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