Friday, December 30, 2011

Top 11 Songs of '11 (part one)

11) "How About You" - Ryan Beaver - (written by Ryan Beaver) - This is a heartbreakingly honest song about loneliness. The musical arrangement is, thankfully, sparse -- acoustic guitar and a beautifully played and perfectly supportive dobro -- forcing the listener to focus on the melody, lyric, vocals, and the mood they create. And the mood created is one of despair and melancholy. It's about two people who want to be each others' cure for loneliness even if only for a night. The setting is a bar, and a man conjuring up courage within himself to go over and talk to a girl who catches his eye. But he's never been the kinda man that could ever talk to a pretty thing like you. Tonight, however, he's at his breaking point: But tonight I don't give a damn, I'm at the point where I've got nothin' left to lose. A line like this is refreshing: in a world where it seems that to prove your manhood you have to show off how many girls you can talk to at the bar or bring home within a week, here is a guy who can confess that there is still something about a beautiful girl that wells up nervousness within him, causes him to lose his train of thought, to be unable to speak coherent words at all. So the fact that tonight none of that matters is significant. He's been lonely too long. He doesn't want to impress her with small talk or one-liners, he wants to appeal to her desire for comfort and connection as well; and with this honesty comes confidence, even though it may only be fleeting. Everybody's big on small talk, too scared to play their hands, caught up in lovers' games nobody understands. Why can't we just say what we really mean to? I'm lonely, how about you? If everyone was that honest there might be a lot less frustration between the sexes and a lot more understanding. Nah, that'll never happen. We're doomed to a cycle of meaningless platitudes and misunderstandings. But amongst all the sadness of "How About You" (maybe because Beaver understands it's a long shot too), the song does offer a little bit of hope.

10) "Violin" - Amos Lee - (written by Amos Lee) - I love Amos Lee. I think he is a great songwriter. But I think, with four efforts under his belt, he has yet to master the art of making a quintessential album. I always find myself discovering about three to five truly great songs within each album, while the rest I usually end up discarding. It's not that they are necessarily "bad" -- the great ones quite simply are just on another level. "Violin" is one of those great songs, released on his latest album (and the album with the best artwork, in my humble opinon) Mission Bell. And as with many great songs, its meaning is not abundantly clear; rather, it reveals itself a little more with each listen. The lyrical crux of the song is a plea of sorts: Oh God why you been hanging 'round in that old violin? While I been waiting for you to pull me through. On the surface it seems merely to be about the human experience of spiritual longing and questioning, but then you ask yourself, "Okay, so what kind of violin has God been hanging around in?" It's a line that can leave you contemplating for hours on long drives and sleepless nights. The haunting mood of the song is superbly enhanced by the ethereal background vocals of one Sam Beam of Iron and Wine fame. They are subtle, but once you realize they are there you cannot listen to the song without them standing out. He doesn't come in until a little after the 1:30 mark in the song; and he doesn't simply match Lee's words with his own harmonies, he sings the first words of each line in the second verse, beautifully holding out his last word through Lee's completion of the line. I don't know why I'm trying to explain it. Just listen.

 9) "Jubilation Day" - Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers - (written by Steve Martin & Steep Canyon Rangers) - My two favorite instruments are the banjo and the pedal steel guitar, with the banjo edging out the pedal steel on most days. There is just something about the banjo that is transcendent, even within the simplest strum or plucking pattern. It can convey joy and heartbreak with equal aplomb. "Jubilation Day" has one of my favorite bluegrass banjo licks ever; it's what my ear immediately goes to whenever I hear the song, which is a humorous take on a break-up, a send-off-good-riddance-kiss-my-ass break-up song of sorts. The melody is happy, conveying "jubilation" that the relationship is over and that it really wasn't worth much in the first place. There are some funny lines, spoken by Martin over the crisp and stellar musicianship of the Steep Canyon Rangers, not to mention Martin's own wonderful five-string picking. Great lines include: In my dreams you wear a red cape and a pitchfork; I'll be over you by lunchtime; and Let's remember the good when you were out of town. But Martin's humorous lyricism takes a backseat to his musical chops here. He comes up with a banjo line that you simply can't get out of your head, and not only does it convey the happiness felt from the end of a relationship that was doomed from the beginning, it somehow conveys the humor of it all as well. (What good are we if don't have senses of humor?) I'm grateful that Steve Martin is using his comedic platform to spread the gospel of the banjo, and to more generally spread the word of bluegrass music as a whole. And he's doing it with one foot rooted firmly in tradition, and the other stepping forward to continue to bring bluegrass music to the hearts and minds of the modern music listener, hopefully turning them into lovers in the process. It simply doesn't get much better than the banjo, and musically, you'd be hard-pressed to find musicians more talented than those who pick out a living in a bluegrass band. "Jubilation Day" is a great example. (Great live performance of the song on Conan here.)

 8) "Creepin'" - Eric Church - (written by Eric Church and Marv Green) - The lead-off track from Church's 2011 album Chief starts with a lyric that makes me chuckle every time: Like a honeybee beatin' on my screen door, I got a little buzz and my head is sore. Apparently, the night before was a bit of a long one, and the sun creepin' up doesn't make it much better. "Creepin'," to place it under a genre umbrella for simplicity's sake, is certainly a rocker, but there is a sweet banjo lick that comes in during the first few seconds of the song that not only sounds great but surprisingly compliments the honeybee line quite nicely; somehow, it seems the banjo is lazily buzzing. The song is a about the inability of the narrator to get over a girl; her memory keeps creepin' up on him, and a byproduct of her departure is that he can feel the lonely and hear the crazy just a-creepin'. He's on the brink of breaking down, and heads to the bottle to forget. But it only brings back more of her memory, only magnifies the pain: Head to the future, run from the past, hide from the mirror, live in a glass; what dreams forget the whiskey remembers, kinda like molasses in late December, just a creepin'. Certainly the lyrics convey pain, but the song's general upbeat and rocking nature and the subtle splashes of lyrical humor, though not sending out glorious vibes of positivity and hopeful rays of sunshine, at the very least suggest that eventually everything will be alright, unless he simply chooses to live with strong drink and her memory as his constant companions -- which would be okay as long as there's a good song in the background. The production here is crystal, and as I've already mentioned about Chief in its entirety, the drums sound phenomenal. Here's to hoping Church continues to rise in popularity; though I didn't understand, much less appreciate, him at first, he's about as real and good as country radio gets right now in my opinion.

7) "If I Wanted Someone" - Dawes - (written by Taylor Goldsmith) - After "Million Dollar Bill" it was "If I Wanted Someone" that struck me on Nothing Is Wrong, especially the wonderful chorus: If I wanted someone to clean me up I'd find myself a maid, if I wanted someone to spend my money I wouldn't need to get paid, If I wanted someone to understand me I'd have so much more to say, I want you to make the days move easy. I think that last part says so much about the heart of what we want our girlfriends or wives or significant others to truly be. Life is better when its shared with someone you love, or as Chris McCandless of Into The Wild fame wrote in the margin of one of his books, "Happiness only real when shared." Life technically doesn't become easier, but it sure starts to move like it is when you know someone is by your side, especially if that someone, to be frank, doesn't nag and spend all your hard-earned cash. I've read where people compare the sound of this song to Jackson Browne, The Band, and Neil Young, but the classic this song is most reminiscent of to me is "Mary Jane's Last Dance" by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. The guitar riff at the beginning, at the very least, seems an obvious reference to "Mary Jane." To be honest, I haven't quite figured out the meaning of all the verses in "If I Wanted Someone" because the chorus is so perfect and unapologetic and catchy, but there are some terrific and thought-provoking lines that stand out: ...the only time I'm lonely is when others are around, I just never end up knowing what to say and I took everything I thought from what it means to be a man, we need words to be put to what we do not understand. It's one of those songs where I kind of know what it means on the surface, but there's another level of depth still yet to explore. At the same time, art or a song that exists for its own sake -- rather than as fodder for over-analysis and constant excavation in hopes of finding newer and deeper and more technical meanings -- is quite often what moves us the most. Or as songwriter Goldsmith so eloquently puts it: Like the feeling of a photograph before it's meanings all got told. There is something profound about mystery. (Nice acoustic version performed in an alley.)

6) "Promises, Promises" - Incubus - (written by Brandon Boyd) - An old high school favorite of mine, Incubus returned in 2011 with the album If Not Now, When? after a five-year hiatus. I've taken an interest in everything they've put out, though I'm not as rabid as I used to be, and decided to buy their latest despite negative reviews and after hearing the song "Adolescents." Apparently, because this album didn't "rock" as much as albums past, contained melodies more easily grasped, and in general "slowed things down" a little bit, critics (and probably many fans) thought they had sold out to appeal to your average mini-van driving soccer mom. Okay. All I know is that I really enjoyed If Not Now, When? and my favorite song from it is, you guessed it, "Promises, Promises." Brandon Boyd calls it one of his first "storytelling" songs. It's about a girl who's gotten so used to putting up walls that it's become hard for her to recognize when she meets a guy with the potential for something real. Boyd explains it best (taken from previous link): "And so, I used these metaphors in the song of, like, magic, like she's an illusionist, so she creates these illusions around her. And she's gotten so good at it that she meets somebody who potentially could be someone that could help her break through those illusions and those walls, she can't really recognize that he could be the real thing, or they could be the real thing, so she's asking him for one thing: 'Don't make me any promises.' " My favorite lyric in the song is: Baby could I be the rabbit in your hat? I'd swing if you'd hand me, hand me the bat. It seems to me like this guy has her figured out, knows how and why she's been playing the games and putting up the walls, but it's up to her to give in to the possibility of a real connection and let go of what her creating of these illusions comes down to: fear and the desire for control. By the chorus it seems she does, with, as Boyd says, one condition: I'm on the road of least resistance, I'd rather give up than give in to this, so promise me only one thing would you, don't ever make me promises. What makes the song for me is the beautiful piano line played throughout (certainly different for Incubus) that only adds to the ache and longing contained in the overall melody. Add to that the fact that Brandon Boyd is one of the best, if not the best, rock singers/vocalists of modern times, and the song really is a conglomeration of many elements coming together to compliment each other and make a whole. The linked video to the song above is a flawless live studio version. And believe me when I say that the band, especially Boyd, whom I've never heard go off key, is just as good live.

Top 11 of '11 (part two) arriving soon.

Monday, December 26, 2011

My Favorite Songs of 2011 -- #25-12

25) "The Scientist" - Willie Nelson - (written by Coldplay) - (Nobody said it was easy, no one ever said it would be so hard, oh take me back to the start) - Dare I say that I like Willie's version even better than Coldplay's? Well, I do. Maybe because it really does seem like a fresh take on the song, what with the understated strums of acoustic guitar and the beautiful brushes of steel guitar. It doesn't hurt that Willie had a catchy and gorgeous melody to start with thanks to Chris Martin and company, but Nelson's voice takes the song to another level altogether. This cover really showcases his genius at vocal phrasing. Also, his version was recorded for a collaboration with Chipotle to make consumers more aware of the importance, necessity, and overall healthiness of food that comes from local and organic farms compared to mass factory-farm produced crap that's become so convenient and addictive to me and everyone else. Add to that the continual rising number of suicides among farmers due in part to corporate takeover and exploitation, and I'd say this is a great song for a great cause.

24) "If It Hadn't Been For You" - Foster & Lloyd - (written by Radney Foster and Bill Lloyd) - (Baby I know that I am a lucky soul and a better man, I wouldn't know love the way I do, if it hadn't been for you) - One of the more serious songs on their highly anticipated comeback record (It's Already Tomorrow) after a twenty year hiatus, "If It Hadn't Been For You" is a genuine and earnest song about a woman who inspires a man to not give up on his dreams, to stop worrying, and to let their love sustain them. I think we've all met "that person" before, but for many of us the feeling just never lasted either because it wasn't meant to or both parties (or just one; unrequited love and all that) simply didn't want to put in the effort to keep at least a little flame lit in the lantern. This is how a straightforward love song should be written and delivered; well enough to make the listener believe it could actually happen.

23) "All The Shine" - Childish Gambino - (written by Donald Glover) - (I'd get you MTV if I could man, but Pitchfork only like rappers who crazy or hood man) I am a fan of rap (let me clarify: thoughtful rap) because an intelligent rapper can turn a witty phrase and strike and emotional cord within the same song. I'm a fan of clever wordplay, poetry, and connecting emotionally to songs. On the whole, rap as a genre doesn't speak the most to me, but artists like Common, Mars Ill, and Childish Gambino can be so poetic and emotionally fulfilling that even a hater of rap at least has to respect them. I first heard of Donald Glover when the television show Community first started airing. Never would I have expected him to adopt a rap persona that seems to be the complete opposite of his Troy character on the show. And maybe that's why I like and appreciate it so much. The standard rhymes about money and girls are here (it's honestly hard to tell whether or not he lives this life or if it's just easier for him to come up with funny lines about those hip hop cliches, and to Glover's credit he openly admits rapping about that stuff is stupid), but there is also something deeper and more human going on here, something at times that's brutally honest. The linked live version above is fantastic -- that guitar lick is sweet.

22) "Pumped Up Kicks" - Foster The People - (written by Mark Foster) - (All the other kids with the pumped up kicks, you better run better run faster than my bullet) - I'll be honest, I don't know all the lyrics to this song and have no idea what the song could be about. The ubiquitous song of 2011 is quite simply one of the catchiest of the year and I can't help busting a move every time I hear it...and I don't dance. It's one of those rare overplayed songs that I never got tired of. It does, however, bring new meaning to the song when you do a Google search and discover the songwriter, Mark Foster, wrote the song about isolated youth and getting into the mind of a killer. Talk about your disparity between a happy melody (one of the happiest of all time?) and bleak lyrical content. I guess it kind of makes sense, though, seeing as how the song talks about outrunning guns and bullets and what not. But honestly it will never be about that for me. For me, it's just fun.

21) "The Fight" - Eli Young Band - (written by Natalie Hemby and Tim Putnam) - (You gotta fail before you see it through, you gotta spend your last dime before you ever make a million, you gotta know what brought you here, you gotta lose to persevere, but it's the way the sun will rise through the darkest night, yea it's always been worth the fight) I got into Eli Young Band courtesy of listening to Randy Rogers Band on Pandora, before their mainstream hit "Crazy Girl" ever hit the country charts. I'm glad these guys from Texas are getting some wider recognition, and I can only hope the same for RRB's album due to be released the first half of next year. "The Fight," from Eli Young Band's 2011 release Life At Best (love that title), is my favorite song on that album. It's got a feel-good melody with an ever-so-slight hint of darkness present, and realistic yet hopeful lyrics about the road your life can take, one that often seems anything but narrow. But maybe the narrow road is a metaphor; it is hope itself, so easily let go of (sometimes without us even realizing it) and so hard to maintain. Few seem to have it, fewer seem to keep it. This song wants to change that. And it succeeds, at least for four and a half minutes. I'm rooting for this one to be the third single.

20) "A Man Don't Have To Die" - Brad Paisley - (written by Rivers Rutherford, George Teren, and Josh Thompson) - (It's a place out by the airport where the girls dance just for you, and all you feel is drunk and broke and lonely when they're through) - I have to admit that my eyes watered the very first time I heard this song. Well written and well produced, it strikes an emotional cord that is hard for your bones to resist. It is without a doubt the best and most poignant song on Paisley's latest release This Is Country Music, and if it doesn't see the light of day at country radio after the enjoyable but ultimately meaningless "Camouflage," it will be an absolute shame. Country radio needs more songs like this. It hits on the economic woes Americans have been experiencing the past few years, the reality of broken families and broken homes and how that affects the lives of all parties concerned for the foreseeable future, and it wraps itself in religious/church imagery by illustrating the desire, especially in hard times, of human beings to hear sermons at about the goodness of God and the forgiveness of Jesus rather than the guilt-whip of hellfire and brimstone, the positive over the negative, the hope over the doom, because there is enough Hell on Earth to go around...thus the crux of the song: "A man don't have to die to go to hell." I have already quoted above what is to me the song's most poignant lyric. It's a heavy dose of reality about how sometimes we often glorify things in life to the detriment of realizing that some of those very things are only serving to deepen our pain. That kind of honesty is what country music is all about.

19) "Cartoon Gold" - Drive-By Truckers - (written by Mike Cooley) - Cooley is my favorite songwriter in the Truckers, and this song is a humorously poetic beast. I don't think I'd do it any justice by saying something about it so I'll just share the lyrics with you; they're all gold, so to speak:

I'm not good with numbers
I just count on knowing when I'm high enough
A mule with only two legs counting steps toward dangling carrots don't add up
I think about you when I can and even sometimes when I can't I do
Once the driver knows you got good sense he takes away the carrots too
Getting all excited finding nothing that was never there before
Is like bringing flowers to your Mama and tracking dog shit all over the floor
Jesus made the flowers but it took a dog to make the story good
I think about you when I can and sometime when I don't I probably should

Tending bar in LA after dark must be like mining cartoon gold
Rocks that won't cooperate and tools that drive you crazy must get old
I think about you when I can and sometimes when I do I still get caught
sitting in a bar in LA after dark with my sunglasses on

Dang. Dude knows how to turn phrases, come up with creative metaphors, and be dryly hilarious all at once, all the while making it all mean something, and that something is usually profound. I read online where someone called Cooley something like the "crazy, cool uncle" of the Truckers. Yup. I love this guy. Also, the studio version has some sweet rollicking banjo in it -- check it out.

18) "Hard Out Here" - Hayes Carll - (written by Hayes Carll) - (It gets hard out here, I know it don't look it, I used to have heart but the highway took it, the game was right but the deal was crooked, oh god we're all outta beer, it gets hard out here) - I discovered this singer/songwriter from Texas this year with his latest release Kmag Yoyo (and Other American Stories) (Kmag Yoyo is a military acronym for "Kiss my ass guys, you're on your own). I actually just purchased the album recently, so I haven't given it a proper listen all the way through, but this song and lead-off track "Stomp and Holler" are stellar. There are some pretty clever lines here; Carll has a great sense of humor about life on the road. In the live version he makes it clear that he indeed does have the best job in the world, but there are certain nights that leave him wondering, perhaps, what kind of life he has chosen, and on those nights running out of beer is probably a perfectly good reason to panic. Well, running out of beer would be a good reason to panic on any night, but I digress. Another favorite line of mine: "Everybody's talkin' 'bout the shape I'm in, they say boy you ain't a poet just a drunk with a pen". I can honestly say it is an utter lie that I have never felt that way before. Oh, and if you have a sense of humor, you have GOT to check out this song and video.

17) "Barton Hollow" - The Civil Wars - (written by John Paul White and Joy Williams) - (Ain't goin' back to Barton Hollow, the devil gonna follow me where'er I go, won't do no good washin' in the water, can't no preacher man save my soul) - Oh, that the rest of the album Barton Hollow sounded like this. Not that the album is bad, I was just a little disappointed because there is nothing as upbeat as this song, and more importantly none of the other songs are as evocative and reliant as "Barton Hollow" is on the imagery of the beautifully dirty South. It's without a doubt the standout track on the record, and while I do enjoy a few of the other songs on it, none of them approach the gloriously rustic and dark majesty of this one. Comprised of John Paul White (a dead ringer for Johnny Depp) and Joy Williams (former contemporary Christian singer), The Civil Wars formed when the two met at a Nashville songwriting session and hit it off, creatively speaking. And obviously the chemistry is there. The harmonies in this song are near perfect, soaring to heights that can make a tingle run down your spine and chills rise up from your skin; it went down South to take a bath and emerged pure and organic and clean as crystal, dripping its sultry waters still. I just wish the rest of the album was.

16) "Bastard Child" - Hellbound Glory - (written by Leroy Virgil) - (Coulda done worse, shoulda done better, Mama woulda tried if the bottle ever let her, I ain't prince or a pile, ain't doin' bad for a bastard child) - I discovered this band literally within the past month, and I think they're great. Their latest album Damaged Goods is crisply produced stone-cold country without being too polished; it actually contains just enough of that rough-around-the-edges sound. The songwriting is stellar, and lead singer Leroy Virgil has a hell of a unique voice, genuine and raspy yet absolutely capable of belting it out. "Bastard Child" is the lead-off track and one of the many standouts on this short 30-minute, 10-song album. What I really love about this song is the narrator is admitting that his childhood was far from perfect, but he's certainly not one to sit around and whine and complain about it. Life's not been easy for him, but nobody said it would be (he's heard "The Scientist" before); he just lives it as it comes, appreciating the foundation the past (good and bad) has left for him, learning all the while. He takes the "credit and the blame" for all the right and wrong he's done, with no shame. And, hey, though his family life seems to have been less than ideal growing up, he still sings: I'm just thankful for my birth and for my family, or else I wouldn't be me. So it ain't all bad. If those in the world that this song describes are grateful just to be alive, those of us who grew up pretty well-off could probably learn a little something from them. We all bring damaged goods to the table.

15) "Ray's Automatic Weapon" - Drive-By Truckers (written by Patterson Hood) - (Don't want to hurt nobody, but I keep on aiming closer, don't think that I can keep it feeling like I feel) - Mike Cooley may be my favorite songwriter in Drive-By Truckers, but I think Patterson Hood is one of the finest songwriters working today, so that says a lot about what I think of this band. Hood's always been the ringleader of sorts and always brings the most songs to each album, and something about "Ray's Automatic Weapon" stands out on the Truckers latest release Go-Go Boots. The song is essentially about a man, a Vietnam veteran, who offers to watch his friend Ray's gun for him. But the darkness in him from the war is still there, and the general darkness that is part of all of our natures starts trying to overtake him, and he begins to not trust himself with the gun anymore. These things that I been shooting at are getting all too real, the narrator tells Ray. Taken from the Drive-By Truckers website, Hood says of the song, "It was inspired by a visit from a friend that day who told me a chilling tale about a couple of Vietnam vets and a very powerful gun." In this informative Youtube video Hood goes on to say that the friend, a Vietnam vet himself, "nonchalantly" and "un-dramatically" told him the story about this guy's friend who had just bought a huge gun and had showed it to him; Hood's friend became concerned about his friend having such large weaponry around the house. Hood's friend convinced the guy to let him keep it at his house, on terms that it would still be his gun, he would let him come over and get it whenever he wanted. But Hood's friend "found himself out one afternoon, kind of on ridge overlooking a highway, seeing how close he could get to cars that would go by without hitting anybody. And it kind of dawned on him that maybe he didn't need to have the gun either. So he went home and he called his friend and told him to come get the gun back." Who in the world would think of putting such a story to song but Patterson Hood. I love it.

14) "Fire and Dynamite" - Drew Holcomb and The Neighbors - (written by Drew Holcomb) - (Some people talk to angels, some people people talk to themselves, well I don't know who you're talking to, but everything you say makes me want you) - I discovered this song watching Wide Open Country on CMT one night, which is weird considering I could go as wide open as I wanted to and I still wouldn't consider this a country song. But I'm thankful I found it. It's a great rock 'n' roll love song about finding that someone you can't live without (a husband and wife duo are two members of the band, see above), and it has some killer fuzzy electric guitar work in it. It also contains one of my favorite lines in a song this year: You are a novel in a sea of magazines. It's such a simple statement that says so much. The video is also really well done; it makes the song feel like a celebration.

13) "Million Dollar Bill" - Dawes - (written by Taylor Goldsmith) - (When it hits me that she's gone, I think I'll run for president, get my face put on the million dollar bill; so when these rich men that she wants show her ways they can take care of her, I'll have found a way to be there with her still) - Dawes is yet another band I discovered this past year. Their sound is modern and vintage at the same time, reminding me most of The Band, which is a heavy comparison. This was the song that convinced me to buy their latest album Nothing Is Wrong, and when I did I don't think I even listened to the rest of the CD before listening to this one about twenty times. Essentially, the song is about a girl who has moved on from her guy, but he still loves her (and maybe always will). He is simply not the man, or the "type" of man (she's a little shallow), she wants anymore, and though she has run off, she still possesses something in her essence that makes it impossible for him to hate her. It very well could be the thought of what they had they he is still in love with. The lyrics are what stand out on the track, each verse painting an achingly hyperbolic image of what the guy will do to somehow still see her face, somehow keep him close to her: put his face on a million dollar bill, live on the moon, become a movie star. These all make sense when you listen to the song, trust me. The melody is sweet yet evokes real pain and lead singer Tayler Goldsmith's vocal may just break your heart without the help of a cold-hearted woman. And with all that said, this isn't the only song I have from Dawes on this list.

12) "I'm Gettin' Stoned" - Eric Church - (written by Eric Church, Jeff Hyde, Casey Beathard, & Jeremy Crady) - (Here's to happy ever after and here's to balls and chains, here's to all those haters of old lovers new last names, here's to holin' up and getting right where I belong, she got a rock and I'm gettin' stoned) - I didn't get Eric Church at first. It seemed he was just another wannabe outlaw blowhard proclaiming to bring back "real country music" in the vein of Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. I listened to a song here and a song there and I just didn't get it; it all seemed like it was just more country rock. Then "Smoke A Little Smoke" came out and he used freaking Autotune, or at least some variation of it. But my "come to Jesus" turnaround came when I heard the first single from his latest release Chief earlier this year, "Homeboy" (don't worry, it'll be on on my favorite country singles list). I loved it the very first time I heard it; I thought the lyrics were clever and, strangely, for a bombastic country-rock song, it made me feel proud and even a little nostalgic. So I bought Chief, and much to my surprise I found the record to be top-notch from beginning to end; not a dud on the disc. The songwriting is humorous, clever, poignant, authentic, and poetic, and at the very heart of it, though the rock element is amped up quite a bit, it's stone-cold country music. I read some interviews with Mr. Church and began to understand what he meant; he's not trying to be Jennings or Cash, he's trying to write music closer to the spirit of the music they made and not cater to what some radio programmer thinks he wants to hear. But anyway, about the song: it's a humorous cut about a guy who hears that the girl he always thought he'd end up with got hitched. She got a rock and he's getting, well... It contains what might be my favorite line on Chief: Here's to all those haters of old lovers new last names. Clever stuff, deserving of a raised glass and a hearty AMEN, and it just sort of rolls off the tongue. There's some great acoustic and electric guitar work and the drums sound phenomenal, as they do on the entire album. Perhaps the best thing about the song is that Church sounds like he is having a blast recording it, like he, now happily married, may have some girl from the past who's bringing it out of him. There's only one thing left to say: To hell with her and him and that white horse they rode out on...

Be sure to check back in the next day or two for my top 11 of '11. I'm so clever.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Favorite Songs of 2011 - Honorable Mentions

Coming soon: Some lists of my favorite music of 2011, including my favorite and least favorite songs, and my favorite singles released to country radio. Before then, however, here are a few great songs from this past year that didn't quite make it to my top 20 or 25, which honestly doesn't really mean a whole lot of anything. The top ten is my surefire bread and butter, my pure unadulterated favorite songs from 2011. Their reveal will be exciting, I promise. Anyway, click on the links (bolded song name and artist) to hear the song and/or see the video or performance of it.

 "Moves Like Jagger" - Little Big Town - Part of their Scattered, Smothered, and Covered cover song series, Little Big Town's version surpasses Maroon 5's grossly overplayed original in every way, stripping the song down to it's bare, organic essentials and adding a sweet banjo line for good measure. Take me by the tongue and I'll know you, kiss me 'til you're drunk and I'll show you... (deep thoughts, Adam Levine)

 "My Love Follows You Where You Go" - Alison Krauss and Union Station - This might be the most upbeat song on their latest release Paper Airplane. It's pretty much straightforward bluegrass (at least for AK+US), and with the always superb musicianship of Union Station and the seemingly supernatural vocals of Alison Krauss, this tale of a parent lamenting as their teenager leaves home to chase a bright future -- yet at the same time declaring that their love will always be there with them -- goes down smoothly. Future like a promise, you're a city of gold, stubborn in your bones, and Jesus in your soul

 "Curse The Love Songs" - The Hawk In Paris - This usually isn't my thing, but a good song is a good song. And with Dan Haseltine (from one of my favorite bands Jars of Clay) on lead vocals, it's hard to go wrong. Haseltine has a unique and emotive voice that fits nicely with the heavy-drums-and-synthesizers style, an admitted and blatant reference to eighties musical bombast. But there's also a ton of heart here. Have you ever stood out in the rain, watched love grow cold and roll away, and in your heart feel the weight that things will never change

 "Another Sunday Morning Hangover" - Levi Lowrey - Any person that used to be heavily involved in church but has since strayed for one reason or another will connect with this song. It's not that you don't believe anymore; you do. It's just that you got tired of feeling so damn guilty about everything all the time. Sometimes that guilt can creep back in, especially on some of the more wild nights. Or, specifically, those Sunday mornings you now spend recovering from the night before rather than sitting in a pew. God knows you've tried to change and go back many times. Maybe one day you will for good. Maybe not. I know the Lord turned the water to wine, but the devil made me drink it last night

 "The Mirror" - Jill Andrews - Probably my favorite female vocalist and singer/songwriter of all time (I'm not exaggerating). Also, I used to have a HUGE crush on her (definitely not exaggerating, see picture above). Formerly of the group The Everybodyfields, a phenomenal band that made "real country music from the Great American South," Andrews went for pop stardom in the vein of Sara Bareilles (although Andrews is on a completely different level than her, to be quite honest) with her first full-length solo release The Mirror. And though it would have been well-deserved, it didn't really pan out. But the record is pretty good, and the title track and only single (I believe) is quite catchy. The chorus also contains some really nice background vocals that add a pleasantly nostalgic effect to the whole affair. You broke the mirror but I will get the bad luck

 "Rope" - Foo Fighters - When it comes to modern rock, it just never gets any better than Foo Fighters. They are melodic, balls out, and riff heavy. The best and most consistent band in mainstream rock, "Rope" is the song that hooked me into buy their new record Wasting Light. It recalls late 90s, early 00s Foo for me, probably because guitarist Pat Smear from 1997's The Colour And The Shape returned for this album (I remember him vividly from the "Monkeywrench" video), not to mention the fact that the album was recorded in Dave Grohl's garage. And both of those are really good things. This indecision's got me climbing up the wall, been cheating gravity and waiting on the fall

"Quarter Chicken Dark" - Yo-Yo Ma, Stuart Duncan, Edgar Meyer & Chris Thile - I will always at the very least check out anything mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile puts out, because while I don't necessarily like everything he does, I certainly think he's prolific. He's in top form here, along with his three counterparts who I admit I'm not too familiar with. The musicianship on display here is incredible and a joy to watch. It feels literally like a combination of bluegrass, classical, and jazz while not really being any of those, and believe it or not, you can kind of rock out to it. They released an album in 2011 called The Goat Rodeo Sessions (hmm...okay), and this Colbert Report performance is fine stuff.

 "Paradise" - Coldplay - This is quite simply a gorgeous song that's driven by it's sweet-as-a-candy-cane melody, strong and heavy beat, and some really beautiful strings/synths (I can't really tell which). It sounds so good that I don't even know what most of the lyrics are. It doesn't matter. Gotta see these guys in concert before I die, though, for sure. This could be Para- Para- Paradise, Para- Para- Paradise

Friday, December 2, 2011

Billboard Top Songs on Country Radio - #20-16

Even though I didn't finish the reviews for the rest of the top 30 last week, numbers 30 through 21 are virtually the same so I'll just pick up right where I left off. I'll start, however, with the lone two additions at #30 and 29:

 30. "Alone With You" - Jake Owen - This is a song about being addicted to a girl. And I really like it. The song, not being addicted to a girl (well, that's true most of the time). There is no reasonable answer to the question (and lyric), "Why are you the one that I want?" He just does. Said girl apparently cannot make up her mind about said addiction-addled guy, or at least she pretends she can't as to keep him both close and at a distance at the same time. Owen's vocal melody here sounds quite unique for country radio, and you can really sense the emotion in his voice, especially at the end of the song when he almost shouts "Don't say you love me 'cause you know you're gonna love me and leave." Damn. I'm not up to par with all of my country songwriters yet, but Shane McAnally, J.T. Harding, and Catt Gravitt really put together a foundation that Owen could build upon with his strong vocal chops. While the production is pretty standard fare, the song is stone cold country heartbreak in lyrical content, and its uniqueness and vocal performance will make it stand out. Well done, Mr. Owen. (An aside regarding the music video -- and, seeing as there is a gorgeous half-naked woman throughout it, calling this a complaint would be a bit over the top, but: the video essentially reduces this song to being about nothing than a series of addictive booty calls. Had I never seen the video, that would probably not have been high on my list of ways this song could be interpreted. Lyrics such as the above mentioned "you'll just love me and leave me", "I don't see you laugh, you don't call me back, but you kiss me when you're drunk", and "Don't say it doesn't matter 'cause it's gonna matter to me" seem to suggest that something deeper and a little more complex is going on here. Okay, there is that line "Your body's like a pill I shouldn't take." But you should take that line and interpret it within the lyrical context of the rest of the song [see what I did th.....nevermind]. Anyway, the video is sexy, as is the girl in it, and Owen with his overdone mugging and half heartbroken/menacing looks at the camera [blame the director or the record label, not him] I'm sure had a delightful time making it. I just don't think it serves the story of the song well. That's all. Now I'm going to go watch it again to check out that girl.)

 29. "Love's Gonna Make It Alright" - George Strait - I haven't had the chance to listen to his Here For A Good Time album all the way through yet, but this song starts it out in a classically Strait feel-good way. The king of country radio sings about the all-encompassing power of love to bring us back around to the point of looking at our lot in life with hope again. He takes his woman out on the town and, as could be predicted, they end up watching the sun come up through their bedroom window. This standard country theme is brought to life by a truly upbeat melody that includes a happy fiddle and a little steel guitar lick that pops up from time to time. I wasn't crazy about "Here For A Good Time" (the single), but I didn't dislike it either; there is no apathy when it comes to "Love's Gonna Make It Alright," a song much needed on the airwaves for the long and weary months of winter that lie ahead. Even if you don't have a "love" to make it alright, this song will.

20. "Home" - Dierks Bentley - Already reviewed. See post below.

19. "Storm Warning" - Hunter Hayes - I was fully prepared to hate this song; the cover for his album just looks like he is begging to be accepted as the male equivalent to Taylor Swift. And maybe he is, and maybe that isn't such an awful thing. Now Swift ain't my cup of tea, but I certainly respect the fact that she writes her own music, and often when one of her songs comes on the radio I find myself thinking, "Wow, that is actually not too bad." ("Sparks Fly," the song, I admittedly like a lot.) She has a real gift for melody, and it seems so does Hunter Hayes. He co-wrote this song (also worth mentioning is that he had a hand it writing every song on his debut album); there are some clever lyrics to be found and the melody is decent but not good enough to stand out. On the whole, it's a promising first single, and no doubt this kid is talented, but it's all just a little to cutesy-sounding for me, sort of like Swift's "Love Story." And personally, it's a little hard to relate to someone born seven years after me who is dsinging about the humorous pitfalls that love can take. But I probably won't change the station the first couple times I hear this on the radio. Here's to hoping his voice matures (read: deepens, or at least starts to sound fuller) as does the overall production and sound of his songs. I'm sure we haven't heard the last of the young Mr. Hayes.

18. "I'm Gonna Love You Through It" - Martina McBride - I'm just going to say it: Martina McBride just doesn't do much for me anymore. Maybe it's because her recent output of songs are very topical (see: "Teenage Daughters" - didn't much care for that tune). Looking (pretty far) back, "Independence Day" and "Wild Angels" are my two favorite songs of hers. Obviously, she deserves the respect she gets and her place on country radio, what with her gifted voice and longevity of her presence in the format, I just haven't really enjoyed much of her recent output. Truth be told, "I'm Gonna Love You Through It" is probably my favorite single of hers in recent years, but I think that's more because of it's message and for the fact that it is no doubt touching lives that have been touched by the terrible disease of cancer. The declaration of loving somebody through something so horrible, no matter the outcome, is to be admired. I can see why this has become such a popular song, I just do not connect to it in the slightest on a personal level. With that said, it is unquestionably a good thing that songs like this exist in the world.

17. "I Got Nothin'" - Darius Rucker - I believe this is Mr. Rucker's finest single release since the last two singles from his debut album, "Alright" and "History in the Making." I just didn't care much for "Come Back Song" or "This." "I Got Nothin'" is about a couple whose love has died; they want nothing more than to rekindle it, but the man (the narrator; makes sense) simply cannot find the words to even begin that process no matter how much he prays to come up with something. For better or worse, it is a relationship that is doomed to not be revived. Perhaps nothing "happened" that caused the relationship to get to this point, just the slow and subtle burn of time, and time just was not on their side. Every element in this song compliments the other elements nicely; the production, melody, and lyric really convey the depth of the couple's devastation. It is quite emotional. Rucker's delivery of the following verse is especially heartfelt: "I watch you pack your things, you look down at your ring, slowly slip it off and then lay it on our bed. Maybe I should pick it up and get down on my knees, tell you what you want to hear, and give you what you need." Bravely, the ending does not shy away from the bleakness, it does not offer that tiny ray of hope so desperately needed; she is leaving, that is that, and he says "If you go, I got nothin'." We are meant to believe that she is indeed gone, and that "I got nothin'" has truly become the narrator's truth. Such is the feeling, sometimes, of life. This song entered the charts on June 4th and has been a bit of a slow burn getting up to #17. That's not hard to believe seeing as it's not an easy listen, especially for couples literally going through what the songs speaks to; yet it is an immensely listenable song because it can be felt. Nicely done by Rucker and co-writer Clay Mills.

16. "One More Drinkin' Song" - Jerrod Niemann - This truly is just another drinkin' song. Not that that's a bad thing, it just brings nothing new to the table (or to the bar, as it were). It's Niemann's most traditional sounding single thus far, and would certainly fit nicely on a mix between Alan Jackson's "It's Five O'Clock Somwhere", Garth Brooks' "Friends In Low Places", and Toby Keith's "Red Solo Cup", though it doesn't quite reach those heights (or it were). Plus, singing the word "margadaquiriscrewalottaonthebeach" has got to be ten tons of fun to sing when one is well past the point of sobriety. Hell, the drunken back-up singers from "Friends In Low Places" even make an appearance, at one point shouting everyone's goal for the night, "blanking out" Niemann in the process. Naughty guys and gals. Overall, the song is certainly pleasant and easy enough on the ears to sing along to. Or to get-hopped-up-and-make-some-bad-decisions to (you it were).

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thoughts on the Top 30 songs on the Billboard Country Radio Charts - Numbers 30-21

30. "Didn't I" - James Wesley - This is the typical song country radio programmers seem to love in these modern times. Overblown production, a fairly generic melody, standard electric guitar solo at the end, trite lyrics ("Didn't I give you everything you ever wanted, love you like crazy, let's be honest"). Wesley has got a decent voice (think Josh Turner but not as deep), but he needs better material to do it justice. I don't necessarily hate the song, there just isn't one thing special or unique about it. Country radio will be none the better if this keeps climbing the charts.

29. "My Heart Can't Tell You No" - Sara Evans - "Stronger" was one of the most overplayed songs at country radio in recent memory. I went from hating it, to thinking it was okay, to hating it again. All the way around, this seems to me a better song and better single. And I actually just discovered that it is a song that Rod Stewart did in the 80s. I'm not even going to bother to listen to it because I will probably hate it, but Evans really owns her version. The best part is the steel guitar ride that comes in on the chorus. That damn instrument just sounds good on any song -- it's so emotive, and thusly, adds some emotional depth to the song here. There are, however, some pretty needless and pointless background vocals at the end of it. I'm not sure what they were going for with them, and they just end up sounding cheesy.

28. "Red Solo Cup" - Toby Keith - The video for this song became an instant viral sensation. I really didn't expect radio to pick it up because it is so blatantly about getting wasted simply for the fun debauchery of it. Plus, it says the word "testicles," not to mention the production is sparse and not overblown pizazz. Keith himself admitted it's the dumbest song he's ever heard, but since when did that make a song bad? It's an absolutely perfect and fun-as-hell drinking song that is impossible not to sing along with after you hear it even just one time. The lyrics are pretty funny and clever, and the video is a must see. I'm sure this will be played loud at some ugly sweater parties this Christmas when things get a little out of control, as they tend to do.

27. "Where I Come From" - Montgomery Gentry - I will admit to being a little biased toward these guys as they hail from my home state of Kentucky. I think they've released a majority of good singles since the beginning of their career, "Roll With Me" being one of my recent favorites. Though they don't write much of their own music, the duo has a knack for choosing songs that make you proud to be who you are and where you're from, especially if you're from a small town. Sample lyric: "See that door right there, man I swear that it ain't never been locked, and I guarantee it never will"; I can't tell you how many times I've heard my parents and their siblings say things like this when they talk about growing up in Eastern Kentucky, back when "things was different." Unfortunately, this song may succeed more on it's heavy dose of nostalgia than a summation of how of life really is today in small-town America, or at least in small-town Appalachia, where drugs, poverty, and corporate exploitation are rampant. Still, it's a meaningful song. The music video depicts a military battle, and in so doing brings attention to the fact that much (and maybe most) of those making sacrifices for our country come from and have roots in these small towns. It is a fitting tribute. It seems to have a taken this one a while to crack the top 30 but I'm glad it did, and maybe it can put a little spark back into these Kentucky boys' careers.

26. "Bait A Hook" - Justin Moore - I didn't like "Small Town U.S.A" at first but it grew on me, "Backwoods" I hated, and "If Heaven Wasn't So Far Away" was good but overplayed. In general, I'm not a huge fan of Moore's, but that may be because he has proclaimed himself one of the few outlaws in country music today, his latest album release even being titled the oh-so-unsubtle "Outlaws Like Me." He's had some good singles, but by an "outlaw's" standards -- hell, by country radio standards -- they have been nothing out of the ordinary: by the book ballads and a Jason Aldean rip-off. "Bait A Hook," however, is my favorite single Moore has released, and one of my favorite singles currently on the airwaves. Sure, he's making fun of a guy who can't even do the basics of fishing (perhaps that guy should be made fun of; also, a guy who drinks "umbrella drinks"), but I also take it as being a little tongue-in-cheek. For example, I care about environmental issues (which, if you consider yourself a "country" person, shouldn't that be a given? Alas, that is for another post), but I found the line about the Prius amusing: "I heard he drives a Prius 'cause he's into being green". The best part of the song is the production, the beat chugging alongside a wonderful steel guitar riff throughout the whole song. The worst part is the unfortunate line, "Sounds like it sucks," but that is something I can overlook since I enjoy the rest of the song so much.

25. "Amen" - Eden's Edge - I've heard and read very little about this group, so I'll have no preconceived notions listening to this. Judging by their promo pictures, is this the new Band Perry, only with two gals instead of two dudes with bad haircuts? Upon hearing the first notes of the song, my question doesn't quite seem that unfair and off-base: there's some bluegrass instrumentation (dobro) and clever lyrics ("I heard from a friend of a friend of a friend that you finally got rid of that girlfriend"). I suppose the song is pleasant enough, and the lead singer has a really great voice (vaguely reminiscent of Dolly Parton). It seems the only glaring difference between them and The Band Perry is that Eden's Edge has two members that are easy on the eyes rather than just one. Country radio has done much, much worse. I'll be watching for what this group releases next.

24. "Long Way To Go" - Alan Jackson - I thought his last two singles, "It's Just That Way" (bad) and "Hard Hat And A Hammer" (a little better), were not the greatest choices to release from his Freight Train album (it is a crime that "Taillights Blue" was not released as a single off of it). "Long Way To Go" is a stellar choice, but I have no idea why it was not released at the end of Spring/beginning of summer instead of the end of June (I guess technically, the release date wasn't too bad, it just didn't climb the charts fast enough). It has an obvious fun-loving summer vibe that can (I guess) provide some escape during the colder weather or just make you mad that it's cold and you're not at the beach. Regardless, maybe it will work as an escape from what has now become winter, and I hope it makes it to the top ten as neither one of the last two singles even cracked the top 15. George Strait and Alan Jackson are the two elder statesmen of country music, and if radio stops playing their songs to make room for a 35 years old or less generation to take over, only bad things can come of it. I believer Jackson is in more danger of falling off than Strait, but both their presences are necessary at country radio.

23. "You Gonna Fly" - Keith Urban - Is there a mainstream country star who loves to stick a banjo line into pretty much every standard pop/rock tune he releases more than Keith Urban? The banjo being my favorite instrument, I actually kind of dig it, but it makes this song no more country than his last song. As has been covered extensively, Urban is a virtuoso guitar player and has a gift for a catchy melody, which "You Gonna Fly" definitely has. And there's nothing better than a stone cold down on your luck country song, but I appreciate the positivity Urban seems to be striving for with his recent singles. He may be the ringleader of the pop/rock/country crossover movement, but there aren't many, if any, who do it better, and he's earned his spot at country radio as all of his songs seem to chart well. Plus, he's a fan of Radney Foster.

22. "Camouflage" - Brad Paisley - I would love to have seen "A Man Don't Have To Die" released as a single, but "Camouflage," though obviously completely different, is a decent choice. It's a fun and fast-paced song with plenty of steel guitar and fiddle to whip your ass into a frenzy. I know some people think Brad Paisley's "non-serious" songs are stupid, but I've always thought the majority of them contained some pretty clever wordplay (see: "Ticks", "Alcohol", "Mud On The Tires", and of course "I'm Gonna Miss Her"). I can easily see "Camouflage" fitting in nicely with these songs and becoming a country/redneck anthem of sorts. You've got a guy who paints his car camouflage and it disappears when he pulls it out of his garage (pretty funny), and you've got a couple who go to prom dressed in the familiar duds and you can only see their faces and their hands, and "you should have seen the way it popped with her corsage." There is also an interesting line about the rebel flag offending some people (and Paisley is empathetic as far as that goes), but camo can be used as a great substitute to still show your southern pride. It's a nice sentiment that's not shoved down your throat. The song is harmless fun and will probably be another hit for the guitar-shredding songwriter.

21. "Home" - Dierks Bentley - It doesn't seem right; a patriotic song on country radio that is not afraid to come right out with the fact that America is far from perfect: "We got a ways to go, but this is still the place that we all call home." But if you ask me, a song like this makes me feel even prouder to be an American. We have the freedom to disagree vehemently with one another on keys issues, yet that freedom is the thing we all have in common, that binds us all together. When our disagreements turn to hatred for one another, which, at least if you ask the media, they too often do, then there's a problem. A nice melody and jangly guitars compliment the lyrics well, and Bentley's voice as always is a force to be reckoned with. There is a haunting verse at the end of the song that captures superbly what it means to be not only a free American but a free human being: "Red, how the blood ran red, and we laid our dead in sacred ground. Just think, wonder what they'd think if they could see us now." Sacrifices have been made, militarily and otherwise, by those we have been close to and those who were strangers to us; regardless, we must continually ask ourselves if we are living up to the sacrifice of those who have gone on, as individuals, families, and collectively as a nation. If this is Bentley's indictment of the extreme polarization our country has grown accustomed to, then I think it's a timely message, and one that the often way-far-right rhetoric of country radio would do well to open it's mind to. Based on it's chart position the past few weeks, it seems radio is giving "Home" that chance. It's a worthy follow-up to the why-won't-anybody-drink-with-me fun of "Am I The Only One?" (An aside: normally I HATE politics with my music, but when the message is subtle and doesn't have to beat you over the head and comes down, ultimately, on the side of getting along with one another and being grateful for the freedoms we all have in common, I become an appreciative fan. There's nothing more American than that.)

Cover of "The Prettiest Thing" by David Childers

Another song I became familiar with because of an Avett Brothers Crackerfarm video on YouTube. It's a really great song and I certainly plan on checking out more of Mr. Childers tunes.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A Great Article

It's amazing that this article hits on a topic I've been thinking about and was hoping to get some words down about soon, right down to the example of "Country Girl (Shake It For Me)" being a song I don't particularly like, yet that doesn't mean I can or should criticize it or someone who loves it. Of course, the article says everything better than I could have said it (I will be bookmarking it and learning from it, to be sure). The writer of the article, Peter Cooper, states that no one can be completely objective when it comes to music or art; I'll take that one step further and say that everyone is and indeed always will be subjective when it comes to what they "like." There are those who get their kicks by being musical elitists, judging everything they don't like as stupid and worthy of the bottom of the trash heap. But there are others who realize that to have an opinion about music doesn't mean you have to be a snobby jerk about it; to have a desire to write about music doesn't mean you have to be a critic who comes down ruthlessly on anything remotely light-hearted or anything that comes close to breaching the mainstream. It is a truly great article.

Peter Cooper on Music: Be thankful for music (both kinds) (The Tennessean)

Speaking of this topic, I'm hoping to start writing about each individual song on the top 30 country radio charts. I'll include about five or ten mini-reviews in one post. We'll see what happens, but I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm not as cynical about the state of country radio as much as many seem to be.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Killer Workout Mix

I just made it so I haven't worked out to it yet, but on the surface it is awesome. I've been needing to make one for awhile. I didn't include any Drive-By Truckers because they have enough great heavy songs that they deserve their own. Enjoy.
  1. Still Here Waiting  - Eve 6
  2. Woman - Wolfmother
  3. Superhero Girl - Eve 6
  4. 10 A.M. Automatic - The Black Keys
  5. When She Comes - Injected
  6. The First Song - Band of Horses
  7. Money (Dollar Bill) - Everlast
  8. Away From Me  - Puddle of Mudd
  9. Creepin' - Eric Church
  10. Stacked Actors - Foo Fighters
  11. Ten Miles Deep - Randy Rogers Band
  12. Get Off On The Pain - Gary Allan
  13. Paris (Ohh La La) - Grace Potter & The Nocturnals
  14. This Ol' Wheel - Shooter Jennings
  15. Everyone Needs A Halo - Lovedrug
  16. God Love Her - Toby Keith
  17. Roll On Jordan  - Sons of Bill
  18. Cigarettes, Wedding Bands - Band of Horses
  19. 99 Problems - Jay-Z
  20. Here To Stay - Korn
  21. I Heard You - Good Charlotte
  22. Colossal  - Wolfmother
  23. Nothingwrong - Jimmy Eat World
  24. Stuck - Limp Bizkit
  25. Drown Me Slowly - Audioslave

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cover of "For Today" by Jessica Lea Mayfield

I first heard this song as covered by The Avett Brothers singing it in a hallway, and loved it immediately. It's fairly simple to learn and fun as hell to sing. Well done, Ms. Mayfield. Oh, and bathroom acoustics are swell.

Friday, November 4, 2011

"Alabama Pines" - New music video from Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit

"Alabama Pines" is the first cut on Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit's latest release Here We Rest; it's a song that sets the tone of the album, letting the listener know they're in for a little less rock-heavy experience than with the self-titled collection that came before, and are instead about to embark on a musical journey influenced more by the rapidly growing and distinctive sound of the Americana "movement." The change toward more acoustic arrangements seems natural and suits Isbell and the band quite well (the album does still maintain some heavier moments). One example is the beautiful fiddle line that eases it's way through "Alabama Pines" like a train gliding down a straightaway track. As a nice compliment to the song, the music video is testament to the blessings and struggles of road life, where at times one can feel like they're living the dream or at times feel like an isolated rambler.

Any music lover, especially one who likes to write about music, enjoys a good song about life on the road. Many of us are failed musicians ourselves, or simply smart enough to realize that we just don't got what it takes, namely a healthy dose of musical talent. So we get to live vicariously through our favorite artists and dream about both the good the and bad of life on rolling wheels -- living it up, drinking it up, pushing through the eventual piercing loneliness and isolation the road seems determined to drive you to, longing for the familiarity and comfort of home. "Alabama Pines" seems to speak to that feeling and captures it well.

The road can ultimately be great; after all, you're getting to share your music with people who (usually) want to hear it, people who pay money specifically so they can come see you play, either because you had a song or an album or multiple albums that made them think "thank God I'm not the only one" or made them feel...something. Alive, hopefully. But as the song says, sleeping in hotels without air conditioning, traveling for hours a day, the repetition of lonely Sunday afternoons where you "can't stand the pain of being by yourself without a little help" from some good liquor, probably tend to take their wear on person.

In the video Isbell is shown playing his guitar (and drinking) alone in a motel room, the one the narrator moves into at the beginning of the song for one reason or another: he got a job in a new town and hasn't found permanent residence yet, he likes the anonymity of staying at a place where people are always coming and going, or maybe he's running from home -- from a girl, from his youth, from the monotony -- only to find himself missing it like hell when he's gone. The motel room footage is combined with him driving the open highway in a classic convertible, smoking cigarettes, staring at a weary face in the mirror, and performing with the rest of the band at a hole-in-the-wall club. At one point a little girl gives him a drawing of herself as a stick figure smiling under a rainbow, surely a sign of the innocence that is lost as we become adults living in the "real world," but perhaps is also a way of saying we need to recapture a least a little bit of that innocence if we're going to make it, or at least remain hopeful about making it.

It's a great song and a great video. Potently matter of fact lyrics really bring the theme of isolation home: "No one gives a damn about the things I give a damn about" and "I needed that damn woman like a dream needs gasoline." It's a shame Isbell isn't more well-known as he has one of the best voices in music today, and he and the 400 Unit are crafting some mighty fine country songs full of heart and authenticity. I can almost smell those pines.

Side note: Isbell and the band are making their first national TV appearance on Letterman tonight. I'm sure they're glad for the exposure, as am I.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Avett Brothers w/ Jessica Lea Mayfield – 10/27/11 Rupp Arena, Lexington, KY

If memory serves me correctly, I’ve seen the Avett Brothers in concert five times. Each show has been a wonderful experience, but I’d have to say my favorite was in 2007 at the now defunct venue/dive bar called The Dame in Lexington, KY. The Dame, a former touchstone of the Lexington music community, was part of a class of smaller venues country-wide that the brothers used to play more frequently before their fanbase grew exponentially with the release of their last studio album I and Love and You in 2009. That exponential growth was evidenced by their show at Rupp Arena last Thursday evening. A man, who I believe said he was the owner of Rupp Arena, came out and talked to fans before the show started and said that they had sold about 5,000 tickets, though it felt to me like more than that. Regardless of the final tally, this concert confirmed that no matter what size the venue, the typical Avett Brothers energy and passion has certainly not been lost and, if anything, the group seems almost more inspired and excited than it’s ever been.

Jesssica Lea Mayfield was the opener, and though Rupp probably isn’t the best venue for a simple performance by a girl playing sad country songs accompanied only by her acoustic guitar, I thought she did a great job. I heard some people say that all of her songs sounded the same, but it’s hard to pick up on the nuances of every song (especially songs you’ve never heard before) in a big venue with no added instrumentation and nobody singing harmony. That is, of course, unless you count the brothers Avett, Scott and Seth, obviously huge fans of Mayfield,who came out with her on the very first song to sing harmony with her (on her mic) on the chorus of “For Today.” Avett devotees will already know that the band does a glorious cover of this great song that has made the rounds on Youtube and has nearly a million views. I had suspected they might come out and do the song with her but had no idea it’d be the very first one. There was an added grace to the moment as the brothers did not speak a single word to the crowd, and when the song was over they quietly exited the stage.

The brothers returned after Mayfield finished her set with cellist extraordinaire Joe Kwon and a replacement for Bob Crawford on bass; unfortunately Crawford has been unable to attend a string of shows due to health issues his daughter has been facing. Although Bob was missed, his replacement filled in nicely. The group began their set surprisingly with the slow opening chords of “Salina” from the album Emotionalism, followed by “And It Spread” and it’s rollicking, shouty chorus from the album I and Love and You. They played mostly songs from these two albums, including crowd favorites “Will You Return”, “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”, “Shame”, “Go To Sleep”, and “I and Love and You .” The energy was contagious from the get go, with “Salina” morphing into a sing-a-long that name drops cities from across the country, including a favorite moment for Southern audiences when Scott sings “New York, quit calling, New York leave me be.” During the “la-las” (that went on for many minutes longer than the album version, and were a blast) at the end of “Go To Sleep”, the brothers played to the crowd, Scott saying “I hear you singing” and Seth saying “Y’all sound beautiful!” to the applause and shouting and continued singing-along of the Rupp Arena crowd.

This brings me to what I thought was the best thing about the show: the interaction between band and audience. It was plainly obvious that the Avetts were having a ball playing their songs for the Kentucky faithful, and that in turn seemed to give the crowd permission to get respectfully rowdy, to participate along with the band in what from the beginning seemed more like a celebration than a music show. About halfway through the faint – and then heavy – smell of marijuana began to fill the general admission section on the floor of the arena. I looked around several times and people were jumping up and down, bobbing their heads, smiling, looking at their friends as if to say what a great time they were having, and – perhaps most importantly – singing along with every word. I know some people get annoyed when crowds sing at shows, but I love it. And the band encouraged it – I could hear their playing, singing, and crowd banter loud and clear.

A few other highlights for me include when Scott and Seth took to a single microphone at the left of the stage for some truly brotherly singing of “When I Drink” and “Murder in the City” from The Gleam EPs, and then a surprising and stirring rendition of “Sorry Man” from one of their first long-player releases, A Carolina Jubilee. The song is a determined story about young love persevering in the face of parental opposition to the young man, and the crowd, guys and girls alike, ate it up. The song fits the banjo- and acoustic guitar-only arrangement nicely. Another favorite of the night was when they played “At The Beach” from Mignoette. I had never heard the song live before and it surpassed my expectations; it was fun, breezy (as the title might imply), and even a little funky. The crowd got down. Live favorite “Talk On Indolence” absolutely rocked, and it was hilarious listening to the everyone try to sing along with the tongue-twisting opening of the song. A song from their up and coming album to be released (hopefully) early next year called “The Once and Future Carpenter” slowed the pace but not the celebration, and many fans already knew the words; it’s one of the most mature and life-affirming tunes the brothers have ever penned. I also loved watching Joe Kwon play his cello, relentlessly breaking strings and head-banging all the while. His passion for his instrument, as it is with the other members of the band, is palpable. Some songs he played without the cello touching the ground, and at one point he rocked it out like an electric guitar while his long black hair covered his face like The Undertaker. I wasn’t sure how he’d fit in when he joined the group in 2007, but four years later there is no question he belongs and brings an energy and musical ability all his own. Be sure to keep an eye on him at the next Avett show you go to.

The band concluded with “The Perfect Space” and returned for a two-song encore that included “Swept Away” and the oft-covered Earl Scruggs tune “Blue Ridge Mountain Blues”, which ended the night fittingly in a bluegrassy fever. Do not let the naysayers and skeptics fool you in to thinking The Avett Brothers have sold out or gotten “too big” to be enjoyable. It simply ain’t true. I can’t imagine getting my money’s worth, plus more – the band displayed contagious energy and true gratitude, not to mention they played for nearly two hours – from any other band than I did last Thursday with these guys. It’s a pleasure having a group like them making music in this present day for so many people to connect so profoundly with, not only at shows but on albums, and hopefully they will be touring for a long time to come. They are truly a band for our times, lacking pretension, affirming life, and earnest when it’s cool not to be. Their tours are about more than a string of shows, they are about celebrating life: the ups, the downs, the similar experiences we all have. And the thing about a celebration is that you are invited and encouraged to participate. It’s time to get rowdy.

I'm not entirely sure about this website yet, but looking over it it looks legit and fairly new. I submitted this review and they ended up posting it. Not sure what their standards are for posting, but here's a link:   This review on VZ Magazine website

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Thoughts on the new Avett Brothers song "The Once and Future Carpenter"

"'The Once and Future Carpenter' is a song that we've been working on for awhile, and we're very excited about it because we feel like we need to present a current example of where we are, who we are. It's not really acceptable to only present who we've been." -Seth Avett

I have to say that I wasn't sure what to expect when The Avett Brothers debuted their new song "The Once and Future Carpenter" on CMT a few months ago. After the stylistic changes they made on their last album, I and Love and You, and to a certain degree Emotionalism before that, there seemed many directions they could follow. Though I and Love and You certainly widened their fanbase, it also divided many Avett devotees who've followed the band from the beginning, and also those who discovered them with the release of Emotionalism and went back and bought their entire catalog. Too overproduced, too clean, too poppy, too much piano. I can empathize with those who feel this way, and there is a validity to their critiques.

But for as much as I love the banjo, and for as much as I love the raucous and raw energy of their live shows, with the Avetts it's always been about the songs for me. And Scott and Seth Avett, I believe, are two of the finest living songwriters making music today. After listening to I and Love and You many times over the last couple years, it's easy to see that great songs are still what drive this band, songs ripe with heart, authenticity, truth, and the ability to connect with people in ways that a good majority of songs are simply incapable of. I can say today without hesitation that I do indeed love I and Love and You. And "The Once and Future Carpenter" is not only a logical step forward, but one of the most well-written songs they have ever created.

The song starts off with Seth Avett picking his acoustic guitar while brother Scott comes singing lyrics to the beginning of a story about a rambler, a "poet young and hungry" who hits the road in search of a way of life that will satisfy his soul. Being a story song, it's a throwback to old country music in it's execution, and the Avetts revive that style with just enough modern sensibility to make it fresh again.

It's hard for me to describe how much these lyrics resonate with me because so many of their songs have, and strangely, with "Carpenter" it took a few listens for its resonance to shine through. Upon first listen, it's a deceptively simple and straightforward tune, but allow the song's earnestness and creative metaphors to sink in and a depth is revealed that is at once rewarding and inspiring. I could post the whole song as an example but that would be boring, so I'll just comment on a few favorite parts.

Though he "ain't from Texas," the carpenter/narrator departs Dallas at the beginning of the song, aware of the "lonesome sound" that's chasing him; then he states:

I ain't a gambler but I can recognize a hand
and when to hold when queens are staring back at me

God, I love this line. Two meanings strike me with the lyric, the first being that the carpenter knows when the right time is to take a chance, to leave his home and in the tradition of Huckleberry Finn, "light out for the territory." He may not have been much of a risk taker in the past, but he can recognize when the time is right to break new ground. The second meaning emerged after a few listens and completely took me by surprise. At the root of the narrator's journey to find meaning in life is his quest for love. The "queens" are the women he meets on the road, women who offer hands of comfort to hold, some perhaps only for a night; but also that one woman who offers the possibility of love not only for the night but for life. A theme throughout much of the Avetts' music is that women can be baffling, but the love of a good woman and loving a good woman is unlike anything else in the world. (Not always smooth-sailing of course, but that's for another write-up!) It's that true, lasting love that's not easy to find; that lasting love that the carpenter is ultimately seeking, love that can drown out the "lonesome sound."

If I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die

This simple statement comes at the end of a chorus that testifies to the ups and downs, the sacrifices and celebrations, that will always be a part of life. But the important thing is to be grateful for a new day, even a new moment. Trials and suffering in life are a sure thing, and once you surrender to that fact and try to live a life of simple gratitude, satisfaction comes in. You can never "suck out all the marrow of life," as Thoreau would say, if you're too worried about past or future failures, or if you're always looking for someone to blame for your troubles. The Avetts a mighty punch with such a simple statement.

And my life is but a coin, it's pulled from an empty pocket
It's dropped into a slot with dreams of sevens close behind
And these hopes and these fears go with it, and the moon and the sun go spinning
Like the numbers and fruits before our eyes

Has there ever been a verse that says more about the randomness of life than this? It's such a subtle and simple metaphor that I didn't get it at first. It builds upon the theme of the ways risk and chance play into the carpenter's life, and by extension the listener's. He's become a permanent traveler -- sometimes weary, sometimes lucky, always hoping and dreaming to find the things in this life that will bring him satisfaction and true joy. His life, though, will never be easy even when he does find those things. All he can do is live day by day because the world isn't stopping for him or anybody. The journey itself and the willingness to not give up is what will make him, and ultimately bring fulfillment, though the road will be covered with, perhaps in equal measure, many blessings and many disappointments. This is stated in the simple bridge of the song as Scott and Seth harmonize and the song gets a little louder and more defiant:

Sometimes I hit, sometimes it robs me blind

In the live version they did for CMT, Scott lets out an emphatic "Yea!" after they sing this line for the first time, testifying to its truth in the brothers' own lives and in the lives of those people whom their music speaks to so profoundly. It's a great musical moment.

Lastly, I want to mention something about the title of the song, "The Once and Future Carpenter." There are many ways I take its meaning. One is that the carpenter lives his life looking backward and forward, not with trembling worry or self-doubt, but almost with reverence; he looks back at his past to learn from it and realize that it made him who he is today, and looks to the future with all those things he's learned plus the hope of all he still could be. All he can do is try -- work hard and keep going. The second meaning is that maybe the road the once-carpenter-now-poet-young-and-hungry is on is one that will -- as so often happens, it seems -- take him back to where he started, somewhere he's laid down at least a few roots, whether that be Texas or his original home. Life sometimes has a way of leading us back to the places we know and are known best. So it would seem the narrator still has some work to do with his hands yet -- whether it be with a hammer or a pen.

But no matter where he finds himself, he will always be a traveler in this life. As will we all.

And here are the complete lyrics, just because I feel like typing them out:

I ain't from Texas but I made my way from Dallas
and I know the lonesome sound is following.
And I ain't a gambler but I can recognize a hand
and when to hold when queens are staring back at me.

Once I was a carpenter and man my hands were calloused,
I could swing a metal mallet sure and straight.
But I took to the highway, a poet young and hungry,
and I left the timbers rotting where they lay

Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me
and when I lose my direction I'll look up to the sky.
And when the black cloak/dress drags upon the ground,
I'll be ready to surrender and remember
We're all in this together
If I live the life I'm given, I won't be scared to die

And I don't come from Detroit but her diesel motors pulled me
and I followed 'til I finally lost my way
Now I spend my days in search of a woman I call purpose
and if I ever pass back through her town I'd stay


My life is but a coin, it's pulled from an empty pocket,
it's dropped into a slot with dreams of sevens close behind
And these hopes and these fears go with it and the sun and the moon go spinning
Like the numbers and the fruits before our eyes

Sometimes I hit, sometimes it robs me blind
Sometimes I hit, sometimes it robs me blind


If this is the direction The Avett Brothers are heading, consider me along for the ride.