Lori McKenna took to the stage last night to perform her hit song “Humble and Kind” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It was a great moment to see for the talented singer-songwriter, who has received so much deserved attention for penning the #1 hit by Tim McGraw. As much as I enjoy McGraw’s version, there’s just something special to hear Country Perspective’s 2016 Female Artist of the Year perform it. Of course The Bird & The Rifle was an excellent album altogether. Anyway I thought her performance was fantastic on the show and I highly encourage you to watch it below.
Let’s be honest: I wasn’t exactly a fan of Little Big Town’s last album Pain Killer. I went back and re-read it. I was actually quite brutal with my remarks. Man, did I go in on the 80s rock comparisons. In my defense though these comparisons weren’t off and I can honestly say I only remember two songs from that album, “Day Drinking” and “Girl Crush.” The latter of course went on to become Little Big Town’s biggest hit yet and racked up tons of awards. So at least the best song went on to earn the most praise. Coming into this veteran group’s new album The Breaker, I was kind of cautiously optimistic based off the Taylor Swift-penned lead single “Better Man.” But in the back of my mind I still remembered the previous album being a disappointment. After all Jay Joyce returns as producer, who was a big part of why the last album was underwhelming and forgettable. Well after listening to The Breaker, it’s definitely a step up and into the right direction for this group.
The opening song “Happy People” really establishes the overall tone and vibe of this album. It’s a very easy-going, light, roots-y type sound that permeates throughout this song and album. The song is about doing whatever floats your boat and how happy people do a lot more than unhappy people in this life. It takes a few listens, but the lyrics kind of subtly impress. It’s no surprise considering two great songwriters in Lori McKenna and Hailey Whitters wrote it. One of the more upbeat tracks on this album is “Night On Our Side.” It’s catchy, but the song itself really doesn’t have much to say and is greatly aided by the vibrant instrumentation. Moody and mellow would best describe “Lost In California.” This might be the most different song I’ve heard from Little Big Town, as this song is very much driven by tone. The song is a love ballad and features some illustrative songwriting that really paints a picture in your head, a credit to the famous troika of Hillary Lindsey, Liz Rose and McKenna. Then we have the production, which perfectly compliments it with it’s dreamy, almost hazy like feel. It might be Jay Joyce’s best work he’s ever done.
This is before we get to what I would deem the best track on the album, “Free.” I knew right away that McKenna helped write this, as it just has the markings of her best work. The song is instantly feel good, along the same lines of “Humble and Kind.” It’s about how the things we want most in life are free and some of our best qualities are free too (how we get our sense of humor from a parent, our eye color from a relative). The harmonies are also perfectly timed. This is one of Little Big Town’s best songs it’s ever released and deserves to be a single. “Drivin’ Around” is a breezy, summer song you play with the windows down as you well drive around. I enjoy how the harmonies drives this song, but I wish the production were toned back a bit to let the song be more breezy and less overbearing at times (“Rollin'” is along the same lines). Nostalgia will determine how much you love “We Went To The Beach.” Most of the time nostalgia songs usually don’t work for me, but this one does because well I can relate to the first part of the song. If you can connect with a part of the song, it’s enjoyable. If not, it’s probably just okay. I also have to say Phillip Sweet was a good choice for lead vocals here, as his voice suites the overall mood of the song.
Kimberly Schlapman takes the lead on “Beat Up Bible.” It’s about the meaning of a Bible that’s been passed down through a family. The memories it holds and the lessons learned are what make it so special, even though it’s nearly fallen apart. Usually these types of songs devolve into cliché territory quickly, but this one has heart and comes across sincerely. Schlapman is a great choice for lead vocals, as her sweeter, more restrained voice suits it. Little Big Town do a really job tackling heartbreak on “When Someone Stops Loving You.” The song explores the feelings you go through after a breakup: having to trudge through the normal routine, forced to face life without that person and a little part still hoping they come crawling back. It’s well written and Jimi Westbrook really shines on lead vocals. The album’s title track closes the album out. With Sweet on lead vocals, the song is about a man who thought he would be the man of his woman’s dreams. But he ends up turning out to be the one to break her heart in the end. I enjoy the concept of this song, but I think it would have been even better if it were a duet between the man and woman, explaining each side. It would have really added some depth, but as is it’s a decent song.
Little Big Town delivers a pretty solid album in The Breaker. It’s a nice rebound from the group and mostly a return to where this group shines: more organic, restrained, harmony driven songs. Everything on this album is a step up, most notably the songwriting. Five co-writes from Lori McKenna, along with contributions from the likes of Natalie Hemby, Liz Rose and Hailey Whitters is likely to help an album in the songwriting department. Overall I like the sonic direction this album takes and the themes explored, but I felt like if it could have been taken further this could have been a great album. It felt like some potential was left on the table, but hopefully the group stays on its current path and takes these steps on the next album. Little Big Town should be proud though of their effort on The Breaker, as I think this will be one of the best albums from mainstream country in 2017.
Recommend? – Yes
Album Highlights: Free, Lost In California, When Someone Stops Loving You, Happy People, Beat Up Bible, Better Man
Bad Songs: None
Wallpaper: Don’t Die Young, Don’t Get Old; Night On Our Side
Sleepy. Boring. Sappy. Three words that sum up some of Brett Eldredge’s most recent singles. While Eldredge was one of the many who indulged in and gained fame from chasing bro country, you certainly wouldn’t put him amongst the group’s worst offenders. Not only does he have a solid voice, he’s really played it safe most of his career. You look at his singles from his sophomore album Illinois and they’re closer to Chris Young than they are to say Luke Bryan. So I would say the biggest complaint about Eldredge up to this point has been really not standing out and producing boring, forgettable songs. This is almost worse than bro country because when you fail to stand out, you tend to get lost in the shuffle really quick. Eldredge seemed to wisely pick up on this too, as the promotion for his new single “Somethin’ I’m Good At” promised more “tempo” and a song that’s more reflective of his zany personality he displays on social media. And after listening to this song these claims are very much true. It’s a stark contrast to previous singles, as this song is bubbly, upbeat and fun from the start. It’s quite refreshing. The song is about a guy not being a good at a lot and really just being an overall klutz, based off of Eldredge’s self-admitted personality. Despite all of these things he can’t do though, he is good at making his love smile. Sure this is a little cheesy on paper, but the song tactfully has a playful and light air about it. It’s just a fun anthem for the dorky, lovable loser. For some this might be too cute and I can see the song wearing thin after a lot of listens. But for me this song hits just right. I enjoy the message it sends and it’s the kind of laid back, loose song we need in a cynical world. Eldredge finally releases a song that suits him and lets his personality shine. There’s a great sense genuineness that shines through on “Somethin’ I’m Good At” that makes it really easy to enjoy.
Recommend? – Yes
Written by Brett Eldredge and Tom Douglas
Balto is a group from Portland, Oregon. But the band’s story really begins in Moscow, Russia. Lead singer Dan Sheron decided to exile himself from the city and went alone to Siberia where he was inspired to write many songs of his experiences before returning to America to record those songs that make up Balto’s debut album October’s Road. The band itself formed as they describe it, “through friends of friends.” Their sound is kind of all over the place: embracing pure American rock and roll at times, while also embodying a folk, roots driven sound and a pinch of psychedelia for good measure. They’re one of those groups that fits the Americana label well mixing such a variety of sounds. It certainly comes across on their newest album Strangers, an album that not only dazzles you with their eclectic sound, but meaningful lyrics too.
Balto opens with the pondering “Lost On The Young.” The song wonders if love is lost on the young of today and goes on to wonder if we’ve become lost in the fog of the American dream. It’s quite the thought provoker. Twangy guitars usher in “Restless Generation.” The instrumentation on this song is really just flawless and draws you in with ease. One of the things you quickly learn about Balto is instrumentation is an area they absolutely excel in on this album. “CA Luv” is an instantly catchy song. Everything about this song is effortlessly smooth. The dreamy “Midnight” lulls you in and wins you over with its guitar play. The bluesy and soulful “Born Astray” is one of the best songs on Strangers. It’s about a man who realizes he’s born astray while at the same time dealing with acceptance of a break-up that he knows was the right thing (he freely admits he was a waste of time). Yet he still wonders about her and what she’s doing now. The heavy organ play really gives this song some great texture. The frenetic “Shots In The Dark” is about the heartbreak of realizing you found the right person at the wrong time. A man realizes he has to let a woman go he’s known for a while, even though he feels like he’s right for her. He sees the dreams he had with this woman dissolve before his very eyes as he’s forced to let her go. It’s just absolutely fantastic storytelling from Balto.
The piano-driven love ballad “Star of Bethlehem” is another standout of the album. The song is about an embattled relationship where both sides have felt like leaving at times, yet the other always convinces them to stay. Despite these leaving feelings, they also can’t shake the feeling it’s never a good time to leave. I love the vulnerability that is conveyed in the vocals on this song, really driving the lyrics across well. “Celebration Smile” is probably the most interesting song on the album. It’s about a man recalling the life of the woman he was married to and left for a life of freedom on his own. He realized he didn’t want a life of growing old with someone. As he says he wants to “keep the best intentions, but regret the things I’ve done.” It’s a poetic take on life choices and their effects on a person. The cherry on top of this song is the energetic electric guitar play that ends the song with a bang. “A Year Lasts A Lifetime” is another great display of the band’s infectious and driving sound. The album concludes with the heartbreak song “One Night Show.” It’s about a couple that may lie next to each other every night, but are really miles away in their hearts. As the song says, it’s the perfect one night show: pretending to be so close, yet so far away. Its another great tragedy penned on this album.
Simply put Strangers is a fantastic album. Balto intrigued me from my first listen of Strangers and the more I pulled back the layers of this album, the more impressed I became. There’s such a rich, variety display of sounds throughout this album that pair up so well with their lyrical counterparts. It’s an album that kind of pulls you every which way and you feel a little bit of everything listening to it. While the instrumentation is something that will immediately impress, the songwriting is equally admirable and lead vocalist Sheron really does a great job bringing the songs to life. Strangers is the type of album that will leave a smile on your face and reward you for listening from start to finish.
Recommend? – Yes! (especially if you enjoy acts like Robert Ellis, Chris King or enjoyed The War on Drugs’ last album)
Album Highlights: Shots In The Dark, Celebration Smile, Born Astray, One Night Show, Star of Bethlehem, CA Luv
Bad Songs: None
Aaron Watson is undoubtedly one of the biggest stars of the Texas country scene. In terms of stature and achievements, he’s the Luke Bryan of the scene. Watson has racked up numerous #1 hits at Texas radio and has established quite a following over his career. He also achieved a historic accomplishment with his last album The Underdog, becoming the first ever independent, male country artist to debut at #1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart. It’s a feat that has since been accomplished by more, but it was significant because it made many in the industry realize that independent artists can sell better than many major label artists. It also brought him onto the radar of many mainstream fans. So his follow-up and new album Vaquero certainly comes more anticipated than any of his previous releases. At 16 songs long I wasn’t sure what to expect. The result for the most part is quality country music.
The easy-going “Texas Lullaby” opens up the album. The song is about a guy named Texas from Texas who goes to serve in the army. It’s a pretty cliché song that takes a very contrived approach. The fiddle and steel guitar play is nice, but that doesn’t automatically absolve the lyrics of course. The next song “Take You Home Tonight” though does a much better job of striking a good balance between the lyrics and instrumentation. The song is about a couple spending the night at home together. The theme is slightly bro-ish, but Watson’s charismatic delivery and the fantastic instrumentation really carry the song well. “These Old Boots Have Roots” is probably the best traditional meets modern country song I’ve heard yet. It’s infectious, catchy and fun from the first listen, utilizing the fiddle well. This song demonstrates Watson’s ability to get the most out of songs with his likable and down home personality. Watson also excels best on love ballads like “Be My Girl.” I especially enjoy how the instrumentation really lets this song breathe and at the same time enhance the mood the song is going for.
Watson laments things not being the same as in the past on “They Don’t Make Like They Used To.” It’s a song that relies on nostalgia and at first kind of comes off curmudgeonly championing the past. But halfway through it comes back around. It touches on how we need more love, compassion and forgiveness in the world so that one day we might be looked back upon as the golden days. Your mileage will vary on this one. The album’s title track has a decidedly Tejano influence, which is great to hear. The song is about a man sitting down at the bar with an old vaquero, who bestows upon him the lessons he’s learned in his long life. It’s essentially along the same lines as the Billy Currington hit “People Are Crazy,” but I think this song does a better job of getting it’s point across. “Mariano’s Dream” is a prelude to “Clear Isabel,” arguably the best track on Vaquero. The song is about Isabel and her father Mariano, a Mexican lawman. After watching his son die at the hands of a drug cartel, Mariano packs their stuff and sets their sites for freedom in south Texas. They are discovered by a Texas man who offers them shelter and work. In the meanwhile the Texas man falls in love with Isabel, marry and have a child. They are also able to obtain a green card for her father, but unfortunately it comes too late as he’s gunned down. It’s a tragic, timely song that conveys the risks people take to seek freedom and a better life.
“One Two Step at a Time” is a song I can imagine will be a hit at the Texas dance halls. Watson gets conciliatory on “The Arrow,” which reads like advice from a father to a child. While a tad sappy, it has a good message of spreading love and kindness. Watson’s charm once again elevates an ordinary song to something I will remember. The album closes out with another standout, “Diamonds & Daughters.” It’s about a father conveying how proud and how much he loves his daughter. He recalls the first time he saw her face to now giving her off at her wedding day. The guitar-play compliments the lyrics well and gives the song some much-needed texture. It’s a great, heartfelt way to end the album.
Vaquero is a pretty solid album from Aaron Watson. I think it’s even better than his previous album The Underdog. But at the same time I can’t help but feel it should have been even better and I think the biggest culprit of this album is the album length. It’s just too long at 16 songs and I think if it was culled down to 12 songs it would have made for an overall better listen. Nevertheless there are some really good moments on this album and they outweigh the more pedestrian moments you might have to wade through. For fans of Texas country there will be a lot to like and for the curious mainstream fan this album will harken them back to the days of early 2000s country. Vaquero will further endear fans of Watson and will surely attract more seeking the sweet sounds of fiddle and steel guitar.
Recommend? – Yes
Album Highlights: Clear Isabel, Diamonds & Daughters, Vaquero, Be My Girl, Take You Home Tonight, These Old Boots Have Roots
Bad Songs: None
Wallpaper: Texas Lullaby, Big Love in a Small Town, Amen Amigo, Rolling Stone, Run Wild Horses