Country Perspective’s Best Music Reviewed in February

This is the monthly recap post of all the great music we reviewed on the blog in case you missed it or just came across our humble, little blog. So check this music out if you haven’t already.

Albums

nikki-lane-highway-queen

Nikki Lane – Highway Queen

Nikki Lane delivers music excellence in Highway Queen. It feels like a truly breakout moment for Lane, as her personality and style shines though so well on this record. The instrumentation and production are spot-on and frames each song like they should, which shows how well Lane and Tyler worked in making this album. This album delivers the rollicking and fun foot-stompers just as well as it delivers emotional gut-punchers. Mark my words: this will go down as one of the best country albums of the year. Lane hits the jackpot and wins big with Highway Queen.

balto-strangers

Balto – Strangers

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.

alison-krauss-windy-city

Alison Krauss – Windy City

For fans of classic country and Alison Krauss, Windy City is a real joy to listen to from start to finish. I really applaud Krauss and Cannon for picking a great group of songs to cover. There’s plenty of variety, a song for any mood you’re in on this album. Each listen through you’ll have a new favorite. It’s also an educational album for those aren’t as informed about the history of the genre and brings to light some quality old artists worth knowing about. I wouldn’t be surprised if this album sees Krauss add to her staggering Grammys total. Krauss once again delivers really good music with Windy City.

whitney-rose-south-texas-suite

Whitney Rose – South Texas Suite (EP)

Whitney Rose was looking to capture and honor the spirit of Texas style country and she absolutely accomplishes this with South Texas Suite. The instrumentation on this album is damn near flawless, featuring lots of twangy steel guitars and fiddle (a must of course if you’re gonna play in Texas). The songwriting is great and deceptively deeper than you think upon first listen. Rose also still manages to incorporate her throwback soulful influence into the music too. All in all it’s just a flat-out fun listen that I think any country fan can come to appreciate. Rose once again reminds us of her fantastic talent, reaffirming herself as one of the brightest, best up and coming artists in country music today with South Texas Suite.

 

Songs

Zac Brown Band – “My Old Man”

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Album Review – Alison Krauss’ ‘Windy City’

alison-krauss-windy-city

When discussing some of the best and brightest artists in the history of country music, Alison Krauss is a name that should come up. I feel like she’s one of the most underrated artists of the genre, probably due to being more involved with bluegrass with her band Union Station. But she’s pretty much done it all in both genres. Her 27 Grammys, tied for second most all-time, is shining proof of this. Whether it’s her bluegrass work with Union Station, doing a duet album with Robert Plant or her own great work on her own, she shines and gains widespread attention. Now after over 18 years, Krauss has released a new album of solo material. Together with veteran country producer Buddy Cannon, the two picked out ten classic country songs to cover. And the results are really good.

The waltzing “Losing You” opens up Windy City. Right away it’s obvious Krauss sounds as fantastic as ever on this tragic Brenda Lee heartbreak ballad. Krauss gets more upbeat on “It’s Goodbye and So Long To You.” It’s an instantly catchy track with plenty of horns and steel guitar. Krauss delivers a Dolly-like vocal performance, really giving the song more punch. The album’s title track is a heartbreak song about Chicago capturing the heart of a woman’s man and begging to have him back. She walks the lonely streets of the city wondering if she’ll ever win him back. It’s an adaptation of the Osborne Brothers’ song of the same name. One of my favorites on the album is her cover of Willie Nelson’s “I Never Cared For You.” It’s a clever song about the person saying they never cared for their ex, although admitted to be an outright lie and a coping mechanism in a time of heartbreak. Krauss really nails the emotion of the song. “River In The Rain” is an Roger Miller song that Krauss does more than great justice. Originally this was a duet between Huck Finn and a slave, but Krauss turns this into a touching love song. Anyone can cover a song, but I love it when an artist makes the cover their own and Krauss certainly does this.

Another standout on Windy City is Vern Gosdin’s “Dream of Me.” It’s a song that perfectly suits Krauss’ voice, as she sings of telling her man to dream of her every time he feels down and blue. Laden with plenty of steel guitar to go with these great lyrics, this one was an instant favorite for me. John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” made famous of course by Glen Campbell, is another cover on Windy City. It might be my new favorite cover of the song. Of course this is a really enjoyable song in itself. “Poison Love” is a really simple song that you can instantly gravitate to and find yourself singing along with from the first listen. The piano-driven Brenda Lee song “All Alone Am I” is a taste of how great Krauss can be on more vulnerable tracks. But this is best demonstrated on the album’s final track “You Don’t Know Me.” It’s an Eddy Arnold song about letting possible love slipping through your fingers and being left to forever wonder what if. You’ll never truly know them and they’ll truly never know you. It’s regret that’ll never leave you. Krauss is at her absolute best here, as well as the instrumentation. Each perfectly frames the song and delivers a gut-punch to close out the album.

For fans of classic country and Alison Krauss, Windy City is a real joy to listen to from start to finish. I really applaud Krauss and Cannon for picking a great group of songs to cover. There’s plenty of variety, a song for any mood you’re in on this album. Each listen through you’ll have a new favorite. It’s also an educational album for those aren’t as informed about the history of the genre and brings to light some quality old artists worth knowing about. I wouldn’t be surprised if this album sees Krauss add to her staggering Grammys total. Krauss once again delivers really good music with Windy City.

Grade: 8/10

 

Recommend? – Yes

Album Highlights: You Don’t Know Me, I Never Cared For You, It’s Goodbye and So Long To You, Dream of Me, Losing You

Bad Songs: None

Wallpaper: None


Album Review – Sierra Hull’s ‘Weighted Mind’ is a Beautiful Coming of Age Album

Sierra Hull was a child prodigy in bluegrass music. At age 11, Hull joined Alison Krauss on the Grand Ole Opry stage and soon thereafter signed with Rounder Records. Sierra Hull’s mandolin playing has earned her high praise and respect in the music world. Krauss even said of Hull, “Talent like hers is so rare, and I don’t think it stops.” Banjo master Bela Fleck says, “She plays the mandolin with a degree of refined elegance and freedom that few have achieved.” Sierra Hull released her first album at 16, and now, 8 years later, has released her 3rd full length album with Fleck serving as the producer. Hull’s Weighted Mind shows how her own songwriting has taken a step forward to match the maturity in her musicianship.

As suggested by the cover art and album title, Weighted Mind is Hull’s own, cluttered mind, weighing her down and she tries to make sense of her life. Like most people in their early 20s, Hull too was struggling to find her identity while transitioning into full-blown adulthood. The result is an intimate album with a simple production. Per Fleck’s recommendation, the songs were recorded without much of a backing band – only Hull’s mandolin along with Fleck’s banjo and Ethan Jodziewicz on the bass. No percussions, just a quiet production of strings allowing Hull’s voice to shine and lyrics to be heard.

The opening track of “Stranded” showcases the instrumental skills of Sierra Hull. The introductory track moves from a quiet calmness, gradually becoming a bit more chaotic and darker as Hull sings “dear 22, I’m stranded here” before transitioning right into “Compass.” Building off the lyric of feeling stranded, she sings of readying herself for a journey of self discovery. Feeling lost and sure, she throws away her old self, trusting that what is meant to be will be. “Choices And Changes” continues on the theme of this mental and emotional journey. “If you won’t go where I’m going, then I’ll have to go alone,” Hull sings with acceptance and confidence. There’s more urgency in her mandolin play, complimenting the lyrics of needing to move forward because the changes are necessary.

“Wings Of The Dawn” reads as if it’s a prayer for guidance. It’s a hopeful realization that she won’t feel lost forever. Hull’s higher vocals and mandolin picking are beautifully complimented with the lower bass and violin. With the extended solo in the song’s middle, the complex instrumentation takes a front seat on the song, showcasing Hull’s skills more, as well as Fleck’s production skills. “Wings Of The Dawn” is nicely layered with vocal harmonies on the chorus as well. One of the best tracks on Weighted Mind, in my opinion, is “Birthday.” Here Hull sings to what seems to be a former lover. She remembers that its his birthday, but after the break-up, he’s left angry and heartbroken. Hull still cares for him, and accepts that he would rather remain angry at her and ignore her because there’s nothing she can say to change the situation. Beautiful lyrics combined with Hull’s soothing vocals help “Birthday” shine.

Sierra Hull shows off more of her mandolin brilliance on the album’s title track. It’s the only instrument found on the track, and her solo toward the song’s end is executed perfectly, a way in which only a veteran player could. The lyrics feel like a commentary and explanation of the album as a whole. Hull steps away from herself for a song. On “Fallen Man” she sings from the point of view of a dying man. This is a man’s final thoughts as he drifts away into the afterlife; they’re his final thoughts about his process of dying. A quick song with simple strums, but beautifully sung by Hull. “The In-Between” again finds Sierra Hull commenting on her situation in life and finding motivation. “Life is a hanging sharp edge sword,” she sings in the second verse. Life may throw curve balls, but if you don’t let it get the best of you, then you’ll be bound to come out on the good side of the in-between. At 5 minutes long, “The In-Between” features another extended solo where Sierra Hull wows with her mandolin skills with the bass layered behind her to create a dynamic instrumental break before the song ends with one final chorus.

“Lullaby” finds Hull singing to her mother, pleading for love and comfort. Hull sings that she’ll never be too old to cry to her mom when she’s feeling down and dejected. The lyrics are reflective, honest, and perhaps the most vulnerable of the whole album. This is a song which she wrote by herself, which adds more authenticity to her heartfelt delivery. “Lullaby” is another one of Weighted Minds’ strongest songs. “Queen of Hearts/Royal Tea” is a song dealing with love and heartbreak. Lyrically, it’s a bit more traditional than “Birthday” in the sense that if her love leaves her, she’ll feel lost because “young men are plenty, but sweethearts few.” The song features several instrumental breaks where Bela Fleck joins in on the banjo alongside Hull’s mandolin and Jodziewicz’s bass.

Love has ended again in “I’ll Be Fine.” Sierra Hull sings to a man who has wronged her one too many times. She ends the relationship and tells him she’ll be fine in time. It’s a song of hope because this storm of heartbreak will blow over. The instrumentation shifts as the song progresses moving from a smoother, hopeful sound to more harsh picking in the middle, and returning to the hopeful, smooth mandolin strum as the song concludes. Hull’s dynamic vocal delivery on “I’ll Be Fine” is one of the best on the album. Weighted Mind concludes with “Black River.” On this emotional journey, Hull hasn’t quite found her way, but it’s hopeful that she will. As Hull sings in the chorus, “A thousand years is but a day, they say. And maybe in a thousand more, I will find my way.” A complex, but brilliant lyric portraying both doubt and hope. While not as instrumentally rich as other songs, “Black River” does have an excellent multi-vocal harmony in the final chorus, with Alison Krauss lending her vocals to the mix behind Hull’s. “Black River” is a confident end to the album.

It’s easy to see why Sierra Hull is held in such high regard as both a mandolin musician and a singer-songwriter. The vulnerability and honesty embedded in the lyrics show maturity in Hull that seems beyond what you’d expect from your average 24-year-old, but Sierra Hull is anything but average. Her skills and delivery on Weighted Mind are proof that she’s earned every bit of praise that’s come her way. Rich and complex, Weighted Mind is album for the listener. It’s not easy to pick up on the masterful intricacies at first, but that’s the beauty of the album. The closer you listen to the music and to Hull’s words, the more beauty you’ll find.

Grade: 9/10

Weighted Mind can be purchased through Amazon and iTunes.

Album Review – Randy Rogers Band’s ‘Nothing Shines Like Neon’

Randy Rogers Band Nothing Shines Like Neon

If you asked me to list the ten artists in 2015 in country music who had the best year, Randy Rogers would be near the top of this list. His collaboration album Hold My Beer Vol. 1 with buddy and fellow Texas country artist Wade Bowen was one of the best of 2015 and reminded everybody just how great these two are at making music. It felt like many country fans had forgotten about them, especially after their less than stellar stints on major labels in Nashville for the last few years. But now both have returned to their roots in Texas and are wholeheartedly pursuing the music they want to make.

Rogers is back with new music again in 2016, with his own Randy Rogers Band. The group is made up of Rogers, Geoffrey Hill (guitar), Jon Richardson (bass guitar), Brady Black (fiddle) and Les Lawless (drums). It’s been three years since they’ve released an album of new music. Combined with the intriguing details that have been revealed in the months leading up to this new album (being produced by the well-known Buddy Cannon and the announced collaborations most notably), it’s something many country fans have been anxiously anticipating to hear. Rogers and the band promised that this new album, Nothing Shines Like Neon, would be full of traditional country music. And after listening to this album several times, I can say they wholeheartedly lived up to this promise.

The album begins with the easy-going “San Antone.” It’s an ode to Texas and how proud they are to be back home in Texas after trying their hand in Nashville for the past several years. It’s sort of their re-introduction as a Texas country band and an appropriate opener for the album. Plus it’s quite catchy and features plenty of fiddle and steel guitar. But this is something I can say about the entire album. This is followed by the romantic ballad “Rain And The Radio.” The song is about the power being out and a couple being together in the darkness of their house. I know some listeners will express concern this song is too much like the romantic slow-jams on country radio the past few years, but I don’t think this is in that territory. This song is sincere in its romantic intentions and implies it’s more than quick fling, but rather an honest, loving moment between two people. That being said it is one of the weaker songs of the album, although not a bad song in any way.

“Neon Blues” is your classic drinking song about a woman trying to drink her heartbreak away. The woman isn’t in any mood to talk about it, but rather continue to put back shots to dull her pain. After you hear this song a few times, you’ll undoubtedly catch yourself humming it randomly as I’ve found out (this is a good thing). One of the standouts of Nothing Shines Like Neon is “Things I Need To Quit.” It’s about a man realizing a list of habits he needs to quit, most importantly a woman from his past he can’t let go of. He knows he needs to move on and quit waiting around for her to come back because it’s never going to happen. The songwriting on this song is great and really captures the feelings of someone experiencing this well.

Randy Rogers Band team up with the talented Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski on “Look Out Yonder.” This is another song that demonstrates just how far and how great this band has become over the years. Perhaps a self-reflection song for Rogers, it’s about a man returning home to his family and how he’s been many things over the years, but has always had the best intentions in mind. The instrumentation and production are light-weight, which is quite beneficial the song. This really lets the lyrics shine and tell the story at hand, allowing the listener to connect with the song and experience their own feelings with it. For many this will probably be their favorite song on Nothing Shines Like Neon.

Following this is “Tequila Eyes,” a song about a woman drinking tequila to drown her sorrows away, but as her friends explains it can only hide her true feelings for so long. It’s a solid drinking song with some great fiddle play and slightly catchy lyrics. Nothing Shines Like Neon is at it’s most fun and exciting on “Taking It As It Comes.” Rogers duets with the Texas country music icon Jerry Jeff Walker and their voices go together perfectly. Walker hasn’t missed a beat after all these years. The instrumentation is fantastic, blending piano, fiddle, steel and electric guitar throughout. It’s just one of those songs where you just can’t help to move your feet and sing along with it.

There are a lot of really good songs on this album, but none are better than “Old Moon New.” It’s a tender love ballad about a man nervously trying to profess his love to a woman through various ways. Whether it’s his love letter that he knows has a “thousand clichés” or the eleven red roses he gives her just to shake it up from the usual number, he knows the love he feels for her. He knows there’s nothing new being done under the old moon that night, but she makes it feel new when she’s with him. It’s such a refreshing and enjoyable take on the romantic, moonlight, country ballad that has been tainted in recent years. This is the type of song I could have easily seen Alan Jackson and George Strait cutting back in the 90s, with the genuine lyrics and heavy steel guitar and fiddle.

“Meet Me Tonight” is your classic “ex regret” song, as a man reaches out to a woman from his past to meet up with him tonight to rekindle a lost love. But it’s not going to be successful, as it’s just a failed relapse out of desperation. This song has the misfortune of following the best one on the album, but you shouldn’t overlook it. Jamey Johnson joins the band on the next song, “Actin’ Crazy.” Johnson did a lot of cool collaborations with fellow country artists in 2015 and to start off 2016 he’s part of another. It’s another really fun song and features the best and most witty line of the album when the duo utters, “The rent is high as Willie.” That definitely made me chuckle. Randy Rogers Band did one hell of a job picking guest artists for this album and it’s reminder that more country artists need to do fun collaborations like the ones on this album.

Nothing Shines Like Neon is capped off with “Pour One For The Poor One,” another strongly traditional country song with plenty of fiddle and steel guitar. A man has had his heart-broken after professing his love for a woman and she responds by leaving in the middle of the night. Now he’s stuck on a bar stool and asking the bartender to continue to poor out the drinks for his “poor, pitiful” self. Once again the band captures the feeling of heartbreak perfectly.

The year 2016 is quite young, but I can say with certainty that Randy Rogers Band has released the first great country album of the year with Nothing Shines Like Neon. It’s an album full of entertaining and engaging traditional country music that is sure to wet the whistle of any country fan. Randy Rogers Band does a fantastic job of balancing serious songs and fun songs. I was most impressed by the depth of the serious songs, one of the few small concerns I had coming into this album. I always knew they could make entertaining, fun songs, but to make as great of love ballads as they did on this album it demonstrates to me how much this band has grown. This is a big step forward for Randy Rogers Band and reminds everyone that they’re still one of the best in the Texas country scene. Traditional country music doesn’t get much better than it does on Nothing Shines Like Neon.

Grade: 9/10

Album Review – Don Henley’s ‘Cass County’

Don Henley Cass County

Country music has seen a lot of outsiders come into gene and try their hand at making country music. The majority of course are doing it for a quick cash grab because their own careers are flailing and they see a financial opportunity with the current popularity of country music. In other words, no artistic thought is put into the music. But the big exception amongst these outsiders is Don Henley. The former frontman of the Eagles, who has had a successful solo career too, demonstrated up front that he was serious about his new album Cass County. He brought in top-notch country talent like Vince Gill, Jamey Johnson, Alison Krauss, Ashley Monroe, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood and a host of others. He also had this to say in an interview with Rolling Stone:

“I can truthfully say that I enjoyed making this record more than any record I’ve made in my career. And a lot of the reason is because of the people who participated. There’s some amazing musicians here and the best thing about it is, most of them are funny. So it was a real pleasure.”

These are encouraging words to hear about an album from any artist. So with this in mind I dug into Cass County expecting a good album. But it’s not a good album. It’s a fantastic album that surprised me with the amount of depth and artistry that is present throughout it.

Cass County opens up with “Bramble Rose,” where Miranda Lambert and Mick Jagger join Henley. It may sound like an odd trio on paper, but once you hear the song they work together quite well actually (Jagger sounds surprisingly great). The arrangement and instrumentation are spot on and really lets all of the artists shine. It should be also be mentioned this song was originally performed and written by alternative country artist Tift Merritt, so credit to Henley for picking this great song out to feature on his album. On “Cost of Living” Henley collaborates with the legendary Merle Haggard. The song is about how we all have to pay the cost of living eventually in life and dealing with getting older in age. It’s perfectly appropriate to have two old souls like Henley and Haggard perform this song, as these two know this lesson as good as anyone. (By the way notice how Henley teams up with Haggard and Jaggar to make great music, instead of just carelessly namedropping them)

“Take A Picture Of This” is about a couple reflecting back on the memories they’ve had together. But by the end of the song the man feels like he doesn’t know his wife anymore and decides to leave her, as he realizes he has been living in the past. It tells a good story and the swerve at the end of the song is a nice touch. The hook of the song is catchy and easy to remember too. Henley shows off his storytelling chops once more with “Waiting Tables.” The story of the song is about a young girl who grew up in a small town, got married to a “reckless fool” at too young of an age and ended up a single mother at 23 years old. Now she’s stuck waiting tables and biding her time, waiting to move on to bigger things. She thinks she might have found it when a “handsome man” comes along, but it just turns out to be a one-night stand and she’s left to waiting tables once more. The story told here is raw, real and brilliantly put together. More than anything the song is a lesson about how tough life is and having that everlasting hope that things will get better. This is undoubtedly a highlight of Cass County.

The rocking and catchy “No, Thank You” follows. It’s about not falling for the everyday bullshit thrown your way and how the world is constantly trying to get you to fall for the next big thing. As Henley succinctly puts at the beginning of the song, we have “space age machinery, stone age emotions.” It reminds me a lot of something Dwight Yoakam would cut on one of his albums. The pedal steel guitar heavy “Praying For Rain” is about farmers dealing with drought and hoping for rain soon. It’s a real throwback song in every way and Henley just hits it out of the park. The smooth, easy-going tone of the song combined with the simple storytelling of the lyrics makes for one great song.

“Words Can Break Your Heart” is one of the slower and more emotion songs of the album. It’s about how words can be so cutting and mean and can tear a person apart. Henley really captures how verbal abuse can hurt you and your relationship with someone. This is probably one of the less memorable songs on the album, but it’s still quite good. The lead single from Cass County, “That Old Flame,” is next. I reviewed this song when it first came out and my thoughts have remained largely unchanged, although I think I like it even more now. From my review:

The song is about a man who receives a message from an old friend who wanted to get back in touch. The man wonders what this woman wants after losing touch for so many years. He seems to think she wants to rekindle a lost flame, but he knows there is danger of getting burned in doing this. She knows this too and only wanted to reach out to let him know that she’s doing fine and to just reconnect with an old friend. Both wonder whether they miss each other or just their lost days of youth. It’s a well-written song that does a good job telling the story of long-lost friends and their days of romance long behind them. He’s joined on the song by Martina McBride, who always has and always will have a great voice. 

There are a lot of fantastic songs on this album, but none are greater than “When I Stop Dreaming.” Henley teams up with the iconic Dolly Parton to deliver an amazing song. Both bring out the absolute best in each other. Dolly’s vocals are goose-bump inducing and this isn’t hyperbole. This is one you just need to sit down and hear for yourself because I can’t do it justice. “A Younger Man” is about a young woman falling for an older man and believing she’s in love with him. But the older man assures her that he is not what she is looking for and that she’s looking for a younger man. The line that sums it up best is when Henley sings “You’re an angel from the future/I’m an old devil from the past.” This is just an example of the top-notch songwriting on this song and really the whole album.

One of the running themes of the album is looking back to the past and looking forward to the future, which is what “Train In The Distance” is all about. Henley reflects back on the simpler days of his childhood and now as an adult faces responsibilities, obligations and taking care of his family. But Henley reminds himself that there’s always that train coming in the distance. This is one of those songs makes you reflect on yourself and creates this mixture of nostalgia and hope. Cass County comes to a close with “Where I Am Now.” It’s definitely the most rock-influenced song of the album, but still maintains a country sound giving us a sort of Bakersfield vibe. The song itself is about Henley reflecting on his life and liking where he is in life right now compared to where he was. All of his experiences and places he has been have shaped him into the person he’s wanted to be. It’s a nice way to end the album.

Cass County excels in pretty much every area a country album needs to excel in. Henley’s voice is excellent, the songwriting is strong, the instrumentation even stronger and each of the guests on the album contribute something meaningful. It’s 2015 and Don Henley has delivered one of the best country albums of the year. Can you believe it? There have been a lot of pleasant surprises in country music in 2015, but this may be the biggest. Each time I listen to this album it gets better, which I think will allow this album to age well. It’s something you can play a couple of years from now and still sound just as good. This is undoubtedly an album of the year contender and a must-listen. If Henley wants to stick around and make another country album, that would be just great. I think country music suits Don Henley just fine.

Grade: 10/10