Mexico,” cursory club anthem “Clock Don’t Stop”), the album would be divided almost evenly between episodes of vengeful, countrified melodrama and moving celebrations of conventional fulfillment. The first half holds a pair of Southern-gothic blockbusters that are the closest she has come to channeling McEntire’s down-home storytelling: “Choctaw County Affair,” a tale of lovers silencing their would-be blackmailer, and “Church Bells,” a rags-to-riches murder ballad in which a woman quietly offs her abusive husband. The second half concludes with sentimental tunes that will soundtrack many a wedding slow dance in coming months: the wistfully swelling power ballad “The Girl You Think I Am” and adult-contemporary pop number “What I Never Knew I Always Wanted.”

Underwood knows her over-the-top country-pop flourishes helped her reach the top of the mass popularity heap in the first place. It was ambitious of her to keep one eye on going big and the other on increasing her attention to musical detail.

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Little Big Town Pain KillerLauren Alaina ‘Next Boyfriend’ – Single Review

After a long wait, Lauren Alaina has released a new single. “Next Boyfriend” was released on September 18th and hit radio on September 28th. The American Idol alum released her last single “Barefoot and Buckwild” in May 2013, it peaked at #34 on the charts. It was announced that Alaina was working on a new record, her sophomore, in 2012, but that record has yet to surface. In 2013, Alaina tweeted that she had started to record her second album, and as of June of this year, that record was completed.

Taking this all in to account, I find it odd that she released an EP instead of the full album. Even more odd is that fact that none of the songs that were rumored to be on her full sophomore album are on this EP, therefore it’s difficult to say whether they’re just giving a taste of what is to come on the full record (like Maddie & Tae did for instance), or whether this EP was released instead of the full record, to postpone the record’s release. I just find the whole thing a bit odd, that’s all. Anyway, back to the single at hand.

First off I have to say that I’ve listened to Alaina’s full EP, and “Next Boyfriend” is actually the closest thing to country on the EP. That being said, this single is NOT country. The track features a very pop based production, with an R&B flavor mixed in. Lauren’s vocals are really good and actually go well on an R&B track… The problem is that this song is being marketed as country, and it’s not. But then again, that doesn’t seem to matter this day and age with mainstream country radio being what it is, with the likes of Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett plaguing radio. So, if we’re judging this single on whether or not it’s a good country song, then the answer is a big fat NO. There’s nothing about this song, its production, lyric content, or delivery, that fits the country genre.

The single is basically a clever pick up line. “Next Boyfriend” opens with Alaina describing a good looking guy, and goes on to say that she thinks she knows him from somewhere because he looks familiar. Alaina then moves into the chorus aka pick up line/explanation for why he looks so familiar, “You look a lot like my next boyfriend/ I can’t believe how much you act like him/ You and me, we’d be unbelievable and I’m available.” Admittedly, this single is incredibly catchy and it’s a clever spin on a pick up song. I like Alaina and her music. This isn’t a bad song, it’s actually a really good pop/R&B song. I’m just really disappointed that it’s being marketed as country. That’s what ruins it for me.

If you’re looking for a good non-country song, then check this single out. But if you’re looking for country, you best look somewhere else.

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Little Big Town Pain KillerLittle Big Town ‘Pain Killer’ – Single Review

Power group Little Big Town is back with a new single, their 3rd from Pain Killer. It was announced earlier that Little Big Town would be releasing the title track, “Pain Killer”, as their follow up single to the smash hit “Girl Crush”. The album was released almost a year ago in October 2014, and is the group’s 6th studio album. Produced by Jay Joyce, who has made a name for himself as a producer who gives each album a different sound, the record is no exception. Pain Killer marked a departure of sound by Little Big Town, who before tended to leans towards a countrier sound, but went with a funkier, off the wall sound for their latest effort. I personally prefer their other albums, and their old sound. I could never get behind Pain Killer completely, I liked a few songs from the album, but wasn’t thrilled with it as a whole.

When I first listened to this album, I had a hard time figuring out which songs the group would release as singles, considering that the album really doesn’t have a whole lot of country sounding songs on it. Really the only songs that would fit in the country genre half way nicely would be “Girl Crush”, “Day Drinking”, “Tumble and Fall”, and “Save Your Sin”. Therefore, I was surprised to hear that they chose “Pain Killer” for their next single. Now don’t get me wrong! I like the album. It’s an excellent album, but let’s not kid ourselves, it’s definitely not a country album.

“Pain Killer” was a surprising single choice for me mainly because of its sound. The single has a prominent reggae vibe to it, there’s absolutely no denying it. In fact, the reggae influence is very obvious in both the production and the vocal delivery. The track is about finding the cure for the blues in the love of your significant other, rather than pills, alcohol, or therapy. The chorus explains, “You’re my pain killer/ A little dose of you goes a long, long way/ You’re my pain killer/ Oh you take it away.” The song goes on to name all the vices and remedies that the narrator passes over, preferring the love of their significant other. Karen Fairchild, as usual, takes the lead on this track, while the others harmonize with her. You can always count on Little Big Town to deliver a vocally excellent track, their harmonies being on point all the time. Their harmonies are so good that they come off as effortless.

Karen on lead vocals has been the winning formula for Little Big Town’s success, and why not? She has an excellent, strong voice. I count Karen among my favorite female vocalists. I also count Little Big Town among my absolute favorite music groups, period. I love their perfect harmonies and the emotion and energy they bring to their music. That being said, I’m not a fan of this song. It just doesn’t do anything for me. The end of the chorus where they drag out “take it away-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay” and the “La la la la la la”’s, to add more reggae flavor to the song just grates on me. I don’t know why, but I find those dragged out parts annoying and forced. I will say that the song does have an infectious groove to it and the song as a whole does grow on you after several listens. But it’s still not my favorite nor will I go out of my way to listen to it.

Their last two singles from Pain Killer were both successful, with “Day Drinking” peaking at #2 and “Girl Crush” going all the way to #3 on the country charts, and I see no reason why this single will be any different. Little Big Town is the hottest group in country music right now, garnering support from industry peers and fans alike. The fact that they are coming off of their smash hit “Girl Crush” will only help to further their future success at radio. Even though this single is nowhere close to being country, it will still do well on country radio….. after all, the fact that a song isn’t country really isn’t an issue anymore for country radio… I’d be willing to bet it will make it to the Top 10 at the very least. The fact that it is being released while we are still in the summer months will help it as well, considering this song has a beachy, summery vibe to it. As for me? I’ll keep loving Little Big Town, and just wait for a better song. Here’s hoping for some countrier tunes on the next album!

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ShaniaShania Twain Proves That She's Still Got It at Nashville Concert

When Shania Twain announced plans for a tour in March, there had to have been a few skeptics. I will admit -- I was one of them. After all, it had been more than a decade since she had been on tour, and one had to wonder about the relevance of her music on a 2015 crowd. However, just as she has done her entire life and career, the singer continues to prove those doubters wrong.

Indeed, Twain's Rock This Country tour stop at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville Friday night (July 31) proved that whatever "it" is, the songstress still has it -- in massive quantities. For close to two hours, Twain held the Music City audience in the palm of her hand with a set that reminded fans of just how cutting-edge her music in the 1990s and early 2000s was -- yet, ironically, with guitars tuned up with twang-filled sounds and not one but two fiddle players backing up the 1999 CMA Entertainer of the Year, her show was by far the "countriest" moment that the arena has seen lately.

Kicking off with the tour's title track, fans started singing along word for word with Twain and continued for the rest of the night. Energy was the name of the game for the evening, and Twain was -- to quote her 1995 hit "Any Man of Mine" -- very much prone to "shimmy and shake and make the earth quake" throughout the night. From the opening number, Twain continued with classics like "Honey, I'm Home," "You Win My Love" and the song that got it started for her -- "Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?" which received one of the strongest responses of the show, mentioned "Any Man of Mine," being pushed along on a platform around the sold-out crowd to shake hands with the audience. She also gave one fan named Terese a birthday to remember by singing "Happy Birthday" to her. Gavin DeGraw -- who delivered an exciting opening set -- gave a likewise energetic performance while filling in for Billy Currington on "Party For Two."

Slowing it down just a little, the singer sat down on a stool and brought out the guitar for "No One Needs To Know," "You're Still The One" and "Today Is Your Day," which was equally a highlight.

As the evening headed toward its crescendo, Twain kept the momentum going with a sexy romp through "That Don't Impress Me Much" and "(If You're Not In It For Love) I'm Outta Here," which seemed to keep fans of both genders on their feet. Exiting the stage after the latter, she returned for one more song -- "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" before the night was over.

To be honest, the only complaint that one could have about Twain's performance was that it had to come to an end. As the old show business adage says, "Leave them wanting more." And surely that's what Twain did in Nashville Friday night.

Though it's been a few years, between the vocals, the swagger and confidence, the crowd response to her and her music -- it might as well have been 1999 all over again!

Shania Twain's Nashville set list:
"Rock This Country"
"Honey, I'm Home"
"You Win My Love"
"Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?"
"I Ain't No Quitter"
"Love Gets Me Every Time"
"Don't Be Stupid"
"Any Man Of Mine"
"I'm Gonna Getcha Good!"
"Come On Over"
"Party For Two"
"Today is Your Day"
"No One Needs to Know"
"You're Still the One"
"From This Moment On"
"That Don't Impress Me Much"
"If You're Not in it For Love"
"Man I Feel Like a Woman"

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Jake Owen: Real Life

With “Real Life,” Jake Owen again proves that he’s not willing to rest on what’s working or what has worked. The song borrows from his beach anthem spice rack, but doesn’t totally fit in that sub-genre of country music. If anything, it’s inspired by early-to-mid ’90s California rock. “Real Life” plays it chill, which is to say it’s the antithesis of “Days of Gold,” the lead single from Owen’s last album. That blues-rock driven firestorm was an immediate take-it-or-leave-it proposition. The response won’t be as immediately definitive with “Real Life.” “I grew up in a real town / Had a prom queen with a plastic crown / And we really did just drive around because there wasn’t s--t to do,” Owen signs to begin “Real Life.” “We didn’t know we were real broke / Daddy rolled them real smokes / We drank RC, no real Coke / And our neighbor had a pool.”

Sonically, the arrangement complements the languid, kind of adolescent nature of his lyric and delivery. Owen’s brand of nostalgia isn’t poignant. He’s more recalling the rebellious nature of youth in a way that’s more specific to suburbian kids that country kids. That’s not to say his songwriting team is lazy with the lyrics - they make clever references throughout “Real Life” and rely on specific, yet somehow universal stories. “Hit the Waffle House for some real food / But that waitress, she’s real rude / She’s got real problems, we do too / But we tip her anyway,” Owen sings during the second verse. Everyone knows that waitress. Her name is usually three letters long and she often smells like cigarettes. But somehow, you know she’d back you in a fist fight. “This is real life, in the real world / We ain’t talking to no models, we got real girls / We get real low, we get real high / It ain’t all good, baby, but it’s alright / Real Life.” The more you listen to “Real Life” the more it will or won’t connect. It’s the song equivalent of the girl you’re friends with all through school but don’t fall in love with until after college. Those girls tend to stick around. Why Fans Will Love It: It recalls memories of youth that few other country songs have recalled. Plus, it’s kind of funky. Key Lyrics: “This is real life, in the real world / We ain’t talking to no models, we got real girls.” Did You Know?: When Owen was searching for songs for his new album, he used the rock band Sublime to describe the sound he was looking for.

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Luke Bryan: Spring Break

Luke Bryan's final Spring Break album Spring Break...Checkin' Out isn't as much of a party album as it is a nostalgic look back at past beach parties. "Checkin' Out" is the one pure, in-the-moment song. Bryan fills in the rest of the EP with memories of love and one direct message to fans.

Fans can find a full-length version of the album that marries the five new songs with the six found on last year's Spring Break...Like We Ain't Ever album. This spotlight focuses on the new material, songs like "My Ol' Bronco" and "Games." The first is the song you're expecting, while the second is a sexy, mid-tempo, forbidden-love song.

"Yeah I can't tell if I'm winning or losing / Somebody tell me what are we doing / Nobody ever comes out on top / Tell me are we ever gonna stop playing these games," Bryan sings during the chorus before mellowing out into the verse.

"You and the Beach" is another (even slower) lover before the soulful, funky "Checkin' Out." "Checkin' in to a good time / Checkin' out all the so fine,” Bryan sings. "Goodbye to the real world / Hey hey little shot girl...That's what this week's' all about / Checkin' in."

Finally, "Spring Breakdown" caps the EP with a nearly four-minute-long thank you to fans. The play on words is a little corny, but all six of his Spring Break projects showed a willingness to draw on well-known metaphors or phrases.

"I remember when we started this week-long party / And to think that it's over / It makes me wanna spring breakdown," he sings.

After his final two Spring Break shows, Bryan will prepare for the 2015 Kick the Dust Up tour. His summer run of arenas, stadiums and amphitheaters begins May 8 in Grand Forks, N.D.

Why Fans Will Love It: Spring Break...Checkin' Out ties the series up in a neat little bow with "Spring Breakdown," a poignant goodbye to anyone who's joined him on the beach.

Key Tracks: "Checkin' Out," "Spring Breakdown"
Did You Know?: This is Bryan's final Spring Break album, released just before his final Spring Break shows at Spinnaker Beach Club in Panama City, Fla.

Modern country music stars love reliving high school and college glory days (see any Kenny Chesney song), but Luke Bryan really loves it. So much so that every year since 2009, the Nashville superstar has released a special "Spring Break" EP, complemented by free concerts in Panama City, Fla., for all the beach-bound youths.

He belts out tunes that wistfully reminisce about the hallmarks of spring break for a bro: Ice cold beer, sand, surf, bars, scoping out bikinis. Or as he succinctly sums it up on "Suntan City" (from "Spring Break 4" released in 2012): "Spending my days catching these rays, watching coconut-covered girls."

It should be noted here that Bryan is 38, two decades older than your average college freshmen that crowd the beach. So that may have something to do with why Bryan announced that this week's new "Spring Break...Checkin' Out" collection will be the seventh and final spring break album.

Is this a sign that Bryan is maturing? Let us use this opportunity to offer a plea: We really, really hope so. Luke Bryan, it's time to grow up.

As one of Nashville's most successful artists, Bryan wields an enormous amount of influence in the genre - a genre that could really use a shake-up and soul-searching after the wealth of "bro country" party anthems that have taken over in recent years. And people listen to Bryan: His albums go platinum. Thousands pack into his sold-out arenas; this summer, he'll play stadiums. His radio singles effortlessly go No. 1. The current "Spring Break" EP is anchored to the top of the iTunes charts. Last fall, he won the coveted Entertainer of the Year trophy at the Country Music Association Awards.

Yet Bryan, for all his sales numbers and popularity, has always been definitively, maddeningly bland. As The Post's Chris Richards expertly described, being a blank slate is currently ideal in country music these days. Still, most of the top male performers have some identity. Blake Shelton and Keith Urban are the citified crossover guys with the power wives. Jason Aldean is the scowling cowboy with the cheating scandal. Eric Church is the Springsteen-inspired rebel. Kenny Chesney is really into islands. Dierks Bentley has his bluegrass project. Toby Keith loves America and is ready to kick your butt.

Bryan, though - what do we even know about him? He's from Georgia and likes hunting? After that, we're tapped. Mostly, he has the beige 'nice guy' persona. Sometimes he gets a little naughty in his songs, talking about taking too many shots or hitting on the ladies or indulging in some carefree break-up sex. But that's all an act. In real life, Bryan has been happily married for eight years and has two young sons.

The only thing that set him apart was his weirdly deep love of spring break. Now that it's gone, we're hoping this is a signal that Bryan will finally evolve into something beyond young demo-targeted bro country. The hugely dominant sub-genre has hit its critical mass, and it appears listeners are finally growing tired of the beer-truck-girl lyrics that populate so many songs these days. For years, Bryan has led the charge with those types of singles: Songs like "Country Girl (Shake It For Me)," "That's My Kind of Night" and "Drunk On You" are some of his biggest hits.

With the end of the "Spring Break" era and Bryan on the edge of a new decade, this is the perfect opportunity to go deeper. While Bryan's latest album had a couple bro-country anthems, a few songs revealed more depth than usual: "Drink a Beer" about mourning the death of a loved one, or "Roller Coaster" about a long-lost flame. Interestingly, Bryan had the least number of co-writers on this album (out of 13 tracks he only helped out on "I See You," his current single), so maybe he was looking to grow.

If Bryan starts offering songs with more emotional heft, he's powerful enough that others could follow. Even if bro-country makes money, Bryan has enough dough at this point that he could take some risks with different material - or hey, even go back to a more traditional country sound to make critics happy. (Okay, that's not going to happen, but we can dream.) Realistically, he won’t be a sonic game-changer like Florida Georgia Line or Sam Hunt, both of whom have sparked the hip-hop and rap trend in country songs. But he has the fame and influence enough to make some real changes.

We're counting on you, Luke Bryan. Use your powers for good! You don't need to stop your dorky dad dancing to "Country Girl (Shake It to Me)" or alienate your many fans who rely on you for party music. Just try something new.

Naive? Maybe so, for now, we'll appreciate the little things about his evolution: Unlike Bryan's first "Spring Break" effort back in 2009, he's no longer singing songs called "Take My Drunk Ass Home" or tunes that have lyrics such as "My, my, my little AOPi." Now, he has "Spring Breakdown," paying tribute to the thousands that came out to see him in Panama City over the years and reluctantly realizing it's time to move on:

Just thinking about all our good times together/Yeah, how we rocked this town/And I wish it could last forever and ever/Oh, but the sand runs out/And the road back home/Just thinking about how this is our last song/I'm about to spring breakdown

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