Off To The Slaughterhouse (Chase Rice, Lambs & Lions review)

I’ve been humbled once again. I bought a record on a whim, made some initial judgments based on the cover art and what I heard as I listened for the first time to a lean thirty seven minutes of modern country music, except that’s not what this is, at all.

It’s an escape plan marked all over with pencil and featuring focal points that are highlighted atop the map with black felt tip circles.

But is it a success?

 

 

Chase Rice – Lambs & Lions

released November 17, 2017
****** 6/10

Chase Rice is an American singer-songwriter that got his start in country music, and benefited heavily from the party anthems that have permeated this decade. Do you remember Florida Georgia Line’s song Cruise? Rice co-wrote it. Ever listen to the hit album, Ignite The Night? Rice is the artist behind the party anthems about drinking, pickup trucks, and young women. Ever watch Survivor? Rice was the runner-up on the Nicaragua season.

He is something of a relic at this time in music – Ironic, given that we have three more years before the twenties start up. Bro-country is finally on it’s way out, and artists like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Jake Owen have already felt the pressure of a dismissive public.

This is part of the reason why Rice decided to break from Columbia records and sign with Broken Bow Records for his fourth album, Lambs & Lions. The other reason being, that wanted to make a more emotionally honest and truly authentic record, when authenticity in country music should have meant sticking to the well-worn tracks established.

Lions kicks off the album, and Rice establishes early on that this is his break from his past, it has the same energy as his previous albums, but the tone is shifting towards rock, metal, power pop, and even some R&B. It’s especially evident that this album is stripped of a lot of the production that his previous music had when Unforgettable, Eyes On You, and Saved Me show up.

Three Chords & The Truth is the first single on the record, and trending on the music charts right now, but despite this popularity, it really is an interesting song with some subtle nods to the genre of country music, and funnily enough, while on a soul search, he has managed to connected with many other people looking for answers in country music too.

In the end, this is a collection of songs about someone who is letting go of an identity that they wore for a long time, self-imposed or no, and what shows up underneath is pretty interesting. It’s not my favourite record of the year by any means, but the hope it delivers is more important in some ways.

Pros: You can see throughout Lambs & Lions that Rice is putting more of himself into his music, and a personal favourite of mine is Amen, which is an ode to his father, revealing a lot of Rice’s personal code.

Cons: I wish that there was even more exploration on this album. It still feels a little bit safe reliant on what preceded. It might have been difficult for Chase Rice to break completely from his bro-country roots, but including Jack Daniel’s Showed Up is so unnecessary.

Runtime: 37 minutes

Points of Interest: The album debuted at No. 42 on the Billboard 200, and No. 6 on the Top Country Albums. Rice has said that the album is heavily influenced by rock artist Douglas Docker.

Changing your identity is a challenge, even moreso when there is a perception of you attached to it. Chase Rice has made some excellent strides into a new and exciting direction, with music that features more of his own ideas and less concern with sounding a specific way. And I like it.

theories Summarized

I’m not sure that you absolutely have to pick this up. But if you like your country music with a little rock n’ roll, you are sick of bro-country or you simply like to see progression in your artists, give this album a listen, you might just be inspired to show your fleece, while bearing your teeth. That’s my theory anyway.

Tim!

A Collection of Moments (Chris Stapleton, From A Room: Volume 2 review)

If you could name an up and coming country artist that’s done it all already, who do you think would fit that bill? I’ll give you two guesses for albums that have done that in 2017. But you only need one answer.

 

 

 

Chris Stapleton – From A Room: Volume 2

released December 1, 2017
******** 8/10

Chris Stapleton is an American singer-songwriter, best known for his ability to perform rock, bluegrass, country, and a mixture thereof. He has been active in the music industry for over fifteen years now; he went solo back in 2013, released his debut album The Traveller in 2015, followed by From A Room: Volume 1 in May of 2017. If the velocity of his release schedule seems overwhelming, consider that that this is an artist who has contributed over 150 songs to albums by other popular artists like Adele, Tim McGraw, and Brad Paisley, among others.

Stapleton is a southern boy through and through, raised in Kentucky and active in Nashville since he officially began to focus on music in 2001. His wife Morgane has featured in harmonies on all three of his albums, and he often includes long-time friends in the band he records and travels with, citing the importance of chemistry when crafting a song.

This is incredibly apparent on From A Room: Volume 2. As you listen to the record, it is obvious that these are collection of vignettes, windows into characters that Stapleton has spent a lifetime crafting, and while it goes against my typical expectation for a good album, I appreciate that fact this collection of songs was further proven by the older sister album released not even six months ago – proof that each track can stand on it’s own and that Stapleton is an artist in it for the long haul. I’ll admit that it seemed like a commercial gimmick at first, a way to make cash off of his current success with CMA awards, but these humble albums are both strong, and in my opinion, Volume 2 is even stronger.

Album opener Millionaire is your standard country song about love overcoming financial difficulty, with Hard Livin’ coming shortly after – a song about outlaw living, and an excellent demonstration of Stapleton’s command over his chosen genre.

Scarecrow In The Garden is another notable addition to the queue, choosing to try something new in the form of a narrative about immigrant farmers living in West Virginia. It doesn’t have the typical fairytale ending of most popular country, and this is what separates Stapleton from his contemporaries. A natural evolution of sound.

Comparisons have been made to Tom Petty, and Stapleton even travelled with him on his final tour, but other greats like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson all come to mind. Just listen to the final four songs and you’ll get a better sense for it. A Simple Song has a folk feel, while Midnight Train to Memphis is rockabilly at heart. Drunkard’s Prayer is a somber ballad and album closer Friendship is full of soul and the blues.

 

 

 

Pros: Even though it comes early on in the album, Nobody’s Lonely Tonight is one of the strongest tracks on the record and a personal favourite of mine. An interesting take on overcoming heartbreak. Also, as previously mentioned, the harmonies of Morgane are much stronger on the album overall this time around.

Cons: It has a very short runtime, and while Tryin’ To Untangle My Mind is a thoughtful and catchy track on the ups and downs of drinking, it’s a little bit cliched in it’s structure. But I can’t quite place why this bothers me just yet.

Runtime: 32 minutes

Points of Interest: Millionaire is a cover of Kevin Welch’s and Friendship is a cover of gospel and R7B legend, Pops Staples.

If it hasn’t been made clear yet, this isn’t your garden variety country music, dear readers. It is an excellent mix of both traditional country and soul music that subverts your expectations of what something out of Nashville should sound like. And I like it.

theories Summarized

If I haven’t convinced you to pick up this album yet, I’ll leave you with one more piece of evidence to consider. He is BFF’s with Justin Timberlake and has performed with him at the CMAs once already. Yes, that Justin Timberlake. The one who basically took up the mantle of King of Pop after Michael Jackson died. And his debut album is already a classic. But that’s my theory on the matter.

Tim!

Time Enough To Pass (Joan Shelley, Joan Shelley review)

An age-old problem of music, if it’s a shorter album, we’ll complain that it feels weak, and it comes in over sixty minutes we can’t believe what a slog it is.

Is forty minutes the sweet spot though?

 

Joan Shelley – Joan Shelley

released April 28, 2017
******** 8/10

Joan Shelley is a Kentucky based American singer-songwriter who has been making professional music since at least 2014, as that was when she released her first full-length album Electric Ursa.

Her fourth album is self-titled as Joan Shelley, and that’s usually a sign of intent on the behalf of a recording artist, a demonstrable shift in tone, content and genre(s). This album is no exception to that rule, at all. Joan Shelley is an intimate record, chalk full of dense material and featuring production efforts from Jeff Tweedy of Wilco fame.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a more complex album with tons of instrumentation and production value. No, it manages to tells it’s story with considerably less – vocals, guitars, ukulele, piano, organ, bass, and drums. The staples of folk music and this album most definitely has a folk feel to it. Just listen to Wild Indifference over a couple of listens and you’ll be at the heart of it.

Acoustic fingerpicking is a key element opening every track up and spreading the message out either simple and sweet or with a whiskey tinged bitter accommodation. Isn’t That Enough is a great example of that pull, especially since we experience both innocence and finality in it’s notes.

Where we best see the contributions of Jeff Tweedy come through are on I Got What I Wanted, Where I’ll Find You and If The Storms Never Came, but Shelley’s vocals almost come through, demonstrating the wisdom of Mr. Tweedy.

There is a great deal of beauty too to be found in these songs. And that all starts with track number one We’d Be Home, and quickly followed up by Even Though in the space following the second, third and fourth songs on the record. And man does the piano ever bring the attention on Pull Me Up One More Time, thanks be to James Elkington for that.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention my favourite song on the album – I Got What I Wanted. It must be the lingering outlaw country flourishes of Willie Nelson, but I cannot stop tapping my toe and feeling remorseful for Shelley.

Pros: The vocals of course. Joan Shelley has all the makings of a great country artist, and The Push and Pull demonstrates this well. And while this is a shorter album, the length suits the ideas perfectly.

Cons: At the great risk of being a contrived self-referential mess, Shelley manages to avoid this for the most part, but sometimes it feels blah. Go Wild I’m looking directly at you.

Runtime: 34 minutes

Points of Interest: This self-titled album began with a fiddle, of all instruments. Though Joan Shelley wasn’t able to articulate herself well with the fiddle, she took the direction of that instrument and applied it to the guitar. And it is indeed self-titled because it features her most assured and complete thoughts so far.

It’s difficult to add something new to folk music, but with some help (or should we say non-help help?) Joan Shelley has managed to craft a well-worn album from the bare minimum of instruments. And her ability to spread ideas across moments in time comes across quite well.

theories Summarized

All that considered, I think that Joan Shelley is a master of her chosen form, and we should be happy to have her work out there on display. It never manages to overstay it’s welcome and it sounds amazing both in your car and at home. At least, that’s my theory.

Tim!

Like A Fine Wine (Willie Nelson, God’s Problem Child review)

You only get one shot at life, and sometimes the kid with the most problems ends up being the adult that saves the day, over and over again. Like a fine wine, it is only with age that they continue to become better versions of themselves.

 

Willie Nelson – God’s Problem Child

released April 28, 2017
********* 9/10

Willie Hugh Nelson, better known as Willie Nelson, is an American musician, singer, songwriter, author, poet, actor, and activist. In other words, at eighty four years old, he’s done much more than most of us could ever hope to achieve. Interestingly enough though, he didn’t see accolades or critical success of any kind until the 1970s with Shotgun Willie, Red Headed Stranger, and Stardust. Nelson was into his forties at this point, so something to consider if you haven’t made it yourself just yet.

As such, Nelson is one of the most celebrated country music artists of all time and a main contributor to the popularity of outlaw country in the 1970s and 1980s. If you aren’t familiar with it, outlaw country is a subgenre of country music that developed as a response to the conservative nature of music coming out of Nashville, Tennessee at the time.

Much has happened in the years following, with Nelson having acting in over thirty films, authored books, joined the supergroup The Highwaymen with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson, and paid off over thirty million dollars in debts owed to the IRS. And we haven’t even really touched upon his activism. But I don’t have the space for that in this post.

Today I’m going to talk about God’s Problem Child, both the album and the eponymous track tucked in the meat of this record.

God’s Problem Child, the album, is one tackling mortality and also have a sense of appreciation for a life well lived. Between David Bowies’ Black Star and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker, this is another album on the subject of death from an artist well into the final stage of life. Nelson just happens to be sticking around a bit longer than those two gents, and for all we know, this might not even be his last offering.

Featuring a range of songs on the topic, from Little House on the Hill and Old Timer, to Your Memory Has a Mind of Its Own, to the hilarious Still Not Dead, and especially It Gets Easier, this album has all the grace and humour of Willie Nelson, with the first touch of reflection on a life well lived.

Little House on the Hill explores the afterlife and what Nelson’s eternal home will be like, and Old Timer shows the realities of geriatric heartache – a well oiled engine, but a rusting frame with bad suspension. True Love is a demonstration of unending compassion, and Delete and Fast Forward is a political number that reminds us we’ve messed up like this before Donald Trump came along.

Hell, even the song Butterfly is a metaphor for transformation and fleeting nature of life.

As for the track, God’s Problem Child, we see Nelson featuring the late Leon Russell (in one of his final recordings) and efforts from Jamey Johnson and Tony Joe White on lead vocals.

This album might not win over legions of new fans, but it definitely has content there enough to win over some millennials here and there, while satisfying the die-hards and people who love classical fingering of the guitar. Trigger shows up in full force, with holes in the soundboard from decades of playing unseen.

And no, it’s not a game changer in the opus of Willie Nelson, but God’s Problem Child does remind us of his iconic status and continued relevance, well into his golden years.

theories Summarized

If you take away the IRS battle, marijuana activism, all of the americana and competition over the years, it’s still clear as day that Nelson can drum up new material with the best of them, creating music that sits with you and leaves a mark. The kind of work worthy of an outlaw. I can only theorize he continues to keep this pace and we get a few more years in the era of Willie Nelson.

Tim!

Take A Polka Doted Waltz Through The Cuban Country, With Some Rock and Jazz, Man (The Mavericks, Brand New Day review)

I think some of my favourite things about listening to music are when you can stumble across something you like but can’t believe that you didn’t already know about it. Or to put it another way, when you reconnect with music that you forgot you were a fan of.

 

The Mavericks – Brand New Day
released March 31, 2017
******* 8/10

The Mavericks have been making offbeat country music for just over 20 years, and that’s taking into account the break they took between 2005-2011! Known for their eclectic sound that combines latin and rockabilly influences. I first heard about them back in the 1990s, when I was still voluntold to listen to the country station in my parents house. Remember Here Comes the Rain and All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down? This is sound of The Mavericks that I still remember sitting in my parents faux wood panel station wagon.

But that doesn’t mean the ninth outing for these guys is out of sync with this generation.

There are high standards in place here.

The opening track Rolling Along reminds me of Ukrainian mountain music and features its share of accordion harmonies. A callback to their early work and very peppy to boot, also it’s about drugs. Just in case that wasn’t obvious. Quickly changing pace for the title track, The Mavericks present us with a more somber tone on Brand New Day, its upbeat though, and features some excellent caterwauling from Miami born Raul Malo. Then we get to hear some horns on Easy as It Seems, which is surprisingly easy going with its message of musical sambas from the 50s.

Then again, that sound does continue through on the next song I Think of You, and later with Ride With Me and closing track For the Ages, but the mixing in of early pop, jazz and true bread and butter are what they are known for. It’s comforting to see a group caring the torch along, without dragging it on the floor.

Staying true to their sound has always been important for The Mavericks, and I think that’s why they choose time and time again to stay independent, nobody messes with the production. They have fun with their music and it comes through – listen to Goodnight Waltz and tell me you don’t think of lounge singers, spaghetti, and cocktails. But with a country twang to it.

This music does not fit into any particular genre. I chose country as the prefacing statement because that’s where I heard it first in my youth, but this music reminds me of so many different things at any given moment, that they are eclectic is the really the best way to put it.

It never reaches a point where I’m listening and re-listening to the lyrics or pausing to reflect on ideas within, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile.

Mavericks indeed.

 

theories Summarized

Do you want to take a trip through Americana, post-war and pre-war? Well this is your ticket and I wish you well on your journey, I think there is something of a history lesson and a demonstration that it all comes full circle when we listen to music.

An unorthodox or independent-minded person. The definition of a maverick. These gentlemen fit the bill, and that’s my theory for why they have staying power, not because there is something brand new here, but because they are inclusive and adventurous.

Tim!