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