A few reviews

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Lady Mary in the Wild West

Bit of a general round up, because one can’t consume anything these days without reviewing it.

Star Wars: Rogue 1 (iTunes)

Seemed like a pointless cash grab to me.

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill: The Rest of Our Life (iTunes)

An album of duets from Country music’s First Couple. There have been a number of collaborations on each other’s records over the years, but this is the first time a whole album has been released. This is okay: a couple of naff tracks (e.g. “Roll the Dice”) and a couple of corkers (e.g. “Telluride”). Most of all, it’s a pleasure to hear Faith Hill’s voice on new material. She hasn’t released an album of her own since 2005.

Sar Trek: Discovery (Netflix)

The new Star Trek turned out not to be about graphic designers in space, but was instead a fascinating and morally ambiguous exploration of cutting edge tech development at a time of war. The first two episodes were a bit dull (too much Klingon), but once the series proper kicked in, each successive episode seemed to be better than the last, and more and more like Star Trek. Produced by team that is clearly steeped in Trek lore, the whackadoodle episode titles are evidence enough that this new Trek is in good hands.

Godless (Netflix)

A seven-episode limited series, this Western didn’t really add much to the oldest film genre, but was quite well done. A town in which most of the men had been killed in a mining disaster finds itself the focus of interest from speculators and bad guys when an injured outlaw shows up at the ranch of a woman who has survived a terrible ordeal. There are several interweaving plot-lines, and the storytelling is slow-paced, but reaches a satisfying (if a little OTT) climax. Mind, there are too many endings, a bit like Lord of the Snores. The Daily Mail got a little overexcited by Michelle Dockery’s all-too-brief love scene, but then who didn’t watch Downton Abbey living in constant hope that Lady Mary would get her boobs out?

Lee Ann Womack: The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone

51w4uGcJHkL._SS500This new album from one of the most talented female vocalists in country music is her first for three years (which is better than the previous album’s 6-year gap). Womack co-wrote half of the 14 tracks, and there are a couple of interesting covers. Musicians include several members of the Nashville A-Team (Paul Franklin, Glen Worf etc.), but the vibe of the record is meant to be East Texas and soul, whatever that means. There are a couple of gospel-tinged numbers, and the whole record sounds great. The fact that this peaked at #37 on the Country charts with sales of just 3,200 in its first week tells you all you need to know about the perilous state of the music industry today, which increasingly relies on big-hitters like Taylor Swift (1.05 million sales in 4 days) while everybody else scrambles for scraps. The only way to make a living as a musician is to tour constantly. And it’s not even just about sales. Of the three “Official Audio” videos released on YouTube to promote the album, only one has more than 20,000 views. The fact is that the music press is in a dismal state, there are virtually no music shows on TV, and (of course) Country radio doesn’t play women. So there is no real promotional push for artists like Lee Ann Womack, and Chris Stapleton-like miracles are black swans.

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CMA: cannot mean anything

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Just look at them

It’s time for my annual ponder about the state of country music, based on the snapshot offered by the CMA Awards. This time around, I’ve been unable to catch the whole telecast, but I’m relying on the paltry 60 minute edit offered by BBC4. The problem with this cut-down format is that the broadcasters tend to select the top acts, major awards, household names (yeah, right, I know) rather than the up-and-coming and merely-nominated names. It used to be my main means of discovering new things, but I’m unlikely to find anything new this way. The Beeb did show us the winner of the “New Artist” award, but I had already downloaded Jon Pardi’s 2016 album California Sunrise from YouTube iTunes.

To tell the truth, I really miss the days of the CMA Awards being presented by Vince Gill, which ages me considerably, because I just found a news story about how he wouldn’t be hosting the 2004 awards after his 12-year stint. 🤭

Anyway, there was something off for me about most of the performances on the telecast, and I was left feeling that the show’s format was suffering from an excess of control and that what it was really missing was the sense that something could happen. I mean, it is literally only two years since Timberlake and Stapleton burned the room down, with a performance that you just could not bottle or rehearse into oblivion. This is the thing about music: you can destroy it when you try to bottle it, which is why Bob Dylan has spent his entire career trying to keep it live and spontaneous.

Anyway, something’s gone on. The performers, many of whom are wildly successful and seasoned live performers, seem to find this format intimidating and nerve-wracking. Maybe the show’s producers are to blame, or maybe it’s the record labels, piling on the pressure by pointing out how their Xmas album sales depend on this single performance.

The fact that this is one of the few music shows people actually watch means there’s been a tendency for the labels to sploodge a non-country artist into the mix in an attempt to cross promote. This year it was P!nk, performing solo; last year it was Beyoncé, performing with the Dixie Chicks in an attempt to capture some of that Stapleton/Timberlake magic. But here’s the thing. What worked with Justin Timberlake and his tight, talented band, is not necessarily going to work for artists who are more used to performing tightly timed and well rehearsed shows in a more programmed way.

Which is not to say I’m accusing P!nk (or Beyoncé) of miming (they call it lip synching now, but we always used to call it miming when we watched Top of the Pops and judged people for it). Which is exactly what fucking Garth Brooks was doing when he came on to perform his latest single (and later collect the Entertainer of the Year award). I mean, Garth, you’re in front of an audience of your peers and you do that off to the side of the mic move, and your voice miraculously doesn’t lose any bottom end when you go off-axis from an SM58?

Couple of things about Garth. Slick record production, back in the 90s, and the pick of the best songs, and some pretty spectacular live shows, with you know, fire and rain, and wire work. But he was never much of a singer, and – especially live – he couldn’t really project his voice. And he has never deigned to put his stuff – any of it – on iTunes, so he’s running his current tour on pure nostalgia and niche album sales through his own service, which who can be bothered with that? Worst of all, he’s dragged his more talented wife, Trisha Yearwood into this doomed enterprise, so she’s vanished from the public’s consciousness.

So there was him, but then the actual live performers all sounded tight and nervous and a little bit off-pitch. It was as if they were all singing with a gun pointing at them from the wings. Perhaps memories of the Las Vegas shooting? What happens when a bunch of country fans gather in one place?

So Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Kelsea Ballerini (with Reba) all sounded off key. And then Little Big Town, whose big selling point is their incredible harmony singing, did a lacklustre version of (shit song) ‘Wichita Lineman’ with Karen Fairchild wearing possibly the most ill-judged pair of boots in television history. I mean, just look at them.

Keith Urban’s performance was his new, Instant-Karma type single ‘Female’ was pretty decent, and Tim McGraw and Faith Hill put in a tight, on-key and touching performance of the title song of their new album The Rest of My Life. She’s another one who disappeared off the face of the earth, having last released an album in 2005. But at least this record is available on YouTube iTunes.

The Bros were less in evidence than recent years. Possibly because the BBC didn’t include them, but also because the shockwaves created by Chris Stapleton’s success have made record labels realise that songs about beer, trucks and blue jeans have a limited shelf life.

Apart from Stapleton’s turn with “Broken Halos”, probably the highlight of the broadcast was young Mr Alan Jackson being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and performing two oldies from his back catalogue. In the right key, and without miming. The love and respect for him in the room was clear, with almost every current male singer in the audience singing along with all the words. Apart from Garth Brooks, Jackson’s contemporary, who didn’t seem to know them.

Which sums it up really: stagnation. Chris Stapleton’s stripped back, back-to-basics music hasn’t filtered through too much, although he still scooped key awards. Tim McGraw can still bring it. Alan Jackson, at 59, still does the New Traditionalist thing better than anyone. Garth Brooks won Entertainer of the Year, just as he did in 1991, 1992, 1997, 1998, and 2016. And everyone else is too nervous to produce their best.

CMA Awards: state of the union

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You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Finally got a chance to watch the highlights of this year’s CMA Awards, which took place about a month ago, a few days before The Cataclysm. Although the 90-minute edit I watched was mainly of performances, it’s still a good opportunity to read the chicken entrails of the music industry, as is traditional on this blog.

I’ve been watching the CMAs for 25 years now, so for about half it’s 50-year run. This year was the meaningless milestone featuring a 5 and a 0, so there was a deal more wallowing in nostalgia than usual — which is saying something, where country music is concerned.

Invented by radio, featuring something that was – even in the 1920s – characterised as ‘old time’ music, country has always-already been a nostalgic genre, its history peppered with emblematic crises. As early as the 1950s, the so-called Nashville Sound was an attempt to protect the genre by providing slick, commercialised competition for the burgeoning pop and rock genres. In the 1970s, the Outlaws provided a more ‘authentic’ alternative to the slick Countrypolitan sound. In the 1980s, the ‘Neotraditionalists’ claimed their own version of the elusive ‘authenticity’ for a new generation. And so it goes, into the alt.country era, and the Americana movement.

What the CMA Awards show represents, every year, is a compass pointing in the direction the industry is heading. Around 2013 and 2014, I almost gave up on the genre, because there were too many mullets and baseball caps, driven by the Bro Country movement, and too many songs about blue jeans, beer, and pickup trucks on dirt roads. In the background, women were struggling to get airplay on the radio, which meant they were struggling to get marketing push, and the UK iTunes store was a stagnant swamp of cardboard cutouts catering to a lowest common denominator of drunken galoots in football stadia.

Last year’s show, with the astonishing performances of Chris Stapleton and Justin Timberlake, and the shock board-sweeping win for Stapleton and his album Traveller was the break we needed. Stapleton had received virtually zero airplay or record company support, and yet the buzz around the album was such that, by November, the night was his. Stapleton himself, with his mountain man beard, his bulky frame, and crushed-looking hat, is the antidote to the baseball capped pretty boys.

So to 2016, the year America elected a fascist. What gives in country music? The 50th anniversary show featured a high number of medleys, and as well as the nostalgia, tributes to the likes of Merle Haggard, who has departed this world, and Dolly Parton, who has not.

What interested me this year was a feeling of pulling up the drawbridge and bringing into the fold exemplified by the presence of artists who are rarely (if ever) seen at this most Establishment of award ceremonies. Garth Brooks, for example, was front and centre (and won Entertainer of the Year) in a way that I’ve never seen – even in his heyday. When he was breaking all the records for album sales back in the 90s, he was too big for the CMAs. Later on, he was too retired. Now he’s back, along with Trisha Yearwood, who has also rarely been seen at the show. One of the medleys featured Dwight Yoakam, who has never been a Nashville guy; and Clint Black, who was a staple of the show in the early 90s, but hasn’t been seen in the Brad Paisley/Carrie Underwood era. Even Randy Travis, who was big in the 80s and 90s, but whose career (and health) nosedived, was back on the stage, still evidently recovering from his stroke, but able to sing the single word, ‘Amen.’ And then out came none other than Taylor Swift…

But the enfolding of the outcasts and outlaws was nowhere more evident than in the performance of the Dixie Chicks (with Beyoncé). The Dixie Chicks were banned from most country radio and ostracised by many of their peers after they dared to express dissent about George W Bush. It has been over 10 years, but they seem to be back in favour and back on tour. (I’m still bitter, however, that they haven’t put out any new music since 2006.)

The Chicks and Beyoncé was supposed to be this year’s Stapleton/Tiberlake, but it didn’t quite work for me – largely because they still haven’t got anything new to sing, but also because it seemed over-rehearsed and backy tracky. The beauty of last year’s S/T pairing was the improvisational musicianship and the glorious spontaneity. Still, it was probably the most controversial part of the show, due to the inevitable outpouring of hate on social media.

Apart from that enfolding atmosphere, the semiotics of this year’s show were fascinating. I didn’t see a single baseball cap (loud cheers), but there were lots of cowboy hats. Luke Bryan still got a look-in, but appeared capless and extremely lightweight compared to just about every performance on the night. Eric Church was also capless, though still insisted on wearing his mirrored sunglasses – so I will not be buying his album. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood took on a medley of costumes from across the eras (Paisley included at least one hilarious mullet wig), and there were fewer people exiled to performing on little stages at the back of the crowd.

My favourite moment, for sheer class, was when Garth Brooks was announced as the winner of Entertainer of the Year. He went to hug each of the other nominees in turn before taking the stage in what seemed to be a genuine show of love and respect. As far as performances went, the best this year was Keith Urban, who performed ‘Blue Ain’t Your Colour’, a nice follow-up to last year’s ‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16’.

So the trend is back to the hats, and Don’t Mention The Apocalypse.

12 Downloads for this summer

cover400x400Ahead of the epic car journeys of the summer, I like to stock up on new music. For recommendations, I turn to the Rolling Stone Country account and their regular lists of artists to check out.

That’s not the only way I find new music, but it’s a fairly reliable barometer in the absence of the UK iTunes store doing anything to update itself. Anyway, here are my recent adds.

  1. Donovan Woods – Hard Settle, Ain’t Troubled. Got this because of his song “Portland, Maine”, covered by Tim McGraw. He’s a great songwriter with a voice that doesn’t match his face. Sounds are Americana-standard, acoustic in the main.
  2. Amanda Shires – Carrying Lightning. Discovering new music on iTunes is hard, partly because of the problem of categories. They have a Country section (not regularly updated) and a Singer/Songwriter section, but there is no Americana (or alt-country) and no Folk or Folk-Rock. There is plenty of music that would fit in either of these categories. Anyway, Amanda Shires Isbell (married to the similarly hard-to-discover Jason Isbell) kind of sways between Country-Americana and Singer-Songwriter. Pretty good.
  3. Keith Urban – Ripcord. Keith Urban has  made a reappearance on UK iTunes after a gap where several albums weren’t even given a UK release. This one is fairly standard: rock-pop/country with some decent guitar. His voice is limited: with the right song, it’s perfectly fine, but when he strains for those emotions he sometimes seems, well, strained. The standout track on this is “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” which is a hooky little number on which Urban plays lead bass.* I can’t stop playing it
  4. William Bell – This is Where I Live. This was a Twitter recommendation. A radio producer I follow got an early listen of this (it’s not properly out yet) and named it the album of the year. You can get three tracks now, and the rest should drop by the end of the week. It’s a soul record in the classic style, a throwback to 60s song values with 2016 production values. This is the one I’d be slipping into playlists and mixtapes if I still did that sort of thing, ahem.
  5. Brandy Clark – Big Day in a Small Town. The best songwriter of the “class of 2013”, Brandy Clark’s follow up to 12 Stories is bigger in every way. This new outing features some powerful songs, including the jaw-dropping “Daughter”, which basically wishes a daughter upon a cheating, lying male in the name of karma: so he can watch her get her heart broken by men like him. You think you’ve heard it all, and then this. Essential listening.
  6. Imogen Clark – Love and Lovely Lies. Another hard-to-discover artist. This one I came across when she guested on a podcast (My Favourite Album). At just 8 tracks and 35 minutes, this album is a proper throwback to the golden age of albums, when they were almost all about this long. Another artist with a strong voice and punch-packing songs, don’t be fooled by her appearance into thinking this is going to be some kind of folky background muzak.
  7. Larkin Poe – Reskinned. The Lovell sisters seem determined to leave their folk-country roots behind them. So much so, that they’ve remixed and revamped their album Kin, changing some of the tracks and giving the whole thing a harder, rock-stomping edge. If you follow them on Twitter or Facebook you’ll know that they’re both shredding like mad these days and Rebecca has started playing a Strat through a Big Muff distortion pedal. Talk about trying to reposition yourself in the market: unfortunately, these brilliant 20-something musicians will still find themselves staring at an audience of grizzled, balding 50-somethings, because those are the people who go to (non-festival/arena) gigs.
  8. Frankie Ballard – El Rio. Frankie Ballard’s latest is a real step up in quality from his previous release (2014’s Sunshine and Whiskey). The songwriting is better, and his gravelly but versatile voice is the one Keith Urban wishes he had. You can hear the influence of Bob Seger on the whole record (plus there’s a cover of “You’ll Accompn’y Me”). This is a really enjoyable album packed full of decent songs, like “El Camino”, “L.A. Woman” and “It All Started With a Beer”. Great for a road trip.
  9. Smithfield – Smithfield. This is on Rolling Stone’s July list. Another 8-tracker, these guys are like the new Sugarland or something, which, in the absence of Sugarland, will do.
  10. Anthony D’Amato – Cold Snap. Another one from the RS list, I’ve only played this through once but like it a lot. (Almost) like Frankie Ballard, this is country rock via the Jersey Shore. Where Ballard takes his influence from Detroit (Seger), you can hear Springsteen here, but also Ryan Adams, and Tom Petty references, if you like that sort of thing – and who doesn’t?
  11. Sarah Shook and the Disarmers – Sidelong. Another RS recommendation, this feels more like a punt for me. I’m thinking this is cowpunk, in the vein of Lone Justice. With songs titled “Dwight Yoakam” and “Fuck Up,” this can’t be wrong, can it?
  12. Lucie Silvas – Letters to Ghosts. Finally, this is a British-born, New Zealand-raised country artist who has (for whatever reason) waited years between album releases. Again, I’ve barely listened to this, but the title track is excellent, and it finishes with a spooky cover of Roy Orbison’s “You Got It”, which shows good taste, if nothing else.

*For non-religionists, like me, I looked it up. This verse is the one that basically summarises the new testament in a line: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

 

Jag

I’m on a bit of a Tim McGraw jag at the moment. I don’t know why. Those smooth sounds, maybe, that vocal sound, which is not so much autotuned as excitered into the fifth dimension.

His recent album Damn Country Music is much of a muchness with his other output of late, and no particular song jumps out at me right now, but it’s the sheer consistency that gets you in the end. Alan Jackson dependably puts out a decent album every year, as does Brad Paisley. That’s one of the joys of country music: its slow-changing nature, and the high quality of the top acts. If you like it, you go on liking it, more or less.

Thing with McGraw, he doesn’t write for himself, so is dependent on the roster of songwriters who supply him with material. Now, this is where a career can slide. Both Jackson and Paisley co-write a lot of their own songs. Tim McGraw stays on top by staying on top. As long as he’s on top, he gets the cream of the crop. All the songwriters make more money that way. Garth Brooks used to ‘do an Elvis’ by having his name attached to songs brought to him by others (I guess he may have contributed a line or two?). Other artists fall by the wayside, and stop getting first pick of the best songs from the song pluggers. And life is getting harder for songwriters, I think, because of the recent rise of singer-songwriter artists, which didn’t use to be so much of a thing.

Songwriting has long been associated with pairs of writers, but I’ve noticed a trend in recent years for the traditional two-way co-writes to become three- or even four-ways. In an industry that claims to be suffering from the rise of streaming and the loss of physical sales, it seems that the sure-thing income from artists like Tim McGraw is being spread ever-more thinly. One name you’ll see all over Damn Country Music and other recent McGraw albums is Rodney Clawson, who gets a co-writing credit on no less than five of the 14 songs on the Deluxe edition. It’s interesting to see the roster of artists that Clawson has written for – the likes of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Lady A, Blake Shelton, FGL, and so on, all of whom are country chart-topping and award-winning acts. But very few of their fans would be aware of the behind-the-scenes contribution of Clawson.

Meanwhile, a writer like Chris Stapleton, who wrote hits for many of the same artists (including ‘Whiskey and You’ for Tim McGraw) has taken his ball home, in a sense, because he’s now a solo recording artist. The breakthrough success of his album means that he’ll likely be reserving his songs for his next outing.

I think the remarkable thing about Tim McGraw is that, since he established his mature sound about 14 years ago (with his …and the Dancehall Doctors album), his records really go on improving with age. I still love ‘She’s My Kind of Rain’ from that album, among others, and still have several favourites from each subsequent record in my playlist.

liked his 2014 album Sundown Heaven Town when it came out, but 18 months on, I truly love it. You don’t get this from standard album reviews: everyone is in a rush to get the review online, but it’s rare for anybody to come back a year and a half later and tell you that it’s not only good, but gets better with age.

‘City Lights’, ‘Shotgun Rider’, ‘Sick of Me’, ‘Portland, Maine,’ ‘Diamond Rings and Old Barstools’ – all superb. I even like ‘Keep On Truckin’, which I ought to hate but don’t.

Anyway, this all means that his latest, Damn Country Music, will probably hit me hard sometime in late 2017. Meanwhile, I’ve got a 4-hour 48-minute McGraw playlist.

 

Downloads of the Year, 2015 – music edition

300x300It has been a decent year for music, if not a vintage year. My one ongoing bugbear has been the lack of new product from many of my favourite female artists. It was an ‘off’ year for those still working, like Tift Merritt, Sara Evans, Martina McBride, Taylor Swift, Larkin Poe; and there was still no sign of anything from Faith Hill, the Dixie Chicks – and Trisha Yearwood has hidden her stuff away behind an ‘alternative’ non-iTunes service, and I just can’t be bothered to seek it out. As ever, I’m reluctant to sign up for yet another retailer who will bombard me with emails for my special valentine or dead relatives.

So it’s a male-heavy list you’re about to see, but not through any choice of mine. If there’s a story to this year it was the appearance of good music from people you’d long since have written off as retired or semi-retired. As with other years, it’s also the case that not everything I downloaded in 2015 dated from then. I recently discovered the Lo-Fi album, for example, which came out last year; and Jason Isbell’s earlier Southeastern came out in 2013.

10. Angels and Alcohol – Alan Jackson

Although this is not particularly memorable, and vied for 10th place alongside the not particularly memorable new one from Tim McGraw, I don’t think Alan Jackson can be faulted. His is a calculated sameness: each releases slotting in alongside the others, with similar production values, similar musicianship. A year down the line, you’ll be hard pushed to remember which album a particular track came from. His records still sound quieter than everyone else’s because he refuses to play the loudness game. Ten songs, a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Nothing to make you jump out of your car seat, but it sounds good. Three to download: You Can Always Come Home, Gone Before You Met Me, Angels and Alcohol.

darlene-love---introducing-darlene-love-cover-art_sq-9372c2dbe6e8d67cf27d39408a50d23597c2d8f1-s300-c859. Introducing Darlene Love – Darlene Love

I reviewed this not long ago. Produced by Steven Van Zandt, with songs by him, Elvis Costello, Bruce Springsteen, and others, this is a throwback in more ways than one. It’s a throwback to the Wall of Sound and Love’s belting vocals; it’s a throwback to the 70s, when Springsteen was a songwriter whose prolific writing was too much for his own needs, and so his songs would turn up performed by Robert Gordon, The Pointer Sisters, Southside Johnny, Patti Smith. This is a Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album with guest vocals from the criminally overlooked Darlene Love, in the spotlight at last. Three to download: Forbidden Nights; Night Closing In; Just Another Lonely Mile.

1035x1035-ryanadams19898. 1989 – Ryan Adams

The bold stroke of recording the entirety of Taylor Swift’s recent 1989 garnered lots of column inches, but once the furore died down, was this album any good? Yes. Swift is a great songwriter, and while Adams is a limited performer in terms of his range and the speed at which he works (you can’t help thinking there might be some more creative arrangements here, given more time and a good producer), this is still one of the albums of the year. Three Four to download: Welcome to New York; Blank Space; Style; Out of the Woods.

7. Southern Gravity – Kristian Bush

How long before an ‘hiatus’ becomes a permanent split? Thinking of the recent events in Paris at the Bataclan, you can imagine how traumatic events might take their toll. When several ‘VIP’ fans were killed at a Sugarland concert in 2011, it probably didn’t occur to many (concerned as they would have been with the victims and their families) to consider the toll on the band themselves. To feel any sort of responsibility for those tragic deaths must be hard. Maybe it is better for them to record apart? I thought at first that Jennifer Nettles’ baby and solo album would be it, matched with this outing from the prolific Kristian Bush. But now Nettles is in the release cycle of another solo set (first single just out). Just as the Courtyard Hounds once seemed to be a side project from the Dixie Chicks, it seems the Sugarlanders are now solo artists. This is a fine set, and certainly had a good summer vibe in the middle of the year. Bush is a good egg, too, and you can feel that through all these tracks. A Decent record from a decent human being. Three to download: House on a Beach; Giving it Up; Southern Gravity.

kacey-musgraves-pageant-material-2015-billboard-650x6506. Pageant Material – Kacey Musgraves

I’ll say what I said before: I really like Kacey Musgraves. I like her vibe, her approach to music, and even tolerate her taste for kitsch and the Nudie-suited side of country music. She is a rhinestone cowgirl, through and through, with her own line in boots. After her well received debut, this is another solid set, though it doesn’t advance much in terms of sound or sophistication. But I can hardly criticise her for that when I praised Alan Jackson for taking the same approach. If you liked her first record, you’ll like this. Or start here, go backwards. She’s a Radio 2-friendly, globally oriented country artist who works hard and is reaping the rewards. (Some country artists don’t translate because their redneck anthems about trucks, beer, and girls, conceals a basic bigot.) Three to download: High Time; Pageant Material; Good Ol’ Boys Club

f9h3_CCcoversmall_15. Cass County – Don Henley

Again, I reviewed this recently. I was completely unprepared to like this as much as I did. I’m a lukewarm Eagles listener at best. Never particularly liked their dry production sound or their 96-part harmonies (joke), but the occasional track breaks through: usually one with Henley on lead vocals. This is a great country album: feeling as effortless as you’d expect from a consummate artist like Henley, and with a surprisingly hip selection of songs, including a Tift Merritt track: and I do hope she’s making shedloads of money off the back of it. Three to download: Bramble Rose; No, Thank You; Take a Picture of This.

4. Second Hand Heart – Dwight Yoakam

This feels like a blast from the past: but it was only released in April. Recorded in LA, using the legendary Capitol Records echo chambers for reverb, this set sounds both contemporary and retro. Yoakam sounds ageless, still doing his thing and doing it well. Like Alan Jackson, he knows his sound and he knows his audience. All of which adds up, I think, to timeless music – which is precisely what Alan Jackson and Dwight Yoakam are aiming for. It’s that sense of timelessness that makes great country music great. He went through a few years in the doldrums, but looking back, I’d say his most recent releases are better in almost every way than even his early Pete Anderson-produced albums. He’s a better songwriter, a better guitarist, and a better producer. Three to download: V’s of Birds; Dreams of Clay; Second Hand Heart.

jason-isbell-something-more-than-free-560x560-560x5603. Something More Than Free – Jason Isbell

Isbell is one of the artists who is breaking through in spite of being completely ignored by US radio. He’s been on telly, though, and it’s odd to think that you’re more likely to catch good music on a mainstream talk show than on a specialist radio station. His brand of country-folk-rock is low key but appealing to a broad audience. Thoughtful, if gloomy, lyrics, good production, and a vocal that wanders between plaintive and indifferent, in tune with contemporary attitudes. A Ryan Adams who takes a bit longer between records, who takes more time over production? Maybe that’s it. Three to download: If It Takes a Lifetime; 24 Frames; Something More Than Free.

chris_stapleton_cover_sq-c95dfdd7b91189234fb82aeac25260ccfc908efb-s300-c852. Traveller – Chris Stapleton

Yes, it’s here. Many column inches and stroked chins after his triumphant night at the CMA awards, but before that? Flying so low under the radar he was basically underground, Stapleton’s album garnered good reviews and zero airplay. The ‘tastemakers’ in radio, like Jon Snow, know nothing. Why not? Because they’re not tastemakers but corporate shills, playing what the conglomerates want them to play. Payola never really went away, did it? And the conglomerate behind Stapleton’s radio decided that he wasn’t pretty enough for radio? Or something. It’s hard to get your head around the logic. Established songwriter with an incredible singing voice; record company gives him a deal, records and releases an album, and then – nothing. It’s as if they wanted it to fail, so they could all agree that scruffy-looking male vocalists with beards just don’t belong in the modern music industry. Anyway, here it is, the almost-album-of-the-year. Three Four to download: Tennessee Whiskey; Traveller; Fire Away; When the Stars Come Out

On To Something Good – Ashley Monroe

Inevitable, I suppose, given how much I played this both before and after it came out, that this would be my pick of the year. Another Vince Gill-produced mini masterpiece. The slickness of this production may not appeal to everyone (especially those who come to country for ‘authenticity’), but this sounded so good to my ears that it became my go-to album for testing out wireless speakers in shops (something of an obsession). Because of the beautiful sound mix and the smooth, rolling rhythm section on the title track in particular, I just love hearing this played through a decent set of speakers. Since my oldest was a toddler I’ve actually not had anything resembling a hi-fi in my house, and as she approaches that time when she’ll actually be leaving home, I’m becoming more and more obsessed with having something to play music on. This summer, you could find me in Fnac, trying out rows of Bluetooth speakers at various sizes and price points*, playing the title track from this. This album in particular fuelled that obsession. I want to play it, and because it sounds so good it feels wrong to play it on a shitty speaker, or even through headphones. Three Four to download: On To Something Good; Weight of the Load; If Love Was Fair; The Blade.

  • The best? I think probably the Marshall Action comes a close second to the Nad Viso. But that may be because I’ve got a soft spot for the Nad brand, it having been my late lamented hi-fi, semi-destroyed by my daughter and sold on.

(I have a set of Wharfdale Diamond speakers in the loft, bought a good ten years ago and only ever used for a few months when I was first experimenting with music technology/recording and my current plan is to get a bluetooth-equipped amp to pair with them, but the cost would be the same as for the Marshall or the Nad, so no diff.)

On the other hand…

The new Dwight Yoakam platter is a corker. After a return to form in 2012 with 3 Pears, Mr Yoakam is clearly on a hot streak. Recorded in Studio B at Capitol Records in Los Angeles, Second Hand Heart is a guitar-heavy, bright and breezy dose of honk, and indeed tonk. (This is the recording studio with the legendary echo chambers designed by Les Paul and used by Sinatra among others. I used to have a convolution reverb version of those chambers – sounded completely natural.)

Opening track ‘Another World’ has fast-strummed acoustic guitars and chiming, tremolo electric guitars, Beach Boy-style backing vocals and thumping toms. ‘She’ starts with a lone tambourine before the loud guitars come in, layer-upon-layer, including 12-string. It keeps getting better…

‘Dreams of Clay’, the longest track on the album, and a re-recording of a song from Tomorrow’s Sounds Today, starts of sounding like a more gently-paced ‘Suspicious Minds’, and the guitars join the arrangement over the first couple of verses. My favourite 20 seconds of the whole album is the twangy solo (starting at around 2:45), consisting of a series of bass note riffs, joined by a pedal steel before the middle 8.

The title track takes us back to the wall of sound of the opener, while ‘Off Your Mind’ is classic Yoakam, and could have come from his first couple of records (this is a good thing).

The album includes a couple of covers: the first is a hard-driving version of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ (which you may remember from the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and which Bob Dylan recorded on his debut album in 1962. The other cover is Anthony Crawford of Sugarcane Jane’s ‘V’s of Birds’, which closes the album. Churchy organ, twangy guitars, mandolin, a descending chord sequence: beautiful.

Yoakam’s voice is fantastic throughout and this is a wonderful record, reminding me why I loved country music in the first place: guitars, cadillacs etc. etc..

Speaking of which, on the same day I downloaded Second Hand Heart, I was overcome with an attack of nostalgia and also downloaded On The Other Hand: All the Number Ones by Randy Travis.

Together with Yoakam, Randy Travis was my introduction to what was then called New Country in the mid-1980s. A colleague gave me a cassette with Yoakam’s debut and Travis’ Old 8×10. With a rich baritone, Travis was the natural successor to the likes of George Jones, though I didn’t know it at the time. He had his own hot streak from the mid 80s to the early 90s. What happened next? Unlike Dwight Yoakam, he was unable to write his own material, so when the good songs started going elsewhere, his career stalled. He turned to gospel music and found a niche, but personal problems and alcoholism brought him low. How low? Walking naked into a 7/11 and trying to buy cigarettes low.

So it has been many years since I listened to his music. I owned some vinyl (long gone) and a couple of CDs (also long gone). So this was a real trip down a 25-30 year old memory lane. And you know what? I always said about country music that the greatest thing about it was its timelessness. When they get it right, they get it right forever. You shouldn’t be brought up short by short-term trends in drum sound and production values (qv. Born in the USA). Sure, these records sound a lot quieter than modern recordings (especially compared to Second Hand Heart above), but the instrumentation is classic, and Travis’ voice was always classy.

What went wrong? Apart from the songs drying up, he had his thunder stolen, probably, Garth Brooks (whose records have not aged as well) and Alan Jackson (another artist who can provide his own songs).

But this is a great collection, and I found myself listening to songs from years ago like ‘Forever and Ever, Amen’ and ‘Deeper than the Holler’, ‘Is it Still Over?’ and ‘Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart’ with tears in my eyes.

Worth a listen – absolutely timeless. And now, this:

My albums of 2014 – Part 2 (# 2 – 5)

2. Looking Into You – a Tribute to Jackson Browne

The only surprising thing about this record is that it took so long to appear, and had to be driven616uKhVM5ML._SY300_ by a fan and not industry insiders. From the opening cut, Don Henley’s version of the venerable These Days (with Blind Pilot), you’re aware you’re in the presence of quality that runs deep. Some of the arrangements are more or less clones of the originals (The Indigo Girls’ version of Fountain of Sorrow), while others take delightful liberties. Bob Schneider’s hypnotically horizontal Running on Empty is beautiful, and Lucinda Williams’ broken down The Pretender is very moving. Bruce Hornsby’s take on I’m Alive is different from Browne’s studio original, but very similar to the way he has been doing it live. Sara Watkins’ version of Your Bright Baby Blues sent me scurrying back to rediscover the original. I love both versions equally. Perhaps my favourite among many gems is Keb’ Mo’s Rock Me On the Water, which adds a soulful groove and a nice bit of slide guitar to an old song, making it new again, and underscoring Browne’s lyrical brilliance. This is a great compilation that is still rewarding months after I first downloaded it.

3.  Miranda Lambert – PlatinumMiranda-Lambert-Platinum

One of the few women to get a bit of radio airplay in recent times (although they do tend to stick to oldies), Lambert has been rewarded for this excellent album with several CMA awards (Female Vocalist, Album of the Year, Single of the Year) and a number of Grammy nominations. When I first reviewed this, I called it a Fuck You to country radio, because she has chosen pepper the lyrics with swears and yet this is so clearly top drawer material that it’s impossible to ignore. I love the collaboration with Little Big Town, Smokin’ and Drinkin’, and the witty title track, but there are so many different moods here, it’s hard to pick a favourite. Holding on to You is a bluesy love song, while Hard Staying Sober is a raunchy break-up song. There’s nostalgia here, too, in Another Sunday in the South, the lead single Automatic, Old Sh!t, and even nostalgic sounds on the collaboration with The Time Jumpers, All That’s Left. The song Priscilla is a rueful acknowledgement of what it’s like to be married with the current King of Country Blake Shelton, but as I’ve said before, the balance of talent in that marriage is most definitely on the Miranda side. Shelton is alright, but his latest record does not make it into my top ten for 2014.

4.  Martina McBride – Everlasting

In recent years that Martina McBride’s release of all-new material has slowed down, and she’s interspersed her releases with covers of classics. Seven albums since 1999, including two, including this one, of oldies. Plus a Christmas album, also oldies. I’ve always found her albums patchy anyway, with just one or two stand-out tracks and an equal number that I skip forever. So I was fully expecting not to like this, her version of ‘blue eyed soul’, but surprised myself. While her cover of Sam Cooke’s Bring it on Home to Me doesn’t bear comparison to the original (it’s too slow), it does sound great in this company, along with a great cover of Van Morrison’s Wild Night and a polished What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. There’s even a cleaned-up version of P!nk’s Perfect which sounds quite good to my ears. She has a tremendous singing voice and it’s a treat to hear her tackling this more mainstream material.

5.  Jennifer Nettles – That Girl

M2209949I’m starting to have mixed feelings about this one, but it still makes the list because there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s shot through with quality: powerful vocals, fine musicianship (including keyboards played by the late Ian McLagan) and good songs, such as Good Time to Cry, This One’s For You, Falling, and the title track, which flips Dolly Parton’s Jolene on its head. The same small unit of musicians plays throughout, so the album has a cohesive, organic, live-in-the-studio sound. In the absence of a new Sugarland album, and while I keenly await Nettles’ Sugarland partner Kristian Bush’s forthcoming solo release, this will do. Over time, however, Rick Rubin’s polished production starts to seem a little too polished, all of the edges knocked off. Compared to the hints of Bush’s album I’ve heard, That Girl is a bit bland. There’s a great Bob Seger cover (Like a Rock), but in the end, you know what I’d rather have? A new Sugarland album.

(For numbers 6–10, see here.)

My albums of 2014 (# 6 – 10)

6. Frankie Ballard – Sunshine & Whiskey

Sunshine and Whiskey CD Frankie BallardIf it seems like I’m purposefully redressing the sexist gender imbalance in country music coverage, I probably am. But it’s also the case that I have always preferred the female vocal side of country, and there are very few exceptions to my preference. I’m not sure if I’d buy a second Frankie Ballard record, but I’d approach it with an open mind on the strength of this. As with David Nail, you’d be forgiven for thinking, based on the title track, that Ballard fits in with the current trucks, blue jeans, and drinking trend, and he probably does. What sets him apart is his Urban-like ability on the guitar, and his gruffly pleasant singing voice. Seeing him perform a Bob Seger cover on YouTube (‘Night Moves’), I warmed to him even more than I had on first listen. I’m fond of a couple of tracks on this: ‘Tip Jar’, ‘Tell Me You Get Lonely’

7. Lee Ann Womack – The Way I’m Livin’

With just 5 albums since 1999 (plus the inevitable Christmas album, see Brad Paisley entry below), and a six-year gap between this and her previous studio outing, Call Me Crazy, Lee Ann Womack’s career is emblematic of the problems women face in the country music industry. It’s not as if she doesn’t have talent: a pure voice that is the closest you can get to a modern Dolly Parton, she is the quintessential country singer. It’s also not as if she doesn’t shift units. Call Me Crazy was a top 5 country album, as were her previous three. The problem for her is that she, along with countless other talented women, doesn’t get airplay on country radio. It has been heartening to see, over the past few months, that there has been some institutional push for female artists. The recent CMA awards was dominated by women (Miranda Lambert in particular), and the just-announced 2014 Grammy nominations have equal representation, with three out of the five “Best Country Album” nominees from female artists, including this one. After all that, is this album any good? Absolutely, it is. We may have Vince Gill to thank for the fact that Womack didn’t succumb to the temptation to change her style in an attempt to pander to the radio industry. He said in a Rolling Stone interview a while ago,gpzwapmekhie535lotcq

[L]ook at the history that women have provided this music. It’s every bit as important as anything the men have done. It’s grossly unfair, and grossly one-sided. But there still have been periods of time in country music’s history where it was very one-sided. You go back to the Fifties and Kitty Wells was a lone ranger. And then along comes Dolly and Loretta and Patsy Cline and it blows up a little more…. I think it’s a double-edged sword. I had a really great conversation with Lee Ann Womack one time. She was trying so hard to do the music that really wasn’t her. She’s such a brilliant country singer. She said, “Well, I can’t get on the radio if I don’t.” I said, “Well, you might get on the radio a little bit, but you’re getting on the radio with something that is certainly not your heart. Go be what makes you great.”

So after a six-year gap, thank goodness, Womack is back with a strong set including the lead single and title song, ‘When I Come Around’, the Kelly Willis number ‘Not Forgotten You’, ‘Out on the Weekend’ and ‘Send it on Down’.

8. Brad Paisley – Moonshine in the Trunk

Just as writers such as Michael Connelly are capable of knocking out great books in a series, year after year, Brad Paisley seems to have been on a hot streak of late. He’s released 10 studio albums (11 if you count the Christmas album) since 1999, which in today’s music business is going some. The quality is consistently good, with the occasional flash of brilliance. Paisley is a country singer in the tradition, with a fine voice and a wicked sense of humour. He writes songs about all aspects of life, which means he can feel like a breath of fresh air in the current country landscape, which is a wasteland of redneck fuckwittery, littered with pickup trucks and empty beer cans. (The prolific Tim McGraw has released 9 albums in the same period. Fellow guitar slinger Keith Urban has popped out a mere 7 in that time.) Moonshine in the Trunk follows hot on the heels of last year’s Wheelhouse. There’s nothing here that strikes me as having enduring classic status, but there is fun in the virtual grooves, and some great guitar. Ironically, having said all that, I have to point out that the opening number Crushin’ It starts with the sound of a beer can being crushed – but also some wonderful acoustic guitar riffing. River Bank will always take you back to the summer, while Perfect Storm has what Paisley has called his favourite ever guitar solo. The title track is Paisley’s obligatory excuse to play really fast, trading riffs with his band.

9. Sunny Sweeney – Provoked

Funded by Kickstarter and imbued with a true spirit of independence, Sunny Sweeney’s Provoked is full of smart songs with snappy lyrics. I particularly like Everybody Else Can Kiss My Ass, Backhanded Compliment, Uninvited, Second Guessing Bad Girl Phase, and You Don’t Know Your Husband. My daughter complains that Ms Sweeney’s voice is too nasal, but I think you could say the same of Miranda Lambert, and I don’t hear the same complaints about her. I think the main difference is that Provoked sounds harder-edged, with less commercial sheen. At times it reminds me of Lone Justice, a throwback to that 80s cowpunk sound. (Yes, that’s cowpunk, autocorrect, not cowpony) This is worth a listen, and it’s always worth supporting truly independent artists.

10. David Nail – I’m a Fire

David-Nail-Im-a-Fire-CountryMusicIsLove-1024x1024-300x300

David Nail suffers from RBS (resting bitch face)

In a current scene dominated by dreadful, repetitive drivel about trucks and beer and girls in tight blue jeans, David Nail manages to stand out among a sea of clones for a couple of reasons. True, lead single ‘Whatever She’s Got’ falls into the country cliché bear pit with lines about blue jeans painted on tight and something something Saturday night, but it has a strong melody and Nail has a pleasant singing voice, which is far easier on the ear than tuneless rednecks like Florida Georgia Line. There’s more to the album than the lead single. There’s more melody (Broke My Heart, Burnin’ Bed), better songs (I’m a Fire, Kiss You Tonight, Easy Love), and a really nice version of Galveston, sung with Lee Ann Womack. A true test of a half-decent record is when something unfamiliar comes on in the car and you have to push buttons to see who it is. I do that all the time with tracks from this record.

The state of music

It’s about this time of year that I teach a mini unit on the music industry to my students. It’s also about this time of year that I ruminate on the state of Country music, having just watched the CMA awards.

When I first started teaching this topic there were just four major record labels, and a diminishing number of music magazines. Now there are just three major labels and even fewer magazines. According to pundits, the market seems to be moving permanently away from music ownership towards music streaming services. To me it seems polarised between the hipster fetishisation of vinyl and the complete devaluation of music as streams of data.

I want my students to take away a couple of key messages from my mini unit. The first is that ‘the music industry’ is a lot more than the four three major labels. No matter what the mainstream media coverage is, there is music happening everywhere, from the pub down the road to the truly independent label and the market-it-yourself sites like Bandcamp, Noisetrade, and SoundCloud.

The second takeaway I want my students to have is that they should be concerned – really concerned – about music discovery. So I’m going to come across as all organic and steam-powered, but I don’t think we should be trusting algorithms. I also don’t believe that services like Beats, which isn’t yet available in the UK anyway, but which claim to have human curators, are going to be trustworthy. Here’s why.

In order to be a music recommendation angel, you have to be willing to bite the hand that feeds you. Beats is now owned by Apple, who are a music retailer. Music retailers don’t slag off their products, no matter how bad they are. Apple, through iTunes, has taken the place of both the local record store and the music press. It’s a shop window, but it also contains a review-and-rating component. Which you can’t trust. As a shop window, like all retailers, iTunes will accept co-marketing funds in return for the prominent placement of something that the industry wants to sell to the public. The U2 debacle of recent times exposed this, to widespread derision. Behind the scenes, you can bet the conglomerates are rubbing their scaly hands together at the prospect of offering ‘human-powered recommendations’ to punters.

The sad thing is, that what gets shoved under our noses in these circumstances are the cash cow artists, like U2, who hardly need the marketing push. In recent weeks, it was revealed that (prior to the release of the Taylor Swift record) only one album had achieved platinum sales status in 2014: the soundtrack to Frozen.

In one of my sessions, I like to point out some of the stark download sales statistics of this modern era. Such as: in 2011, 2.5 million music tracks sold just one copy.

I like to get my students to think about that one copy. When I publish my books on the Kindle store, I always like to download a copy myself. That’s what that one copy is.

In 2011, 13 albums sold more than 1 million copies. Here in 2014, we’re looking at two: Frozen, and now, 1989, the Taylor Swift album. Can you imagine the strategy meetings about the release of that album? Can you imagine the yacht downpayments that depend on Ms Swift? And although it wasn’t much of a ‘risk’ for her to abandon the figleaf of Country music and go 100% Pop, it was still a risky move that could have seen her fall between two turds. Then again, the one thing you can guarantee would have given the execs apoplexy would be Taylor Swift turning up with a fucking Country album, with banjos and fiddles and pedal steel guitar and everything.

And the kicker for the major labels is that Taylor Swift is on Big Machine, and while they get to distribute her record, she has more control over what happens to her music than minor artists do. Taylor Swift has the same kind of clout as Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Van Morrison, and, er, U2.

Last week she pulled her albums from Spotify, to which I gave a small cheer. Not because I think she needs any more money, but because I hate the idea of music streaming. I hate the idea that some computer algorithm somewhere is deciding what I discover. I hate the idea that my access to music is dictated by the availability of network coverage or wifi. And I especially hate the idea that my diet of music is restricted to the three major labels.

I have fears for my own ability to discover new music these days. I downloaded a dozen albums off the back of a single (online) Rolling Stone article this year. I don’t trust the never-moving iTunes shop window. And I can’t even turn to the annual CMA awards anymore, because the Country industry is still in the throes of its obsession with fucking trucks and beer. Looking at the line-up for next year’s Country2Country in London, I was once more underwhelmed. Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean, Brantley Gilbert: all more or less interchangeable, mostly offensive, wearing too many baseball caps and having too many neck tattoos. Lady Antebellum are included, but, bof to them. Brandy Clark and Lee Ann Womack interest me, but looking at their place in the line-up, they’ll come and go before most people have taken their seats.

In conclusion, state of the major labels: pretty much fucked. State of music discovery: worrying.

You know the music industry is fucked, because the best record of this year, by far, is Kin by Larkin Poe. In a sane universe, everyone would know about them, but hardly anybody does.