Tuesday, 8 April 2014

ACM Awards: Recap

Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line practise for their ACM Awards performance.
They came back! Beloved Academy of Country Music Awards hosts Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan joined forces as Bluke to oversee one of the best shows so far. I live-tweeted the annual Las Vegas event from my chilly southern Manitoba home, and thoroughly enjoyed the high-profile celebration of trendy and timeless country music artists across the genre.

Bryan and Shelton opened things up with a couple semi-funny jokes and some awkward moments of silence after The Band Perry started the show with a rock-and-roll performance of Chainsaw that left dressed-up audience members with confetti in their hair. "If you don't like live music, then you need to go down the block and see Britney Spears," quipped Shelton on one of his better lines.

Unfortunately, that ultimately put salt in wound of the most controversial performance, when Rascal Flatts lead singer Gary LeVox got busted doing a bad lip-syncing job of Rewind. Viewers were all over the group on Twitter. It later came out that LeVox had simply lost his voice and didn't want to cancel. It was the right call, but even though it was only a day after, the explanation came too late. I think the lesson here is that social media has no patience.

People started complaining on Twitter after the cameras cut to Taylor Swift swaying to Darius Rucker's delivery of Wagon Wheel. Seriously, what's the problem with dancing?

The highlight of the night was most definitely Bluke's impersonation of Daft Punk. The two co-hosts dressed up in the mysterious duo's signature helmets and tuxedos and came on-stage to Get Lucky  before pulling off their helmets and startling viewers. Brilliant, just brilliant.

Besides all the hype and hoopla, though, there actually was really great music. This time it was Brad Paisley crashing parties, as he performed his new feel-good single River Bank from a packed local outdoor pool. Florida Georgia Line wowed viewers at home with a Luke Bryan duet – there were live bikers jumping ramps over fireworks behind them. I saw one Twitter user posted that the drummer must have been praying for no mess-ups, as that could have meant a tread mark on the face. Hunter Hayes seemed to be fighting a cold or something while singing Invisible, but still gave an inspiring performance for an inspiring song.

And of course, George Strait takes home Entertainer of the Year. I think that made everyone happy. There were a few Twitter feuds going on between nominees' fans beforehand, but when Strait won, everyone respected it and calmed down. Congrats on a long, outstanding career!

Make sure to check out more highlights at acmawards.com, and if you watched, let me know below what your favourite part of the show was!

Photo courtesy of acmcountry.com.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Album Review: HIGH NOON

Jerrod Niemann seems to be one of those artists who initially broke through the national country music scene, then dropped out while retaining a niche section of the market. His 2010 single Lover, Lover was a number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but since then, he only broke the top ten once – that is, until High Noon. His 2012 album failed to gain much momentum, but the debut single from his latest is already up to number four.

Drink to That All Night is the kind of crossover that has been racking up country airplay in recent years. The catchy tune starts with a little bit of rap in the verses, then launches into a rising pre-chorus and pounding chorus. "Everybody knows it gonna be one of those..." I love the bridge, too – the flaring hip-hop offbeats make this song completely original in the country world.

But while the single drew me in, I was disappointed that most of the other songs failed to live up to it. The opening track Space is just meh. "I just need a little space/An opening hiding place."

Buzz Back Girl doesn't have much to differentiate it from countless other comparisons between love and alcohol, and some of the lyrics are cliche. "You don't even know what you're doin' to me."

On the bright side, though, Come On, Come On is fun and laid-back. I especially like the line, "Mix the city life with some country style." Instead of building tension for an effect, this song is completely relaxed and inviting, and I think that works well.

Lucky #7 is a little self-degrading, but very well-crafted lyrically. "I look in your eyes and my only question is how did a seven wind up with an 11?" This song is personal yet lighthearted, and reminds me of Lee Brice's huge hit A Woman Like You.

Donkey is really one of the gems on this album. The lyrics become a bit suggestive by verse two, but the premise is a guy going to the bar riding, well...a donkey! You might think the outrageous scenario causes the song to lose its realism, but it actually doesn't. The rap/rock combination is awesome, too. "George Jones took a John Deere tractor/Hope my donkey gets there faster." Lol.

The hip-hop musical combinations and effects on this album are standout calibre. You really notice them in Beach Baby and later in a duet with Colt Ford titled She's Fine. The latter starts off with a keyboard-only verse, but breaks into a crooning chorus. The tune is so unconventional, but showcases Niemann's range and works as a rap song too. "You can't buy that kind of pretty/They don't grow them like that in the city."

On second thought, High Noon is completely one-of-a-kind, and I like it. However, I don't think it holds enough mainstream appeal to be wildly successful. The production values and vocals are killer, but too many of the songs are weak.

Country Luke's Rating: 7/10

Photo courtesy of facebook.com/JerrodNiemann.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Album Review: 10,000 TOWNS

Besides Zac Brown Band, there really aren't a lot of high-profile bands in country music. Some might have called Eli Young Band a one-hit wonder after their 2011 single Crazy Girl, but they followed up with another number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in Even If It Breaks Your Heart.

The album 10,000 Towns is best described as twangy country with pop vocals. Lead singer Mike Eli has a distinctly soft, high voice – very different from the more in-your-face, at times raw vocals of the most popular artists like Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton. Personally, I think that's what gives the band such a solid niche.

If you listen to country radio, you will have surely heard the album's number three single Drunk Last Night. The lyrics are ambiguous, but Eli basically sings about being tipsy, calling up a girl, and expressing his feelings for her. "It's off my chest but never off my mind." As the theme suggests, the lyrics are more rambling than a chronological story, but you can still feel the emotion behind every word. Eli's vocal control allows him to really play with the mood and build up to the chorus.

Surprisingly, the title track is probably my favourite overall. I love the reference to "redneck hip-hop" too! This could be a huge country anthem this summer, and encapsulates the culture of rural communities from a teenage perspective. "Sneakin' a six pack kiss at a red light/Circlin' up out back behind that Texaco." My only complaint is that the chorus is long. Still, the instrumentation and fast-punching vocals give it excellent radio potential.

Dust is the band's current single, although it's just starting to break into mainstream radio. It's a third-person runaway's song about a girl leaving a relationship gone sour. The imagery in this story is great: "She's got the pedal to the floor in a hand-me-down Ford." The melody is catchy, but the overall vibe doesn't really move me.

It's hard to pick just a few songs to analyze, because they are all unique from each other. Kudos for the accordion in the intro of Let's Do Something Tonight. Just a songwriting nitpick: The chorus goes, "Let's do something tonight we'll be talkin' about in the morning." Since the song is a one-on-one conversation from a man to a woman, wouldn't it have more impact to use "they'll" instead of "we'll"?

Your Last Broken Heart is totally feel-good and is a good change-up from the poor-me breakup songs some artists never break away from. The punchline is clever and simple: "Your last broken heart was your last broken heart." And honestly, the rest of the lyrics would be good enough to stand alone without it.

Just Add Moonlight is very similar to Randy Houser's Runnin' Outta Moonlight, but I'm glad Eli Young Band didn't scrap it from its album. This list song is overly idealistic, but well-crafted. "Kisses are sweeter and the world seems right/With that big yellow ball shining in her eyes."

I could see Eli Young Band eventually taking over from Rascal Flatts as the next pop-country male group in a few years. I wouldn't say 10,000 Towns is the most memorable album I have ever heard, but there are some standout songs.

Country Luke's Rating: 7.5/10

Photo courtesy of facebook.com/eliyoungband

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Bro-Country And Same-Old Songs

Okay, this one almost made me laugh out loud...literally. And while it's a funny sketch, artist/writer David Horsey actually makes some insightful arguments about the state of my favourite genre.

In Are bro-mantic songs taking over country music?, Horsey takes a shot at the number of male artists performing "interchangeable songs" about girls, alcohol, and pickup trucks. He adds, "Most of the lyrics could have been written by the same guy on the same night at the same wild party." Ouch. Is Horsey right?

He goes on to explain that many country songs are predictable – essentially lists of these common elements. Horsey also writes that the formula is based on "the allure of reckless freedom" and has been successfully applied to other genres over the decades.

Here's my take: Horsey makes some strong points, but isn't completely right, either. I can tell you from personal experience that writing a party country song is far more complicated than throwing redneck buzzwords into a pot and hoping the soup turns out okay. The author isn't giving songwriters the credit they deserve.

On the other hand, if you listen to country at all, you know that many of the songs are nearly identical in the theme department. And yes, occasionally the lyrics can be shallower than a backyard kiddie pool. Everything depends on what the listener wants to hear. People don't want every song to have deep literary meaning – they just want to feel a little better about driving to work in the morning, or about letting loose on a Friday night. Stick with what sells.

It is accurate, as Horsey points out, that there are comparatively very few female artists being played on mainstream country radio. I've heard it suggested the reason is that females want to hear male singers (and vice-versa), and that most country listeners happen to be female. But Horsey suggests guys are in fact switching over to country for these "bro-mantic songs."

Ultimately, money talks. If the fans are buying music from male artists and not from female artists, we can't shake our fists at the industry and cry foul. At the consumer level, we're making the decision. That said, there is an unreal amount of female talent in country music today, and it is a shame we sometimes fail to recognize it. On the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart today, there is a total of one solo female artist (Miranda Lambert) and two duos/groups that include female singers. That seems skewed.

Despite these thought-provoking critiques, country is as hot as ever right now – and it's hard to argue with that.

Photo courtesy of latimes.com.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Album Review: SLOW ME DOWN

It's what they call a buried lead in journalism. Sara Evans's new album Slow Me Down contains some great songs, but most of them happen to be at the end. There's a reason she is a legend – her voice and vocal control are absolutely outstanding. And even with six-year and three-year gaps between her most recent releases, this record sounds fresh.

The title track and first single is currently sitting at number 28 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. It's definitely the most pop-sounding, but doesn't stand out as a hit. The string-instrument backing is complex and full – however, the lyrics don't carry enough weight. "If there's something you still need to say, you need to say it now/Hurry up and slow me down." It's an attempt to be clever that feels forced.

Four of the first five songs are heartbreakers, which appears to simply be poor organization. Put My Heart Down is definitely worth listening to, though, and offers a bouncy, upbeat mood in spite of the theme. "If you really loved me/You'd put my heart down."

Can't Stop Loving You is a well-written duet with Isaac Slade that has very compelling opening-lines. "I try to crush it like the ashes of a cigarette/I try to smother out the embers, but I just can't quit." Of course, Evans is referring to a love-addiction. The soaring chorus and raspy harmonies will give you goosebumps.

But if I had to pick the track with the most feeling, I'd choose If I Run. It sounds totally traditional, but the heavy bass guitar adds an element of rock. Evans sings on-top of her own vocals for an emotional call-and-reply about true romantic dedication. "If I run, baby will you chase me? Be the one who wants to save me?" They're simple lyrics, but come across as extremely heartfelt.

Sweet Spot has a dark-feeling hook and intro, but ends up being a bubbly ode to a love that does work out (finally!). "Every word, every song, every single thought/All I'm thinkin' about is you." The strange chords remind me a little of Kacey Musgraves's Dandelion.

Gotta Have You has a suspiciously-quiet first verse that bursts into a huge chorus. "Tell me, tell me, where would I be? Without you, baby, I'm not me." I hope Evans puts this one to radio – it's upbeat, with great musical-contrast and strong lyrics.

This album is real country if it ever existed. And no, it's not at all old-fashioned. Evans manages to take the best components of her traditional sound and supplement them with modern songs and instruments. My only criticism is that You Never Know sound almost identical to Carrie Underwood's Two Black Cadillacs.

Country Luke's Rating: 7/10

Photo courtesy of saraevans.com.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Album Review: I'M A FIRE

It's surprising David Nail isn't a bigger name in Nashville. I mean, I had hardly heard of the guy, but know his 2011 single Let It Rain (a number one on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart) quite well. And I'm a Fire is already his third full-length release.

The album doesn't feel as exclusively-country as some of the others I've reviewed lately. There are bits of folk and rock mixed in, creating a unique audio-mood.

Whatever She's Got charted all the way up to number two, and while the melody is catchy-but-forgettable, the lyrics are well-crafted. "Cause she got the blue-jeans painted on tight/That everybody wants on a Saturday night."

The full chorus of Burnin' Bed stands in stark contrast to the acoustic verses and does a good job of evoking emotion from the listener. "Here in your arms my heart can't get you out of my head." The lyrics match the melody, moving from disconnected, jarring phrases to complete, overflowing thoughts.

I was going to write When They're Gone sounds like something from Little Big Town...when I realized they actually do sing the backup vocals! Anyway, this song is a rootsy redneck-anthem about the good ol' days of being young. "Some things aren't meant to last forever/But it don't mean you forget 'em when they're gone." It's a clever twist that adds a lot of punch.

Kiss You Tonight is another example of how Nail's effortless singing-style can have a big impact. It's almost a list-song, as he takes us through everything he's been missing about this girl, then concludes: "Everything will be all right if I can kiss you tonight." He sounds desperate, which makes the listener feel along.

I think The Secret is supposed to be profound – there's a funeral, an unplanned baby, and another guy. But even after reading the lyrics, I can't figure out what the story is. Nail may have missed the mark here if other people are as confused as I am. It's all so vague!

Easy Love is a refreshing break from some of the deeper songs. Here Nail sings with more of a pop vibe than a country one – think Keith Urban without the heavy guitars. "Your long brown hair flying 'round to the beat/Just like we were 17."

The title track stands a good chance of being the next radio single, and I think the definitive percussion holds potential. I might be way off, but it seems a little reminiscent of Mumford & Sons.

Galveston is a historical-fiction masterpiece and a musical departure from the rest of the album. Of course, Lee Ann Womack's flawless vocals don't hurt, either.

Some final comments: The backup female vocals on I'm a Fire are simply outstanding, and they don't blend in like in most contemporary country albums. While Nail does risk losing the spotlight every now-and-then, they just sound beautiful together.

The only major downside is the simplicity of the intros. Many are empty and sound alike. All in all, though, a really strong album.

Country Luke's Rating: 7.5/10

Photo courtesy www.facebook.com/DavidNail

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Album Review: RISER

I have to admit I didn't have high expectations when I started listening to the new Dierks Bentley album. Same-old, same-old, I thought. Wrong.

A couple songs into Riser, I realized there was something truly special about this album. In fact, it's becoming one of my favourites.

I Hold On was the first radio single, and a good one at that – peaking at number ten on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart (so far). Bentley sings about holding on to the good things in life – rusted trucks, old guitars, and most importantly, relationships. "I hold on to the things I believe in/My faith, your love, our freedom."

As a whole, the album doesn't feel like it was recorded to generate maximum airplay. Frankly, many of the songs are too long or slow. But you can't deny the quality of the work. Bentley takes his time to communicate the precise emotion he wants the listener to feel.

Bourbon In Kentucky is a heartbreaker opening track but has an uncharacteristic uplifting vibe. "There ain't enough bourbon in Kentucky for me to forget you." It sets the course for the rest of the songs on the album, which share the intricate yet overpoweringly-twangy instrumentation.

Pretty Girls is lyrically-shallow but catchy because of the unique minor chord pattern. "Chasing a buzz drinking cold Bud Light/Watching pretty girls drinking tall boys."

Here On Earth reminds me of what Luke Bryan tried to do with Drink a Beer. The singer has clearly been impacted by a personal loss and is looking for answers. "There's not a stone in my heart I've left unturned/Not a piece of my soul that I ain't searched." After wrestling with some tough questions, Bentley concludes he will simply never know the answers on this side of heaven.

Drunk On a Plane is one of the most original country songs I've heard in a while. The premise is wedding plans gone south and the man stuck with a honeymoon trip-for-two to Cancun. So, he tries to forget. "Buying drinks for everybody but the pilot/It's a party." It's brilliant songwriting too, but perhaps not the best messaging.

I usually get irritated with songs about the singer's career, but I had never heard one so good as Damn These Dreams. Even in the way Bentley sings, you can tell this is all-reality and no-show. He discusses being torn between music and his family and how touring keeps him constantly away from home. "Damn these dreams/Playing my heart just like a guitar string/Pull me away from you and everything I really need." Profound.

The only way I can really describe Riser is full and well-rounded. Bentley doesn't pull off anything crazy, but impressively, there are no weak tunes. Most artists cannot claim that about their albums; then again, Dierks Bentley is not most artists.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Country Music on Valentine's Day

In country music, it's often all about the trucks, beer, and....did I mention trucks? Seriously, thought, it's got a softer side. This Valentine's Day, consider trading in the boot-stompin' party anthems for something a bit more romantic. I've researched top lists of Valentine's Day songs and added some of my personal favourites to bring you the top 10 to play for your significant other today. And if you're really bold, you could even sing them :)

10. Always On My Mind (Willie Nelson)

Brenda Lee recorded this song first in 1972, and it's a romantic classic as bittersweet as some of those Valentine's Day chocolates. The song is an apology and an ask for a second chance, and Nelson's nasally drawl makes it sound even more heartfelt.

9. Stay Stay Stay (Taylor Swift)

T-Swift is best known for her breakup songs, but this one is a pleasant exception. The mandolin-dominated track is a go-lucky ode to the apparently-rare time a relationship ends happily. The line about throwing a phone across the room in a fight is especially funny and realistic.
  
8. I'd Fall In Love Tonight (Russ Taff)

I learned this song for an anniversary last year, and was impressed with the payoff line in the chorus: "If I didn't already love you, I'd fall in love tonight." Although the ballad is riddled with a few cliches, the melody line has the power to send shivers. And it's cheesy in a sweet sort of way.

7. A Woman Like You (Lee Brice)

This 2012 song was a breakthrough moment for Brice, and is possibly one of the most descriptive and relatable love stories in modern country. He recalls the freedom of being single, but concludes, "I'd take a gold band on my hand/Over being a single man." Even with the uncommon minor chords, it sounds natural on radio.

6. Then (Brad Paisley)

Paisley starts before the beginning of a relationship and walks listeners through marriage and old age. While many mediocre songs do the same thing, the narrator looks back after each stage in a smiling fashion and says, "And I thought I loved you then." Very heartwarming.

5. I Do (Paul Brandt)

Online sources say Brandt wrote I Do for a friend's wedding. His tone and the rise-and-fall of chord progressions create a new atmosphere for listeners, and I love the emphasis on commitment. "No way that this is sinking sand/On the solid rock we'll stand/Forever." It's so fitting I'll overlook the passive writing :)

4. Wildflower (Dean Brody)

I've always thought this song was an underrated winner, but after hearing it live, I was sure. Brody compares his experience before falling in love to "living in a world without colour like an old photograph." This is an extremely personal song, but Brody captures some truths so clearly, such as "what you think are imperfections are what I couldn't live without."

3. Rose Of My Heart (Johnny Cash)

Johnny Cash released this cover after this death, and besides being a Johnny Cash song, it communicates such a timeless message of sticking together through good and bad times. The simple lyrics make it memorable, as does Cash's weary voice.

2. Forever and Ever, Amen (Randy Travis)

I think this is one of those classics even a young audience can enjoy. Travis takes a serious theme and makes it playful with a few funny lines. He says greying hair doesn't matter, because "I ain't in love with your hair." He also makes the statement that true love isn't about looks.

1. When You Say Nothing At All (Alison Krauss)

Some people find this song a little sappy, but I don't see how you can't be moved by Krauss's flawless version. It's a picture of the ideal romance and connection in a relationship. "You say it best when you say nothing at all" (and not in the "shut up" kind of way). The simple imagery makes this song my top pick for Valentine's Day 2014.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Coming Up In Winnipeg...

Over the past few years, it seems like there are more and better country music concerts than ever in Manitoba. In 2013, we watched Eric Church, Carrie Underwood, and Little Big Town, to name a few. Of course, there was also Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line at Dauphin's Countryfest. Here's a look at what's coming up for country shows in Winnipeg.

First, I'll give a little plug for my own concert, which happens tomorrow (Saturday) at The Park Theatre. My debut EP Miles On This Truck peaked at the number 62 spot on the Canadian iTunes Store's Country Albums chart, and I will be performing along with opening artists Bryce Pallister, Rhia Rae, and Shannon Patterson. Jonathan Best from QX104 will be hosting, too – come check it out!

Next Wednesday, we've got Dean Brody in town coming off of a fresh album release. Bounty was a number one hit on Canadian country radio, and the rock-and-roll title track Crop Circles is rising fast! The new album has a bit of an East Coast feel mixed in with his traditional country sound. Having seen Brody in concert three times before, I know it will be another standout show. Cassadee Pope joins him, and the The Voice Season 3 winner's debut single Wasting All These Tears recently cracked the top 5 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. She's a great vocalist and a great country artist.

Then on March 5, Lady Antebellum is taking over the MTS Centre. To tell you the truth, I'm just as excited to see openers Kacey Musgraves and Kip Moore. With two Grammy Awards and an unconventional style of country music, Musgraves is creating a lot of buzz right now. And Moore's Somethin' Bout a Truck and Beer Money are great singalong songs.

Later that month, new Canadian artists Brett Kissell and Tim Hicks will be coming through town, and then it's summer fair season! Also check out the QX104 Concert Centre for news on upcoming Winnipeg shows.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Album Review: FUSE

I'd say it was about time. Keith Urban hadn't released an original album since 2010 before Fuse came out last September. And the American Idol judge's music seems to be regaining momentum. Little Bit of Everything only peaked at number six on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but his follow-up We Were Us (with Miranda Lambert) was a surefire number one.

And with the new video for Cop Car out this week, Urban has the country music media buzzing again. Fuse makes a departure from his famous country-rock for dance-flavoured tunes.

Somewhere In My Car is a perfect example. The production value is stellar, featuring intricate guitar and synth fills. Urban uses detailed imagery to compare an intense love  ("Breathin' hard/Steamin' up the glass") with the reality that he can never bring it back ("Promises we made won't fill this empty space.")

You know a song is really good when people are talking about it before it goes to radio. Cop Car is one of those tunes that is so fresh it could become a future classic. The premise is a date sneaking onto airport grounds to watch planes take off...and then the cops roll in. "There was something 'bout the way the blue lights were shining/Bringing out the freedom in your eyes." And then the clincher: "I fell in love in the back of a cop car." What a story – I've never heard anything like it before. Kudos to Urban for taking that risk.

I must say, though: He sure sings a lot about cars. We Were Us talks about a "backseat promise," and Red Camaro is pretty self-explanatory. The latter feels a little dubstep-ish, but is not very memorable. "Some things never go out of style/Like you and me together/Staring at your legs on the leather of my red Camaro."

Thankfully, Urban doesn't totally skip out on the country-rock. Love's Poster Child is overflowing with twang and banjo-picking. "Show me how it's done this side of Dixie/I'm a broke-down truck, baby won't you fix me." This tune definitely has potential, and I hope Urban doesn't give up his old style.

She's My 11 is an awkward fit for a country album. The title never appears directly in the song, and that's hard to get away with. The unusual chords during interludes are also a little too folksy for my liking. Despite some clich├ęd lyrics, the song does show off Urban's impressive head voice.

Raise 'Em Up features Eric Church, but musically, feels slightly like an Ed Sheeran song. It basically covers all of life in three minutes – Saturday-night concerts, trucks, coming home, fighting for freedom, funerals, marriage, and raising kids. Did I miss anything? Church's verse is especially powerful: "You got a voice/You got a choice/Go make some noise/Don't ever let 'em tell you who you are."

So while Fuse might not have been what you were expecting from Urban, it's refreshing. I think the album is a solid career-revamper with a soothing pop vibe.

Country Luke's Rating: 7.5/10

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Album Review: FEELS LIKE CAROLINA

In a world of slick pop-country, Parmalee is refreshingly rock. While some of the songs on Feels Like Carolina are intense, it's easy-listening for the most part.

The North Carolina group first caught my attention with Musta Had a Good Time about a year ago. It's pretty catchy, but with lyrics strangely similar to Katy Perry's Last Friday Night, pushes the boundaries of mainstream country. It didn't quite settle with me.

But after hearing Carolina, I knew this group was the real deal. The simply story of separated lovers with a hooky melody almost brings you to bittersweet tears. That single climbed to number two on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but according Billboard, only broke the top ten after 38 weeks. You can't stop a good song.

Lead singer Matt Thomas's voice is extremely versatile – from mournful to romantic to raspy. I also love the general mix and heavy bass on the album. The group reminds me of a rock version of Florida Georgia Line, and I think their sound actually has greater potential for longevity.

Think You Oughta Know That is a great example of the emotional connection these guys make with listeners. "I tell you that I want you, need you/What more can a man do?" A lost-love song like this has the potential to isolate listeners and make the singer look needy. Here, Parmalee comes across as vulnerable and confident at the same time.

Close Your Eyes has potential to be a huge hit. "Comin' on strong/I'm gonna lay it on your lips/Might wanna close your eyes for this." Again, the lyrics aren't over-the-top, but there's a connection. You might get tired of the light-rock guitars after a while, but I think Parmalee hits the mark and keeps the album radio-friendly for most country fans. They don't do anything crazy – they just put out many really good songs.

My Montgomery is worth a mention, too. The soaring choruses are a nice offset to the faster songs, and in an apparent sequel to Carolina, the singer is excited to finally return to his significant other back home. "Leaving the ground tonight/Trading those Chicago lights for fireflies."

In general, Parmalee is a refreshing group and a mild version of Jason Aldean. I love it, and look forward to following this band's career. According to their website, they've had a long, rough journey getting to this point – Feels Like Carolina looks like the turning point.

Country Luke's Rating: 8.5/10

Photo courtesy parmalee.com.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Why Country Music Was Awesome In 2013

You've probably seen it floating around social media: Why Country Music Was Awful in 2013. The music video montage, edited by Entertainment Weekly writer Grady Smith, belittles many of the genre's top songs by reducing the content to a series of common elements:
  1. A bunch of dudes sang about trucks
  2. They drove down old dirt roads
  3. And they begged girls to get in their trucks, too
  4. They only wanted girls wearing tight jeans
  5. And they drove the girls to the nearest creek bank
  6. The sunset/moonlight made it all so romantic
  7. And there was always alcohol (a.k.a. "good stuff") to loosen things up
  8. But if every bro tactic failed...they would just call their girl, "girl"
Personally, I think the video is hilarious. Haha, we all had a good laugh. But was country music really awful in 2013? It was better than ever.
Country is a rapidly-changing genre that has always and always will be stereotyped. Yes, there are many songs that involve girls and trucks. But when you've got a good thing going... The truth is, country music will always be what the majority of listeners want to hear. So if you want to hate on it for the sake of hating on it, that's your own choice, but doesn't mean the music sucks.

About six years ago, country still had an outrageously-negative reputation among my junior high peers. "My wife left me/She took my truck/And she took my dog!" the class clowns would mimic (while attempting a southern drawl). I hadn't even started listening to country at that point, but concluded the heartbroken version must have been somewhat true.

Now, the criticism has gone a different direction. Media articles lament the lack of diversity among artists and in songs, while some traditionalists say we've crossed over too far into pop and hip-hop. Huffington Post writer Stuart Henderson calls country a "notoriously conservative genre," adding, "you'll still find less variation in instrumentation, aesthetic, and even vocal performance on a country radio station than anywhere else on the dial."

According to Nielsen & Billboard’s 2013 U.S. Music Report, country retained fourth place in digital track sales last year, increasing its total market share slightly to 12.6 per cent. Complaints about our content seem to almost always come from the outside. Country fans are not going anywhere.

Contemporary music is an escape from the dullness of real life. Therefore, party songs about shared experiences are going to be most popular. Entertainment is not always about solving the world's problems.

That said, it's unfair to say there were not deep country songs in 2013. I Drive Your Truck was a top 10 hit for Lee Brice on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. The current number one, Luke Bryan's Drink a Beer, also comes to mind. I love those songs. Still, a quality tune doesn't have to be about death or loss to be meaningful.

As lyrics and melody patterns evolve (or stay the same), country music continues to draw new listeners, and with them, new critics. There's no making everyone happy, but I think the genre has improved dramatically over the last five years. Let the haters keep on hating – my radio is cranked too loud for me to hear them anyway.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Album Review: DAYS OF GOLD

You know how you usually have to listen through a CD a few times before it really grows on you? Well, Days of Gold is not that kind of album. Jake Owen pulls listeners in immediately with a Florida Georgia Line surfer-dude sound, but surprises with clever, punchy lyrics.

Days of Gold is his fifth studio release (including one EP) and the follow-up to Barefoot Blue Jean Night, which includes the number-one hit with the same name. Earlier this week, Owen announced a mega-tour of 55 shows (sadly, only one in Canada) starting in March.

The single Days of Gold should have performed better, as it only peaked at number 19 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. It's about as catchy and innovative as you can get in today's country. The funky almost-rap sections are backed by a rock-influenced beat rather than a hip-hop one, and Owen squeezes in some gutsy guitar riffs before each verse. And while the hook is the rhythm, he manages to also fit in some great imagery. "Whiskey's in the air/Dogs on the burner/Beer's ice cold/Got a pretty little lady to hold."

There really isn't a weak track to point out, but Owen's forte is definitely lost-love songs. One that stands out is the vulnerable Life of the Party, in which he is too broken to even tell his friends about a recent breakup. The familiar heartbeat-drums are reminiscent of Blake Shelton's God Gave Me You and really set up the sad, ironic payoff line. "I don't want 'em to see I'm dying inside/So I guess I'll be the life of the party."

My very favourite is One Little Kiss (Never Killed Nobody), in which Owen underestimates the emotional danger in an unexpected visit from an ex. "One little kiss never killed nobody...but me." This fast-moving song really is a masterpiece, and I hope he chooses to put it to radio. It's beautiful – just listen to it (HERE). "Thought I'd be fine to see you one more time/Yeah, right."

Owen's current single Beachin' is the perfect expression of his brand: relaxed romance on a sandy ocean shore. "It's 103 between her and me/And only 92 in Daytona." The peppy reggae groove proves just how versatile Owen is as an artist.

Tipsy and Good Timing are also celebrations of lighthearted love. The female background vocals in the mournful What We Ain't Got make me think Dolly Parton, and the piano ballad starkly contrasts Owen's island and pop songs. Overall, I'd say he truly did strike gold with this album. It's easy-listening, but refreshingly different from other material on country radio.

Country Luke's Rating: 8.5/10

Photo courtesy https://www.facebook.com/jakeowen