What do Sugarland, Rascal Flatts, Lady Antebellum, Taylor Swift, and Carrie Underwood have in common? They're all impostors. Somehow these folks, and many many others, slowly and quietly infiltrated our radio stations and took over the airwaves. It's an invasion that's taken decades, but they've finally conquered, and the world is theirs.
The internet is rife with websites and forums devoted to uncovering the mystical secret behind “why country music sucks”. Unfortunately, most people who put down modern mainstream country music end up sounding like old men unwilling to accept change, who only listen to Hank Williams, and who only consider a song 'country' if a wailing steel guitar can be heard behind a southern accent singing about beer, women, and trucks.
Well I'm not a closed-minded country fan. I do like Hank Williams, but I also like a plethora of other singers, bands, and genres. I listen to classical music, swing, country, rock 'n' roll, hard rock, soft rock, indie rock, folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, and the list goes on and on. One thing I cannot put up with, however, is fake music with fake emotions sung by fake people who neither wrote their own music nor their own lyrics, and rarely even play the instruments on their own albums.
When someone writes a song, they are calling upon their own experiences and their own feelings. When they perform that song, they know exactly how they feel. One of the biggest problems with bands who don't have anything to do with the creative process is that they're singing and playing someone else's thoughts and feelings, and 99% of the time, it is incredibly apparent. Watch them as they squint their eyes, and lift their hands in the air or place it over their heart just to try and portray some emotion to the audience that they're really not feeling at all. It's pathetic.
Country music has become a new form of karaoke; the kind where people with little talent can take over the radio, push real country into the underground scene where few people ever hear it, and make millions of dollars simply because their music is backed by massive marketing campaigns. Part of their advertising campaign, by the way, includes their songs being played on the radio twenty-five times a day, where the D.J. is paid to praise their 'new single' or to encourage us all to check out this 'amazing up-and-coming new band'. Repetition is their friend; it makes us buy into their hype, and in turn buy their albums.
I'm not going to take a stab at people who do enjoy mainstream country radio. It's not my position to tell others what to like. If you are a fan of mainstream country, please just do one thing for me; admit that it isn't country. Go ahead and enjoy it, as long as you can admit that what you're listening to is pop music, and that 99% of it has no business being aired on a country radio station.
Article first published as Invasion of the Music Snatchers: Mainstream Country Music on Blogcritics.
Monday, September 6, 2010
Saturday, September 4, 2010
Lund's unique style, forged by a wide array of interests such as history, agriculture and politics, makes his music and lyrics stand out amidst an endless sea of highly commercialized country pop. Corb Lund is not your typical country singer. Lund grew up on a farm/ranch (unlike the majority of modern country stars) in southern Alberta, before moving to Edmonton to study jazz and bass guitar. He was also a founding member of an indie punk/rock band called “The Smalls” (which gained local legend status), before moving ahead with his folk/alt country career.
Losin' Lately Gambler begins with the song, “Horse Doctor, Come Quick”. An upright bass licks out the groove of the tune, and a banjo fills out the background. “Horse Doctor” is about a farm vet who finds himself accosted by a junkie who wants some cheap animal grade 'drugs'. Immediately, one call tell this is no ordinary 'country' album.
“Steer Rider's Blues” starts out with a rock-a-billy beat and a 60's sounding guitar lick. This one's about a lad whose dream is to ride a bucking bull, impress the ladies with his riding skills, and feel a thousand eyes all trained on him during a full fledged rodeo.
“A Game in Town Like This” is the first of a handful of songs that have a slightly more mainstream approach on this album (though still musically and lyrically superior to most mainstream country), and was the first single to hit the airwaves. Since Losin' Lately Gambler is the band's first American release, it seems likely that compromises were made to produce some more radio friendly tunes.
“Alberta Says Hello” is a heartfelt song about passing a message on to an ex through a mutual friend. This one feels almost autobiographical, and was probably one of the harder songs for Lund to write. Generally, and thankfully, his albums tend to have very few 'relationship songs'.
“Talkin' Veterinarian Blues” is a song influenced by ages old country/folk music. Take a look at any old Woody Guthrie album and you'll find all sorts of 'Talkin' fill-in-the-blanks Blues'. Fortunately, Lund has thrown an updated spin on the Talkin Blues genre. This one's a jaunty foot stomping tune about a veterinarian and his daily plights, as well as the plights of various farm animals and the procedures they have to endure . Even though the content is a tad on the grisly side, it somehow manages to make you laugh.
“It's Hard to Keep a White Shirt Clean” is an homage to Willie P. Bennett, a Canadian Alt Country legend who passed away in 2008, while “Long Gone to Saskatchewan” touches on the monetary difficulties that Albertan's can face when trying to operate a ranch and stay afloat, as well as the folks who pick up and leave to find cheaper places to operate. “Devil's Best Dress” is a song in the style of Marty Robbins about a cold woman who doesn't mind shooting anyone who gets on her bad side.
The album finishes with a fun-filled live version of “Rye Whiskey/Time to Switch to Whiskey”. Aside from a few mainstream sounding songs that feel a little out of sorts with Lund's usual style, this is an incredible album.
Twice I've seen Corb Lund and the Hurtin' Albertans play live, and both times they've simply blown me away. These guys are incredible at what they do, both in the studio and on stage. Nearly every song on every album that bears their name is superb. Their incredible range of musical styles and Lund's impressive word play culminate into something that is much more than just a band. Everyone should give them a listen, at least once.
Personal Rating: 81/90 (90%)
1: Lyrics: 10/10
2: Significance: 9/10
3: Music: 10/10
4: Freshness: 9/10
5: Production Quality: 9/10
6: Composition: 8/10
7: Dynamic Range: 7/10
8: Humanity: 10/10
9: Cohesiveness: 9/10
Article first published as Music Review: Corb Lund - Losin' Lately Gambler on Blogcritics.
Posted by James Brooks at 2:21 PM
Wednesday, September 1, 2010
John's newest album, Tribal, released on August 3rd, 2010, is already gaining critical acclaim. The album's opening track, “Feel Good Music”, gives an impression of the album as a whole. Blues, funk, jazz; this album is a melting pot of musical styles.
The second track, “Lissen at Our Prayer”, is a soulful and spiritual song about the earth, about people, about creation, nature, self, and our future. At age 69, the Doctor sounds as good as ever.
“When I'm Right (I'm Wrong)”, is a song about a guy who just can't seem to catch a break with his woman, and in Track 5, “Jinky Jinx”, his bad luck seems to extend beyond his relationship and into every other aspect of his life. In fact, Dr. John's bad luck with life and women sticks around through the next two tracks, “Change of Heart”, and “Sleepin' In My Bed”.
“Whut's Wit Dat” could easily have been the theme song for the documentary, “Food Inc”. Dr. John sings up the evils of the big food companies, encourages us to eat fresh locally grown (or home grown) food, and we're warned of the dangers of additives and preservatives, and sugar substitutes. As silly as it sounds, maybe we need more songs like this.
Track 9, “Tribal” is the album's title track. It begins with the sounds of native chanting and drums, and this becomes a recurring theme throughout the song. John tells us that the tribal plan is for every man, and sings “We don't need feathers, and we don't need no paint. We on a quest to see who is and who ain't.” This song is sort of a spiritual bookend, accompanying track 2 back at the beginning of the album.
“Them” is a song about change; words of wisdom about living in harmony, and how every link in the chain must pull together to make things better. Full of nearly haunting horns, melody and backing vocals, this is one of the more memorable songs on Tribal.
“Only in Amerika” again warns us about the change we are in dire need of. This is a song about the downward spiral that America seems to be in. It touches on hunger, monetary problems, education, the breakdown of the family unit, and human rights being placed on the back burner.
Tribal showcases an impressive 16 tracks, and closes with “A Place in the Sun”. An almost hymnal sounding organ vibrates the far reaches of this tune's soundscape, while Dr. John sings about finding the end of the rainbow and searching for the ultimate truth, while still living in the here and now.
After so many albums over so many decades, it's amazing that John (with a little help from his superb band, The Lower 911) can still find something to say, and make it feel fresh. Though not every song is spiritual or political on this album, Dr John's words ring true throughout; “The world is a tribe. Everybody on this planet is of one tribe.” Let's all take a lesson.
Personal Rating: 72/90 (80%)
1: Lyrics: 7/10
2: Significance: 9/10
3: Music: 9/10
4: Freshness: 7/10
5: Production Quality: 8/10
6: Composition: 8/10
7: Dynamic Range: 5/10
8: Humanity: 10/10
9: Cohesiveness: 9/10
Article first published as Music Review: Dr. John - Tribal on Blogcritics.
Posted by James Brooks at 7:24 AM
Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Gray is a master at his game. He's a folk/rock singer-songwriter who repeatedly shows off his affection for language, melody, and simplicity in his music. Though many of his albums have received critical acclaim, Gray seems to garner fairly modest radio play.
Foundling opens up with “Only the Wine”. A beautiful sounding song, simplistic and bare bones, this track's lyrics are just vague enough to evoke a number of different images. A forest with leaves glistening with dew. A drunken evening of love-making. An alcoholic asking for help. In fact, this isn't the only song on this album with lyrics open to a wide variety of interpretation. “Only the Wine” clocks in at two minutes and fifty-two seconds, and seems the perfect length for this album's opener.
The second track, “Foundling”, intros with a thrumming organ and some hand-slapped drum-skins. A sharp sounding guitar chimes in, and then Gray's voice finds it's place. Although this is another song with wildly unclear lyrics, he manages to belt it out like it means something, like it means everything at this very moment. This is one of Gray's talents; writing nearly incomprehensible lyrics, and yet still making us feel like we're getting it.
Following is a deep and heartfelt song, “Forgetting”. The whole song plays through with simple piano chords and vocals and begins a crescendo at the end, and easily emulates the feeling of the song's apparent content; a failed or abusive marriage or relationship. You won't walk away with a happy feeling from this tune.
“Gossamer Thread” picks it up just a bit, giving little relief from the woe of its preceding track. “The Old Chair” is a metaphor for yet another broken relationship. Like a chair being used, torn, split at the seams, unwanted, and discarded. We hear Gray singing with a strange electronic distortion on his vocals in “What in God's Name”, which leads into “We Could Fall in Love Again Tonight”, and it becomes more clear that this album is taking us through a story arch of love gone wrong, and the possibility of rekindling the fire.
The album wraps up with “A New Day at Midnight”, a song title that shares the same name as his 2002 album, and then closes with “Davey Jones' Locker”.
Foundling is a bittersweet journey of sweet, simple, subtle music and ambiguous but unmistakably sad lyrics. But then, if you're a David Gray fan, you probably saw that coming. Foundling, as a closing chapter to 2009's Draw the Line, should please long time Gray fans, but likely won't do much to introduce him to a new audience.
Personal Rating: 68/90 (75%)
1: Lyrics: 7/10
2: Significance: 8/10
3: Music: 8/10
4: Freshness: 5/10
5: Production Quality: 8/10
6: Composition: 8/10
7: Dynamic Range: 9/10
8: Humanity: 8/10
9: Cohesiveness: 7/10
Article first published as Music Review: David Gray - Foundling on Blogcritics.
Sunday, August 29, 2010
In 2009, Lynyrd Skynyrd released an album entitled 'God and Guns'. I'll be honest, Skynyrd was never my 'favorite' band, but I liked them. I respected them. I enjoyed their southern rock sound, and their sometimes political and sometimes just plain funny lyrics. But God and Guns has come along and tarnished the name of Skynyrd.
The album kicks off with a tune called 'Still Unbroken'. From the title, I'm sure you can figure out that this is one of those 'raise your fist in the air because you're still alive and kicking' songs. It's a fast driving song full of thudding drums and splashing cymbals and distorted guitar chords. Okay, so far it sounds like I'm describing a typical rock song, but actually it sounds like I'm listening to a hard edged Montgomery Gentry. A commercial country track with a slightly harder bite. It's hard to decide if I'm listening to country radio, or a Nickelback CD.
Track 2 starts up, Simple Life, even more mainstream country than the last. The first line, a little too many syllables but jammed in there just the same, sounds something like this, 'Hey when was the last time you sat down and had dinner with your kids, talked about what's goin' on in their lives'. And then on to 'well a lot of people are saying we're changing for the better, but that don't interest me. I like the simple life, the way it used to be...' and so on. The lyrics in this album, for the most part, are awful. They're blatant, obvious, and often painful. And this isn't the only time in this album when we learn of Van Zant's aversion to 'change'.
The third track, Little Thing Called You, almost tricks you into thinking you might actually be listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. It opens with a southern rock sound, some interesting guitar. But then the vocals come in and destroy the illusion. Surely the next song, 'Southern Ways' will redeem the album. It's about a young man who decides to leave home, but then misses his green grass and tall pines, and the southern winds kissing his face, and punctuated with the odd 'yyeahh' from Johnny. It's amazing how many songs a person can write about how they miss the old days and the simple life.
And track 5, Skynyrd Nation, comes next. This song actually does have a classic southern sound. It brings to mind several southern rock bands from the 1970's, but one band it does not bring to mind is Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Song 7, Floyd, is actually not so bad. It's got an interesting feel, at least until it gets to the chorus, where it just turns into another Nickelback clone.
Track 8, 'That Ain't My America', pretty much sums up the feel of the whole album. These guys don't want change. The first line talks about how he wants to light up underneath the no smoking sign,and then, 'You can take your change on down the road and leave me here with mine, cause that ain't my America, that ain't this country's roots. You wanna slam old uncle Sam but I ain't letting you. I'm mad as hell, and you know I still bleed red white and blue'. Then there's the obligatory line about an old man saying thanks to a soldier returning from war. And here's a line... honestly, it's really a line in the song; 'It's to the women and men in their hands they hold a bible and a gun, and they ain't afraid of nothin' when they're holdin' either one, woooahhh, uh huhhh'. I'm pretty sure these guys all voted for Bush. I wonder how they feel now that uncle Sam is of ethnic background.
The album's tenth track, also called God & Guns, is yet another proclamation of just how much the modern Lynyrd Skynyrd hates the idea of change. They inform us that 'God and guns keep us strong, that's what this country was founded on'. Then, for the second time on the album, he let's us know that there was a time when you could sleep with your doors unlocked. But this time he adds something about a peacemaker in the dresser drawer that makes him feel safe. This song is a far cry from the original band's 'Saturday Night Special', which was actually an anti-gun song. This album defines the term narrow minded.
God & Guns is a commercial album aimed toward right wing conservatives who believe only in God and country, and who blindly believe that 'uncle Sam' shouldn't be questioned or condemned. I long for the simple life as much as anyone, and sure, policies and red tape government crap sure ticks me off from time to time. But I'm not narrow minded enough to believe that time should just stand still, or reverse. We have to try and move forward while still retaining the simple things that we enjoy.
My dislike for the political and social messages in this album are not my only reasons for putting it down. It's overproduced, it sounds way too much like a clone of twelve dozen other rock/country bands, and it is NOT Lynyrd Skynyrd. Being that only one original band member remains, they probably shouldn't be using the name at all. Lynyrd Skynyrd should've been put to rest when half of the band tragically passed away in that fateful plane crash in 1977 so these replacements wouldn't be able to tarnish such an iconic name.
(footnote: Let me clarify this as well. My aversion to this album is actually based very little on what I think a Skynyrd album 'should be'. If this was a completely different band with no relation to Lynyrd Skynyrd at all, I still wouldn't like it.)
Release year: 2009
Click here to check out Skynyrd's wikipedia page.
To hear some samples from this album, click here.
1. Still Unbroken
2. Simple Life
3. Little Thing Called You
4. Southern ways
5. Skynyrd Nation
6. Unwrite That Song
8. That Ain't My America
9. Comin' Back for More
10. God & Guns
12. Gifted Hands
Rating: 43/90 (47%)
1: Lyrics: 3/10
2: Significance: 2/10
3: Music: 6/10
4: Freshness: 3/10
5: Production Quality: 8/10
6: Composition: 5/10
7: Dynamic Range: 3/10
8: Humanity: 5/10
9: Cohesiveness: 8/10
Saturday, August 28, 2010
In turn, I've decided to change the format that I use for album ratings. My initial posts (which I will re-rate) used a simplistic '5/5' rating scheme, which actually wasn't a scheme at all; just a random number out of 5 that I felt reflected my opinion of the album. After some consideration, I realized that I could better explain my ratings, and my reasoning behind them. Thus, I have created 9 qualifiers, each qualifier also being rated out of 10. The total of all qualifiers adds up to 90, which means I could give each album a possible score from 0 to 90, and then an average can be taken from the final number. Obviously, these are simply some of the basic traits that I look for in a song or album. You may not agree, and that's perfectly okay. After all, differences are what make the world go 'round.
5: Production Quality
7: Dynamic Range
Lyrics: They tend to be the very core of most modern music. Whether good or bad, lyrics generally display the intent of the song, the point the artist is attempting to get across. A low score in the lyrics category probably means that the lyrics were shallow or poorly written.
Significance: An album doesn't have to be filled with politics or opinions to be significant. It just has to be real. An album should feel like it has a purpose, and a reason that it was made. If an album feels like it was made solely to make money, without any other purpose behind it, it makes the album feel insignificant to me. A low score in the significance category probably means that the album felt shallow to me, or that it was pushed out by the great commercial music machine for one purpose: to bring in cash.
Music: This section takes into account the precision of the music, the arrangement, and the talent behind the instruments. This category is mainly of a technical consideration (which of course in and of itself does not make music good or bad, but it should be considered). A low score in the music category likely means that the album was made by somewhat unskilled musicians, or is filled with obvious technical errors. It could also mean that the musical arrangement was poorly put together, or bland sounding.
Freshness: Just what it sounds like, freshness is how unique an album or piece of music feels. Of course, there isn't much left these days that is unique, but some bands/artists can pull it off better than others. A low score in the freshness category means that a particular album sounds tired, overdone, repetitive, and uninspired.
Production Quality: Production quality, in this instance, refers to the quality of the audio itself. Is the audio clear? Is it mixed well? A low score here likely means that the album sounds muddy, dirty, or undefined.
Composition: Composition takes into account the harmonies, and the melodies of the music. It also takes into account the relation of verse to chorus, etc. Composition is about the formula (or lack of) that is put to use in the music. A low score here means I found the album to be devoid of melody and harmony (of course I have a sliding scale built into my brain when it comes to things like rap and hip-hop), and the musical formula used feels worn a little too thin.
Dynamic Range: Dynamic range refers to differences in volume. I believe dynamic range is important in music, but unfortunately most albums released today have very little dynamic range. Instead, most music released today has been 'normalized', meaning that there is little difference between loud sounds and quiet sounds. Think back to albums like Crime of the Century by Supertramp, (or anything by a classical composer), and you'll discover that a ton of emotion and feeling can come from simply allowing differences in volume. A quiet piano followed by a blaring horn section. If you're unfamiliar with dynamic range in music, do a google search on the 'loudness war' currently taking place. A low score here means that the album has been squashed, that every sound on the album is roughly at the same volume level.
Humanity: Humanity can come into play as the opponent to precision. Humans are fallible. We make mistakes. Sometimes leaving mistakes in a recording brings a feeling of humanity to the music. Humanity also means that nobody 'cheated', digitally or electronically, to make the album sound good (ie., autotune). Sometimes autotune can be difficult to spot (hear) but I will do my best to find out if autotune was used during production of a particular album. Personally, I would rather hear an imperfect vocal recording than perfect vocals that got that way through dishonest means. A low score here means that the audio/vocals were tampered with after recording to correct pitch, or instrumental discrepancies. (I am aware that nearly every album produced has some form of correction, so this will mainly apply to autotune, or other such cheats.)
Cohesiveness: Cohesiveness is all about the flow and momentum of the album. Were the tracks laid out poorly on the album? Could the tracks have been rearranged to form a more pleasing listening experience? At times, albums can become bogged down in their own depression or sad state of mind. Sometimes, listening to too many slow, sad songs in a row can really hamper your mood. As well, some songs just don't flow into each other very well. Sometimes a contrast between songs is better than a similarity, and sometimes it's the other way around. A low score here simply means that I found the album didn't flow very well, or that it included songs that didn't feel cohesive with the rest of the album.
Friday, August 27, 2010
Hawk's opening track, titled 'We Die and See Beauty Reign', brings a feeling of ethereality. Vocals melding and harmonizing over thrumming electronic strings, crystal clear acoustic guitar standing out amidst it all. Some of the lyrics become difficult to decipher, but this slow, simple song invites you to take an interest in it.
The second track, 'You Won't Let Me Down Again', informs us quickly that track one was not at all indicative of the rest of the album. It begins with some country sounding rhythm guitar, and then comes Mark Lanegan's lead vocals, gruff and bluesy, with Campbell's harmonizing night club voice playing the background. It's as though she just isn't satisfied unless she's able to add some sultry, otherworldly harmonies. And it works.
'Come Undone', track 4, takes a walk back through time, to the roots of soul and R&B. Starting off with some staccato piano and strings, this tune adds yet another element of depth and variety to the album. We begin to see just how varied these two artist's can be, and from how many genres of music they draw their inspiration.
The next track, 'No Place to Fall', caught me off guard. It's a cover of a Townes Van Zandt song, and it's incredibly well done. It doesn't lose any of the heart that Van Zandt put into it. It is a worthy cover.
'Get Behind Me' moves the mood to old style rock-a-billy, pushing the album ever forward on it's sonic journey. The journey, I might add, is quite a successful one, barring track 8, 'Hawk', which I would suggest not listening to at loud volumes. It's a very experimental sounding tune, with screeching sounds and background noise in place of vocals. At two minutes and twenty-eight seconds, it's just a little too long for what it is; a segue into the next song.
'Sunrise' brings to mind the imperfect voice of Meg White, filling the room with a nearly creepy sounding mirage of music. 'To Hell and Back', sounds very familiar. In fact, you could replace the vocals of this song with Neil Young's 'Only Love Can Break Your Heart'.
'Cool Water', could easily be a lost Townes Van Zandt song, with it's simple folk melody and guitar. 'Eyes of Green' is reminiscent of a 60's pop song, and the closing song 'Lately' is a nice bookend to the album, sounding like a cross between Bob Dylan and Dire Straits.
This album seems to work it's best when Campbell takes a backseat. Lanegan's vocals are stronger (along with guest singer Willy Mason), and Campbell's seem to work better as accompaniment, or harmony. Too many bands are too caught up on 'genre', and it gets tiring when an entire album sounds the same. Thankfully, that isn't an issue here. Not one song on 'Hawk' is quite like any of the others, and I applaud them for the variety. I'll be looking forward to the next collaborative release by these two, when and if that ever comes along.
Check out Isobel Campbell and Mark Lanegan at their respective wikipedia pages.
1. We Die and See Beauty Reign
2. You Won't Let Me Down Again
3. Snake Song (Townes Van Zandt)
4. Come Undone
5. No Place to Fall (Townes Van Zandt)
6. Get Behind Me
7. Time of the Season
10. To Hell and Back Again
11. Cool Water
12. Eyes of Green
release date: August, 2010
Rating: 75/90 (83%)
1: Lyrics - 9/10
2: Significance - 10/10
3: Music - 8/10
4: Freshness - 7/10
5: Production Quality - 8/10
6: Composition - 9/10
7: Dynamic Range - 8/10
8: Humanity - 8/10
9: Cohesiveness - 8/10